Well, the time here in Ecuador has come to a close this time. So, it's also time for a monthly update, which is really a three monther at this point! Sorry for the delay, the last few months in Ecuador I'd been without regular internet access, and that has slowed things down in the blogging department for me. So, without any more delay….
Support for the Poor In Memory of Fr Jim
Fr Jim Czerkawski, a friend and spiritual director who passed away on New Year's, was one of the organizers of the Men's faith sharing group at St Anthony Shrine that I'm a part of. So, after his passing we talked about a way to honor Fr Jim's memory. There were a number of things that I had personally done along this vein, like providing some bibles for the folks in Chontal and providing eyeglasses and food for the Bazurto family in Puerto Quito. We all in the group put our heads together through some long-distance conference calling to come up with a donation to buy food for the Bazurto family and for the other families in need in Puerto Quito. Taking people out to eat, having people over to eat, and feeding the poor was always a part of Jim's presence and his living out the Gospel. The group made a donation of $350 to the Franciscan Missionaries Sisters of St Joseph, who live and work and minister in Puerto Quito. In a mysterious way, Fr Jim's is present again in the action, and it's a special way for us to remember him.
"Do this in remembrance of me." (Lk 22:19)
Lenten Ministries in the Church
The Bible presentations that I was doing each Sunday finished with Easter, and it lost momentum afterwards to restart in a renewed way. I had continued to open the church more often whenever I was around, so that people can come whenever they might like. It's a new experience, to come on one's own, without a prescribed time. Really, to have any type of outward personal expression of faith here in the community is rare. There are outward *common* expressions of faith, like going to Mass or bringing flowers to church. But there's not any habit or presence of making a personal, heartfelt expression of faith that is not within the prescribed common practices. So, opening the church to freely come and go, is a bit puzzling to many. Especially in a small village, I think that personal freedom is difficult to accept. Most are afraid to take significant steps on their own, and what has a big effect on attitude is a term called verguenza [ver-gwen'-sa]. It's shame or embarrassment, or "what will others think about me?" One expression we have for it in the States is "peer pressure." Saints in the church write about it as "human respect," which is not the good type of respect that we can have for each other, but the seeking of acceptance from others even when it limits our own life. There's so much gossip in a small village, and so there is the expression, pueblo chico, infierno grande, which is something like "little village, big hell". I find verguenza to be the greatest obstacle faced by the people to a healthy life, so things that open the door past self-consciousness and low self-esteem I like! "Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known." (Lk 12)
Collaborating with the Elementary School in Chontal
The local elementary/middle school went on vacation in May and has started back up. The teachers who are teaching English don't know the language yet, and so I had helped them with preparations and the initial classes, introducing fundamental concepts and helping them to plan for the year. I gave them some other books from the States that are helpful resources for learning and teaching, and in the class was able to introduce videos with my video projector to help in listening and learning. The kids are really into learning English, and I think it's a bit of seeing the bigger the world "out there" through the internet and wanting to be a part of it. It can also then be a sign of a low self-esteem, which is a big problem here in Ecuador…
But the kids wanted to learn, and since the English starts in the 7th grade, I had started to do my own class in the parish house for kids in 5th and 6th grades. It was a lot of fun with the kids, as I could follow my own ideas and plans, and the kids loved it. We've had about 8 to 10 kids regularly, but with my leaving everything's on hold!
The church doesn't really have anyone tending to it unfortunately, so the decorations for the seasons are mostly left to a few people at the last minute. This time, I thought of asking the school if they were interested in using one of the art classes to make decorations for Pentecost in the church, and the teachers were happy to collaborate. In the 9th grade class, each of the students made a flaming tongue by tracing out their hands onto foamex and adding colors. A few of the more talented students took to making the dove and some of the other details, and we were able to decorate the whole church with what we made in the class. It was the first time that something like this has happened, the church and the school really integrally collaborating, so I was happy!
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:4)
A few friends from back home also collaborated with me to put together $200 to support the school with a new teacher's house, made from cement blocks instead of the rotting, critter infested wood that it was. The teachers for the school "commute" from other cities on the weekends, staying the whole week for classes in the town. (This is very common here in the rural parts of Ecuador.) Some of the teachers stay in housing in the town, and some stay on the school grounds, where the new house was built. The pictures here show it from different angles. As of the end of June, construction is close to finishing up, and the teachers are very happy with the results. Thanks to everyone who participated!
