I flew to Panama City on July 2, and as I was looking around for a place with an internet connection, I came across a chapel, with the Eucharist reposed. Right in the middle of the airport! That was a great, great gift for me, and since I had a very long layover I had time to spend some good time there. The tabernacle is a big sun. I also got to pray with some Orthodox missionaries who stopped by there as well.
On the flight from Panama City, the plane was practically filled with protestant missionaries, about 50 young adults from all over the country. I spoke with the leader of the group, and apparently they were spending a week in Quito at a few locations. I often think that there’s a deep relationship between bible Christians and Catholic laity …
We had quite a spectacular visual show on the plane ride and cameras were snapping a lot from my side of the plane. Fortunately, I had a window seat and I got some of my own photos in between taking photos for my row-mate, as we passed over the Pacific and then the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Here is a short little video of some of the photos. Since photos only capture so much of the experience, so I added a song too. It gives a good sense of the last leg into Ecuador and the spirit of mission on the plane:
Well I arrived in Ecuador that evening and Msgr Finbarr O’Leary was there at the airport to pick me up. I wasn’t expecting him to be there, and I was walking a bit with my head down because you are harassed from all sides my cabbies and other services – especially being a gringo – as you leave the airport gate. So there was a man staring right at me holding a sign with both of our names on it. It took me by surprise, but a good one! After getting a bite to eat, we headed over to a parish in an outskirt barrio of Quito, where we passed the night in great conversation and hospitality with Fr. Paddy McIntyre.
It took about 3 hours to get to Puerto Quito by truck. I’m staying with Fr. Martin Kelly at the local church there, here are some snapshots of the church and parish house, and the tabernacle too. Things have changed a lot there since he arrived almost 20 years ago.
The padres Finbarr, Martin, and Paddy are Irish and came to Ecuador through the Society of St. James the Apostle. They each have tremendous stories, as, well, all the Irish do. It’s a beautiful expression of the presence of my own Dad with me on the trip. Since my father died, in a sense it’s my first trip here with my Dad’s presence coming along too. Especially since the role of Ecuador in the special miracle at the end of his life last September. Now we share in the mission together…
Here’s a picture of my room where I’m staying, and no that’s not a cocoon. There’s a netting that everyone has here over their bed. Most are very decorative, and sit suspended in some ornamental way over the bed during the day. When you go to bed, you cover the bed with it, so that the mosquitoes are kept out while you sleep. Mosquitoes, and other bugs of different types. And sizes. Like the 6-inch long flying grasshoppers. Oh, and the bats, those too. Let’s just leave it at that…
I am working this month at a house that Msgr Finbarr is beginning for the handicapped, for those with physical and mental disabilities, who have no family and nowhere to go. It is a project that has already begun, with the support of government funding. Besides providing housing for eight personas con discapacidades, it provides them with occupational therapy (which is not actually located on the farm, but in downtown Puerto Quito), horse therapy (where the people experience therapy from horse riding), and an integrated farm life with on site participation in a few micro businesses producing cacao and raising chickens. It integrates the local agricultural lifestyle and culture with therapeutic and communal aspects, into a family-like life for the residents. Finbarr is modeling it on the L’Arche community, maybe one day it will be the first L’Arche community in Ecuador…
With my family history of my sister and her disability and my mother’s care for her and for all of us, there’s a real sense of both of their presences here too. It’s really a miracle, I had no plans that these things would come about in Ecuador, of all places. But it’s very profound, and it continues to unfold, and I am very happy to be here. Yesterday, I saw the horse therapy for the first time. Several young people with disabilities came for the therapy, and it was such a pleasure to spend time with them. One of the little girls Nadalia has a condition very similar to that of my sister. I was tearful in being able to see her taken around for her therapy on the horses, so happy for this little one! Here she is being taken around with Johnny:
Here are a few pictures of the new building on the farm, where I’m getting to know the people and working with them. The bottom floor has some rooms for meetings and processes for manufacturing the cacao product. The top floor has the rooms for the residents…
There are currently a few of the residents on hand, Junior and Eduardo. Junior is deaf and mute and Eduardo is mentally disabled. They are a little hesitant at first with a new gringo, but I’ve earned their trust and we’ve become friends. When I get some pictures at the right time, I’ll post them up.
