by Steven Shippy
“I am surrounded by love. It’s not the kind of love you see on TV or in the movies, but love in its most true and simple form. It is the love that can only come from God. I have only been here at the Hogar for about a day, but I have already found that love in abundance everywhere I look.”
These were the opening words from the journal I kept during my trip to the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage in Guatemala this July. I was joined by 9 other Orthodox Christians from around the country, and together we had one main objective during our eleven days with the children at the Hogar: to love and be loved. Our days, of course, were filled with various activities such as sports, arts and crafts, baking, swimming, and lots and lots of playing and other fun activities. But it is the sharing of our very selves that will remain with us forever.
My trip began long before I stepped on the airplane, with the love, prayers, and support of my family, my friends, and most of all, my parish family at St Mary. Before I left I took on the task of collecting shoes for the teenagers. I was blessed with overwhelming support from the parish, my co-workers, and others and was able to bring 30 pairs of brand-new shoes, about 30 pairs of socks, and some monetary donations to help them cover what I was unable to bring. I also received donations to cover all of the arts and crafts projects that we had to buy supplies for and bring with us. With all of the shoes and supplies, my luggage was heavy; but it was a reminder that this trip is not my own. I left with the support of many people, and without that support, the trip would not have been possible. I am grateful to God for giving me such good friends and family.
During our eleven days at the Hogar, our biggest “mission” was to run “The Chocolate Train,” which is the summer program for the children. Our Team was put into pairs, and each pair was responsible for 8 to 9 children, ranging in ages from 5-13. Our daily activities included sports, arts and crafts, going to the bakery, games, Bible story videos, and playing in the park. There were also days where we had special activities, such as a mini-carnival with hot dogs and cotton candy, a live performance of songs from High School Musical, a birthday party for many of the children, and an inflatable “moonwalk” for the kids to jump and play in.
One of the biggest highlights for us and the children was a trip to the hot pools. There are 5 pools that are geothermally heated, and it was an absolute blast! In addition to our regular children from The Chocolate Train program, we were also joined by the little ones and the teenagers. The fact that it is now nearly a month later and my back still hurts from children climbing all over me and hours of piggy back rides that day gives you an idea of how much fun we had.
While we were at the Hogar, Mother Ivonne had given us the task to write down our most memorable moment. I ended up writing about two of the children I spent the most time with at the hot pools, Kevin and Cathy, who are 5 and 4: “Playing with Kevin and Cathy at the hot pools is a memory I will always keep with me. Cathy is just the sweetest little angel. We had so much fun playing in the water, and her giggling shy smile is so pure. I have a very special bond with Kevin and knew of him before I even came to the Hogar. His laughter will always ring in my ears, and his smile has found a permanent place in my heart.” This was just one moment. There were so many.
One of the greatest blessings I received at the Hogar was getting to spend my 27th birthday there. We traveled to the monastery that day, which is about an hour away; here the new orphanage is being built. What an incredible place! The church sits high on the mountainside above Lake Amatitlan and is like a spiritual lighthouse for all to see. The nuns own almost the entire mountainside, and the difference between where the orphanage is now (in the middle of Guatemala City) and the new location in San Miguel is like the difference between night and day. Once the move is complete, the children can finally move away from the crime, pollution, and violence of the city and enjoy their own little paradise.
The orphanage is under the care of three Orthodox nuns and presently cares for around 60 children, but that number has reached nearly 150 at times. Many are victims of physical and sexual abuse, and it is very hard to hear their stories. However, as Fr. Nick Jonas, our team leader so wonderfully put it, “The children of the Hogar are being healed through practicing the Orthodox Christian way of life in all its fullness!” One of the things you are immediately struck by is their participation in the life of the Church, which includes services twice a day. The children are not required to go, yet most, if not all, attend. The children are the choir, chanters, and readers; the children serve in the altar and do the censings; the children light the candles, ring the bells, and clean the church. It is truly an amazing thing to experience. After my first service, I wrote in my journal, “Their praise to God is so sincere. I wish my parish family could see and experience it. They would be so moved.” I truly wish you could have experienced it.
There are so many things that I would share with you if I had more space to write. The fact that I wrote over 30 pages in my journal and took over 1,500 photographs on this trip might give you an idea of how much I have to share. And those were just the thoughts and memories I could find time to record. But I realize that I can share until my fingers hurt from writing or I’m out of breath from talking–but you still won’t truly and fully understand what I have seen and experienced and why I will carry this trip close to my heart for the rest of my life. I am very grateful for all of the support you have given me, and I now ask of you one more thing for those who are physically able: Go. Go anywhere. Just go. Join an OCMC Mission Team. Not for me, but for the millions of people around the world who are waiting for you to come and share the love of God with them. Mother Teresa once said, “Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go.” She also said, “Love begins at home.”
With those words in mind, I would like to leave you with the last entry from the journal I kept during my two weeks in Guatemala. I pray that someday you will get to experience a trip for yourself.
“Last night we had our final meeting as a team over dinner and discussed the trip in order to have some closure on the whole experience. How did we grow? What did we accomplish? What did we learn? How will our lives be different? We were all able to answer these questions to a degree, but for many of us, I think our understanding of this trip will continually be made clear, perhaps maybe even many years from now. God’s Will for each of us is different. We have all been touched by this experience in unique and individual ways. I will continue to seek its meaning for my life and look forward to the many blessings that will come along with it. I know from experience that the hardest part is still to come. It’s those moments when you’re back home, back to work, and back to “reality” that isn’t really reality at all, and you’re wishing you could be with the kids. But there will be no little hands to hold. No hugs to receive, no tiny voices saying “Esteven! Mirar! (Steven! Look!)” Leaving is hard because here, I am surrounded by love. But there is one thing that I am always reminded of when I am away from home and my family and friends. Here at the Hogar I have come to know all of these beautiful children and it is difficult to understand why they were unwanted, abused, neglected, and exploited. By the grace of God and the love and charity of the nuns of the Holy Trinity monastery, they have been given a second chance. I will never fully understand what they have been through. When I get back home and see my family and friends and church, I can be certain of one thing: that I am still surrounded by love, and for that I am truly thankful.”