I always love to be with little kids, and when I came this year at Christmas, I got the chance to spend some time with the kids who are now in first grade. They've become special to me and vice-versa. Whether it's playing on the slide or on the court, doing silly little tricks with fingers and feet and eyes (I eat my eyeball, that's a favorite) to impress them. And I make it a point to visit their class when I come to the school, and I was able to get a photo of them together with their new teacher Carlos.
Now, printed photos are rare in the campo here, so I went to a town about 2 hours away and printed out a photo of the kids, to give to the teacher and the class. So, I came by one day with this photo printed out for them and I stood in front of the class with them, and I kept it real simple and direct. "I was happy to print out this photo because each one of you is precious." It is true!
The kids do remember me as Santa. At one point in recess they were around me and a few were saying, "You were Santa!" I talked around it, subtly denying any knowledge of the matter. "No, you were Santa Claus!" So, I said, "Who says that??" And a whole bunch of them shouted at once, "WE DO!!" Kids know …
The Book in Spanish
Over the last few months, I began to collaborate with my friend Susan Hillman who lives in Mindo here in Ecuador. She works as a medical assistant, and her husband, who is Ecuadorian, own and runs a tourist hotel. She has written her own book in both English and Spanish, and she has read parts of my own book. When I am in Mindo, we sometimes get together to chat about mission and whatnot, and one time she mentioned that my book ought to be translated into Spanish. I said, "I tried to do that about 4 years ago and it didn't go anywhere." But she said she would like to help, so I thought, what if, instead of translating the whole book, we could pick out, say, 20 stories and do those. We were both happy with that. So, I went sorting through all the stories and re-thought about a lot of things and finally picked out 20 that I thought would be translatable, not only in language, but also in culture. She is currently translating the book, so someday soon it will hopefully be translated in Spanish! On the other side, I have promised to buy a certain amount of her books to share, so that is also forthcoming, and hopefully I can have something here on the blog about her book…
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will speak in new tongues …" (Mk 16:17)
Renewing My Visa and License
My visa was renewed for another 2 years through the bishop and church in the diocese of Ibarra, where Chontal is located. I was also able to renew my driver's license as well, for the same amount of time, thanks be to God. These are big for opening doors and for discerning next steps for me. In speaking with Padre Marcelo, the priest right now in Chontal, what stuck with me was "the door is always open for you here." So that is something for me to keep in mind.
"Knock and the door will be opened to you." (Mt 7:7)
On the first of May, I moved into the parish house (the rectory) right next to the church. It was great to be able to be a bit more independent than before in not only daily living, but also in availability to all the people in the village. On the other hand, there are some things that the rectory lacks and have taken up some time. There were no window curtains, for example, and I was in a fishbowl for a while. But I was able to work together and come up with an economical solution with the folks who take care of the church. There's also no internet connection in the house (that's complicated for now), so I've been without a lot of internet access over the past few months. But the house is a nice little place and it's been a good experience to be living in it for this time …
The pastoral house also has an upstairs where the religious education is held. The stairway is outside the building, on the side, and unfortunately, it did not have a railing! It was a dangerous place for kids to go, and one girl had fallen off a few years ago, the daughter of the woman who is the head of the church committee! Back then, fortunately, there was dirt below the fall, but now there is concrete, including concrete washing basins. Although the priorities of the church committee and the priest seemed a bit different, I put a little pressure on and offered to donate $250 to help put a railing in for safety, and finally it was done!
When there are two groups of people, two separated cultures, in your heart, there's a natural desire to want to introduce them to each other and allow them to integrate. This is basically the very practical theme behind the mission of witnessing barriers become bridges. There's a been several more concrete ways that I've picked up on here in the last few months.
But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:13)
A few friends at home had mentioned in the past that their daughters might like to being a correspondence with a child from Ecuador. So, this time around, I was able to identify a 10-year-old girl here in Chontal who was interested, and she began communicating with a 10-year-old daughter of one of my friends back home. Carolina is from one of the families that were severely affected by the landslides last May. She and her sister had the horrible experience of having one of the thundering landslides knock down their bedroom wall and jam their bed up against their door. They left their house behind and evacuated in the middle of the night… Kevin and I have been friends since fourth grade in West Roxbury, and he and his wife Caroline had suggested that their daughter Charlotte would like to correspond. So far, they have written back and forth about 4 times and continue to correspond, even though Carolina has no computer, internet, or postal mail access. Through another person helping in the village with their internet connection, we'll be able to continue the correspondence, and Carolina has given me some things to bring back to Charlotte when I get to Boston. I'm happy for both of them and their families, and I am hoping to make some more connections!