The farm has a coop full of chickens. The chicks are cute. But they are all getting ready for slaughter, so don’t get too attached!:
I don’t have too much to do with the chickens, but I did see for the first time a chicken getting slaughtered, then de-feathered and gutted. Up north, we are very artificially separated from nature, and we are separated from the realities behind so much of the products that we consume. Now when I see that chicken on the menu, I’ll have a better appreciation of what I am eating!
The chickens cycle every several days from one pen to another, as they get bigger, until they’re ready to be “prepared”. I noticed that there was one guy in the middle pen with a beak problem. His bottom beak doesn’t match up with the top, like a normal chicken. Instead, his bottom beak sticks out to the side, at 90 degrees from his head. I thought, “How can this guy eat?” So I asked Johhny who was showing me around. He laughed. He said, “That one is older than all the others. All the other chickens from his batch are long, long gone. He doesn’t cycle through because he can’t grow!” I thought, he’s a survivor. All his peers are dead. It is true, our salvation is found in our weaknesses.
Johnny took me out as my guide into the cacao branch of the farm to show me what they do. Cacao is the basic stuff of chocolate, before any sugar or milk is added. It’s used a lot in hot drinks down here. To go out into the farm, we first had to put on some tall, thick rubber boots. Why? I asked. If you spend any time around rural Ecuador, you will see laborers wearing these rubber boots. I always wondered exactly why, and now was the time I could finally ask. Well, he said, there are the deadly snakes and tarantulas, they can kill you if they get you. So I went to put on my first boot, and he stopped me, laughing. “You have to take your shoe off first!” Oh. OK. I guess.
Then we pick up the 2-foot long machete and head off into the brush area. Once we got to the edge, he took out a bottle of the most potent smelling mosquito repellent that this nose has ever whiffed, and he spread it on me, except around my eyes and mouth. “You could get really sick.” So we headed off into the brush, where we see these short trees that bear sort of coconut looking casings. A few hacks and one is in his hand, opened up, with the precious cacao seeds visible. They collect these in a bag and bring them back for processing. As I followed Johnny closely, he hacked away at the surrounding brush to clear out anything that might grow near the trees and affect them. I stepped into something and almost sprained my ankle. Oh, that’s a hole where the armadillos live. These are about every ten feet or so, and the armadillos cover them up with leaves. Then on the way out, he described the wasps that they encounter. He tells me about how fast the men run when they hit a nest, about the time he got stung by the whole nest. So, what do they do? Every so often, they go out into the field with a flame thrower, yes a real diesel-gas flame thrower, that hurls fiery diesel gas at long distances, to burn out any wasp nests.
Men all over rural Ecuador go out into this every day, to earn a living. How much? About $4,000 a year…
I’ve been reading Pope John Paul II’s exhortation, The Church in America, something he wrote after a bishops’ synod on the Americas in 1999. He points out the laity’s active share in the mission of Christ:
Yet “the lay faithful too, precisely as members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit”. (239) They have been “in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ”. (240) Consequently, “the lay faithful, in virtue of their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, are fully part of this work of the Church” (241) and so should feel called and encouraged to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. Jesus’ words: “You too, go into the vineyard” (Mt 20:4), (242) must be seen as addressed not only to the Apostles but to all who desire to be authentic disciples of the Lord.
But going into that vineyard isn’t something that we can do without a guide. Jesus shows us how to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:10), He prepares us to enter the vineyard and tend to the harvest, and goes ahead of us. That way, we don’t have to worry about any snakes and tarantulas and wasps and whatnot! “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.” (Lk 10:19) ………
Workers are building a new circular pen for the horse therapy, laying in some steel rebar for several concrete posts. The horses are older ones, that are past their prime. Finbarr and the community are very resourceful.
