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Mayan Orthodoxy in Guatemala

May 20, 2014 Length: 30:37

Jesse Brandow, a longterm missionary with the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, talks about the Orthodox mission efforts in Guatemala.

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Dn. Alessandro Margheritino: Good evening. Christ is risen! [Indeed he is risen!] Welcome, welcome, all who are here tonight, and a special welcome goes to the listeners of Ancient Faith Radio. I’m Dn. Alessandro Margheritino; I’m the student council president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Tonight’s lecture on Mayan Orthodoxy, which is sponsored by the student council, will inform us on the incredible missionary work that has been going on in Guatemala in the last few years. This lecture is recorded and will be available on Ancient Faith Radio. It is truly a pleasure for me to introduce our speaker, Jesse Brandow, who is a dear friend of many here at seminary as well as a recent graduate of the school. Raised in the Orthodox Church, Jesse was inspired by his family to pursue a life of ministry. His father, Gerasimos, was born in India to missionary parents and now serves the Church as a deacon. Jesse received his bachelor’s at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. He went to Guatemala for the first time in 2009 as a short-term missionary through the OCMC and returned there to spend the entire summer in 2012. Now he’s officially an OCMC missionary candidate for Guatemala, and of course Jesse’s a proud [alumnus] of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, class of 2013. So on behalf of the entire SVS community, welcome back, Jesse.

Mr. Jesse Brandow: Thank you so much, Dn. Alessandro, and thank you all for coming here. Thank you so much. Christ is risen! [Indeed he is risen!] And in Spanish: ¡Cristo ha resucitado! [¡En verdad ha resucitado!] Oh, that’s great! It’s really a joy to be back here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary with all of you. It’s good for me to come back to seminary every now and then so I can be reminded how long a beard can grow. [Laughter] It’s good for me. Where I work, they know me as “the bearded one.” [Laughter] So coming back here keeps me humble, to see the seminarian’s beard in its full glory! But in all seriousness, really, it’s a joy to be here with all of you. Thank you.

So tonight we’ve come here to hear about how a seed, the seed of Orthodoxy, the seed of the Gospel, has sprouted in Guatemala, where thousands of people have converted to the Orthodox Church. A seed, of course, always goes back to the soil where it takes root. So before we look more closely at Guatemala, I’d like to draw our attention to the soil. In the words of Christ in Mark’s gospel:

As the crowds were beginning to gather around Jesus, he said, “Listen: a sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil, and when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty- and sixty- and a hundred-fold.” And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear, let him hear.”

I begin by drawing our attention to the soil, because in this parable and again and again in the gospels, Christ himself compares the growth of the Church, the spread of the Gospel, and really, of course, the growth of Orthodoxy, to a seed that is planted in the soil, takes root, and grows. So for us here today, in our own time and place, we ask like the disciples, who were always asking Jesus what did he mean, we ask, “What is this soil, and how does the seed of the Gospel take root in it?”

In a missionary context, like what we’re talking about today as we start to look at Guatemala, the soil, of course, is actually the literal soil of all the countries of the world, because soil is different. It’s different in South Carolina from my home state in Michigan. It’s different in Michigan from the volcanic soil in Guatemala. So Christ in this parable, in a missionary context, is talking about all the soils of the earth. The sower, he himself, is spreading the seed liberally across the earth, calling us to cooperate in that. Of course, if it’s the soil of a country, it’s also everything that comes from the soil. Our relationship with the soil gives birth to agriculture, agriculture gives birth to a way of life, and a way of life is intimately bound up with a culture, a language, and, of course, religion.

Really, what Christ is talking about is all of our lives, starting with the soil and culminating in the Gospel, as the Gospel takes root in our lives across the world. So how does it take root? The Sower, Jesus Christ, is sowing it liberally, whether we like it or not; he is out there in the world, spreading freely his word. Our calling, then, is to go out there as farmers outside of our comfort zones, whatever that may be—our parish, our country—to go outside, into the field, to work the soil, get our hands dirty in it. If you’re a gardener, let the soil get all up in your fingernails, in your hair, in your clothes, in your shoes. It’s impossible to get out. Let the soil of cultures, of the world, get all up in your fingernails as we prepare it for the seed of the Gospel to take root.

