Thursday, December 14, 2006
NEWS FROM THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MISSION CENTER (OCMC)
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Guatemala City, Guatemala - The squalid streets of Guatemala City create an infinite labyrinth of pavement that spans the entire breadth of the mountain valley that it occupies. Laced with an intricate web of telephone wires and lined with colorful stucco buildings, these streets are amongst some of the most impoverished in the Western Hemisphere. In the center of this bustling metropolis, far away from the shops of Las Majadas and the romance of Antigua, rests Zona 1. Known as the old historic district, this area of Guatemala City is also home to some of the cities more nefarious elements. Yet within this industrial, polluted and over populated bastion of flailing modernity, shines the light of God, a place from which can be heard the joyous laughter of children and the ringing of church bells. This oasis of salvation is the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage.
In 2006 the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) sent two Mission Teams to the Hogar with the hopes of providing a mother, a father, a sibling and a friend to small hearts, even if for only a couple of weeks. One of these teams team, led by Fr. Matthias Moriak, consisted of 11 Orthodox Christians from varying jurisdictions. Sharing his first impressions of the orphanage and its residents, Fr. Matthias relates, “The orphanage holds the beauty of God’s love and the protecting grace of God’s presence to these children, while outside the walls it is surrounded with the presence of all that is evil and ugly in this world. I have often reflected in my mind how these children have none of the possessions that the world thinks are so important, and yet, they are abundantly rich with what they do have – the healing presence and love of God.”
Guatemala has always been on the frontlines of the clash between European and Native American cultures. About half of Guatemala’s population is mestizo (known in Guatemala as ladino), people of mixed European and native ancestry. Guatemala is also home to a large indigenous population of Maya. The Maya have retained their own distinct identity, speaking their own language and having their own traditional and religious customs. The two cultures have made Guatemala a complex society that is deeply divided between rich and poor. This division has produced much of the tension and violence that has marked Guatemala’s history, including a 36-year conflict that was only officially ended in 1996.
Guatemala’s economy traditionally has been based on agricultural exports. This economic approach has enriched the country’s small wealthy class, but a large segment of the population remains very poor, especially the native people who supply much of the agricultural labor. The dangerous cocktail of conflict and poverty has left many Guatemalan children orphaned.
Amidst the eight million inhabitants of Guatemala City, the largest of all Central American cities, are thousands of unwanted and unloved children. An overwhelming majority of Guatemalan population lives on less than five-dollars per day. This often results in mouths being left unfed. Without a home and lacking hope, the young struggle to survive. By the grace of God and through the caring service of the nuns at the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage, many Guatemalan orphans are delivered from the cold streets of Guatemala City to the warm embrace of a loving Christian home.
One month before Fr. Matthias’ Team arrived in July, the government gave the nuns 26 new orphans to care for. The abuse and neglect that come from the frustrations of abject poverty were the only memories that many of these children had. Entering into the care of the Hogar can be an overwhelming experience for a child who has known nothing but suffering. It takes time to adapt to the sincere compassion that they receive. Under the care of monastics like Abbess Inés, Mother Ivonne, Mother Maria, the staff, and OCMC missionaries Christine Hagelios and Ed Pier, some of these children are shown love for the first time. Everyone works hard to feed, cloth, educate and provide spiritual direction to a population of orphans that is constantly in flux.
Thankfully, the older orphans assist in this care. “The older children help and teach the younger children, especially in the Church. An older child will lead a younger child as they come into the Church. They will teach their younger ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ how to make the sign of the cross, bow, and venerate the icons. The selflessness expressed by these older children is truly an amazing occurrence”, recalls Fr. Matthias.
In its most profound expression of love, the orphanage welcomes each of those in its care into the life of the Church. The many baptisms of the orphanage’s young residents were some of the most endearing memories that the Team members who volunteered at the Hogar shared. In addition to becoming friends and mentors to these children, Team members became godparents as well. Sophia Andriotis of Watertown, MA shares, “I looked down at my new godchild, my first godchild, asleep in my arms. One hand was holding his new cross, the other wrapped around my finger. I smiled down at him as my eyes welled up with tears as we sang ‘Dios les conceda muchos años’ (God grant you many years). I thought of all my hopes, dreams and prayers for him. I held him close to me and saved a picture of this memorable moment in my mind, knowing I would hold on to it forever.”
Despite the virtuous work of the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage, it continues to endure great struggle. How does one address issues of poverty while being embroiled in the throws of it? As the numbers of children increase, when will the love of a few dedicated servants be spread too thin? When asked these questions, Mother Ivonne responds plainly, “I don’t loose any sleep...you have to trust in God completely; we've all had to learn that.”
God has always provided for the nuns of the Hogar. The sea of smiling faces at the orphanage is not a burden to these women, but a blessing. Though there is always need, volunteers and donations regularly come to the Hogar. The Mission Center has been sending Teams to the orphanage since 1998 and it currently sponsors two long-term missionaries in Guatemala as well. In July 2007, OCMC, the international mission agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America, will be sending two more teams to Guatemala to assist the sisters in their vital ministry.
“No matter how much we may do as Mission Team members for these children in Guatemala,” reflects Fr. Matthias, “the satisfaction and love that is returned outweighs whatever sacrifices we may make.” Through the continued help and love of volunteers, the nuns, the staff and its orphans, the light of the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage will continue shine, illuminating the darkness left by poverty and bringing the peace of Christ to the people of Guatemala one child at a time.
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