I started to write this update on Thanksgiving, which is just a day like any other day here of course, and I'm finishing up on Dec 2. I've been sick with a heavy chest cold that sucked the energy out of me for the past week, so I've slowed down this week, trying to take it easy. I had spent Thanksgiving here in Chontal and had some wine, which is a rare occurrence here. The Monday afterwards, I caught up with a friend, Jason Healy, who is with the Family Missions Company, in Quito. I had been reflecting on the first Thanksgiving, where the immigrants to the New World celebrated their first harvest after arriving. It must have been a huge moment, because a very important question they must have had after finding ways to make shelter would be: can they grow food? Their first harvest must have been a big relief. It was truly a matter of survival. I'm spending some time thinking of my own firsts in coming to Ecuador, and I can relate. The first time that someone really understood me and the first time I could really listen to someone. The first time I made a friend, the first time I preached and taught, the first time I felt I belonged. The first time I saw some "results", if you want to call it that. You can't help but have a grateful feeling, because it is a struggle. And though it's not a life or death survival, it is a matter of the survival of a call or mission in the culture shock and transition. So, I thought about that am thinking about this whole story today, and I am grateful.
Conversation with Priest and Some Thoughts on Future Plans
When the priest, Pd Marcelo, came for Mass, I had the opportunity to catch up a bit, and, as usual, we were invited to a certain family's house afterwards to eat. We agreed to chat after eating. So, on our way after the meal, I was able to have a short conversation.
I was wondering if the time away would have resulting in some re-thinking on his part about how I might fit in. But it seems like things haven't changed. From what he shared, it seems he has a hard time in general incorporating new people or activities into his life, and it's gotten more difficult in his time out here in his parish assignment. He verbally expressed that he's not open to anything new because his schedule is regular and fixed. He offered a few ideas, but there wasn't much meat to it. It would be giving a few talks during the talks he has for the parents of kids in the religious ed program, and assisting a few young women looking to get baptized. The only other thing he mentioned was filling in somehow while he would be away for a week or so. He constantly seems very uncomfortable talking about any of it, and it seems he just wants conversations to be over. In any case, he's not an initiator or organizer, so actually moving forward on any of those things he offered would take my own pushing and initiative.
My plan for now is to be friendly with the priest, but not to get too involved with whatever is happening here with the church. My focus is on continuing to develop for a while my relationship with the people. For as long as there isn't much support in the church, I'll continue to make short visits like these to continue to develop the relationship. I'll keep showing up, even if it's just for short spells.
I have set up a meeting with the bishop on December 7 in Ibarra. (It's a 5-hour bus journey from Chontal, so I get the 4:30am bus to get to the 10:30am meeting. Now that I think about it, I wonder if communication technology shouldn't have a place for a meeting like that...) I hope to have a discussion with him reviewing what I had done previously, and also seeing if he would support my presence in Ecuador for what I am doing. That would include ministry here in the parish, but also availability to spend some time in other parts of Ecuador. We will see…
Plans for Advent
All that said, I have decided to stay here in Chontal until Christmas, with some ideas that I ran by the priest and he agreed to. Besides helping with and preaching in the Novena for the nine evenings before Christmas, and helping with the Christmas Eve "Pase de Niño" where the Christmas story is reenacted by the pueblo, I'll be doing several other things. Visiting homes of the most in need, teaching lectoring in the Mass, trying to start a small choir, teaching remedial English, as well as having a celbration for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have 200 rosaries and rosary fliers, as well as a good video, to include with some dynamic activities one evening. The theme is going to be from Luke's Gospel, on the way to prepare for the coming of Jesus:
It is that the people who are up will be invited to come down, and those who are down will be lifted up. That "leveling up" is at the center of sharing and moving toward forming a community of brothers and sisters, and thereby preparing the way for God to enter in and seeing "the salvation of God." (Lk 3:6)
Return of Family Missions Company
