OK, it's been a while since a monthly update, but here it is, the month of December. A happy and blessed New year to all! *****************************
The Plan for Santa
A week or so before I left for Ecuador, I was thinking about a plan to dress up as Santa Claus and come to Chontal. Santa is known here as Papá Noel. I did a little research on Wikipedia on the history of Santa before coming. Apparently, he's a US hybrid of the English Father Christmas and the German Saint Nicholas. Father Christmas was a white-bearded old man dressed festively in red and white. He was the mainstream Christian response (I would guess Anglican) to the Puritans, whose ideas had gotten some hold on the English culture. The Puritans believed that any type of celebratory spirit was opposed to Christianity, and they thought the celebration of Christmas was "from Satan." (Yes, these are the founders and shapers of Massachusetts history and culture!) But after this type of thought caught some hold, there was a reaction to bring back the celebration of Christmas. Thus, a depiction of Father Christmas as an old man (from the past) in festive red and white. It brought back the spirit of celebration as well as giving to the poor, though there was no gift-giving among family members.
But long before Father Christmas was the devotion in much of Europe to St Nicholas, the saint who went about giving gifts, and whose feast day is December 6 and close enough to later be associated with the Christmas celebration. St Nicholas was known by tradition to have given gifts to benefit the poor, and this gift-giving transformed gradually as well into gifts to poor children, and then to all children. So, from English and broader European backgrounds, immigrants to the US brought both of these traditions, and they somehow gelled into a depiction of Santa Claus, an older, white-haired-and-bearded jolly gent dressed in the festive red and white, who gave gifts to children in the Christmas celebration. The only part that is left out of the mingling of the two traditions, sadly, is deliberate giving to the poor. So, even though I was already caught up in the idea of showing up in Chontal as Santa with gifts for the kids, after doing the research I thought it would be a good fulfillment of who Santa really is.
I think it's worth presenting my perspective about Santa in relation to Christmas. There are some people who are opposed to the idea of Santa. One man, originally from the US, who has been living and taking care of a cedar forest reserve for over 20 years here in Chontal, has the whole physique to be a great Santa. Tall, portly, white hair and beard, deep voice. I said, we're looking for a Santa, half-jokingly. He said, "Oh no, I don't like Santa. Jesus yes, but Santa no." And that was it. Certainly not the attitude of a Santa! And that from a guy who, at least to my knowledge, has had no response to the landslides. Bah, humbug! But a lot of people pit Santa against Jesus. The local catechist, who is often busy with her restaurant business, wanted me to do a skit with someone else representing Jesus, whereby Santa is basically put in his place, so to speak. I refused, and it never came about. That type of divisiveness is what ruins any type of religious experience, and it reduces God to only what might be understood by one person, who happens to be the one in charge.
But in fact, Santa is a great help for understanding Jesus and the gift that He is from God. The spirit of Christmas really is founded in the generosity and joy of a father, of a mysterious eternal Father, the giver of all gifts, who so loved the world that He gave His only Son. I think that we can forget that Jesus is a gift, He is given. We forget that all of life is a gift, all we have is a gift, and that we really haven't earned much of anything. Who do you know that has provided their own eyeballs, or ears, or brain, to do the things that have earned them a living? What is there that any person is or has or does that can't be traced back to complete dependence on God and other people for what they have been given? If you want to know how much you've actually earned in your life, don't look at your property or bank account - look at the crumbs on your floor. That's about right.
Well my real point is that, whatever a mature meditation on the Christmas mystery can produce about the generosity and joy of God, Santa makes real and reachable for all. He makes it incarnate, as Jesus is incarnate. All is a gift, and if we want to know Jesus as a newborn, we have to know that he is a gift "for us". I think that it's when we've lost sight of who God really is, what really makes Jesus tick, namely, the generosity and joy of a Father, it's then that Santa is imagined to be a twisted threat to our religion. And to us.
But, should kids be taught to believe in someone who doesn't exist? I think they should - if it helps them to know someone who does exist. Somewhere in my readings in the past, I came across a quote from Jesus to a religious nun who had encountered him in apparitions. About children He said only one thing: teach them generosity, and they will be prepared to receive me. Whatever you believe about apparitions, it made a lot of sense to me. I have taught a fair number of catechism and religious education. I never have liked the curricula or books. For all the time and energy spent on catechism and religious education classes for children, I think that generosity is often one of the things that is least taught or modeled for children. We are good at telling them what to do, trying to make them learn in a classroom about God and religion, and showing them, really, how a boss behaves. But we are not good at showing them how to be generous.
