After spending three days with the older boys at the Hogar San Miguel, I then spent the final three days of my short visit to Guatemala at the Hogar San Rafael. This means moving from the tranquility of Lake Atatlitlan and the monastery into the turmoil of the city. The ride leading into and then through Guatemala City is always fascinating as well as troubling. I do my best to absorb as much as possible on this thirty-forty minute trip. The small towns of open poverty - if not squalor - teeming with small shops and seething with throngs of people ever on the move through the narrow streets and alleyways, are a visible and poignant reminder of how many people are forced to struggle for their "daily bread." Crime, and its attendant vices, are barely hidden from even a naive and superficial glance.
But then towering overhead are a series of strategically-placed and massively-sized billboards promoting a new and upcoming Latino pop singer dressed in the latest fashions; or the nearest Lexus dealership. I assume that they are appealing to a sizeable middle-class, the signs of whose presence are never quite evident along our particular route to the Hogar, at least to my untrained gaze on Guatemalan society. Be that as it may, the contrast between these two fields of vision - the "real" one below and the "make-believe" one above - could not be more disparate.
Yet, the over-all impression of driving through Guatemala City (admittedly from the [relative] safety of Jorge's van or Charlie's taxi) is overwhelmingly one of the force and energy of life. The color, the sound and the movement are seemingly endless and fascinating to behold - no drab suburban conformity here! - and somehow overwhelmingly human. As if, on the whole, the pulse of life is affirming itself over environmental conditions of "urban blight." At least, these are my perhaps overly-impressionistic observations of a restricted view of this bustling city.
Initial entrance into the world of the Hogar San Rafael - as the familiar guard opens the metal gate - is an experience that is now filled with a certain anticipation on my part. This anticipation includes the warm and welcoming greeting that I will receive from my good friends Madre Ivonne, the day-to-day over-all administrator of the Hogar San Rafael; and from Christina Hagelios, long-time missionary and administrator of Mission Team activity - Madre Ivonne's "right arm" in her own words. And, of course, the greetings of the children, many of whom are by now well-known to me and to whom I, in turn, am well-known. The warmth and spontaneous goodness of their initial response was especially overwhelming.
This easily endured for my three short days at the Hogar San Rafael. Apparently, familiarity not only does not breed "contempt" (a rather inappropriate word within this context, of course) but not even indifference or apathy. Rather, it seems to intensify and deepen already existing relationships. I am sure that all, or at least most, adult visitors respond in kind. Perhaps I can insert at this point a short, but telling, paragraph that one can find on the Hogar's official website:
Our children accept that they are different from other children. The basic trust (of their mothers and fathers) has been broken. They have suffered so much that their hearts have become stone. They need to love others in order to learn to love God. How will they learn to love God if they have no one to love?
This "reciprocity of love," which will hopefully lead to the love of God, is one of the key characteristics of the "Hogar experience."
There was a Mission Team emenating from Minnesota at the Hogar during my stay, including some familiar faces from last January. So we had our own reunion of sorts. This allows me to include a brief anecdote: A woman from, I believe, Wisconsin, had knit a set of colorful vests and caps for thirty of the small children. I was there to witness their open glee when these gifts were being distributed. Each set took about eight hours to complete. If we do the math, we encounter here a real "labor of love."
I have no desire to weary anyone with the details, but since I began Part I of this piece with a brief allusion to the fact that presvytera Deborah and I have made the commitment to adopt one of the Hogar children, I would like to include a few more words about it in case anyone's interest was aroused.
Although a long-standing desire on our part - and one discussed at length between the two of us - nevertheless this was not the primary reason behind my visit. An openness to the possibility according to the providential will and grace of God, though, was present as on previous visits. Be that as it may, the specific unfolding of events was all quite unforseen and unanticipated; hence my earlier expression of being "surprised by joy," (a phrase that belongs to C.S. Lewis).
What began as an informal and rather spontaneous talk with Madre Ines in her office on various matters, culminated with a phone call to presvytera (at work!) and the crucial and even life-changing decision to commit ourselves heart and soul to adopting Edith Estefani Lopez Arevalo. She is a fourteen year-old girl who has been at the Hogar for a little over two years now. Estefani was made aware of our desire and she responded positively. There followed a wonderful couple of days of getting better acquainted with Estefani and of receiving the heartfelt "congratulations" of the children - news spreads quickly at the Hogar according to Madre Ivonne! My major regret was the absence of the rest of my family, who were forced to settle for periodic, long-distant, and excited updates.
Only God knows what is going through Estefani's young mind and heart, but in our old minds and hearts we feel that this is both an honor and a privilege for us. If this laborious process works itself through toward a successful conclusion, then we anticipate receiving Estefani as a gift from God. (May I never regret writing those words one day!)
Please excuse my digression. Actually, I do not have a great deal more to relate of this trip, besides a lovely farewell "pizza and ice cream party" with "las senoritas."
I would, though, like to once again mention the regular daily cycle of church services, together with the Divine Liturgy on Sunday and a Vesperal Liturgy on Wednesday afternoon on the day before I left, if only to find a reason to insert here this powerful passage, also from the Hogar's official website:
The children have come to love the church. They know that it is the Church that has brought them out of hell.
"Out of hell." Madre Ines has used this phrase on more than one occasion so as impart a needed dose of realism into the background of these children. And to remind everyone who encounters these children of the great need for patience and love in relating to them. Only such a strong phrase can begin to capture all of that. Now they are well-fed, well-clothed and well-loved. No one would claim that they are now in "paradise," though they all receive a "taste" of that in the Liturgy of the Church. But they are in a "spiritual oasis," a new home that contains the seeds of new beginnings, nurtured by the graceof God.
If you would ever like to learn more about, contact, or support the Hogares, visit their website: www.hogarafaelayau.org
Read Trip to the Hogar Rafael Orphanage - Part 1 here.
Fr. Steven C. Kostoff serves Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church. Reprinted with permission of the author.