Fundraiser for Scarlet
A friend from home also helped me provide some support for a local fundraiser for the surgery costs for an infant named Scarlett. She was born with a separated hip, and early treatment wasn't effective, so that had to operate. The costs had put the family in the hole, so we were able to contribute $800 to a $2000 fundraiser campaign here. The family is grateful for the help Scarlett is now crawling and is doing well as she goes for her regular check up at the end of June!
Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing. (Prov 28:27)
A few of the local people had the same idea as me: to bring out a projector and put on some movies in some evenings. They had begun on Good Friday showing the Passion of the Christ. Since then, we've shown a few kids movies and a good Ecuadorian movie on the Virgin of Cisne, one of the popular national devotions in the country. My hope has always been to have a regular movie night on Fridays in the dry season. Right now, it's done locally on someone's property, but hopefully it can be moved to a public location soon and there can be a family-oriented activity for the evenings that uses technology to unite and build up!
I've been able to purchase some art and creative supplies for the catechesis in Chontal, including a bunch of drawing utensils and paper, scissors, etc, some resource books on good teaching ideas, and a small radio that can play different music that’s good for classes. Printing photos is not a common thing, so I printed out some photos of the recent sacraments of initiation that I had taken, and I made a little collage to put on the wall where the catechesis is (there are old posters hanging on the wall, it's not very stimulating for learning!). The hope is also to stimulate ideas for the catechists to follow with their own creative ideas, to make this area a palce that reflects the Gospel in the community itself. But that costs a little money, that isn't much for us but is difficult for them to embrace ... I'm hoping to look for more collaboration in this down the line, in due time!
Climbing the Mountains
Chontal has its own church, and yet it's really one community among many within the parish. The parish, San Jose de Magdelena, has about 12 communities within it, including Chontal. So, I wanted to get around and be able to visit some of the other communities with Padre Marcelo, and what worked out the best was going with him for his visits on Fridays. On those days, he usually goes to the most remote villages, and I was able to go twice each to the communities of Chontal Alto and Brillasol.
Chontal is located in a valley within mountains, and if you climb the mountain, you reach Chontal Medio, and if you keep going further up near the top, you reach Chontal Alto. To hike up to Chontal Alto, you need rubber farm boots and a lot of energy. The hike is pretty steep, but it's also mostly through thick mud mixed with animal dung. The first time, it took us 3 hours to reach the village (mostly because of me). I didn't fall or lose a boot, thankfully, but it was one of the tougher hikes I've done in my life, if not the toughest. The constant concentration for foot placement, the steepness, the hiking through the cow pastures where the muddy, lumpy terrain is hidden under thick knee-high grass, the hot sun, and the weight of carrying some things to share with the people, all of it made for a tough hike! We finally arrived at a schoolhouse, where there were about 50 people, adults and children, waiting for us. That was inspiring. Padre Marcelo heard confessions and I did some activities with the kids and then we had Mass. I brought rosary pamphlets and rosaries and shared something on the rosary, and then it began to rain. We both had a good-sized lunch in the schoolhouse and then we set out to go back down the mountain, walking in dense fog and thunder and lightning.
On other Fridays, we drove and walked up another mountain to reach a community called Brillasol. It was less difficult and time consuming of a trek, but the people were no less happy to see us, although it was a smaller turnout. I include a picture of the church, you can see its simplicity. We also encountered workers taking down lumber from the mountain on the backs of mules, which is very common, though I believe that much of it is illegal lumber! But it gives perspective on the type of work that is done here compared to a typical life in the States. In one of the same photos, you can see the guys working on the road. The rains had destroyed the road through redirecting the stream that passes there, and it's a continuing problem every year. The community had called a minga (a day of activity for the whole town) to repair the road so that vehicles can pass. Most of the rain season, it's left a mess because any repairs won't last. You can see the guys finishing putting the concrete tube in place (so water from the stream can pass) and filling in all around it with dirt so that vehicles can pass over it.
On the morning of one of the trips up to Chontal Alto I was rushing around and got the help of a neighbor to make some photocopies of a coloring book on the rosary. There is a picture to be colored that goes with each mystery. I brought them along, and when we arrived, the kids were finishing their classes and I had some time with them afterwards. We had a big coloring session, and a little practice time to present our colorings to everyone else after the Mass, which we did. We also finished our practice with a big group hug! It was a beautiful way to understand an important dimension of the rosary, that each mystery is precious like one of the children. And everyone enjoyed it.