Yet, in one fell swoop, on one mysterious night that is the holiest of nights, God gives children a fantastic old man who, for all we know, never entered a classroom, but dedicates himself to giving good gifts to children. He's more real than a book, and captures the attention of all children not because of what he's saying, but what he's doing. On the night He gives the greatest gift of his Son, God gives children a catechism lesson that takes the place of all the classes the kids have ever had. Like a tidal wave, it undoes all the mistakes and misrepresentations about God that kids encounter. It drowns them all out in the sound of jingling bells, a glow of red, the faint glimmer of a twinkle in the eye, the hope for gifts received, and the proof in a hand-written note that speaks directly to the heart of children in their own language and tells them what this whole Jesus-being-born thing is all about: I love you.
He gives them Santa.
A week or so before I left, I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about arriving in Chontal as Santa. I was half-joking about arriving in the town center and getting off the bus dressed as Santa, with the bus assistant getting my sack out from the storage belly of the bus. The bus arrives right outside the school, just after all the kids get out, so it would be, well, it was a bit of a fantasy, but I knew I could make something happen. My friend gave me $90 to get a Santa suit. Operation Santa was on.
A few days before I left, I went to the IParty store, and after some planning and deliberation, I picked out a packaged Santa suit. I also picked up the beard and wig, eyebrows, a Santa bell, glasses, white gloves, and the sack. The whole bit. I knew I had to do it well. When I went to the cash register, they rang up the amount: $90.
I had already had some Santa hats to bring, but I needed more. I went to a Walgreens and picked up about 300 little candy canes (I remembered there's about 150 kids in the school). I also got some tree ornaments to give away, and some garland to hang out of the Santa sack. I got some bracelets with jingle bells on them for more Santa effect, and I also picked up 3 giant chocolate coins, about 6 inches in diameter each. A few elf hats, and I was ready to go.
The day before I left, I went into a souvenir shop near downtown crossing looking for trinkets of Boston I could give to folks in Ecuador. The store had a western union and was filled with tourist trinkets, one of those old-school tourist places that has the feel of a joke shop. I got some postcards, but after searching around, a little bin under a shelf caught my attention and I started digging. I discovered a bag of Boston-Snow-To-Go, which is a little white powder in a plastic bag. You add water, and it turns into synthetic snow. I found 3 bags and bought them all. The guy at the cash register registered his approval. "This stuff is great." I didn't know that I had found such a treasure! When I got to Quito and showed some friends, they were outright amazed! The folks here have never seen snow, and it's just as much a magical mystery as Santa himself. I knew then that I had something the kids would love, that no matter what I did in that suit, if I messed everything up or whatever, they'd forever remember the snow.
The Day Before Leaving
On the day before I left, I met up with the Spanish Bible study group that I had been with at St Anthony Shrine in Boston. It's a group of Latinos, mostly older, from a whole range of Latin American countries. We read the readings from the Sunday Mass and share reflections. So, we started with the first reading, and it stood out right away, because it's the reading that is always dear to me - and that God speaks to me through - when I am leaving for Ecuador:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the way of the vengeance of our God. (Is 61:1-2)
Now, that passage really spoke to me, confirming me in going to Ecuador. But after the meeting, we all went to the Mass in the church, and an amazing thing happened: the priest decided that he was going to anoint everyone. So, after the homily of the Mass, I went up with everyone else, and was anointed. When I got back to my seat, I really felt confirmed and anointed to leave for Ecuador, that God was really blessing me with a confirmation of what I was doing. It was a great afternoon!
Later, in the evening, I was doing some last-minute errands, and I realized something: I had forgotten to visit my family's grave. I usually make a regular visit, but I had wanted to visit especially the day before going, because my mission to Ecuador really has come out of my family, especially the death of my Mom. But, it was by then 8 at night. I was a little dejected, but I thought, I'll go to the gate of the cemetery and park and pray from my car, because the grave is not far from the gate. So, I got to the gate, and, incredibly, it was wide open! Now, I have arrived at 10 minutes after 4pm when it closes at 4pm and the gate has always been closed. I have arrived at 6:10 when it closes at 6 a number of times and every time it has been closed. That gate is *always* closed when it says it's gonna be closed. But not this night.
So, I drove in, turned off the car, and went to my family's grave like I always do. And then, I did what I always do: I sang. I sang to Mary, I sang the song that my Mom and I sang together a few days before she died. Lord, when you came to the seashore, you weren't seeking the wise or the wealthy, but only asking that I might follow, Lord, in my eyes you were gazing, kindly smiling, my name you were calling, all I had there, I have left on the seashore, close to you, I will find other seas. Lord, send me where you would have me, to a village or heart of the city, I will remember that you are with me.
If you had been walking or driving near that graveyard that night, you would have heard that singing coming out of the darkness.
Do you remember when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15)? Peter said, "You are the Christ," (Mt 16:16) which means, you are the anointed one. That's what Christ means, anointed one. Then, Jesus says, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the place of the dead will not have power over it." (Mt 16:18) It's a big line in the Gospel!
And it's one of the most misunderstood and misused, too.