Myself, I have been working with Hover in the metal shop on the bottom floor. I’ve found that besides being a great man and a great guy to work with, Hover is a very skilled craftsman with a lot of talents. Right now he is building the steel security gratings for the windows in the house, and that means a lot of steel cutting and soldering. I mean a lot. The whole thing is hand-done, by him alone. It’s really amazing. Me, I’ve been the painter. We have a goofy song we sing that’s still a work in progress: “Soldando, pintando, somos cantando; trabajo abajo … ” It needs a good finish. Our time together reminds me a lot of my engineering days, when I always enjoyed my time with the guys in the machine shops. I always – and still do – had a great respect for the guys who worked in these arts, and it truly is an art… speaking of which, I was able to break out some of the old engineering skills in helping Hover with making a steel truss thing to hold up the roof on the round pen for horse therapy. That also is an art!
There was a meeting a week or so ago of all the members of the project, and Msgr Finbarr asked me at the last minute to share my own testimony of conversion with the team. I had shared it with him the day before and thought it would be good to share it. My spanish is sometimes really good, sometimes pretty painful for all involved. I noticed that it is really good when I am inspired, and vice-versa. Well, this time, I was inspired, and I was able to share my own story of Jesus’ mercy in my life, and why I am here in Ecuador. I have a great love for the people here, put into my heart by Christ Himself, and I hoped to communicate that as part of what I shared. Later on, in the car, Finbarr congratulated me and then said, “You know, at one point, you said, ‘estoy embarazado’. You meant to say you are embarrassed.” And he couldn’t stop laughing and said in his Irish accent, “But you told them you were pregnant!” … But it did make me think of my visit to Our Lady of Guadalupe …
On the sadder side around here, death and tragedy are not passing strangers. On our way from the airport, a car was overturned on the mountain highway. A few days ago, a truck veered off the road down a cliff. A month ago, a mudslide took out a poor family’s whole home, and took the life of the 3-year-old daughter. A man yesterday had a motorcycle accident when he hit a dog, we don’t know if he’s alive. These things are part of the life of the poor, who don’t have the material development that we do to protect and prolong life…
The parish where I am staying is currently celebrating a novena to Our Lady of Carmel, who is the patroness of the parish. Parish here is meant the whole town, not just the Catholic parish that we would understand in the US, because the relationship between church and state that was unique to the US is coming into being here. The parish consists of the main town of Puerto Quito, plus about 50 other small satellite communities called recintos. So, the nine days of festivities are for all, and they culminate in the big day this Sunday. There is a religious aspect of course, but also a secular one, and the latter gets more attention from the people, generally speaking. Dancing, volleyball and sports, music, bulls, and whatnot. It is like the town I will be going to later. But the religious component is special too.
Each morning starting at 4:30am, I am up and very wide awake because Fr. Martin launches off some pretty powerful fireworks, or more like bombworks. A collection of people then gather in the church at 5 am to take up an image of Our Lady of Carmel and process through the town streets praying the rosary to reach a particular destination when the image is kept for the day for veneration. The location is different for each of the nine days, and at about 6:30 in the eve, people gather to bring the image back to the church, with a Mass that follows. It can be a deep experience to walk through the streets with the folks…
Carmel is very much related to the prophet Elijah. Mt Carmel is the place where Elijah, being the only prophet of Israel left, challenged the Israelites. What’s it going to be, God or the Canaanite god Baal? It was decision time. So, he got 450 prophets of Baal to gather against him, and to challenge them to a contest. Putting an animal sacrifice on an altar on Carmel, the Baal prophets together called and called on Baal to ignite the sacrifice with fire. They called and called, even cutting themselves to bleed, all in vein (pun intended) and in Elijah’s taunting. Then Elijah, only a single man, had the sacrificed doused 3 times with water, and called down fire immediately from God, consuming everything. The Israelites were in awe and chose God. All the prophets of Baal were killed. That’s the power of the prophet’s witness… Later on, Elijah throws his garment over Elisha, as one who would succeed him as a prophet. Even later, when Elijah is about to be taken up miraculously to heaven, Elisha is going to receive