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18:2-4)
One of the girls was older and a leader. As she sat next to her grandma, I asked her what she was studying. She said math. OK, what's 3 times 2? 6. She liked being tested, so I asked a few more. We got to the tens, no problem. Then, I asked the tough ones: elevens. She got stuck. So I said, "Do you want to learn a trick that not many people know about how to do elevens?" She smiled, of course. So I taught her the trick to learning the elevens, and she picked up really fast. In less than five minutes, she had learned the trick on how to multiply by eleven - She was so proud and satisfied! I thought to myself, how much good was done in such a short time. How much good can be done if there's more time!
Program For Seniors
There are not the government or private supports here for the care of the elderly as there are in the States. A senior is basically on their own, as the family is the only care provider, and many times the family cannot or doesn't help much. What makes it more difficult in the mountains is that transportation and location limitations (there are long travel distances between homes and each other as well as public places like pueblo centers) make isolation an almost certainty. So, the government has formed a seniors group for activities and visits homes.
One of the young adults in the Chontal works for the local government in service to the local seniors, so she invited me to one of their gatherings for Holy Week, and then later on, to accompany up the mountain to visit homes. It's a full day's trip, from 7 in the morning until almost 7 at night after all the transportation (buses and rides, too) are factored in. But it was great to be able to visit the homes of seniors and be a link for them to connect with the outside world and with each other. Veronica is great with arts and crafts and has an activity for each person to do. I brought my charango, and even though I can't play it all that well, it became a sort of conversation and piece and chance for all of us to "make some music."
Many elderly here have little education, and some have never gone to school. The seniors in this picture are two wonderful brothers who let us into their small home. They live on the property of their third brother, who is married with a family. These two have lived together all their lives, and left school after first grade. Neither can read or write, but Veronica was able to do some crafts with them. With the charango we were able to see if they had any music they wanted to sing, though they replied they couldn’t sing or play any instruments. But after a little bit of playing the charango and trying to get a few songs going, one of the brothers remembered that he had a harmonica stashed away somewhere, and went into some of his things to fetch it. He pulled it out and started plugging away at it, not necessarily making an intelligible melody :) but making music nonetheless! Anytime that your presence can bring a senior to recover something from their past and find joy and reconciliation from it, it's a special moment!
One of the young women in the village had her second child in March, but then there were complications. The baby had a swelling in his neck and a fever, so they brought him to the hospital in Quito, about 4 hours away. That began a months-long hospital stay where the baby was up and down in health and there was a lot of uncertainty as to what the source of the problem was. Needless to say, the mother, Maria, had a great challenge in staying all day and night with the baby - not only out of desire to be with him, but also to breast feed him (everyone breastfeeds here). So, I was able to make a few trips to Quito to visit her and the baby. It reminded me of a mother I visited in a hospital in Boston after prematurely delivering her daughter, and I shared with Maria what I also saw in her: that God was making her a great Mom, that getting the big heart to be a great Mom comes through suffering, and that, although it really stinks at the time and we can't see the good that's being done, we'll be very thankful for it afterwards. After I left, she and the baby were able to finally come home… I think of Mary the mother of Jesus and her newborn in the cave in Bethlehem, and the struggle she had to face to see the suffering of her son in the cold, in a cave with animals. I am often speechless when I realize how God brings me to see how blessed some people like Maria are.
But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Lk 2:19)
Of course in Ecuador, there's a huge biodiversity in all of nature. From omnipresent chickens and plants and trees, to breathtaking landscapes and animals, to creepy insects, it has it all and you live within it. Enjoy the photos!
Anniversary of Mother's Day and Landslides
One of the several main themes and goals of this visit to Chontal had been to accompany the people through the first rain season since the landslides last Mother's Day. There was a gratitude when the day finally came and passed and there had not been any more significant landslides (I write significant because there are often small ones that don't affect much.) The people coped mainly by whistling through the graveyard. I was hoping to be able to accompany them in facing and accepting the tragedy, but there did not seem to be an openness to that. I do believe that, rather than being a destruction of the village, the landslides are an opportunity to reunite, to re-found the community. My experience is that God gives a disaster to reestablish unity when there are a lot of divisions in a community. Real unity is built on shared experiences, and divided people have fewer and fewer of those, to the point where it's tough to have many shared experiences. A disaster like the landslides touched every person's life, and so it was the fullest of shared experiences! In that experience is the groundwork for a re-founding of the community, if people can accept it... I was able to finish the year until Mother's Day, and afterwards I began traveling, so it was good to at least be with the people through this time.