It's usually worded that, "the gates of hell will not prevail against it." And often, it's interpreted in a way that makes no sense even with that translation, as though "hell" is on the advance and offensive with its gates as some sort of weapon that it uses to prevail against the church. It means nothing like that! It means just what happened to me: the gates to the graveyard, the place of the death, are wide open. The anointed one has power over the gates, and he can get into the place of the dead. Now, why would he want to get into the place of the dead? To sing! To turn it into a place of life, new life. That's what happens when Jesus, the Anointed One, goes down into the cave outside Bethlehem to be born: the cave comes to life! That's what happens when he goes down into the baptismal waters of the Jordan: baptismal waters come to life! That's what happens when he goes down into the tomb, into the place of the dead: the place of the dead comes to life! That's what heaven is!
And that's what every baptized person is gifted to do. At baptism, we are anointed. We too are Christs - if we accept that reality. For us, we too will be invited to go into the places that no one wants to go. Hospitals, poor places, nursing homes, prisons. Graveyards at night. Death. If you are baptized, if you are anointed, the gates to those places will be wide open for you. To transform them into places of life. To sing your song….
I remembered something some days later. Last May, on Mother's Day, I was in Chontal when the rains and landslides came tumbling down the mountains with thunderous booms throughout the night and destroyed several houses and crushed much of the spirit of the people. The next night was almost worse, because half the people had fled to the next town, we were without water or electricity or phone and the roads were undriveable, and no one knew what would happen. Would it rain heavy again? Would the mountains fall again? It was decided we would meet in the church and the schoolroom next to it if it rained hard. Everyone was at nerve's end. Up until 9pm, there was only a light rain. But then it started again. Heavy. I went down to the church. A few people were there, more were in the schoolhouse, scared. A few candles were lit for light. When rain comes down that heavy onto the metal roof, it is deafening. And what do you think I was doing? Singing! It was Mother's Day, and I was singing to Mary and my Mom. Just like the graveyard. Do you know there has never been another landslide since (so far!)? And later on, I hope you'll get to see some of the new life that has come about. Many, many people have asked me, were you scared? Without hesitation, I say, "No." It's the same reason I wasn't afraid to go into the graveyard at night. I knew I was sent there by God and He was with me. I saw the gates wide open to me.
I was anointed.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the way of the vengeance of our God. (Is 61:1-2)
When I flew in to Quito, my friend Rosa, who is originally from Chontal and lives in Quito, was so gracious to come and pick me up and put me up for a few days at her house. She owns a Spanish school that works with a lot of people from Europe and the US who want to learn Spanish. I had been taking online lessons with one of the teachers, too. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested: www.vidaverde.com
The first day, I put on the Santa digs to go over the language school. It was a lot of fun and laughs, and a good trial before going live with the kids. I got a few pictures with Rosa and with Edith, who is my Spanish teacher:
Of course, the big hit was the fake snow. I gave one bag to Rosa and it made it onto her Christmas tree.
Along with Rosa's son Mateo, we went one night to a concert in the city of a large, youth brass band, led by a Swiss conductor. They played a mix of classical and local and even a form of jazz - it was good to see young people learning the arts in Quito!
There were also some fiestas in one of the towns nearby, and so we all took a trip out there. Rosa's sister Cristina lives there and we went to her house. Now Cristina's daughter is Emily - she is the little girl in the picture here from the very first Mass at the church in Chontal:
Emily holds a special place in my heart, and so I had brought a little Christmas gift for her. It was a little stuffed animal of Olaf, the snowman from the movie Frozen. The last time that I was there visiting them, I had minded Emily while everyone was out, and we watched the movie Frozen (which she already knew by heart) while she hemmed and hawed about cleaning her bloodied toenail (long story). Anyway, I first asked her mother if it was OK to give her a few gifts, and she said of course. So, I said, "Emily, I have a gift for you." When I gave it to her, she didn't have much of a response, I got a hug, but not much of a reaction. I showed her the name tag Olaf, and then she went off to show her mother. A short while later, she had disappeared, and Rosa and I noticed at the same time that she was outside the house, almost out of view, as I'm sure she thought no one could see her. But there she was hidden (so she thought), talking to Olaf, and then wrapping her arms around him for a big hug, and then talking again, and then another hug. Olaf ended up going along to the fiestas, and didn't leave her sight for the rest of the day.
