September 29, 2008
Dear Parish Faithful,
Our designated "retreat reporter" was Francis Fowler-Collins, and she will actually write up a couple of different accounts of the retreat that will eventually appear in some of our Orthodox publications and websites. I will forward these to you once they are prepared. As we await Francis' articles, I would like to add a few comments by way of observation and reflection on Saturday's retreat.
To begin: I believe that we had an outstanding retreat. I expected as such, but the retreat clearly exceeded my expectations. This, of course, was primarily due to the preparation and presentations of Madre Ivonne. For ultimately, the success of a retreat is dependent upon the retreat's leader or main speaker. Madre Ivonne not only did not disappoint us, but she also inspired us by revealing to us what a person with strong faith in Christ can accomplish. In addition to providing needed information about the ongoing activities of the orphanage, she provided a flesh and blood example of Christ-like care and love for God's children. How does that phrase go?: "she walks the talk." As our church faces an embarrassing crisis and scandal over an appalling lack of authentic Christian leadership, here was an authentic voice and an authentic person. Right now, we needed that. And that is all that it really takes to get our respect and attention: an honest, sincere, believing person who speaks from the heart about the love of God that can transform human lives. Our hungry response to that authenticity was revealed in the rapt attention of everyone there in both the morning and afternoon sessions. And after the beautiful Great Vespers that ended the day, in the long line of well-wishers patiently waiting to personally greet and thank Madre Ivonne for her presentation. I have been good friends with Madre Ivonne for a few years now, and I knew that she would give an impressive presentation of the work of the Hogar, and that she would put a "face" on the Hogar, as did Madres Ines and Maria back in 2003 when they were with us. So let us first thank God for her presence and presentation.
The content of her presentation, of course, was the lives of the abandoned, abused and orphaned children of the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage. Only a heart of stone could not be deeply moved or remain "uninterested." Madre Ivonne wakes up every morning with one hundred children that she must help care for and get through the day! (For those familiar with the Madeline stories of children's literature, I often see her as the Orthodox equivalent of Miss Clavel, which I say with great respect, and the reminder that this is the "real thing"). She then outlined the daily schedule of the children in the exhaustive efforts to bring a sense of normalcy and decency to the lives of the Hogar's children. And in the process convince them that there are adults that can be trusted and loved in return. The unloved children of today, are tomorrow's hardened criminals. Sadly and tragically, as Madre Ivonne informed us, there are countless thousands of homeless children wandering the streets of Guatemala City who remain unloved amidst great squalor and abject poverty. The Hogar is a spiritual oasis that these children will hopefully be ever grateful for when they grow up. What impresses me is how, under the guidance of Madre Ines, the three nuns have the foresight to always plan ahead for the future and "stay ahead" of the ever tumultuous chain of unforeseen events that unfold on an almost daily basis. Part of this foresight is the current construction of new dormitories for both boys and girls on the grounds of the Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Trinity - Lavra Mambre. There the children will leave the uninviting sights and sounds, as well as the moral chaos of the Hogar's urban landscape, and move into the open air of the countryside and the idyllic surroundings of Lake Atatlitlan. I would imagine that a part of our contribution will go toward these dormitories. The madres are looking to the inevitable adulthood of these children in the upcoming years, and planning for their educational opportunities so that they can take a productive place in their society. This, of course, is combined with the emotional and spiritual healing that is at the heart of the Hogar's existence. To complicate life further, in addition to the cares of the children, Madre Ines especially is constantly dealing with judges, social workers, lawyers, government bureaucrats etc. We can imagine the necessary patience and diplomacy that this entails: "Be as gentle as doves, and wise as serpents ..."
There were easily over one hundred retreat participants here during the course of the day. In addition, there were about a dozen children that we provided child care for. Combined with our parishioners, it was a genuinely pan-Orthodox retreat, united in the common desire to deepen our collective and personal lives in Christ. Many of our guests were acquainted with the Hogar through being members of past Mission Teams. Madre Ivonne's reputation preceeded her here, and these participants made the effort to join us and hear her yet again. We also had some non-Orthodox visitors, primarily some of my XU students. One of my students requested to join our Mission Team next summer to the Hogar after listening to Madre Ivonne. In fact, many of you spoke with me for the first time about one day joining one of our parish Mission Teams after this encounter with Madre Ivonne. May it be blessed. I believe that our parish was a warm and hospitable place throughout the course of the day. Madre Ivonne's comments to this effect were surely sincere and from the heart.
A great deal of time, talent and treasure goes into creating the atmosphere for a successful retreat. Thank God it all came together for our parish and for us as participants this last Saturday. I am certain that this parish event will remain memorable for a long time to come for all who participated. If the retreat was one choice among many to make this past Saturday, then I believe that God rewarded that choice. The day will come, God willing, for a future retreat - but not for awhile, I would hope!
If you would like to pass any of your own observations and comments that I could selectively share with the parish, please do so.
By the way, after hearing our choir, Madre Ivonne told Pat Pride that she wanted to take her back to Guatemala with her. I then told Madre Ivonne that we can be generous - but not that generous!
For those who regrettably were not present on Saturday, there was a young man from Lexington who made a very professional recording of the two talks, that will hopefully be available in the near future. I will keep everyone informed.
Our heartfelt thanks to the personal of the following ministries :
- Our Retreat coordinator Elena Drach, and her assistant Presvytera Deborah. Everything was very well-organized and anticipated in advance.
- Our technical support coordinator, Ralph Sidway, who set up all systems to full capacity.
- Our Child Care support coordinator, Terri Sauer, and her "team" of Hannah & Lydia Charles, Sophia Myers, and Michaelanne Sauer.
- To all involved in set-up, clean-up and the donation and preparation of the meals.