his garment, and he asks to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, which is also to ask to be considered a first-born son. Well after Elijah is taken up, Elisha now has his garment and carries out the same miracles. With the garment comes his spirit. Giving the garment is a sign of belonging and receiving a like spirit. Now where did Elijah get his spirit to begin with? This is where Mary is mysteriously involved. The coming of Christ was preceded by the forerunner, who was … Elijah. Or John the Baptist. John the Baptist fulfilled the role of the prophet Elijah, and the Israelites who came out to him to be baptized recognized this. So where did John the Baptist get his spirit? It was when Mary visited his mother Elizabeth: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Lk 1:41) Mary gave him her spirit, the Holy Spirit. She “threw her garment over” John the Baptist … So when we put on the brown scapular, we are professing that we belong to Mary, but especially in the way of selecting God alone as our God and being His prophet, because Mary has placed her garment over us…
One of the things that Fr. Martin is big on is catechetics. He has a method where he has a meeting with the lay guides from the different recintos to present a theme for the week, in a facilitating style of discussion. The guides then go back to the recintos and have meetings with the parents of families and pass along the theme, in the same facilitating style. Parents then go home and share it with their children. It has been a great benefit for families and he has so many testimonies of the strengthening of families because this style first touches on the key aspects the parents’ relationships, and then their own with their kids. And Padre Martin is pretty firm with requiring both parents to show up consistently in order for their children to receive the sacraments, of course within reason. It is a great experience for me to observe it and be a part of it… Here’s a picture of Padre Martin visiting a recinto and leading a review of the most recent lesson:
With tragedies so close in this life, Padre Martin has also taken up a collection for a solidarity fund between the recintos. The idea is that if there is a strong need in one recinto, a tragedy like the poor family who lost their whole home, there might be a fund available from the generosity of neighbors and neighboring recintos to support the needy. Padre Martin has mentioned how generous so many people have been, how responsive they have been to the idea, how quick the people are to offer freely from their own goods. This Sunday there will be an auction of chickens and cattle and pigs that have been donated to raise money for this solidarity fund. There will also be a raffle, the first prize being a cow, second prize a bed, and third prize a TV, all donated …
It makes me think of the Archdiocese of Boston, where the realignment plan is slowly being implemented. A major concern for parishes reportedly has been the financial independence of the parishes. Parishes more well off apparently don’t want to be coupled with parishes who are not so solvent, and who might need financial help. The plan accounts for this and leaves each parish independent, relying solely on the Archdiocese and not on its neighboring parish. What a difference. In Boston, there is a lot of angst when it comes to sharing. Not so here … “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)
Fr. Martin shared some stories with me about his visits to recintos over the years. Here’s one of them, as well as one of my own… I will try to write again soon … !Hasta luego!
Fr. Martin described a trip he took to visit one of the recintos by driving part way and then finishing the trip on foot. This was common in his early years in rural Ecuador, before all the roads and electricity and vehicles. So this one time he walked across a great distance that was all dried up. Under the hot sun he went for quite some time, until he began to become very fatigued and thirsty and hungry. It was getting quite bad when he finally noticed a single tree in the distance, and so he set out to see if there would be something the tree could offer.
Upon arriving, he realized that it was an orange tree, filled with oranges. He began to eat and take in all the juice, and he filled up on all he could. Afterward, he really was amazed at what had happened, how God had provided this fruit that first had a bit of food in the whitish coating and the pulp for his hunger, and plenty of drink in the refreshing juice. It was protected and preserved for him by the orange outer rind. He was so impressed and grateful with this reality of the orange tree and God’s very intimately personal providence for him, that he took 14 seeds along with him from the last orange he ate, thinking he would plant them when he returned to the parish house. So, he took the seeds and visited the recinto, offered Mass, stayed overnight, and returned the next day to the parish house.