But I had another little gift for her. You know those Russian dolls, where there's one inside the other? I had a small one with the Virgin Mary and Jesus, one doll inside the other, until you get to this tiny little one with a star on it. I had had it for about 5 years and used it before for explaining Marian devotion and some other things. But I thought of giving it to Emily because she has big problems in school - and life - in that she can't keep still. Maybe it's ADD, a mixture of broken parenting, who knows, but she has big problems with self-control in school. I wanted to give her that gift with the message that the treasure we have is already inside of us. It was just something that I wanted to do. So, after the Olaf, I said, I have one more, a small one. I broke out the Russian doll, and we began to open it, and open it again, and so forth. She had seen it before - in the movie Rise of the Guardians. So we went through opening all of them up until we got to the star. I explained, "This is what it means, that our treasure is inside," and I pointed to my heart. And then she put it all back together, and then she did it herself taking it apart. At the end I said, "What's the message?" And she pointed to her own heart and said, "The treasure is inside." … So, then began the playing of the imaginary games, with Olaf and the little Russian dolls and a bear and a couple other props from her toys, until it was time to go…
Emily truly is a treasure. And treasure is always in the heart. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Mt 6:21)
Santa's Visit to Chontal
In arriving in Chontal, I was able to hide the Santa paraphernalia in my suitcase as I arrived at the house of the Nogales family, where I usually stay. They have a bunch of rooms, hotel style. At some point I remember asking Karen, the 9-year-old niece who lives next door, whether Santa was coming this year. She looked down and lowered her voice and said, "Santa never comes here." Well, that was all about to change.
She had her suspicions already, though. He aunt had seen a post I put on facebook hinting at the coming of Papa Noel. And yet, even when there are strong suspicions and evidence to the contrary, kids still want to believe. They are inclined to believe. And that's a beautiful gift. It has something to do with what Jesus was referring to when he said to his disciples, "Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18:3)
I also had brought some candy canes and several large chocolate coins, as well as the fake snow. I had brought some tree ornaments, a large red Santa blanket, and some garland to use as gifts and ornaments for Santa's bag. After meeting with the teachers, it became clear that they could really use the tree ornaments and garland for their Christmas tree, and the red blanket for the dressing up they do for the Christmas celebration. Everything seemed to sort of fall into place.
Below is the video and some pictures of Santa's visit. This was such a special opportunity for me, it was a joy to do. The Monday before Christmas, the school had its Christmas celebration in the morning, which is a bunch of dances and dramatizations by the different grades, including parents of the children. I was listed as a surprise guest. About a half hour or so before my time, I snuck into one of the teacher's rooms (some of the teachers live at the school during the week) to change. Before going out, I was quite nervous - and hot in the Santa suit. But once I got going, it all started to flow. I had a Santa bell and Santa bag as I walked out of the room and made my way down to the playground, ringing the bell and ho-ho-ho laughing, saying Merry Christmas, the whole deal. I had no idea how people would respond - I had never been Santa before, let alone to kids in Chontal.
I started out by saying, "Thanks be to God that I'm able to come and be with you. I want you to know that it's from Jesus that I get all my generosity - and my joy!" That's when I let out some good belly ho-ho-ho laughs, and everyone was applauding. Then, I tell them that the reindeer and elves couldn't make it, but that I was going to ask God if he could send us some snow from the North Pole. But I need their faith. "Do you believe that God can give us snow from the North Pole?" You can hear all the kids answer Si. Then, I ask for a stronger response. SIII. We brought out the bowl with the fake snow powder and then the water to mix, and then we made the snow.
A couple of kids got to put the snow on the tree, and then we had a big group hug, followed by a stroll around the schoolyard. That was a sort of surreal experience right there, very precious to be with the kids.
There were prizes that I gave out for a drawing contest that had been held the week before. Seven hand-made wooden cars were given to me by a friend, Frank Rais, and these were given to the winners of the drawing contest. For the little kids, they got a few giant chocolate coins.
If you notice in the video, there is a little Santa Claus that I partner with. That is Brandon. What happened is that he came to the day with his Santa outfit and hated it because it was hot and uncomfortable and no one seemed to care about it. As soon as he could, he took it off and it was put away. But then, when I came out, he went running to get it and put it back on, he had to come out and be with Santa. So, he was my partner - Papa Noel and Hijito Noel. Father Christmas and Little Son Christmas. Again, it's another great image of Santa as representing the generosity and joy of God our Father!
We set up the Santa visit near the end, knowing it would set the kids off. So, we arranged to give the kids each a candy cane, one by one, and after that, bags of candies that were donated to the school. Many of the kids wanted hugs, and a number of times I heard, "I love you, Papa Noel." It was filled with such special moments! At one point, I took off the bracelets I had with the bells on them and tossed them out to the kids.
I'm amazed I was able to pull it all off in Spanish. But some kids knew … the next day I had two little 5 year olds insisting that it was me. It went something like this: But I don't have a beard! Well, you had a disguise beard. But I'm not fat! Well, you just stuck out your belly, like this. But my hair isn't white. You just dressed up. I'm not Papa Noel. It was you. No. Yes. No. It was you.
You can't win them all….
But some days later, along with the ho-ho-ho's I would get in passing, a lot of people asked me about the snow. How did I make the snow? I said, you heard it, didn't you? What?
The faith of the kids!