So that image is what we’ll keep in our minds as we look at Guatemala, where the seed of Orthodoxy has sprouted in the soil. I want to invite all of you, right now, to imagine the soil of Guatemala. Come with me. We’re all going to go. It’s a long walk, but we’re going to walk through Mexico—I know it’s a bad idea, but we’re going to go anyway; that’s why we’re doing it in our mind’s eye, not in reality. [Laughter] We’re going to walk through Mexico, down to the southern border of Mexico, right where we walk into Guatemala. That’s where the land of Guatemala is, below Mexico, and right there in Central America.

Stand with me there. Take off your shoes. I guess it’s optional to take them off here, but take off your shoes and stand in the soil with me. Look around you and see on the horizon the volcanoes of Guatemala rising up, the volcanoes that made that soil rich, and the cornfield around us that will be harvested for tortillas, golden tortillas. And reach down and pick up that soil and hold it in your hands, because that soil contains the story of Guatemala and the backstory of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala. That soil that we figuratively hold in our hands right now is the soil that unifies the country of Guatemala in terms of its borders, the land of Guatemala.

But that same soil is also the soil that has divided the country for generations, for centuries. It has divided the country into roughly two groups: into the Ladinos, the people who are of a mixed Spaniard and native background, with fairer skin; often they are the wealthier classes, more educated, with more resources, and with the land; they possess the land. And on the other hand, the native Mayan Indians, who are roughly about half, a little under half of the population, which is a bit different from here, where the Native Americans are such a small population.

So the country, that soil has divided the country into these two groups. For the Spaniards and their descendants, the soil has brought incredible wealth. The wealthiest 2.5% of Guatemalan farms, the estates, control 65% of the agricultural land in Guatemala. More importantly, it’s the best land, the richest volcanic soil along the coast, the Pacific coast especially. Over the centuries, this group of people has used war and human rights crimes to exert their control over the land.

For the Mayan Indians and their descendants, in the rural villages, this soil that we hold in our hands has brought poverty, bloodshed, and death. They were forced, over the generations, off the richest soils, first by the Spaniards and then through civil wars continuing through the centuries, and they fled high up into the high rocky mountain soil. They suffered terribly through civil wars, and most recently through a 36-year civil war that ended only in 1996, less than 20 years ago. In that war, 200,000 people died, in a country of 15 million, which is a huge percentage. 200,000 people died, and 83% of those people were native Mayan Indians. They’ve suffered for many reasons, but one of the key ones is their desire for a better land and a better life. The vast majority of the native Mayan Indians live below the poverty line, and almost 60% of them live below the extreme poverty line, which is people who have income that is insufficient to buy basic food.

I think for most of us here in the United States and throughout the world, for a lot of us it’s hard to understand how a struggle for land can so define a country and its people that all of their lives, even their religious lives, are rooted in that soil, in that struggle. But the Catholic Church in Guatemala, during the civil war, actually summed up the spiritual struggle of Guatemala with a single phrase. They called it “the cry for land.” This “cry for land” has given rise to the deep spiritual problems of the communities in Guatemala. The lack of hope that comes from having no options for a better life and from seeing one’s own children die of malnutrition, the lack of trust in religious leaders who simply abandon the native people and their suffering to cozy up to the landed classes, and for some of the Mayan background the lack of faith in the Roman Catholic God who so often has been represented by the oppressors who steal the land and kill the people—this struggle for land, this struggle is at the heart of the communities in Guatemala, and it’s the background for what we see in the Orthodox Church in Guatemala.

