Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope this finds you well. I'm here in Chontal working on this summary, and so without any more delay...
I saw a website that said that the average internet speed in Massachusetts is 54 Mbps. Here in Chontal (or Mindo where I am right now), the average is 1 Mbps. That means it would take me until, oh, March to put together a page with media and photos. Therefore, I'm going to let Google do that work for me, as my photos and videos automatically upload and can be grouped and shared with links. So, though you might not see much eye candy in this post, click on the links you see for the unfurling of a wonderful, visual world.... You get the picture.
I had started to help some of the kids learn to read in the Mass, how to use the microphone, how to use their fingers when reading the text, how to begin and end, etc. Several of the kids love to learn and had really wanted to keep practicing. Maria Belén, who is in her twenties and has Down's Syndrome, is also practicing. I'm hoping that at some point we can identify a really short reading and she can get her chance to read at Mass. (She's been an altar server for years.)
Kevin and his daughter Charlotte put together a video from the religious ed program at St. Ann's in Quincy and sent it down. It came one day after I had visited the classroom. I had hoped to show it to the youth group when we met on Friday, but our time was taken up in going door to door and inviting people to the Christmas Eve celebration, and then the next day making decorations for the church.
I was in Carolina's class at the Christmas break, where the 5th and 6th graders share the same room. The teacher agreed to let me record the kids greeting people back in the States with a Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad, plus a little dance at the end of the class. So, these three videos are for you - enjoy!
School / Church
There is a Christmas program each year in the school, and the parents or students from every grade do a public performance. among other activities. In the past, I had come as Santa, had brought other Christmas gifts for the school. This year, with all that's happened and the changes, I wasn't invited. Neither was the priest, which I guess was the case last year. Typically, there was a Mass in the school during the program, but last year the Mass was held in the church. This year, there was no contact with the church at all for planning. The problem with that is that the community had always relied on the school's collaboration in those religious activities for the kids coming up to Christmas. Many of the kids don't live in Chontal, which is a little pueblo so to speak, but rather in even more remote locations that don't have chapels or much ministry presence. For decades, the church and school had always collaborated so that the school facilitated that ministry for the kids together at Christmastime. To suddenly cut all that off without working out a transition leaves the church no time to pick up and fill in - and the kids pay the price. The problem is the lack of dialogue, and so people are not thinking about the kids first.
I went up to the program to watch the kids, but the current teachers are not really engaging like in the past. There is a lot more outside influence (professional clowns were invited in, for example) and less of the community itself doing things. Some of the parents had to struggle to get a true Christmas message into the program - it is more devolving into cool songs and dances and clown performances that don't really have anything to do with Christmas.
Here are some of the mothers of the third-graders in their first preparation for their routine. While the kids did a Nativity performance, they are (trying to) doing an indigenous dance. The song, Chaguar Mishqui, refers to an indigenous drink from the aloe plant. Unfortunately, I didn't get a video of the finished product on the day of the performance. I did get to video the kids from Carolina's class, so that they'd have a momento of their dance.
Novena and Christmas Eve
The novena turned out to be a really grace-filled experience for so many people. It was as if a new life came into the community, and afterwards people kept talking about it, saying it was unlike any other Christmas novena they had ever seen. By the end, people were beginning to come from other villages, and the last night was a packed crowd. I received actual applauses after preaching, something completely unheard of in this shy, reclusive community. It also gave me new hope for my own mission in Chontal. What had happened?
The priest, Pd Marcelo, asked if I would lead the novena and Christmas celebrations this year. After some discernment, I decided to do it. The condition was that I had freedom to adapt and do it in a creative way, and that I would preach the reflections each night. He agreed, and was glad that I would do it. Typically, a pair of nuns from a religious order come and do it. I'd been present a couple of times for that, and didn't have much room to participate. I do things differently.
The theme I had in mind is one that is central to preparation for Christmas and central to my own mission Barriers To Bridges. It is from the Gospel of Luke:
In simplified terms, it's to level up. I put focus on valleys being lifted up and mountains made low, with that opening the door for God to enter and become visible - for Jesus to be born.
Typically, when the nuns come, one of the members of the community - who likes to get in control of things - becomes their pal/pet and teams up with facilitating the experience for them. The nuns, with their religious "expertise" lead the effort to rally people, set the form of the novena, arrange for the liturgy, etc. The nuns are always in the leadership role, and the people refer to them as "mothers". The people are just helpers and observers. Well, of course, it says a lot that the people need a pair of nuns every year when they should by now - after decades - be able to do these things for themselves. But it's the same thing: for nine straight evenings, the nuns and the pet do all the talking and action, trying to drive and motivate the people, who are just observers. Then, on the Christmas Eve celebration, they do all the organizing and directing, and after a wonderful liturgy and the few religious-type people in the community have got their feel-goods out of the way by socializing with the woman in the habits, the nuns ride off into the sunset as heroines - carrying $100 each after eating and staying for free.