All things are possible for the one who believes. (Mk 9:23)
And the Word Became Flesh and Lived Among Us
The Santa visit was right in the middle of the Christmas novena. Here in Ecuador, and I imagine in all of Latin America, there is what's called a novena in the nine days leading up to Christmas. Each evening, people gather in the church. A doll of the baby Jesus is brought to the church, and after some initial prayers, it is handed over to another resident of the community. They then carry the doll representing Jesus and lead everyone to their house, where there is a Belen (Bethlehem), or creche, set up to receive the doll. The hosting family participates in leading in prayer and some scripture readings, and there's a reflection given as well. Then, usually some light refreshment is served, usually hot chocolate and bread, or empanadas. Then, people go home. The next night, that family will being the doll to the church, to be handed over to the next host. This repeats for the nine days before Christmas.
Here's a video of one of the processions from the church across the bridge that crosses the Guallaybamba River. We had to split into two groups because of weight restrictions on the bridge. But this gives you an idea of a little bit of the novena and some of the life of the people.
There are two sisters from a religious congregation right now in Chontal, directing a lot of the spiritual activities. They seemed a little cool toward me at the beginning, and they certainly have a different style from me, more of a by the book style. They seem quick to ensure that the people serve the priest first, and have a bit of a propensity to tell the people what to do and when. Not all that different from a lot of religious sisters. But things warmed up a bit by Christmas. They are there temporarily as their community waits to receive a visa from Cuba, which could come at any time, although they're thinking April.
In the day on Christmas Eve, a bunch of people chipped in and cleaned up the church. As I was on a ladder cleaning a ceiling fan, a small earthquake tremor shook the village. I never felt it. I heard it from the others a little while afterwards, while I was still up on the ladder. People said it was just a quick jolt. But for whatever reason, I didn't feel anything. And thankfully it wasn't anything more!
Well, Christmas Eve is the big celebration. There is a full reenactment of the Christmas story, and residents from the village play different parts. It was well put together!
The Three Kings, or Reyes Magos, are supposed to be one white, one black, one mestizo. Being the only gringo, and also having a really cool giant Santa beard, made me a lock for one of the three kings. I got to ride a mule as well, that was the first time. I practiced the day before on my own, riding around for a little while, but decided it would be good at night to have a guide walking with the mule.
The whole crowd of the dramatization walked all the way around the pueblo - this is called the Pase de Niño, and symbolizes the coming to Bethlehem for the census and finding no room at the inn. The shepherds then come, and then the Three Kings go to Herod. Then we get back on the horses and ride around for a little while, while someone carries a stick with a giant star on it. We finally get to the stable and get off the horses and give the gifts. After we wrapped up, it was picture taking time.
I looked like a cross between Santa and a Medieval bishop.
Later on in the night, at 11:30, there is a Christmas Mass, and most everyone comes. And afterwards, there is hot chocolate and bread for everyone. Merry Christmas!
The central part of my mission is loving, and the center of that is finding the good and beauty in the people. They are worth my time and attention. If we follow and fan our love, it will do everything. The greatest problem with poverty and people who are on or outside the margins of things, is lacking the experience of love. That's why God chooses people and loves them to the core, in spite of whatever darkness may be about or within us. That sparks a response, to be able to love others likewise. And so, the poor and what the world would consider unlovable, is actually loveable! And it's being loved that changes a person, that makes them recognize and feel their own value and dignity, and capacity to love and live to the full. But the poor, because of their condition of lack and neglect, can often have difficulty recognizing their own dignity and beauty. For example, one family had me over for a meal, and the woman asked me, "So, after being at your home, it must be ugly here." There is almost always this self-consciousness, and even when it isn't literally expressed, there is always the sense that people are waiting on your response, to answer the question, "Is it true? Is it true that we really have no value?" My simple presence to want to be with the people, that in itself stands against all that guilt and doubt and fear. They are worth being with, they are worth sharing with. They are beautiful and valuable.
Here is a picture of me and Augustín. He is mostly deaf, and lives with his elderly mother. Their home was half wiped out in the landslides. He has two brothers who don't participate much in the family life, and a sister who lives 3.5 hours away in Quito. Their income is the small government support for a senior citizen and for a person with disability. But Augustín is very active at church events and in the community, always participating and helping out, even if he's a bit marginalized by the others. He plays a few instruments, though not always on key, but I like to give him an ear….
I was a guest at one house, and after a little while talking with the mother, I started to play with her daughter, Shade. After that, when she say me, she would scream and run and hug me. Her mother asked why. She said, "Because he played with me!" Shade and I (and her hen) are amiguitos:
When I was back home, I had the chance to go through all of my things. I mean, all of everything. I discovered a lot of old stuff I hadn't seen in a long while. One thing I found was a 4-medal medallion. It was given to me as a kid. In fact, I have two from my childhood. What it is, is a medal that consists of four devotionals in one: Brown Scapular, Miraculous Medal, St Christopher, and - I think - St Joseph. In any case, I had two, and one of the them I shined up and put on. The other I brought with me to give to one of the kids in the village, waiting to see when might be a good opportunity.