In the back area behind the parish house, he planted the 14 seeds. Shortly afterwards, he had to leave Ecuador. But when he returned some years later, he was able to visit that same parish house. And in the back of it, each hanging to the ground with oranges, stood 8 full orange trees.
Padre Martin and I recently visited a recinto for Mass, about an hour away from Puerto Quito. The folks in this recinto came here originally from another part of Ecuador because of a drought some years ago. Apparently it’s known for its drinking, and it’s a typical environment for a recinto: hard agricultural labor and very poor. But there is a new church being built, spearheaded by Fr. Martin and a few of the laity who have a lot of energy.
On the ride up I got the chance to get to know a few more local men from Puerto Quito, and I talked with Miguel about Spanish and English. We shared with each other how we’d like to learn both languages. He liked my interest in a bridge between the two places, in the US and here in Ecuador, in the grace of Christ, in the Church, in a respect for persons and cultures, in the idea that we each have something that the other lacks. He said to me that Padre Martin does that, “He has really won the heart of the people.”
Well, after Mass, I was hanging about near the last pews of the church when two children, a boy and a girl, maybe about 9 nine years old, came walking by. I was inspired to introduce myself, and found out they were brother and sister, Anthony and Gloria.
“I am learning Spanish,” I said, “will you teach me a word?”
I looked around and pointed to the pew.
So I sat in the pew, and I said in my best Spanish. “I sit in the pew.”
He smiled, “I sit in the pew and listen to the Word of God!”
“Ohh… the Word of God is the treasure of my heart. If you open my heart with the key, the Word of God is inside.” And I imitated an invisible key opening my heart in my chest with silly noises. They both smiled big smiles. “I bet you have a key to your heart, too!” I said.
I knew something very special was beginning to happen, because I don’t say all that when I go Dunkin Donuts or paint with Hover. A crowd now was gathering around us, watching and listening as I told the kids how it was a great privilege for me to be with them and meet them.
I remembered that I had two rosary pamphlets on me with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the cover. One in English and one in Spanish.
I smiled and said, “You can share with each other and teach other English.”
I took one of the pamphlets and held it, closed, over my heart, so that all that was visible was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “This is like the heart of Mary.” Then as I unfolded the pamphlet to reveal all the mysteries, the pictures and words, I told them, “When this is opened, Mary’s heart is opened up for you.” Big smiles. “The rosary is the key to Mary’s heart.”
Then, I handed them the pamphlets, “You have the key to Mary’s heart.”
It was the time to go at that point, and I told them again how special they are, and how it is a great privilege and joy for me to be with them.
The children went off and ran to what seemed to me an older woman, showing her what they had received. A few minutes later, Padre Martin came to me and said, “Do you see those two little kids over there? The boy holding the bag and the girl with the red pants?”
“Yeah, I was just talking to them.”
“I have a story about them I’ll tell you about afterwards. They’re special.”
So I went up to the older woman afterwards and greeted her. What I could see was mostly pain in her eyes, and there wasn’t too much conversation.
So shortly afterwards as Padre Martin and I drove away, he began to tell me about the children.
“They’re bright, very good kids. The older woman is their grandmother. One day the little girl came up to me and said, ‘I have no money and no Dad.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘My Dad murdered my Mom and left us.'”
Six months later, after they moved in with their grandmother, her husband left them.
God’s love isn’t magic. Jesus needed someone to leave the good life up above and come thousands of miles through a long journey that has cost a lot, to show how He comes to us, to give His love in person. He needed the hands and eyes and the face and the voice, the heart. He needed someone to be His human presence. Because He wants to give Good News, just a Word, to two special little children who are suffering in a poverty that we cannot imagine. He wants to personally hand them the keys to His heart.
Jesus is looking for people who let themselves be found by Him and won by His love and mercy, who will give their whole selves to Him in return, to be His human presence so that He can love those who are most precious to Him, wherever they may be and in whatever aspect of life we are. That’s His mission. There’s a deep, deep joy in sharing in it.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (Lk 4:18)