Well, of course, the first thing I do differently is that I don't take pay from the people, and I pay for my food and lodging. I do accept food from folks who invite me to their homes, and if I receive a gift that I can't use, I know people in Chontal that can. In fact, I will leave a bit of a donation. (Yes, religious congregations have the money to support food and cheap lodging for their members for 10 days on 'mission').
The next leveling was to have a meeting with the four religious education teachers, the catechists. They would be guiding the people in the novena, and I would be facilitating it, helping them. The novena is nine days in a row of folks getting together at 7pm for prayer, music, food, etc. in different people's homes in preparation for Christmas. I would be doing a few certain activities each night, like the preaching and leading the blessing, but the catechists would be the leaders each night, rotating equally throughout the novena. This was a big leveling as well.
Each night, people gather in the church, where a representation of the Infant Jesus is located. After prayers and music, someone from the host family will take the doll as a symbol and everyone processes to their house, where the novena begins. Introductions, prayer, readings, preaching, intercessions, and closing activities, followed by food and singing Christmas carols.
There is a booklet published annually by each diocese that guides people more or less in this structure of the novena. These are given out in each location (or sold sometimes), so that folks can follow along in the novena. With the booklets as a tool and starting point, we decided on a format for the novena each night together. I had a few news ideas that were very different from the usual, that we incorporated: each night would have a different focus, and we would all together bless a part of the community each night, as well as look for volunteers to populate the Pase del Niño (the Christmas procession activity with role-playing) on the last night. (Typically, the pet people would find or pressure their favorites to be a part of the Pase del Niño.) I had already had these ideas, but it worked out well because the booklets this year had almost the same idea. The first night focused on the Angel, the second on Mary, the third of Joseph, all the way through the shepherds, the animals, the star, the wise men, and finally the Infant Jesus. I mapped out that each night we would all together bless a different group of people: the youth, then the woman (especially expectant and recent mothers), then the men, then the people who care for animals, then the animals, the catechists, the political leaders, and finally the teachers and medical professionals from outside who minister to the community. The host family would read the readings and the prayers as much as they could or wanted. Families that couldn't really support supplying food were given what they needed so they could host if they wanted to.
It was really setup for the whole novena to be a big blessing to the community. And that is what happened...
Valleys lifted up
Agustin is a middle-aged man who is partly deaf and mute. He lives with his elderly mother, and he's a bit of a town outcast. He really loves to play music on a big drum or with maracas, and some people get annoyed with it, because he's deaf and can overdo it. But it was important and I made it clear that it's important that he get to play music all he wants. The value is not in the quality of the music, but rather in the heart that everyone puts into it.
Two families had wanted to host but were limited in resources. I helped to cover the $15 cost of food/refreshment expenses for one family (a senior couple having medical problems), and I stopped by to visit another senior couple - who had never had the chance to host before but had wanted to for a long time - to assure them that whatever they had for a creche scene was fine enough. It was important that the poor families that wanted to host, could.
Marta Ayala, who I posted about before because of the tough condition of her house and her neck goiter, had always wanted to sing in the Christmas Carol presentation on Christmas Eve. We worked out that some from her family would join her, and for the first time, there she was singing on that special night in front of everyone.
And the children! The greatest miracle of all! Tons of children were coming, they would show up early. I am well known and loved by children in the community and in the school. But even I was surprised at how many were coming - even on their own. A 8-year-old daughter of one of the schoolteachers would head out every night on her own to go to the novena. She told her mother, "Jerome is doing the novena, so I am going." (You can see her here with Oscar Miguel, another regular.) Kids did memorized Christmas poems at the Carols presentation, and when I had nowhere to sit at that except on the floor, a crowd of children grew around me, so much so that another of the catechists was describing it as a surreal experience.
Irenya is the little shepherd all the way to the left in this picture. She comes from a very tough household and has a lot of discipline problems. But she came every night by herself.
When I was going around handing out invitations (I made up and printed out invitations donate goods for seniors in need), this little girl decided to accompany me and wouldn't leave me. She knows me from the school (we passed her father along the way, and I offered to turn her over to him, and he said, no she can go with me, lol), but I vaguely recognized her. She would not engage other adults, I thought it strange because she was like a best buddy to me, wanting to help in any way possible. But she wouldn't let me go! Check us out in these two videos.
As you probably know, we also arranged to buy Navidades for the community, doing the fundraiser, to make sure if we got them that no one would be left out. We had extra to be able to bring to children in other, more remote villages.