When I was sitting with one of the families I was visiting, they brought out a little handmade jewelry box that had a few chains in it. We found a dirty old St Christopher medal, and mentioned that you could probably clean it with toothpaste. The guy did, and liked it so much he put it on. It turns out that his daughter had a birthday in a few days. So, I felt it would be good to give her the medal that I had had for her birthday.
On the day of her birthday, I ran into her. "I have a present for you." "Really?" "Yeah, but I'm going to come by your house later and bring it." Well, that began an all-day hounding session. I kept telling her that I would come by later that day and bring it, but that wasn't good enough. Finally, near the end of the day, she won, and we set out to her house so I could give her the present. As we were walking, she said something, and then I understood why she was hounding me all day. She said, "You're the only one who is giving me a gift today."
Here is Katty with her new medal:
Ramiro, who owns the house I usually stay in, also owns a pickup truck and gives people rides to nearby places to help people out and earn a little money. I went with him one night for some company. On the way back, we got to talking, and about why I was there in Chontal, how I ended up there. I ended up telling the whole story of how it came to be. After all the description, it was obvious I was led to Chontal - we both laughed, who would have thought that a guy from Boston would be in Chontal, of all places? I said, "It's just like Abraham, called to a place he did not know." I slept well that night. The next morning, I woke to find that that story of Abraham's calling to go to a place he didn't know was the very reading for the church's morning prayers.
I also made it out to a few locations with the Nogales/Rodriguez family for some river swimming. First, we took a long ride to one river location, and we crossed over the Guayallbamba River (which is the river at Chontal as well) at a waterfall location called Salto del Tigre, or the Tiger's Leap. Even though the Guayallbamba is polluted water from Quito, the scenery is very beautiful:
Later on, we made it to the river in a place called Naranjito for some swimming:
On another day, I went with Ramiro and Alicia Nogales to a much closer river. The water is right from the mountain, so it's cold but crystal clear. It was very refreshing! It also motivated me to go out and buy some rubber swimming shoes, so I can walk on the rocks!
River swimming is not only for fun here, but also for bathing. Most days, you are sweating by mid-day, so an afternoon dip is often accompanied by some soap.
In Mindo, after I left Chontal, I also got into the river there. This time, though, I had bought some rubber water shoes, so it was more enjoyable getting in and out. In getting in all the rivers, there is a sense of being baptized into the culture!
New Year's Eve
I spent my New Year's Eve also in Chontal. What happens here, is that various houses - about 5 here - make what are called monigotes, which are stuffed, life-sized dolls that represent the past year. Sometimes that have a likeness to a particular person or personality of the past year, local or famous. A monigote is also called an Año Viejo, or Old Year, or Past Year. Essentially, these large dolls are made to be burned, to represent the death of the past year. The monigote, or año viejo, sits nearby as the people celebrate with music and dancing and drinking. At midnight, the monigotes are burned, as the past year in effigy. And for good luck, people will run and jump over the fire while it burns. In some places, there is what is called The Widow (she's the wife of the Año Viejo - the year is masculine, he has died, and his wife survives.) But the Widow is actually a man dressed as a woman. In fact, there are number of Widows, and there is sometimes a contest to vote for the best Widow. And in that context, the Widow often has a testament to her now deceased husband, the Past Year. It's usually a satirical pronouncement of some of the happenings in the village in the past year, for the entertainment of all. I find it to be very clever! However, I also find it to be another indication of the oppression that the people experience. Everyone wants to say goodbye to the awful past year, and everyone hopes for a better one. Maybe it will be.
Well, in Chontal this year there weren't any Widows or testaments, just some dancing and drinking and burning monigotes. I made it around to all the parties to visit with the people, dance, and have a few drinks. I also got to meet the new president of the community, who seems to be intent on lifting the spirits of the people this year. We'll see where it goes.
Kids in Catechesis
One day near the end of my stay in Chontal, Ramiro asked me if I had the time to cover his catechesis class. "Sure." The kids are preparing for their first communion.
There were five kids there, and the first thing that we managed to do was break the string that rings the church bell. Well, after that, we went into the classroom next to the church and started up with introductions. Then, we immediately started with a game of Simon Sez. It was new to a few, but after a little bit, they got the hang of it. And of course I have some trick moves to get people out. So after that, we moved onto the story of Jesus and Lazarus, and how Jesus said, Lazarus, come out. And what happened? Lazarus came out. Then, we went onto the story that they had in their books, about Jesus in the boat calming the storm. The boat is about to flood with water, and they wake up Jesus, and he says to the storm: Be still! And the storm is still.
Whatever Jesus says, happens. Huh? What does that mean?
So we went to the beginning of Genesis, where God says this thing, and it happens, and God says that thing, and it happens. Whatever God says, happens! So that must means that Jesus is ……..
