I returned from Guatemala and the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage as scheduled late Monday evening. After a day of "catching up" at home (mainly correcting midterm exams from XU) I am back at the church. I am also back to using English which does come to me a bit more naturally! Be that as it may, I would like to share with you some serious reflections and observations following my short stay at the Hogar, especially concerning the children and their upbringing there by Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne.
As usual, a visit to the Hogar is an experience that paradoxically fills me with a sense of sadness and inspiration. In just a short period of time, it is virtually impossible not to feel sad on behalf of these "abandoned, abused, and orphaned children" and the brokenness of their young lives. There are many encounters that will either melt or break your heart. Yet simultaneously, it is impossible not to be inspired and deeply moved in a positive sense as you briefly witness how these broken lives are being protected and even slowly put back together again. The process of healing is taking place below the surface and when clear signs of it become manifest this is truly exhilarating and a cause for joy. Here is a very poignant and dramatic case in point:
There is a lovely young girl of about ten that presvytera Deborah and I met in June and spent some time with on an outing to a plant and garden nursery. We made friends that day and enjoyed her company for the rest of the week there. On my recent visit I discovered the shocking fact that she had been horribly violated ("let the reader understand") while living in a tenement building. She was then eventually brought to the Hogar and taken in. This is the part that truly breaks your heart, especially when you see this child up close, call her by name, hold her hand, exchange hugs, and spend some time with her. To be perfectly honest, it also boils your blood. These are sins that are not easily forgiven. The tragic character of the fallen world is no more fully manifested then in the destruction of the purity and innocence of a child. The consequences are severe. The words of Christ make this clear: "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." (LK. 17:2) This also makes many of the children very susceptible to mood swings that will include a kind of depression. And yet this young girl has been baptized and now participates in the sacramental life of the Church on a daily basis. So, I am not ashamed to say that when she came to Communion on Sunday while I was serving, tears came to my eyes as I gave her the Body and Blood of Christ "unto life everlasting." This little child is truly on a journey from hell to heaven! She has been in the "dark pit" described by the psalmist, and has now returned to the light of day. This is the part that is inspiring. Or that uplifts your troubled heart.
We cannot romanticize this healing process. It is slow and difficult. Children of various ages arrive at the orphanage fearful of, or enraged at, adults. Their bodies and souls are scarred with the wounds of fearful transgressions. Madre Ivonne further shared with me that for many of the children, it is not until they are about fifteen or so when they realize that they are being cared for in a spirit of love. (By that age at the Hogar, we are speaking about teen-aged girls, for the boys have been transferred elsewhere to another very fine institution - Ak Tenamit - that further educates them and prepares them for life in society). They may not really "open up" until then and fully trust their caregivers. When the children or young adults begin to respond to love, with love, the entire Hogar rejoices.
When you support the Hogar it is a child like this that you are supporting! You are helping to feed, clothe, and educate her. And protect her from the outside world that has betrayed her. You are helping to maintain her in a Christ-filled environment. It is a noble and worthy cause. May it be blessed. Any may God grant Madres Ines, Maria and Ivonne many years in their monastic vocation and in their ministry to the "abandoned, abused and orphaned" children of the Hogar San Rafael Ayau Orphanage!
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.