In these weeks, I've been in contact with a friend of mine, Jason Healy, who is a lay missionary with Family Missions Company from Louisiana. He has been here to restart their mission in the Amazon that they had to leave a few years ago because of a struggle with the local priests. There is a new bishop there as well as a new priest, and he says the situation is now completely different. There is a likelihood that I'll visit there when he returns to Ecuador in January, and see what happens. He describes a situation there that is completely the opposite of what I'm experiencing in Chontal. The new local priest has him fully involved, they collaborate and travel and do things together, amid other visitors and short-term missionaries and projects that the priest is starting. The bishop and priest have specifically expressed that they are very open to others coming as well. It reminds me a bit of my time in the diocese in Santo Domingo (where I was in 2013/14), there was that openness as well. So, we will see …
Jason and I met up in Quito before he left for the States, the Monday after Thanksgiving. It was great to catch up, and we both found out we had a lot in common. He faces his own discernment, as well as a new girlfriend he's getting serious with, but is aiming to be in Ecuador at least for the next 6 months or years beginning in January. While there, I picked up some of the typical tourist artisanal gifts that the indigenous sell in Ecuador. I got some carrying bags, some flutes, as well as some blankets and even a hammock! The idea is to bring them back either as gifts, or to have them be part of a fundraiser. So, I'll share more when I get back…
My Weight Loss
A big topic in my return to Chontal has been my weight loss. (I had lost 30 pounds since I was last there, though I probably have 5 pounds back.) People wonder how I did it. It has even spawned a reaction by folks who want to take up new exercises. Some are now going running. Some others want me to put the exercise videos on for them and lead routines (which could be an idea if there were a convenient public place for it, but there isn't.) A lot of people are asking about diet and health what and how to eat. It's been a funny and interesting experience. I think when people see a 46 year old do it, it makes them think about themselves and the possibility to get in shape themselves. I know that seeing another person I know lose weight and get back in shape did affect me. So, even the weight loss has a positive effect on the mission! Lol… But this week with being sick, I've taken a break from exercises!
Internet Problem Unresolved
As of now, the internet situation hasn't changed. I have spoken my part, and I offered what I see and what I can do based on my mission. I've continued to drop the question, and it looks like the church president is starting conversation with the community president on a solution. I follow up just asking, and I leave the rest for the people to act themselves.
People still come and ask me for the password to the church's internet. Since it's for the church's ministry, it's for anyone in church ministry to use for their ministry, but not for anything else. On the other hand, I continue to promote a dialogue in the community that could produce a new solution that addresses access for everyone to the internet. I've also told those who've asked, and I would suggest to the community if given the opportunity, to also form a committee to handle technology/internet, just as there are committees formed to handle the other services in the village. I believe that, as technology and the internet is something that is going to continue to grow and change quickly, the community is going to need to be ready to adjust. But, I doubt it will be acted on! :)
When I discuss technology in general, you may know that I almost always talk about the hidden side of technology advancement: the commensurate level of responsibility that goes with a level of technology. More advanced technology means more responsibility in managing it, meaning it requires more moral strength, as well as time, effort, and resources. You will not hear that ever mentioned by businesses looking to profit from technology advancement, but the coverup of this side of technology - the commensurate responsibility - that is the source of every social problem we associate with it today. How many of us think that when we get the latest cellphone with more powerful capabilities, that we must also personally become stronger in order that it doesn't end up causing more damage than good? No one thinks of that, but it's the truth…
Encounter with the School
I've had limited contact with the school over the last few weeks, as there have been a lot of days off. I saw the coordinator in passing, though there has been no discussion about what happened over the summer (where the coordinator didn't show for an online meeting and hasn't responded yet), and it doesn't seem worthwhile to get into that directly with him. At the same time, I don't feel welcomed like I was by the previous batch of teachers. But I'm not alone.
