It took me by surprise. A lady from the South Hill was talking about Guatemala. It was not about a Spanish language school or a tour to the Mayan ruins. Esther Luce was talking lovingly about real people, about Maya-Quiche Indians.
This lady showed me pictures of beautiful children dressed with all the colors of the rainbow. I noticed one child in the foreground was lacking an eye. There was an empty whiteness where the left eye should have been.
As an active member of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Spokane, Esther Luce has visited the village of Tzamjuyub in Guatemala. She was president of the Fatima’s Sister Parish Committee for two years. The Catholic Diocese of Spokane has been present in Guatemala for more than 37 years.
Like many Latin people, I was born a Catholic and that word has defined me in regard to religion. Being Catholic does not necessarily mean belonging to a certain parish or going to Mass every Sunday. For many of us, Catholicism is a cultural trait, more of a legacy passed on in the family.
The Spokane-Guatemala connection triggered my interest. So a few months ago, I went to Sunday Mass to hear Father David Baronti, who happened to be in town. He is a Spokane diocesan priest serving as a missionary in Guatemala.
As soon as my fingers touched the holy water, I remembered the priests of my childhood in Huancayo, the city in the Andes where I grew up. People knew the priests were the essence of hypocrisy covered in long black tunics. Every Sunday the parishioners trembled with fear hearing the stern voice of the curas resounding in the church. People kept being reprimanded for their sins of lust.
As a child, I felt overwhelmed with awe and guilt every time I entered the Cathedral. I thought the wounds of the crucified Christ were my fault.
“Endure patiently your misery on Earth, there will be rewards in heaven,” the priests would say to the poor and suffering.
But the sermons of those preachers did not acknowledge the church’s sins. The representatives of God on Earth were big landowners in the city and country. They lived in luxury and aligned with the rich. Some lived in sin and condemned their partners to public disdain and their children to illegitimacy.
“I believe in God but not in the church,” was the reasoning for many Catholics who were aware of these not-very-well-kept secrets. My own parents, both Catholics, sent us to Methodist schools.
Fortunately, changes shook the Catholic Church to its foundations. From the highest peak of the hierarchy and from the grass-roots movement, the progressive forces in the church began to overcome its great sins.
For three decades now in Peru, the church has striven to be more centered in attending to basic human needs, in taking sides with the poor.
Recently, the bishops of Brazil announced their decision to donate part of their lands to be used in agrarian reform projects. And it was in Latin America that the theology of liberation was created. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a baptism conducted by Gustavo Gutierrez, the main philosopher of the Theology of Liberation, a fellow Peruvian. He linked the symbolic elements in the Christianization of the baby with the condition of people and the role of the church.
But let us go back to Father Baronti preaching some Sundays ago at Mass in Spokane. I have to admit my prejudice. I thought the position of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane was kind of lukewarm on social issues. To judge from Father Baronti’s address, not at all. He reminded his listeners about the economic forces behind the poverty of the Maya-Quiche Indians among whom he works and lives.
There was so much to say in such a short time! The lands south of the border are so rich in resources, he said, that greedy companies want to wipe the native peoples off the face of the Earth to exploit their forests, their mines.
People of the affluent societies cannot say they are out of this picture.
The cars we drive to work are forged in metals from Latin American mines and these cars ride over rubber extracted from tropical trees. There is no place to hide from these facts. We are connected, whether we want it or not. We might lock ourselves in our pretty houses and sit in front of a TV set or a computer, but these appliances hide the metallic wires and chips and also hours of delicate human work. Are those laborers getting a fair wage? When we give to the people of Guatemala, concluded Father Baronti, it is only a token of reparation for all we take from them.
Three decades ago, the Catholic Diocese of Spokane started implementing its sister-parishes. The idea was to connect an affluent parish with a needy one. It was then that Our Lady of Fatima reached out to its first sister parish in the Diocese of Solola in Guatemala.
In 1966, Father O’Halloran of Spokane was begging for a large truck and trailer, loading it with all kinds of tools, medicines and other supplies collected in the Fatima parish and needed in the mission parish.
And in the mountains of Solala, Father Mertens, also of Spokane, was trying a new type of apple tree, digging wells, putting in a water system. He was accompanying the villagers in their struggles to get electricity 24 hours a day.
Many programs have been established in this 37 years of sister-parishes - schools, clinics, trout ponds, rabbit breeding. Some programs worked well; some had to be corrected or abandoned. In all these sister-parishes, many people have invested creativity, resources and efforts.
Guatemala has endured violence, earthquakes, epidemics and persecution during this 37 years. The relationship with the people of Spokane must have given them hope.
And the people of Guatemala reciprocate with beautiful gestures of gratitude. For instance, at the 25th anniversary of this Guatemala-Spokane connection, the Fatima parish was presented with a parchment signed by more than 70 young professionals. They had been educated with the help of Fatima parishioners.
I think missionaries like Father Baronti, ladies like Esther Luce, and the people who sustain these movements are changing and elevating the conventional concept of the word “mission.”
It is exciting to see the changes my old Roman Catholic Church is undergoing, to watch the evolution that seems to be taking the church back to its original Christian sources. I read about the things the Catholics of Fatima are involved in, I read the responses of the people from Tzamjuyub, and I see human connection and Christian love. I then feel pride at having been born a Catholic.
MEMO: Carolina Carlessi is an editor from Peru, now working on her master’s degree in creative writing. She also teaches at Whitworth College and Spokane Falls Community College.
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