The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. (1 Sam 2:6-7)
Visit to Mission by Family Missions Company Near Amazon Jungle
About two years ago, I had contacted the Family Missions Company in Louisiana about exploring what they are all about. They are a Catholic organization of lay missioners, and one of the places they have a group in is Ecuador, in the Amazon. I played email tag with Ryan for over a year and a half and it never worked out for our scheduling. But finally in April I was able to set up a visit with the group, in one of the weeks that they were receiving a short-term mission group from Louisiana. The mission was located in Misahualli, a small tourism village on the edge of the Amazon, where there are a large number of rural surrounding villages.
(First, I want to say that there is so much to write about all the things that I experience here in Ecuador - what I write on the blog here is really only a scratch on the surface. Even more so the week that the missionaries came down from the States. I can only give an overview and several of the key points and moments - I just don't have the time! Maybe in the future I'll try to do a video with narrative instead of typing, that's something that's been on my mind ….)
As it turned out, one of the long-term missionaries who was going to help lead the mission was sick, and stayed in Quito, so I stepped in to help out - it was very providential! And the first night was helpful because we arrived at the local parish and the priest with the group was asked to celebrate the Mass. Nobody was really prepared for the Mass in Spanish, so I stepped in and taught the musicians some of the basic Mass songs. It makes a big difference when the local people can understand and sing along with your music! And I began to realize how good my own Spanish and cultural integration had become, better than the other missionaries it seemed, and all because - I think - I had been on my own and having to speak only Spanish and really giving myself. It made me feel not so bad about being on my own, that it was a blessing - that can get discouraging at times! So that began the week of surprises …
The following day we went to a small waterfall and were able to take a dip, jumping off a short ledge. It was good to see all the kids "jumping in", and when one had difficulty, everyone else provided all the needed support until she could do it. I thought that bode well for the mission itself! Especially when the language barrier can make you want to retreat into the comfort zone and not jump in…
The next day, we hiked up a mountain to reach a village near the top. It took the group 3 hours of hiking in farm boots because of all the mud and animal dung. Kids and guides were constantly getting stuck in the mud, losing boots, and falling down right in the mud. The guides were constantly on the lookout for kids in difficulty, and I took the last position following everyone up, especially the nervous stragglers at the end. I have experience hiking up mountains in boots, and I noticed that that experience helped me a lot: I was the only person of the 25 who never lost a boot. I was able to move around a lot more freely than others. But I also remembered what it is to be a teenager again. I mean, I would give some advice, like follow my footsteps, or, keep to the sides. And the kids would just ignore it, and sure enough, they'd be stuck in the mud looking for help, over and over again. But that's what it is to be a teen!
I was so happy to reach the top and see the kids in the community! We played games, we played soccer with some of the adults, and we got to share food and drinks with the people. This community has it really difficult, not only because of the tough access (though it only takes them half an hour to go up the mountain), but also because they don't have a good water supply. They rely on rainfall alone. I don't know if they have electricity or not because we were only there in the day, but they come down the mountain on average twice a week to shop and spend time in the pueblo. It is a hard life!
I was able to help out a lot translating and generally introducing into the cultural norms. Some of the kids gave their own testimonies about their experiences with God, and the kids bonded a bit with each other. But what struck me, and everyone I think, the most was that when it was time for us to leave and come down the mountains, a small group of young people came with us to help us. It was very moving to see the generosity of giving back! When it comes to climbing the mountain, the missionaries were now the poor ones! It was a great testimony to love between remote strangers from hugely different cultures and lifestyles, that each was able to give and receive from the other in a way that bonded them together. It was moving to me.
Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:38)
The next day, we went out to another village and while we were sort of milling around with the locals at the house of one of the villagers, I had the inspiration to suggest, "Why don't we ask the owner to show the kids the farm?" I saw he had cacao and bananas and a lot of other things growing. It's usually an automatic that the owner shows you his farm, but for some reason the missioners weren't looking to go that way. But Ryan took my suggestion, and the owner took us out to see his farm. We saw his fishpool of tilapia, trees of all sorts of fruits, from banana to maracuyá (passion fruit), to guayaba and a number of oranges and lemons, sampling along the way. We opened up the cacao pod and tasted the fruit, and we got to eat a few of the raw cacao beans. We even ground out some cane juice from sugar cane stocks to drink. Everyone, from adults to kids, said it was the best day they had had, and that includes some adults who had been on mission trips before. We may think we have the Gospel or something important to preach or explain to people - but it's most important to come to know the people, and so much of proclaiming the Gospel, so much of mission is in being vulnerable and receiving. That is how Jesus began his time on earth…
By their fruits you will know them. (Mt 7:16)
However, when we got back to the place where we were staying, we had a surprise: we had all been robbed! Yes, as it turned out, the cleaning people were in cahoots with the manager of the compound we were staying in, and they had taken over $5K in cash and bunch of cell phone and ipads and the like. But the police were right on it, amazingly. Usually the police in Ecuador don't do much for justice. But in this case, they were right on it (the locals want outsiders to have a good experience because they are banking on tourism for their livelihood). It was a long story, but the cleaning employees confessed, and the next day they went to court with the mission leaders present. After talking it over with everyone, it was decided that we would forgive the robbers and give them the lightest sentence possible. The sentence was reduced from 10 years to 2 months. One of the mission leaders was able to directly offer our forgiveness to the two employees and they broke down crying… Everything was recovered, within a day, the money, the gadgets, everything. I had $200 taken from me, and I offered to donate it to the families of the robbers - two of them had wives and children.
When Mary brought Jesus up to the Temple to present him to God, that was part of a ritual the Israelites had to complete the law God gave them - namely to consecrate the first-born male to God. The reason they did that was because of the escape from Egypt in the Passover. Remember when the angel of death killed all the first-born Egyptian boys, but the first-born in the homes with the blood of the lamb were allowed to live? Well, the Israelites "owe" God their first-born because of that. Or rather, the first-born now belongs to God. He essentially gave them back their first-born, so now it was only right that that child belonged now to God, not to them. The presentation of the child in the Temple was to declare that he belonged to God, by the sacrifice (in the case of Mary and Joseph, the two turtledoves) akin to the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover.
This is the type of thinking that I felt inspired with regarding what was taken from us and then given back to us. What we had was lost, but now it was found, and because God had brought it back, it really now belonged to Him. To me, it was an opportunity to dedicate whatever was recovered to God's service …
Your servant Lord, your servant am I, … you have loosed my bonds. (Ps 116)
One of the attractions to Misahualli are the monkeys. They are Ecuadorian capuchin monkeys, and although they live by the side of the river in trees, they spend a good amount of time in the town center causing some type of mischief, playing, and looking for food. The restaurant owners try their best to keep them from stealing food from customers' tables, but in another respect they are glad they are there (and they feed them), because it makes for a good tourist attraction.
Each day, I was able to share a short reflection with the kids - yes in my Boston accent. We formed a special bond in our time … One girl didn't know what to bring with her, so she brought all of her old silly bands. If you don't know what those are, neither did I, don't feel bad. They are thin rubber bracelets of all colors that, when left to their own, are in the shape of some object like an animal, arrow, numbers, etc. She wasn't sure about bringing them. I said to her, "The. Kids. Will. Love. These." So, sure enough, the silly bands were a huge hit, and she broke them out at each of the villages we visited. I thought of the story of the multiplication of the loaves, where they ask, "How will we feed all these people?" And someone says, there's a boy here with 5 loaves of bread and two fish. And with that little bit, Jesus is able to feed everyone. Whatever little we have, when we put it in God's service, He can give everyone an experience with it.
At one of the villages I noticed a local girl had a bunch of silly bands on her wrist. I counted about 13. How did you get those? She said, "I won them." How? Playing marbles. Now, I had seen the kids all over Ecuador playing this game of marbles, but I had never played and I didn't know how to play. So, I asked her and the kids with her, "Can you show me how to play?" Sure. So the next 10 minutes were spent with a group of kids teaching me how to play the national marbles game. I learned something. And now I can get into a marbles game with anyone in other places too, because I know how to play. But also, we all became friends. So much of mission is coming vulnerable and receiving. It takes a great strength and courage to do that ….
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5)
We stayed for a short time at the resort of the organization called Sinchi Warmi http://www.sinchiwarmi.org/. They are a group of a few Kichwa families who have invested their lives into this resort for tourism. It's their whole lives and their whole life savings. They had to make a change because they were in a situation where they couldn't survive, and that's when they decided to put all their cards, so to speak, in this resort. Sinchi Warmi means "strong women" in Kichwa, and I found the people to be very friendly, outgoing, hospitable, and collaborative. They are building a chapel on their grounds as well, and they have hosted the missionaries in the past. They have great food of several varieties, including local and more Western. This isn't a plug, but I was impressed with them as welcoming people….