From what I've heard, the gates are more closed to parents as well, and the priest was not invited this year at Christmas time for the annual Mass - which is a first ever for the school. He says it's because the current coordinator is atheist, which is true. (Though it's interesting that the only teacher that has invited me to come in is also atheist (see below)). The school has also required students - without dialogue with the families - to upload their homework over the internet, although it's obvious that plenty do not have access to the internet and the school hasn't done anything to change that situation. This has done damage to the kids' education. Furthermore, they have eliminated explicitly religious elements from the Christmas program - the annual program where each grade does a performance and where kids get had traditionally had a chance to participate in Christmas-themed dramas. The problem with this is that, by way of its program, the school has over the years always collaborated with the church to provide such aspects of religious education and formation. By making the decision to eliminate substantial parts of that in the last moments without communicating with the local church(es), the churches don't have the time or resources to plan something equivalent. And so, the children of the community lose out on religious formation. Again, the school is shutting others out and doing its own things.
What has happened is that over the last few years, the plan in the country has been to construct new, larger, consolidated schools and close the small local ones. Chontal was included in those plans: the school was to be closed, along with another local school, and a new, larger one was to be built in the neighboring village to serve the broader communities. The staffs in the local schools were being re-integrated and re-organized for the transition when a national economic crisis hit, stalling everything. The teacher turnover was a part of the continuation of that plan: the school is now a subdivision of a larger institution. (Yet, with the election of a new president, the approach to schools is supposed to be going back to the way it was. There is always change and instability.) That is part of the reason why there is a more closed style to the new staff, it's not as small/local as it was. Which obviously isn't an excuse for ghosting a good friend of the community. Another dimension that very much affects the school is that it is poor and rural and so remote that it is difficult to staff. The quality of education and students is not like it is nearer the cities, and the distance means that teachers usually have to travel and stay for the school week, away from their families. So, it's not considered a desirable place for teachers, and the more adept ones move on after a couple of years, if not sooner, leaving frequent vacancies behind. Morale is typically not all that great.
Another reason that I'm cautious about developing much of a relationship with the school here is that, two years ago, I gifted the school with a video projector for classes, the only one the school would have. Last December, the then-coordinator and another teacher sat me down and told me that it had been stolen. I was thinking of a way to replace it, when they continued that it was 2 months earlier, that they thought it was one of the other teachers who had left with the large turnover at the same time, and that they hadn't told anyone - the police or the community - for fear of being criticized. After thinking about that response on my way home, it was clear to me that they are not trustworthy. To my knowledge, they still have not notified the community about the robbery. I'm hoping I can attend one of the community meetings at some point to express some of these things that have happened to the community, to bring some clarity and see if there are any steps in accountability that show trustworthiness.
Visit to Samir's class.
One of the teachers had invited me into his class back in February, and he invited me again. I felt welcome. You can read a reflection I had on my visit here at A Living Monstrance. Samir is atheist, although he says that he feels excluded by the other teachers for being committed to his work. Who knows exactly, though I have heard from at least one parent that he is liked by the parents for being a good teacher. I give him credit for opening up the class to a visitor and friend of the school, and someone all the kids know.
Teaching English to the kids
On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, I've been taking to teaching some English with local kids in Chontal. The hope has been to work with kids who really need help in their studies, a sort of homework help and tutoring, more so than an actual course. The theme is to help them "level up", which is from the advent theme of "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low" (Lk 3:5) that I'm following. So far, though, I'm not sure I'm reaching all the kids who are struggling, and as I get over the bug I've had in the next few days, I want to make sure no kids are left out.
