Visiting the Church in Guatemala, Part Two: The Highlands

Note: This post was originally located on the author's seminary blog and is now reposted here on Mayan Orthodoxy for background info.

Greetings once again from Guatemala! Forgive the long pause in updates; this is the first time that I've had internet access in almost a month. Most people in Guatemala outside the largest cities have sparse access to the internet, and many people don't even have email addresses. What a difference from the U.S.

In this post, my trek through Guatemala with Metropolitan Athenagoras continues into the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. On Thursday, June 21st, we began our six-hour trip from Nueva Concepción, on the Pacific Coast, to a small town high, high up in the mountains, called Agua Alegre (about 6,500 feet above sea level). The entire morning we kept climbing and climbing up the mountains in a seemingly endless ascent, and as we finally approached our destination, we could look out over the mountains and see some of the tallest volcanoes in Guatemala. This country really is amazing: although it's no larger than many of the states in the U.S., the variety of topography, climates and wildlife rivals most parts of our country. Within six hours we had traveled from a tropical climate with huge lizards, bananas, and sugar cane fields, to a chilly mountaintop with pine bushes and sheepherders.

[Click on any picture to enlarge]

In the distance you can see Tacaná, the second tallest volcano
in Guatemala. In fact, at over 13,000 feet, it's the second
highest peak in all of Central America.

Agua Alegre is at the very top of the mountains that surround the large city called Huehuetenago. This city is the capital city of the department of Huehuetenango (a department is the Guatemalan equivalent of a state, in terms of organizational hierarchy). The department of Huehuetenango is located in the south-western/mid-western region of Guatemala, on the border of México, and this department contains the largest number of Orthodox Christians in all of Guatemala—it's the heart of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church. The community at Agua Alegre probably has 80 families, but at the gathering that day there were even more because the communities from the whole surrounding region sent delegations to greet the bishop. Instead of a prayer service, we had our first of many reuniones (meetings), which were sort of like rallies or high-energy gatherings which began with songs and cheers as the bishop arrived, then speeches followed (from the bishop and his retinue, and then from the various leaders who came from the different communities), and finally more songs and dancing to wrap things up.

One of the delegations from a community close to Agua Alegre

Padre Andres, delivering another moving speech

The people of Agua Alegre and the other communities in Huehuetenango are, for the most part, very poor and hard working. They are almost entirely from indigenous roots, many still wear the clothing that is traditional in their communities, and a large number still speak one of the twenty-one indigenous languages of Guatemala (e.g. Chuc, Popti, Mam, Quiche, etc.). Here in the villages of Guatemala, I definitely stick out like a huge, white, sore thumb! I'm often a foot taller than the people around me, and I can't tell you how many times I've hit my head on random objects. However, I really enjoy being in places where Gringos are even harder to find than internet access. I feel very blessed because the people in the department of Huehuetenango, unlike in some other areas, are very hospitable and open when a Gringo like me does show up.

Standing next to Hermano Juan, one of the catechists from
Agua Alegre

The church building in Agua Alegre

A typical sight in Agua Alegre

After our visit to Agua Alegre, we drove down to the Centro Apostólico, located on a hill overlooking the city of Huehuetenango. This center is where the catechists meet every two months for instruction in the faith. Although the Guatemalan Orthodox Church is very large, it only has eight priests to serve all the communities, so the priests depend on leaders from the communities to help in catechizing the people. These catechists still have much to learn themselves, but as they continue to receive training, they are slowly bringing that knowledge into their communities.

On Friday, the 22nd, we traveled to Todos Santos for another reunion. The people met us about an hour outside the town and formed a huge parade of cars that drove into the town together. The leading car had a megaphone that blasted announcements throughout the mountaintops: “Bueno!!! His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras is making his historic visit to Todos Santos, accompanied by...” Many people didn't fully understand who the visitors were, but they knew that the event was very special and that Metropolitan Athenagoras represents them.

The train of cars that accompanied us into Todos Santos

The leading cars

Entering Todos Santos

The reunion here was very similar to the one in Agua Alegre; the one aspect that was different and really interesting to me was the speeches given by the leaders of the communities who came to greet the archbishop. Here, especially in Todos Santos, many of the speeches were given in a mixture of Spanish and indigenous languages, switching back and forth with every other word. Really interesting!

The reunión was held at this parish, one of the
many Orthodox parishes in Todos Santos

A community representative delivering a speech in a mixture of
Spanish and a Mayan language

The villagers really liked having their picture taken

The next day we had another reunion in Nentón, this time with even more music and dancing. During some of the praise songs, Padre Andres moved among the crowd, praying over people, embracing them, and offering intercessions for healing. His love for the people overflows.

Padre Andres with the people

On Sunday, we took an incredibly rough mountain road up to the church in Tajumucu, where we celebrated the Divine Liturgy and 30-40 teens were chrismated. Here I could see another Catholic practice that still is part of the communities: children are baptized as infants but don't receive communion and confirmation until a later age. Yet, at the same time, I could see in this church some of the most developed iconography of any community in Guatemala. In different ways in different places, the Church here is taking strides in adopting the Orthodox faith.

Traveling through the Sierra Madre

A soccer field with an amazing view! This was just outside
the parish in Tajumucu.

The parish in Tajumucu

Ready for chrismation

Iconography in Tajumucu

On Monday, we had yet another reunion, this time in Aguacate, where Fr. Evangelos lives and has his home parish. Fr. Evangelos is the priest who oversees the vast majority of parishes in all of Huehuetenango as well as the parishes just over the border in Southern México. He is an extremely hard working man who travels almost daily to the different parishes throughout his area. His home parish in Aguacate is one of the largest parishes in the church, and it is one of the only parishes with a complete iconostasis. The reunion was preceded by a short service in which Fr. Evangelos was given the blessing to hear confessions. Then commenced the meeting proper, which was very large, having anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people. Once again there was plenty of music, dancing, and joy!

Fr. Evangelos

Greeting the bishop--what a crowd!

Outside the church building in Aguacate

The reunión

"Orthodox youth present"

Throughout all of the meetings, my job was to take photos and videos for the bishop (as well as for myself, of course!). Although it can be a little stressful to run around capturing every moment, I was thankful to be able to be on the outside so that I could take in what was happening.

There I am!

One of the things that stands out in my memory is the recurring theme that I heard in many of the speeches given by the leaders of the communities. “Now we know that we are not alone! We have a bishop who has come to visit us, who stands with us, and we know that we part of the true Church.” These leaders spoke about how much their communities have struggled, how much they have been doubted and belittled by other Christians in their towns (both Catholics and Protestants). The visit of the bishop gave them a reassurance that the larger Church stands with them and that they truly are part of the Apostolic Church that traces its line back to Christ.

The Orthodox faith is being handed down
 to the people of Guatemala, one by one.

There is much more that could be said, but in the interest of space I'll save more for upcoming posts. In the next update, my travels with Metropolitan Athenagoras will wrap up in Tziscao, México. There in Tziscao, we attended one of the most energetic reuniones, where His Eminence was greeted by at least a thousand Orthodox who live in Southern México. ¡Que viva México! ¡Que viva la Iglesia!

Greetings and love to all of you who are still trekking with me through Central America. I'll see you soon in México!