Finally, we get to the Last Supper. Jesus says about the bread, This is My Body. And it happened. And the cup with the wine, This is the blood of the new covenant. And it happened. When Jesus says, This is my body, this is my blood …. It happens.
So, we went off to another game of Simon Says, and before we could really get going, a bird came into the room and was flying all over the place. We all tried to whisk and guide the bird out the door, but it darted all over the place and would have none of it. Finally, we left it alone and started playing, and when we were done, we sat together, and I asked about praying. Who do you want to pray for. They awkwardly said, "family" each one of them. But they liked reading the scripted prayers they had in their books. And then we were done. That was it.
But a funny thing happened.
While we were praying, the bird found his way out.
But none of the kids wanted to leave. I had to say it a few times, OK, we’re done, we can go now.
So when I got back and told Ramiro, he said, good then you can cover next time too.
Meeting with Padre Marcelo
My time here in Ecuador in these months is a lot like a farmer going to look to see if any of the seeds he has planted are sprouting. I've been to Chontal, Puerto Quito, Santo Domingo, and Quevedo. I am looking to see where gates are being opened and where opportunities are for continuing.
So, I had the chance to meet with Padre Marcelo, the pastor in Chontal, to talk about things in pastoral work I could do. He expressed support for anything I wanted to do, in any way. He had thoughts of the youth and also visiting homes, which I'd be interested in doing. I also want to start two types of Bible groups, one being a bible teaching on different themes relevant to life in Chontal, the other being a Bible prayer group where people learn to listen to the Word of God through Scripture. I'm also aiming to start an English / Spanish group meeting like I had in Puerto Quito. I still have books that were donated by a friend. These groups will probably be small, but I'd love to see how it works out… I also have an open invitation to help out in the English classes at the school, and I;m hoping to put out feelers to friends about possible connections to other grade schools in the US. If you know anyone who might be interested in forming a relationship between their school and a grade school (to ninth grade) in Ecuador, feel free to contact me.
It's been said a few times by Padre Marcelo, and the sisters too, that the people here are very grateful, that they think very highly of me, and especially the children like me. But as I said to Padre Marcelo, they know me as a visitor so far, with some church work. Now, delving in more full in the pastoral work, they'll know me in a different way. I'm aiming to return in February to spend February and March doing these things, as my visa expires near the end of March. If it looks like it's worth continuing, we'll talk about extending my visa.
Rebuilding from the Landslides
After the landslides in May, I began an online fundraiser through Gofundme.com to help. The goal was to provide some short-term assistance to the people who had suffered the most, especially those who had lost homes, as a sign of solidarity in the crisis. We raised $12K, and after I left the last time in August, the money was distributed to 8 families, 7 of which had serious damage to their homes or lost them altogether. Separate from the landslide disaster, another resident lost their home and belongings in a fire, and so those who received funding from us shared about $500 worth with that family.
I was able to visit 6 of the homes this past visit, to have a chance to catch up with the families. I put together the video below for the gofundme site, it gives a good summary of the visits. I hope you enjoy it, and see what how far a gift can go in affecting peoples' lives here.
We all want to have more than enough materially to survive, and to also reach the goals for our lives. It's normal in the States to want our retirement set, our kids' education supported, our homes secure and stable. It feels like whatever we are earning isn't enough to keep up. It doesn't seem like there's time or resources to give much. But … it's not true.
When you give, you open up new relationships, that present new possibilities for your later years, new types of education for your kids, and a stability of feeling at home even outside your house.
It's a gift in return that only God can give, and He only gives to you if you give to the poor.
Because He who is kind to the poor lends to God, and he will repay him for his deed … Those who give to the poor will lack nothing. (Proverbs 19,28)
A Friend of Old
Something happened within the times that I was in Boston and my time in Chontal that I want to share. Back in November I think, I noticed a famous actress in the news, and I thought to myself, I know that person. After some Googling, I realized that she was from the town of my college, and that she was a year younger than me. When I was in college, I had dated a girl from the local town, and I started to put two and two together. I must have known her from that old girlfriend. I felt certain of it. Then, I looked up her real name, and I knew it was familiar. It haunted me: I know her - but how?
So a little time went by, and a few memories came back every now and then. And then I started to realize that, after my sophomore year, I lived with my girlfriend in the college town, working on the grounds of the college. She had an apartment in the town (She didn't go to the college - her father was a professor there) that she shared with a roommate. Who was - this woman! As some of the memories came back to me, I started to remember things here and there. It's almost 25 years ago and we all lived together for a month or two. So, I thought, wow, I lived with this woman, this one of the most famous actresses in the world!
But there's a catch. This woman is one of the most famous and successful actresses in the world - in pornography.
When I realized all this, I felt some connection. I mean, here's a guy who has lived with bishops and priests and seminarians, with religious brothers and sisters, with cops and nurses and coaches and teachers, writers and psychologists and university vice presidents, with bald Franciscans without shoes or money, with the poor of Latin America - and with one of the most famous porn stars in the world.