I thought of gathering the youth group that we had before, but what stops me is the expectations that come from trying to reform it. I'll be thinking of something for Advent…
One of the religious ed teachers, a catechist, couldn't teach her class one Sunday morning and I covered. The kids are about 8-9 years old. They are all over the place. That has a lot to do with poor rural culture, that includes a lack of self-discipline. The author GK Chesteron had a great insight: there is always either a rule or a ruler. A teacher stops becoming a ruler and becomes an effective teacher when they integrate rules into their relationship with the students. However, in the school and in the church here, there are never rules. Which means, there is only a ruler: the teacher. This mentality really creates a dependency on the teacher, which leads psychologically to the Savior-King complex which is big here. But it creates great stress on teachers, makes learning environments unmanageable, and creates boundary problems between teachers and students that produce resentments and lack of true respect.
I've learned a lot from this guy about classroom management, and I can say that I've used it and it works. The principles are true and useful.
Basically, the idea is that teaching and coaching classroom behavior is the fundamental context for teaching any material to kids. It is the beginning and ending of any learning environment. And so it needs its own focus, and - in my words - needs to be treated like coaching a sport. In sports, there are rules and guidelines that everyone accepts as part of making the sport possible. The same with a classroom. And the referee doesn't take sides, it's never personal - it's just administering the rules that the game needs in order to be played. Classroom behavior is the same. Kids need to be shown how to enter a classroom, and how not to. They need to practice it. They need to be shown how to ask questions, how to work together, etc., and they need the chance to practice it. They need to know that there are rules that exist so that the classroom can be a place of learning for everyone. They need to know that there are consequences for breaking the rules, what those consequences are, and that those rules apply to everyone. In other words, it's just like a game or a sport. I've come to recognize the need that kids have for this, and how powerful this mindset can be for transforming a group of young kids.
That is what I did in the religious ed class. After noticing specific behaviors, I called "timeout", and began to describe what behavior in a class should look like. I showed them myself (you can be goofy doing it, too), and showed them what is not acceptable, and why that is, so it makes sense to everyone how this behavior and the new rules would help us all learn and enjoy the class. I described the few rules: raise your hand to talk or get up, no touching anyone, respect for everyone. I described the consequences: first a warning, then stay after for sweeping, then stay after for . The fourth time would be a timeout away from the group, and the fifth would be sent home.
Right off the bat, of course, two kids got up to level 3. Of course, you are going to be tested right away. But I just calmly give the notification, and we move on. Those two kids ended up getting all the way to timeouts! But I just give the consequences as if no big deal, nothing personal, those are the rules. Meanwhile we had an interesting class going into the church and coloring and learning about parts of the church.
All the kids were involved and quiet and behaved! It was easy for me to calmly teach and explain, I never raised my voice once, never got angry with a child, and I could focus on the theme and get to the kids' curiosity and learning abilities. (I don't give awards for "good behavior" - good behavior is expected, not a bonus, and carries its own intrinsic reward.) The kids who got the consequences, too, were ready to learn. And afterwards, they were smiling and having fun afterwards doing their sweeping. The one kid that seemed like hellion at the beginning was asking what else he could do to help. The other kid gave me a big hug when he saw me the next day. There were no resentments, no pouting, no disruptions. Only smiles. After it was all said and done, it was clear to me that each one of those kids looked at me with a great amount of respect and admiration.
Again, for anyone interested in classroom management for kids, Michael Linsin here has been a great help to me.
Penpals up and running
I was able to meet with the family of Carolina in these days, and we got onto a computer and got the Facebook group going for the penpaling between Carolina and Kevin McCarthy's daughter Charlotte. The good thing is that the girls are communicating through parents' accounts, so hopefully they enjoy it. We can start to talk after a while about activities that could be done over Facebook as well …
Feeding the dog
There are typically one or more abandoned dogs that roam around here. I led one of them over to the house to feed him for a few days. Afterwards, he disappeared. Usually, a dog that scrawny is not viewed as useful or desirable, so it is more likely that the dog has died than that someone has decided to give him a home. Sadly …
You can see in one of the photos that I am crouched down and offering the starving dog a cookie. The dog is confused. It is a typical abused dog: the hand of humans has been so hard on him, it's enough to counter the instinct against his starvation. He wouldn't let me pet him or get too close, even with food in my hand. For dogs that have lasted long enough, the goal is to eventually win their trust.
