November 1, 2011
November 16, 2009
by Jesse Brandow
After spending nearly two weeks in Guatemala, I arrived back in the United States exhausted and inspired. I hoped to write sooner to share my experience, but I needed time to readjust to life here in the States. It has been nearly three months since I arrived home, and only now am I beginning to understand my trip to the Hogar Rafael Ayau (Hogar means “home” or “orphanage”). My time at the Hogar was so packed with sights, sounds, faces, and prayers that I have a difficult time truly sharing it. Yet it has meant so much to me that I have to share it with you! So I’m putting ink to paper as I begin to tell what God has done for me in Guatemala.
As the plane flew into Guatemala City, my eyes were glued to the window. The sprawling city had no massive skyscrapers to challenge the mountain peaks, which shot up on all sides. It was nothing like Chicago’s huge apartment buildings or New York’s jutting skyline. Here thousands of shacks littered the ground, and my team of ten was headed to the worst district.
Entering the orphanage felt like entering a small fort. It fills an entire city block, and its huge walls keep the children safe from danger. We had to be cleared by guards, who rolled back the gate for our van. Once inside it was easy to forget the world lurking outside those walls: gang fights, drunken parties, and prostitutes. The days in the Hogar were filled with so much joy, but sometimes at night I would suddenly hear the outside world: men arguing and a woman crying for help. On the first day we met the children in church. Each day began and ended in that same house of worship. The children came to services freely and sang all of the songs from memory. Although the boys and girls were a little mischievous in church (they’re kids after all!), they managed to stand for over an hour of services each day, singing in their native tongue. How I miss reciting the Lord’s prayer with them in Spanish, watching them carefully light beeswax candles, and walking up together to receive communion.
Our simple purpose was to love the children. Some of them were abused before coming to the Hogar, others never knew their parents. So what the children needed most was good role models who made them feel like unique and beautiful children of God. More practically, we were there to organize a week-long summer program called ‘The Chocolate Train’, which stopped at many “stations,” including the game room, pool, bakery, and art room. I find it hard to describe to you how full each day was, how special each moment. I played foosball and checkers in the morning and then baked cookies with a dozen children. I jumped in the pool before lunch, then juggled paints, pencils, and crayons in the art room. So many stories fill in the lines of this single paragraph, each one deserving to be told.
Before we left, Madre Ivonne asked each of us to write down the most memorable moment. I’d like to share what I wrote so you can hear one of the stories that crowded the lines of my journal. It was one of those rare moments when a person shines in all his inner beauty. One morning I was sitting on the grass when five or six of the cutest youngsters mobbed me, each one of them begging for attention. Then, with all of them climbing on top of me, one hand popped out in front of my face. I looked and saw Kevin. He has a healed cleft lip, some silver false teeth, and a hard time speaking. You might not guess how special he is. All the other kids desperately wanted me to devote my attention only to them, but Kevin just wanted to give me something. I looked into his hand and saw that he had found a little bug. I held it for a little while before giving it back. That was enough to make Kevin smile so big that I could see his silver teeth. He just wanted to share a little treasure, and the simplicity of his love melted my heart. Imagine 100 children like Kevin who want to know that someone has seen who they are and loved what they saw. Those 100 at the Hogar are part of the 370,000 orphans of Guatemala, all born to broken parents in a broken world. Some were neglected, others were actually tortured, and their scars remain with them forever. Thankfully, 100 children are protected from much of the world’s evil by the Hogar’s walls. Yet the line between love and hatred cannot be found in any physical barrier. That line runs through every human heart. The process of healing begins when the children are brought into the Hogar. As they grow, their hearts open up, and they begin to trust the nuns, staff, and Mission Team members who love them unconditionally. I thank God that I was a small part of their lives. Perhaps with God’s grace I helped some of them to know how beautiful they are.
When my mission trip ended I did not want to return to the U.S. Here I find it difficult to keep focused on love when my vision is crowded by computer screens, hip clothing, and bold advertisements. There may be fewer orphans in the United States, but just as many people need love. Everywhere the world is broken. In Guatemala it is obvious, but here materialism plasters over the cracks. Sometimes I wish I could see the cracks plainly so it would be easier to focus on loving the people around me. But the love I shared at the Hogar still gives me hope that by focusing on Jesus Christ I will be able to heal others through love and to be healed myself.
We all need healing. What God showed me at the Hogar was how to live without despairing at human suffering. The world is dark, but that does not stop joy from shining through the Hogar. By putting Christ’s love at the center of life, the nuns have built an amazing home for the children. In spite of all the painful stories I heard there, I have never felt so much joy anywhere else. More and more, I hope to live in the joy of Christ, for only he can heal our souls.
Please remember the children of the Hogar in your prayers.
P.S. You can find links to my picture albums at http://www.didnotourheartburn.blogspot.com
October 26, 2009
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.”
May 11, 2009
OCMC Associate Director Fr. David Rucker and his family celebrated Holy Week and Pascha with the children and nuns of the Hogar Raphael Ayau. Although this orphanage has been open to children since 1857, it is only since 1996 that the Orthodox nuns of the Monasterio Ortodoxo Lavra Mambré have run this vital ministry of the Church in Guatemala. Every year since 1998 OCMC Mission Teams have come to minister to these precious youngsters, who range in age from infancy to their early teens. Currently, approximately 100 children live at the Hogar.
The Hogar has had visits from several priests and from two OCF Real Break teams during the Lenten season, but they do not have a permanent priest. Fr. Rucker has made two previous trips to the orphanage, but this was his first time to celebrate Pascha there. He was impressed by the children, who knew many of the Holy Week and Pascha hymns by heart.
When asked about his trip, Fr. David Rucker said:
When I learned that the blessed mothers of the monastery, over 70 children in the orphanage, and all the staff and Faithful would be without a priest in Guatemala, I thought, “How can I say no to them?” I was going to be serving in a parish in the USA with several priests and two Deacons ministering to perhaps 500 people, and here was an entire country without a single Orthodox priest during the highest feast days of the year. Many years ago my wife and I prayed a very simple prayer: “God, our family belongs to you. We will go wherever You send us. We will do whatever you ask us to do. We belong to You.” Serving in Guatemala this past Holy Week and Pascha was a great privilege for our family. As is the case with almost all missionary work, we received far more than we could ever give. It is our joy on behalf of OCMC to contribute in a small way to all that God is doing in Latin America through the prayers of these blessed mothers and the children they love and serve. “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Mt. 9:37-38).