I also had an idea to do something for seniors, and in a conversation one night with the church president Ines and with Veronica, who used to work for the government visiting and organizing seniors and addressing their needs, an idea came out to request non-perishable and personal care donations from the community to benefit seniors most in need. As it turns out, the priest had been in the initial stages of starting a sort of caritas activity in the parish, and had Veronica in mind for a possible organizer of that. So, we went forward with the plan. Again, I printed up invitations and went around door to door to invite people to voluntarily give if they wanted to, (you've seen the videos just above), as the youth group and I had done with the invitations to Christmas Eve. We had a number of donations on Christmas Eve of food goods, and it's a good first step getting that activity going. It is the first time that donations have ever been on Christmas in Chontal, and everyone had a very favorable reaction.
Hand in hand with the donations for the needy was eliminating competition during the Christmas celebrations. Churches resort to competitions - like Bingo - when they want numbers but don't understand what really attracts people - Jesus. The same in Chontal. The pet person I described before is quite dedicated to her business and her self-inflation, and is a big promoter of competitions to draw people into church things. But competitions create mountains and valleys, and divisions. (She was quite disappointed that all her ideas for competitions weren't going to happen, so she spread the word - on her own - that activities on Christmas Eve were canceled. More about her in a bit ....) Instead, the presentation of Christmas Carols was not the usual competition, with people trying to "win". (Imagine, Christmas is about winning?? This is what the nuns in this diocese set up and taught...) It was each family simply singing a Christmas carol from the heart, and each receiving the same bag of goodies for getting up there and singing. The children who read, each got not just the bag of goodies, but also a wooden flute that I had bought at an indigenous market in Quito. If anyone "won", it was the kids.
Finally, one of the nights I helped one of the families prepare Navidades for kids in a remote village. One of the young women works for the local government and travels to all the locations in the area, and had got some funding to help one of the villages. This is the typical process for making Navidades, sorting out the ingredients into piles, filling up bags, and tying them.
Mountains made low
Without the nuns present, who are called "mothers" by the community, there was more of a leveling feeling, as the nuns have more of a directive style than collaborative. We could all be brothers and sisters, as Jesus said, "and you are all brothers/sisters." (Mt 23) There is also a particular, controlling personality in the community who is a very wounded person that nevertheless associates herself with church authority and manipulates things to her own self interest and that of her business. It shows up in a myriad of ways in the church, causing much damage and division.
One particular event, I think, sums up well this poor woman's dynamic. She wanted to have internet, but the village hadn't organized with the Internet company yet to bring the necessary antenna to Chontal. So she took mattered into her own hands, and had the internet company come to town. They liked the spot on the church steeple. She happened to have the keys to the church, and after an hour and some drilling and tapping into the church electric line, the church had become the Internet company's antenna. That's her dynamic: the church is at the service of her and her business.
Now I don't really blame this woman for all this, although I have to deal directly with it. That same example I just mentioned points to the real source of the problem: the priest did nothing about all that. I was the one who raised a voice and at least got the antenna off the church building (and now, the next step, off the church property). It reminds me of Jesus' words in the Gospel of John:
In any case, with respect to the woman I mentioned, I fed her with a steady diet of No. She sought ways to get control and attack people, set up competition and guilt and division. But thanks be to God, I was firm enough to feed each step of hers across the line with a No. The mountains were made low, even if it wasn't voluntary on her part.
In chapter 34 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God is going to seek His sheep because the shepherds have not cared for them. He is going to find and heal the lost and broken, but he says he is going to destroy "the sleek and the strong." He says, "I will feed them with justice." (Ez 34) He goes on to say, "Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep." And after that, "And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken." In other words, the mountains will be made low. And that is what happened. The Word of God in the flesh...
See the salvation of God.
Usually, the novena dies off as the nights go on, as typically the nuns give very long reflections and long prayers, and they drive the novena along. I was at a novena twice here in Chontal, and there were talks that went on for an hour each night! The people just give up. But with our collaborative way this year, there was a more open spirit. I gave a reflection that lasted, I think, probably less than 10 minutes, at the maximum. But I have a gift of preaching in an engaging, simple, but deep way that stays to one single point, integrating stories from my own life and the Scripture to make parables. We got laughs every night, and some nights I actually got ovations, which was amazing from a community that is very, very shy and non-expressive. I don't have any of the religious rigidity, and that rubbed off - it became more OK for everyone to be themselves with God. We had more music, as guitars came out and drums and other instruments, and we sang Carols together. The blessing of each part of the community each night was also an amazing experience - everyone said the blessing together, and everyone got drenched by holy water, too! Another leveling up, as usually the people don't get to do that together - to both give and receive the blessing. Also, the catechists and I added in new petitions to be shared each night that matched the needs of the community, adding something more personal and relevant. And finally, we were finished in 35-45 minutes, compared to other years where an evening lasted from 1.5 to 2 hours. We had pruned out some of the long parts of the novena guide to fashion something that made sense for the people of Chontal, we added new things, but we included the most fundamental traditional aspects. Another leveling. So, the people loved it because it didn't drag on, but they also really got something out of it. There were no sad faces, no one bored and disengaged like usually happens. That's why more and more people kept coming, I think. We had done it together, as brothers and sisters, more like a big family.