But this is exactly the posture of the people with respect to God and religion here. It is equally as sad, maybe even more so. That same damage in the dog - the fear and mistrust of a man's hand - is equally present in the people with respect to anyone who brings a message of food from God. I try to take the same approach with the people as I do in receiving and feeding the dog. The chapel remains open, but no one comes - yet. Whatever I might offer, the people are timidly afraid to accept, though they like it. Without seeing what happens with the dog, it is difficult to understand and it's easy to lose patience with the people. But once you've seen the effects of abuse on animals, it's not too hard to see that is just what has happened with people, too. There is a continuing experience of harshness and domination in the church that has paralyzed people from accepting the food that exists in the church from the hand of its representatives. I can only say that I do not have a lot of respect for the church and what it has done here in South America…
In my first days, I helped prepare a young couple to baptize their young child. And one evening, a middle-aged man showed up at my door asking to speak with someone about his spiritual experiences. He said that no one has been able to help him for years to understand the dreams that he has had, and what it is that God is saying to him. It's become a form of spiritual accompaniment, and we have met several times. Wilson is a very poor guy, who now is living in a room in a nearby house. He has extraordinary dreams. For my part, I don't interpret, or try to tell him what to do, or give advice. The only thing I do is share some of my experiences along the way, and suggest ways that could help him to pray - to communicate himself with God directly, and begin to understand how God might be speaking to him. In that, I've shared some of the resources for discernment of St. Ignatius and some basic, very practical principles. The last thing anyone should do is try to put an interpretation on someone else's spiritual experiences, or give direction for someone else. You can only help to facilitate the encounter with God, so the person can hear directly from God in their own interior. And you stay out of the way!…
It's very common here for people to look for answers from someone else, and not know how to find it within themselves through God. We all have that struggle. At that time, it's helpful to have someone who doesn't solve our problem, so to speak, but helps us to turn to God and to solve it ourselves with and through Him. The classic story is that of Samuel and Eli, from 1 Samuel 3.
Celebrations of the Word
One of the things I've started to do as well is have Celebrations of the Word with Communion, as we had our first the other night. It is like a Mass, but without the priest consecrating. Although there are three Masses a week here in the village (quite a lot), we'll have two more. An important part of mission, it's an opportunity to preach the Word of God in a bit more intimate setting than the Mass, and it complements the other parts of mission.
Before I got sick, I was starting to make visits to certain homes, especially of those who are more on the needy side. There are several widows and seniors that live in the village, and some others who are poorer than the rest. I've been stopping by to visit Lola, who is over 90 years old, and her son, who is a bit deaf and mute. Lola can no longer make it to the Mass on Sunday, so I go by and bring the charango and play some music and share from the day's Gospel reading. She doesn't remember songs, but used to sing them all, so I bring out the traditional ones that I know to get some of the memory juices flowing.
Memories and telling stories of the past is not at all popular here. Most people try to forget the past, because everyone would believe that there are no good memories. It is sad. If people tell a story of the past, it's only to laugh or commiserate or criticize - usually some combination of all of it. In a sense, a great problem in poor, rural Latin America is memory, and in that, good memories. If you think of the dog I described earlier, it would be hard for that animal to retain good memories. It's the same with the people.
I asked Lola if she remembers what it was like when she first held Agustin in her arms. She replied in the impersonal, a generalization about mothers and how they need to care for the children. Her wedding day was sad because she was forced to get married against her wishes at about 16 years old, to someone she didn't love. It is hard to find the good memories of life when there are so many deep wounds…
I also visited Olga, the wife of Don Olmedo, who I had accompanied through his sickness and death up to Easter in 2016. She had been the primary caregiver to Olmedo while he was sick - doing too much, in fact. When he died, as is often the case with caregivers, it was a shock to her, and she was left unable to find ways to occupy herself. She experienced a deep depression, and I had been visiting her for a while whenever I came here. She is better, but still living very stressed and anxious with health problems, because she now has no one to care for. She still has the farm up on the mountain where she is happy because she can care for the animals and the planting and so forth, but down here in the pueblo, it is only stressful. She is here only because her last daughter needs one more year to finish high school (and so be in the pueblo), and after that she hopes to return to the mountain.