So that brings us now specifically to their story. Who are these people, these people who just four years ago, in 2010, converted to Orthodoxy? They were chrismated en masse with 40,000 people who came into the Orthodox Church. Who are these people? What is their story? Well, to start out with, it’s actually difficult to name one story, because they’re so diverse. There are 300 villages in this group of people who have come into the Orthodox Church, roughly 300. Again, numbers are difficult because it’s so rural; it’s so hard to pinpoint the numbers. But roughly 300 have come into the Orthodox Church, with about 100 churches that they share. Many people have to walk to another village for a church, or travel a long ways to go to a church.

So 300 villages that are really spread out. They’re concentrated in kind of the southern and western part of Guatemala and spilling over into Mexico. They’re concentrated there, but they’re spread out throughout the mountains, throughout the coastal areas, and they’re especially up there in the high altitude of the mountains, sometimes very high: thousands of feet high.

And they’re also diverse in terms of their ethnicity. They’re all… or most of them are from a native Mayan ancestry, but even within that, though, there are over 20 Mayan languages in Guatemala in different ethnic groups. So they’re diverse in that way, too. So many different stories come together in these people in Guatemala.

But, of course, there are things that unite these people as a group. One of those, of course, is that back story that they share, coming from a Mayan background. And another thing that really unites them is their own lack of land, their own poverty. When I went down in 2012,  you can see it all over the place when you visit these villages that are spread out, traveling from village to village. You say, “Hi,” to someone, they smile a beautiful smile, and you see their teeth are missing or their teeth are black, and you can see there the poverty of the communities, the lack of medical resources, and you can see it in many of their tragic stories.

When I was there, I opened the door to the church on one weekday, and a woman came rushing in with her infant in her arms, and she fell in front of the iconostasis, in front of the Theotokos, and she was holding her dying child, who was dying of malnutrition right there. We called the priest to come in, but, of course, he can’t do anything and there’s no medical resources there in this rural village. And we stood there watching the child die right there in front of the iconostasis. It’s those kind of stories that are part of the fabric of these communities. Offering tortillas to the priest for their offering, or corn, corncobs, for their offering. Some of them offer money, but it’s that kind of place.

Finally, one of the things that binds these communities together is their specific history, each of these communities coming from a Roman Catholic background, different backgrounds, but for different reasons being outcasts in the Catholic Church. Sometimes it was because their bishop abandoned them, their priest abandoned them. In many parishes in Guatemala, the priest might come once or twice a year. So some of them were abandoned when they were Catholics. Some of them chose to leave for different reasons. For some it was because they were influenced by a Pentecostal spirituality, like a very charismatic [church]. But for others it was actually a conservative background: they didn’t like Vatican II, so they left, which happens here in the United States, too. So different backgrounds, but that former Roman Catholic identity unites them.

But the greatest thing that unites these people is our next question. How, then, did these people that we’ve just met in Guatemala, how did they come into the Orthodox Church? And it’s through the leadership of one man. We’ve talked about the soil; now here we’ll meet the farmer, the man who prepared the soil for the seed of Orthodoxy. These communities were united through the leadership of a man named Fr. Andrés Girón. He was a famous Roman Catholic priest in the country, and he was famous because of his work as a public advocate for land reform and for the rights of the native people in the country. As a priest, he was still advocating for these, and he even advocated politically, too. For a time, he was a senator in Guatemala and actually a UN representative. He’s very famous in the country. He actually knew Martin Luther King, Jr., when he came to the United States and he was in contact with the civil rights movement. That’s the kind of man he was in Guatemala. He’s all over the newspapers there, especially his death was all over the newspapers.

He was an advocate for the native communities. By doing that, he gained a lot of enemies throughout his life. There were actually two assassination attempts against his life, one of them while he was celebrating the Mass. But he struggled and he was successful. He stood with the people, he built up schools and infrastructure in the communities, and he won land for them. And it was because he spoke up for the Mayan people that dozens—and eventually hundreds—of villages started to gather under his wing. Of course, those are the communities that eventually came into the Orthodox Church.