And the thought that I had was, that there's a reason for it. There's a reason that I find out now, as a missionary, that this person is someone who was already in my life. She is important. Everyone is important. My own past has its off the road stretches in that category of life's freeway. I couldn't help but to relate to some of the emptiness that a heart feels when it is off the road like that. So there is a call here, I thought, something good and special, for all involved.
So, one day I decided to enroll her in all the prayer societies I could. I must have enrolled her in about 6 or so, in different religious congregations. Perpetual enrollments too, not the one year things.
I talked to a few friends about it, and about the thought I had of reaching out to her in email, a simple greeting and filling in on where I am, and open invitation to visit. So, a few weeks later, I was looking for her email address online when I noticed a new update about her.
Two weeks after I had enrolled her in all the prayers, she had retired from making movies.
Now, everyone's path is unique, and I don't look down on a person for their path choices. I've learned that you never know what type of life God has given a person, why they went down a path. There is a noble thing in pursuing dreams and desires. And the reality is that Jesus came for people specifically like her. Not to condemn, but to fulfill. To present bigger dreams and desires that bring a fulfillment to whatever we were - or thought we were - looking for.
So that is the tone of the email I sent, a congratulations for following her heart, and an open invitation to come and visit - and maybe find what's deeper in the heart.
I haven't heard back yet, and that's OK. Her retirement note indicates that she's in a type of transition. I hope the best for her and all happiness, that all her desires and dreams - the deepest - may be fulfilled.
A Visit to Mindo
I was able to stop in Mindo for a few days (I already posted picture of the river there). I also had the chance to visit the monastery there and enjoy some beautiful views:
I also got to meet with a friend Susan and her husband Luis who own a restaurant/hotel. Susan works as a nurse in the local health center, and also is very active with her faith. She wrote a book of her own poems and the thoughts and prayers of a number of students from the local Catholic school. The book is in English and Spanish, and is called "My Little Angels". I think it's a wonderful testimony to what is in her heart, and in the hearts of the young people here in the rural areas of Ecuador. She sells the book and uses the proceeds to help the local parish and school, as well as the local seminary. She has given me some ideas of my own! :) Right now, the book isn't available in the US, but that might change. I highly recommend it!
One page in particular stood out and I wanted to share it. This was written by a young girl, I suppose 12 or 13 years old. I hope you enjoy it.
The Bus - Tourism or Mission
When I was chatting with some folks in Chontal about tourism, we talked about different types of tourists. I said, the type of person who wants a tropical beach or a cruise ship to lay on and be served, who wants luxury and everything done for them, those types of tourists don't want to come here. The cost of the flight is high, even though the daily costs are low. And they don't want to be on a bus that has to stop because a landslide has closed the road up ahead, or, well, there are a thousand other inconveniences. We all laughed and agreed. It takes another type of tourist to want to come here.
A few days later I was in the town of Mindo, which is a beautiful place that also has become a hotspot for foreign tourists. And one of the things I noticed was that, people were not friendly to me there. I was just another gringo to make some money off of. That's what tourism is, a purely business relationship. You don't invite tourists to pray together, to build up the community together. You invite them for their money.
A day later I was on a bus coming from Mindo to Puerto Quito. I got on, and there were no seats, and I had a big backpack. Where I stood, there were two kids sitting in the two seats on one side of the bus. The one next to the window, who was about 20, said something to the other, who was about 8, and the little one slid over and got on the lap of the older one. They offered me the seat.
I thanked them and got to talking, they were an uncle and nephew coming from an outing in Quito. The uncle and I got to talking more, Where are you from questions and things like that. I'm from the US. What do you think of Ecuador? Ecuador is beautiful. He smiled. Are you proud of Ecuador?, I asked. He closed his eyes with a big smile and nodded. I said, I have something for you, because you gave me a seat. So I pulled out a couple of special rosaries that I had, I had been wondering who I could give them to. I also happened to have a couple of rosary guide pamphlets. I said, "Are you guys Catholic." Yes. I said, "I have rosaries I'd like to give you because you gave me a seat, do you want them." Yes. So they took the rosaries, and especially the pamphlets with all the pictures (those for some reason are always mesmerizing). And he said, you are really a believer. I said, I'm not a tourist, I'm a missionary. Not long after that, with the pamphlets in hand, they got off the bus. I never saw them again.
Fr Jim Czerwinski, OFM
Finally, a note about my friend Fr Jim, who passed away just after New Year's Day. Here's the link to the page I wrote about him. I'm including a few more pictures of him here. I think of him often, and still can't believe that he's gone. Gone in one way and more present in another. He always finished his homilies at Mass, "May the Lord give you His peace." So, now I wish the same to him. Rest in peace, Fr Jim.
Well, thanks for taking the time to read! I'm in Puerto Quito for now, and I'll have more to post soon. Best wishes for many blessings for this new year!