Jose Rodriguez and his wife live behind the church and next to his daughter, Ines, who is the president of the church leadership. They are a large and involved family in the village. Jose has Parkinson's disease, and it's gradually getting worse. As superstitions and "snake oil" remedies are common around here, they are additionally seeking medical help from a woman in another village who has alternative remedies and denies the doctors' prognosis of Parkinson's. (Though the family does accept it.) The woman healer is apparently very "religious", and gets help from God. But as you can see, when life is so poor and desperate, people look for a light of hope … I recommended that they invite the priest over to give the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, as that can spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally unite all the treatments together in the grace of God and be a source of improving the physical effectiveness of the treatments.
Juan is a senior who is now alone, having spent time living in a nursing home in Quito. Before going to the nursing home, he had lived alone in Chontal a few months. A woman here then felt responsible for him, and after he complained that he didn't like the nursing home, she arranged to bring him back to Chontal, which puts him in a bit of a tough position. He is mute, and has some difficulty walking. I also noticed that he seems to complain about everything and everyone, although not yet about me! It can be difficult to understand him, but I try to stop by every now and then.
Marta Herrera has one son who lives in Quito and has a family. She has what appears to be a large neck goiter, which the doctors have told her to have treated, but she hasn’t pursued yet. Her small house has several structural problems, and her daughter-in-law, who lives across from the church, one day asked if I could stop by and check it out, if there was anything I could do. I stopped by one day and was able to chat for a while with her, to get to know her a little more and the situation as well. I took some photos of her and the property, without promising yet that I could do anything. I explained how I go about things like this: that my mission is about relationships. It's common for people to skip the community dimension and come to me directly. In those cases, it's usually a sign that people want the money I might have access to, not necessarily me or a relationship with me. My way is that funding is done community to community: a person alone can't ask me, and I can't give alone. It's about forming a bridge between forms of community. That means that the person would need to at least approach the local community leadership and ask for assistance, and if that doesn't advance, they would have to take up fundraiser of some sort - usually a raffle. I would ask others that I know who would want to collaborate with the community either through the leadership (if the local leadership was responsive) or through the family-run fundraiser. Whatever funding I could identity would be from a form of community, and it would be augmenting the effort of the local community here to help one of its own, and not replacing the role and responsibility of the local community to do that. That sets the groundwork for authentic relationships and bridge-building. Otherwise, if, for example, I reached out from my own private pockets to help that one family, I myself would have taken the community's responsibility for myself, which is really a form of stealing! Then, of course, the community is resentful, and others want me to further take the community's responsibility away from them and help them individually, and so on. If I've done it for one, I should for everyone. I would be taking on the responsibility for everyone… That approach would do great damage to a community, as well as to the person being helped and to myself.
Anyway, here you can see Marta and her house. The two major problems are that water enters into the roof, and the floor foundation is breaking up. I am not yet advancing on helping, as there needs to be a conversation between her family and the local community to get things rolling, and I've told her that. For now, I am open to help facilitate that communication.
Retreat Lined Up
I set up a retreat for myself after Christmas until just before the end of the year. I hadn't had a chance to do a retreat while I was back in the States this time. The property is in Mindo, where I frequently go to relax and get away and pray. It is a community of religious, originally from Germany I think. But it's very quiet and away from everything.
Some photos of landscapes in Chontal, as well as on the way from Quito to Chontal. Enjoy, and have a great beginning of Advent!