I really wish… I’ve given you a lot of information about him and about the communities that he led into the Orthodox Church. I wish I could give you some sense of that love that drew people to him, that drew these communities under his wing. He loved these people so much, and really he was a missionary to them. As I said, he was the one who worked the soil of Guatemala, who was not afraid to go out and face the problems of this culture and get it all up in his skin, in his hands, in fingernails, as he worked for the people. And it was because of that love that he had for them.

I’ll just share one story with you from Fr. Andrés to give you a sense of that. When I was down there in 2012 I spent a lot of time with him. He was such a joyful and humorous man, sometimes kind of off-color humor, quite a bit off-color sometimes, but underneath that grit was such a heart for the people. He shared a lot of stories with me, many of them coming from the civil wars. He was there, seeing, for example, village women being raped by soldiers in front of his eyes. A lot of stories like this that weighed on his heart, but one story that he kept coming back to was the day that he heard God calling him to be an advocate for the people, for the native people.

It happened on a Sunday. As a priest when he was in the church, he saw an Indian woman come in holding a child in her arms, and he looked on the child that she was holding almost like the Theotokos holding the Christchild. The child that she was holding had a severe case of hydrocephaly, which if you know the term is when I think it’s spinal fluid comes up into the brain and the infant’s head swells enormously. So he looked, and there was this woman standing there with her child. As he looked at them, he looked at the child’s face, and the child looked back and smiled at him. He said, “When I saw that child smile, I saw the eyes of Christ looking back at me in that child’s face.” He said, “I just fell down right there and I cried out to God and said, ‘Lord, what must I do in my life? Lord, show me how you want me to serve you. Tell me.’ ” And the answer, for him, was to serve Jesus Christ in the face of that child, in the face of the suffering people who had no medical care, that child who might have died eventually anyway of malnutrition. To serve them, that was the answer that came to him.

So that is the love that led him, like the farmer, to work the field of Guatemala. And because he loved the people, because he stood with them, even risking his life on two occasions, the people trusted him. They trusted him and believed in him because, like so few others, he actually stood with them. And that is why they followed him, trusting him, into the Orthodox Church. Fr. Andrés slowly came into the Church through a non-canonical group in the ‘90s and in the 2000s, but then eventually he discovered the canonical Orthodox Church and it was then, in 2010, that he came in under the Ecumenical Patriarch. So the people were chrismated, and that is where they are today, four years later. That brings us to the present time.

Where are we now, then? Where are the communities after they’ve come into the Orthodox Church? Where are they in the transition to Orthodoxy? What are the future challenges that these people face?

One of the biggest challenges that the people face is education: religious education and catechesis. Both the priests and the people face this. So where are they in this? The priests have received some education in Orthodoxy. Some of them have gone to Mexico and lived there at one of the monasteries. They’ve learned there, experienced the services. Others have done distance education; they are in Guatemala to learn the services and also in contact with the missionaries learning the services. One of them has actually gone to Greece for a year, and there he not only learned theology and the services but also iconography, and now this priest is painting some of the churches—or, sorry, “writing”—in Guatemala. He actually has a Colombian student who’s learning from him iconography.

So the priests have learned about Orthodoxy to an extent; they’re still learning. But the people in the villages really know very little about Orthodoxy. What they know is that they are Orthodox and that they’re committed to continue to grow and learn more. They know that they’re part of the Orthodox Church, but they’re still being catechized, and right now they’re at a very basic level: of learning the sign of the cross, going to the right, not to the left, that kind of thing. Very basic things.

The real challenge in Guatemala is there are so many people—40,000 people—that need to learn and be catechized. And the priests—there are only seven priests for this many people. Can you imagine that? That ratio is like one priest to over 5,000 people! I mean, it’s hard to imagine here in our parishes, but the priests travel frantically from parish to parish, trying to minister to these people.

It’s a tremendous challenge, and more leaders need to be trained. That’s one of the things that one of the missionary families, Fr. David Rucker and Matushka Rozanne Rucker, that’s one of the things that they’re focusing on: raising up native leaders in the country so that those leaders can then train others in the country.