People told me afterwards that usually some people don't go because of conflicts of personalities, but that didn't happen this year. One young family hosted on the 7th night. They don't go to church, and hadn't been coming to the novena. But after that, they started coming every night. The husband volunteered to be one of the wise men in the Pase del Niño.
The youth group showed up as well to help with church decorations and inviting people to the Christmas Eve activities. I was amazed that they all showed up - it had been a year and a half since their last meeting.
People began to notice in the first days that attendance was really high. By the end of it, they told me it was the most they had ever seen. Folks from further out and started to come. By the last nights, families had underplanned their space and it was standing room only extending outside the house. The final night also included the Pase del Niño, where we have the novena and people dress up in different roles in the Christmas story. Our Mary this year was a young pregnant woman, Alva, and the novena was in her house. All the music was out, plus the huge crowd, everyone together. We blessed all the children that night, and then began a reenactment of the Annunciation, then the visit of the angel to Joseph in the dream. After that, the whole crowd processed around the village, making four stops at different homes for Las Posadas (The Inns). At each of these homes, the crowd, in the name of Joseph, sings several different verses about the situation of him and Mary looking for a place to stay. The owners of the house sing back verses, different in each case, to the effect that there's no room for them. The video I recorded for that is here. After we return to the church, there's a reenactment of the angle and the shepherds, as well as the arrival of the wise men to Herod, and then to the manger scene. Mary and Joseph and the baby are seated in the entrance to the church, which is decorated with paja, the palm branches. It had begun to rain, so we all went up to the community space in the parish house and held the Christmas Carol presentations, where families had the opportunity to choose a carol a few days before to sing on that night. A few children gave a short poem reading (they got some extra gifts), and after finishing up, the priest arrived for Mass.
You can see all the pictures and videos here for Christmas Eve. Enjoy!
The tough part is that the priest decided to hear the confessions of about 10 people for a whole hour before the Mass, from 10 to 11pm, while everyone waited in the church. Some people eventually left. Kids were falling asleep. It was an awkward wait, never knowing when it would actually end. It was very disappointing - though not surprising - to me. He could have shifted them to after the Mass - which he did finally do to a few people after whole hour - and saved everyone a whole hour of waiting. It's just another experience where people's trust is abused in their experience with the church. Why would people want to come back to that?
After Mass was the tradition of hot chocolate and bread, and I brought out the Navidades that we had purchased through fundraising. It was raining and people had already left by then, so we had more than enough for everyone. The leftovers are currently being distributed to kids in the even smaller villages up in the mountains. There were about 100 leftover breads as well. On Christmas Day (which is just an ordinary day of rest here), Ines the church president and I pre-packaged them up in bags and went around handing them out in the village, especially to people who are having tough economic situations. We also cleaned up the whole church and church grounds.
While cleaning up, we had to dispose of the palms and wood that made up the manger scene at the church entrance. We dragged everything to a nearby cliff that's used for organic waste, and she tossed over the wood. I tossed over the palm branches, and up popped some of the wood as you can see in the picture:
I had put in a lot of work developing the script for the evening, printing it out, etc. Now there is something in writing to be used next year. The people can do things themselves. A music sheet that can be passed to next year as well. All digitally stored and sent online so that it can be accessed next year.
Right afterwards, I took a few days in Mindo for a short retreat, where I also began to write this summary. Here are some photos of the grounds, and the view from the hermitage where I stayed. It's great to have the opportunity to be in nature like that, with silence. But before you think it's the lap of luxury, there's no electricity or furniture except a plastic chair and thin foam mattress, which means sleeping on the floor and candlelight at night.
I took a walk one day out into the forests in Mindo and encountered El Compartir, a place I had been to before. Enjoy the view!
Thanks for reading if you've made it this far!
I plan on visiting Pd Julian in early January, and then joining Jason Healy of Family Missions Company in the Amazon for a week, before returning to Boston on January 27. I will keep posting updates, including what happens with the donations that were made and what we do with the last part of the money from that. Thanks again.
I hope you have a great New Year's Eve. Stay warm, and God bless,