In the mission, we did have a short time dedicated to private prayer. I had a beautiful experience with God and He gave me a wonderful message with a shepherd-staff-shaped stick on the river beach we were at:
I am strong when I shepherd.
Visit to the Coast
Before coming back to Boston, I made a trip to visit others that I had stayed with in the past, closer to the coast. I visited Puerto Quito, Santo Domingo, and Quevedo. I have many friends in Puerto Quito, and I stayed with the Franciscan sisters there in their house for a few days. I missed Fr Martin by a few days, he had left for a long vacation. In Santo Domingo, I stayed with the community Agnus Dei, a religious community from Germany, and in Quevedo I was able to stay with Padre Julian, who is really the first Ecuadorian I've known.
In Puerto Quito, I spent some good time with my disabled friends in the Amigos del Arca project, one day playing a game that was a mixture of soccer and American football. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see a lot of people I hadn't seen for a while. The project continues with its future still uncertain...
Also in Puerto Quito I was able to visit with the Bazurto family. We ate together and spent some time together and ate together. The mother is now working, and one of the daughters and her five kids have moved into another little house. I brought some food, including some chocolate, which was a hit with the kids of course. I was able to pass along the donation of $350 from the men's group to the Franciscan sisters with the Bazurtos in mind, though the money will ultimately go to feed a number of different families in Puerto Quito.
I was just in time in Puerto Quito to be at a single First Communion of a friend's son, and they had a gathering afterwards where I got to see and spend time with a lot of people.
I had the opportunity to preach at a holy hour as well, and on my last day I was able to go out to a village that I hadn't been been to in a year and a half. Before I had left, I had been going with the sisters regularly for almost a year, and I had preached a lot there and felt a receptivity from the people. This time, I went alone, and I was glad to return and there was a sort of a reunion with the people, it was special to me and I think also for them.
The leader Daniel, a laid back man in his 50s or 60s, asked me afterwards for a ride home. I picked up about 3 families and drove everyone home. Daniel (and others as well) walks 2 hours every Sunday. When we arrived at his house, it had just begun to rain. It's very common that people get stuck in rain storms and just walk it out. So anyway, he offered to give me some tangerines from the trees on his farm. He picked up a long stick, about 10 or 15 feet long, and went to one of the trees. Usually, someone will use a sick like that with a hook on the end to twist a branch off and get the fruits off the branch. But this time, he used the hook to shake the whole tree! It was raining tangerines. Then he went to another branch and shook the whole tree, and it rained again. He did it about four or five times, and afterwards we went around and picked up all the good tangerines and he gave me a big bag full for the road. As I left his house driving away in the truck, I had a lot of mixed emotions, happy to see everyone again, sad to say goodbye again, but hopeful to see them again someday soon.
It was getting dark at that point and I had wanted to visit a house of a very poor family that I had often visited whenever we came to that village. The grandmother had been sick back in the days when I was visiting, but I had heard she was doing a bit better. But with the dark and the rain, I half decided to skip the visit and return home. When I got to the fork in the road, I hesitated. I thought to myself, it's not far, I'll go visit. So I took the road to the house and drove. And drove. And drove. And I started to remember how far it was, and noticing how late it had got and with the rain getting heavy, I decided I should turn around. So I pulled over, and add I was turning around I noticed a few people walking a sort distance ahead in the rain. I thought, I have to offset then a ride, I felt bad. So instead of turning around, I continued on the road to reach the people - but they didn't want a ride. So I kept going a bit too find another spot to turn around, and I was at the house.
Needless to say everyone was surprised, and we were so happy to see each other. We talked for a while, and the grandmother and grandson received communion. I also had some holy water on me, and I blessed the house. It was a moving experience! I had put the grandmother's name in for prayer with a religious community a year ago when I was back in Boston, and I had been able to pass along a prayer card through the sisters back in January. But what was so moving to me was that they told me that they had been waiting for me to return for a year and a half. "We were praying that you'd come back." They were blessed by the visit and I was, too. Before leaving, they gave me 3 eggs to take with me, and I left hoping to see them again someday also. I'm so glad I ended up visiting....
When I got back to the sisters' house where I was staying, I had the eggs for dinner, with a few tangerines to boot...
I got to visit Santo Domingo and the religious community Agnus Dei, for an evening of prayer. They are a German community of laypeople and a few priests, I've posted a few times in the past about them. It was good to see them and be able to catch up. I tried to connect with others in the parish Julio Moreno, where I spent last summer, but some I couldn't connect in time and we couldn't work out plans to meet up.