Another challenge in the communities is worship. Where the people are in terms of how they’re worshiping is very much in flux. In most of the communities, the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom is practiced. It’s not like a Catholic Mass; it’s the Liturgy of John Chrysostom. But outside of that, except for in a few places, like in a place called Aguacate, where the Ruckers are, where they have established a broader liturgical life—outside of that, really the communities practice their own various forms of worship, like praise and worship groups with a band, or kind of these charismatic prayer groups. So it’s really all over the place with that, and they’re very much in flux.

For that, that’s another one of the challenges: continuing growing the spiritual life of the people. Fr. John Chakos—well, all the missionaries work on that, and it’s something I will work on, too. Fr. John Chakos especially is helping the communities get more icons. Fr. Peter Jackson is helping with the translation component of the worship. More educational and liturgical resources need to be translated into Spanish and Mayan languages. So Fr. Peter Jackson and his wife, Matushka [Styliana], will be helping with that. Of course, another challenge, then, is: as these people grow, how will we deal with these challenges of enculturation? Issues like: will they venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe? Things like that: these issues of enculturation.

Of course, finally, material resources: medicine, buildings, ways of earning income. All of these challenges face them.

But I think, to bring that part of this to a close, that the biggest challenge, really, that faces these people is that they have lost their leader, Fr. Andrés Girón, the person who stood with them and gave them hope. Of course, these other priests will step up to lead them, but the Orthodox Church as a whole plays a really important part in giving these people a sense that we stand with them, that they have people who are helping them, who are loving them and helping them to grow, and who believe in them. So that, again, is one of the biggest challenges of these communities.

Finally, that brings us to the end of the presentation, the final question: with all these churches having come into the Orthodox Church, very much in a state of transition, having lost their leader and now, four years after converting, beginning to transition into Orthodoxy, how will we respond, then to these communities and to the growth of Orthodoxy in Guatemala? As I said, Fr. Andrés was the farmer who tilled that soil and prepared it for the seed, but the sun has set on his day in the field, and now in the new day that is dawning, God is calling the broader Orthodox Church—us—to go out into the field and to help that seed grow. How will we respond to this? Will we respond to that call, to stand with these people, or will we abandon them like so many people have abandoned them throughout the generations? Will we stand with the people of Guatemala in their time of need, our brothers and sisters?

I believe that we will—you and me, everyone listening to this online, and the missionaries who are there in the field right now. I believe that we will, not only, of course, because Christ gives each one of us the command to go and make disciples of all nations, but even more so because the joy of the harvest is so great. The joy of the harvest, which is the end of that parable, the sower in the field. When that soil has been tilled and when the roots have taken root in the mature soil, then the harvest is thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold, as people come into the Orthodox Church. In Guatemala, of course, we see a harvest from Fr. Andrés Girón, that one man, that is not thirty-, sixty-, or a hundred-fold, but 40,000. The joy of the harvest.

But even more than this, imagine this harvest coming from one man, as we stand with these communities, as we go out there into the field and help them grow, imagine the harvest that God is calling us to in these communities in the future. Imagine as a native Orthodox Church begins to grow in Guatemala and become strong. Imagine as they, then, begin to go out and be missionaries to Latin America. Imagine as they also accept that same calling that God gives to each one of us. As I said, it’s already happening with the Colombian coming to Guatemala to learn iconography, and it’s only the beginning. The joy of the harvest is what God calls each one of us to in Guatemala. Of course, it’s what called me to Guatemala, Fr. David Rucker, Mat. Rozanne, the Chakos family, the Jackson family, all of us going there.

So today, just as I asked you to come with me to Guatemala, I ask you to come with all of these missionaries—me and the whole missionary team—to Guatemala. Support us, pray for us, support us financially if you can through a monthly pledge, or even come to Guatemala. Offer what you can to stand with these people. Walk with me, as I said, through Mexico—you can fly if you want. Walk with me down to Guatemala and stand in that soil, which is fresh and ready for the seed of Orthodoxy to take root and become strong in the native Mayan Orthodox Church.


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