From there I went to Quevedo, where Padre Julian is in the parish shrine of the Divino Niño. Once again, it was good to catch up and see him, it was the first time I had the chance to visit since he lost his mother last November. He had done a lot of work developing the community and also the church structure. There was a meeting that evening of the lay members of a movement called John XXIII, and he asked me to give a bit of my testimony to the group of about 60 people, which I am always happy to do, although he gave me the theme in the moment and of course it was completely in Spanish! I like a little bit of prep time to shake the tree inside of me and see what good seems to fall out of it! But I didn't get it this time. In the pastfor me, the Spanish is a huge distraction to guiding or presenting as I try to sort out the language as I go. I usually would fix the general train of thought, the points, etc in my head before anything else, then I would start looking up unknown vocabulary words I knew I'd need for it. So, sifting through and synthesizing ideas, as well as language, as I go, well that had been too much. But it all came out pretty smoothly, and I have to say that I was impressed with my ability to manage it naturally. Pd Julian is good with dynamic ice breakers, and it was a good evening, I enjoyed it.
From saying goodbye to Pd Julian, I returned to Chontal in a five hour trek. The very next morning, I got up at 4am to catch an early bus for a four hour ride to Otavalo. From therei caught another bus to Ibarra for another hour or so, all to try to catch up with the bishop and greet him before my leaving. But when I got there, he was in some important meetings, and I ended up leaving him a note. After finding a place to eat lunch, I started the return 5 hour trip to get back at 9pm. It was a long day! But I'm glad I tried to visit, and I was treated to some amazing views as we passed through the mountains, at times over 12,000 feet!
Closing Fiestas at Chontal
After arriving late in Chontal, I was exhausted - and out of the loop - for the weekend fiestas. But I was able to spend some time with a few of the groups organizing their entry in the procession. There were four entries from each different neighborhood of the village, and each entry had their own creative theme that they develop themselves. Each had a decorated car (or in one case, a cart pulled by a horse), a group of dancers, and a candidate for the election of the queen.
After the procession, the decorated cars park together, and one by one the fans groups do their performance. Judges judge the cars, the dancers, and later in the night in the beauty contest, they judge the candidates.
I never participate in judging in these things, but this time they introduced me as a judge of the cars and dancers without asking me, so I did it. But as the beauty queen elections usually go late into the night, I went to bed and missed it! But the people enjoyed it and had a good time. The next evening there was a DJ and dancing, and so I got out and cut a rug (or rather, cut the grass) for a while with friends.
Rosa, who is from Chontal, is one of the first people I meet in Ecuador, and owns the Spanish school in Quito, was leaving the next day, so I caught I ride with her and stayed in the Spanish school for a few days.
Leaving Ecuador from Quito
I was already exhausted from the last month of traveling, but I wanted to connect with the mission from Family Missions Company (they had a second group of high school students down), to catch their final day, in Quito. That was good, I had the opportunity to lead the group to a few locations in the center of Quito. They are important to the history of the Church in Ecuador, as well as to me.
We spent the first hour in the national basilica dedicated to the consecration of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart. After getting some lunch, we went to a chapel down the street where the miracle of the image of Our Lady of Sorrows took place in 1906. Then, it was a high school, now the chapel takes its place and commemorates the miracle. Coming at a time when Catholic education and the Church's presence general was close to being eliminated from the country, this miracle sparked a rejuvenation in the Church. The image also happens to be the image that was above the bed of my Mom for all my life, so it has a personal significance to me as well.
These places and events are foundational in the life of the Church in Ecuador, so it's a special gift for folks coming in the Church's mission to come in contact with the memories of these events.
At the same time, one of the missionaries Jason was falling again into another cycle of the sickness he has. The next day after the students left, I invited Jason and Ryan, the two long term missionaries who stayed behind, to come to Eucharistic Adoration in the church nearby at Catholic University. After finishing, we noticed while walking out that there was a medical clinic there, sponsored by the church. So, Jason got an appointment with the doctor and got on a road to recovery. It just seems from my experience that everyone who accepts my invitation to come with me in following my inspirations, finds a blessing.
In the house in Quito where I was staying, everyone was sick, except me. So somehow I survived it all without ever getting sick, by God's grace!
And now I'm back in Boston to chew the cud on all the experiences, and spend time on the other end of the bridge.
Thanks for following the updates!