The Children Are Not Afraid
During Sunday morning Divine Liturgy we hear three gunshots. We continue to pray. The children are not afraid; we are not afraid.
It is June 8 and we are in the Church within the walls of the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orthodox orphanage complex in downtown Guatemala City, a huge city in the developing Central American country of Guatemala. The Hogar is referred to as a “children’s monastery,” where morning Matins and evening Vespers services are held daily, where the beautiful children live a truly Orthodox Christian way of life.
It is my seventh visit with the children, nuns and staff since 2002. I am with a team from St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Sylvania, Ohio, and we spend June 2–9 at the Hogar. Fr. Paul Albert is the team’s spiritual leader and it is his first visit; Kh. Rose Albert is visiting for the third time. I am a member of St. Elias and serve as team leader.
The seven others visiting the Hogar for the first time are Fr. Paul’s sister-in-law, Donna Griffin Albert, Design Director for The WORD magazine and a member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, Pennsylvania; Donna’s daughter Brianna, 18; Dr. Asraf and Dr. Rita Banoub and their children Christina, 17, and John, 12, of Sylvania; my niece Sarah Libb, 22, of Canfield, Ohio, a member of a Lutheran church in Poland, Ohio. The Banoubs, former members of St. Elias, are founding members of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Monclova, Ohio.
Life outside the walls of the Hogar has become increasingly dangerous, which led to the decision by the three Antiochian Orthodox Christian nuns who run the Hogar to build a new orphanage for the children at their Orthodox Monastery of Lavra Mambre in the mountains outside the city.. They are under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan ANTONIO of Mexico City.
In 1996 the president of Guatemala asked Madre Abbess Ines, Madre Ivonne, and Madre Maria to take over the administration and financial responsibility of the Hogar, a government orphanage that had fallen into disrepair and was closed. What the nuns have accomplished is phenomenal; more than a thousand children have lived and been baptized at the Hogar since it was reopened in 1997. Most of the children have returned to extended families, more than 200 were adopted, and older boys have been sent to live at other facilities.
Already the nuns have built the Antiochian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity at the monastery, a magnificent church in the Russian style which rises high above the lush foliage on the slopes of Lake Amatitlan. People from five other nations attended the church’s consecration on November 8th and the celebration of the first Orthodox Christian Church to be built in Guatemala. If the church had not been constructed, the nuns wouldn’t have decided to build the new orphanage at the monastery, Madre Ines has said.
It is the Church that is at the center of the children’s life. Their school schedule, meals, work, and social lives revolve around the Church. Daily announcements are made and birthdays are acknowledged after the morning service. We missionaries are introduced to the children after Vespers on the day we arrive. It is the center of our lives for the week that we are there.
In Church, several of us tell the nuns and children that we attended the funeral services for Kh. Joanne Abdalah at St. George in Oakland in May. Fr. John’s daughter Maria had been a child at the Hogar Rafael Ayau; Kh. Joanne had hoped to visit the Hogar this year with a group of women from the North American Board of Antiochian Women.
“We send our prayers and condolences to Fr. John Abdalah and his children, Gregory, Joseph, and Maria. She has gone ahead and now prays for us, we feel her presence,” Madre Ines writes in a letter to the hundreds of missionaries who have served at the Hogar.
Many new toddlers and babies were brought to the Hogar earlier this year and during the second week of Pascha there were 19 baptisms. Things are different now concerning adoption: a new law, supported by UNICEF and several foreign countries including the U.S., was signed in Guatemala, effective Dec. 31, 2007, that “forbids us to make any adoptions,” said Madre Abbess Ines. “We are finishing the pending adoption cases with many difficulties and hardships. The new adoption authorities are still disorganized and are at a loss. Pray for us.”
The effect of the law is that the children “under our care will stay at the Hogar until they reach their age of maturity. We have become a stable family of 100 children. These children need daily care, daily education, daily individual love, daily learning to live as a family,” Madre Ines writes.
“We nuns with our staff are here for them on a daily basis … all of you who come as missionaries are their extended family … The Church is their mother. They are the Guatemalan children of the Orthodox Church, such a big and wonderful family.”
Madre Ivonne coordinates the Hogar on a daily basis, meeting with teachers, staff, and missionaries. Last year 15 mission teams from the U.S. and Canada visited. She calls herself a “business nun” and tends to each and every detail as it comes up. “I am very strict with the children,” she tells us. She goes easily from enforcing a rule to singing with the children in Church. And there is the talk she has with us, when she tells us that “the girls open up to us, they will talk.” The boys won’t talk; they are resentful about the terrible things that have happened to them, she says.
Fr. Jorge Faraj of St. John the Baptist Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, arrives for most of the week to help the boys while we are there. He is visiting the Hogar to hear the boys’ confessions. He has started the only Orthodox community, which includes an orphanage, in Honduras.
It is good news to hear that the five oldest boys at the Hogar have received scholarships to attend a private high school where they will have a choice of several courses of study. They are living at the monastery until their classes begin in January.
The six oldest girls now live more independently in an apartment in the administration building at the Hogar. The oldest, age 20, is graduating from a high school located outside the Hogar this year and also is assisting Madre Ivonne with administrative duties. The other girls are ages 15–17. Younger ones have moved from their dorm room into the señoritas quarters with their housemother, an assistant administrator who began her work at the Hogar as a nanny.
It is a busy week and the children are in school until the end of June. Dr. Asraf and Dr. Rita, medical doctors, examine the new babies and toddlers. They also talk to the children about the importance of taking care of themselves and their bodies, including “thinking good thoughts.” They give their presentation to the children after we each talk about and show slides of our families and churches.
Donna teaches drawing classes and Fr. Paul teaches calligraphy, with Brianna translating and other team members assisting, including Christina and Sarah who are also interested in art. We plan one class session during school hours; since so many children sign up, we conduct three classes, including one on Saturday. We also do crafts with the children.
A friend of the Hogar is assembling a woodworking shop at the Hogar, and Fr. Paul and Asraf help him organize the space and set up equipment.
Kh. Rose and Donna work at sorting and organizing the hundreds of paper icons which have been donated to the Hogar; the children will use them to make wood icons in the shop.
John falls in love with several of the babies and spends most of his time in the nursery playing with them. Most of the rest of us also spend a lot of time every day giving the babies needed attention. Some of us also go to the infirmary, where the new children live for a month after they arrive at the Hogar so that their health can be monitored closely.
A highlight of the week is the grand celebration of the 60th wedding anniversary of Madre Ines’ parents, Manuel and Olga Ayau. The day starts with Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity at the monastery on June 5, the Feast Day of the Ascension of our Lord. Forty members of Madre Ines’ family (she has five siblings) attend, plus the older children from the Hogar who refer to Mr. and Mrs. Ayau as their abuelos (“grandparents” in Spanish), staff members, friends of the Hogar, and our mission team. A mariachi band provides music and there is dancing in the all-purpose building next to the church. A wonderful lunch is served, along with plenty of cake, ice cream, snow cones and cotton candy for the children.
We tour the picturesque grounds where there are 10 to 12 ponds used for fish farming (tilapia), gardens, a rabbit shed, and the new orphanage under construction. Madre Ines explains that there are three levels to the complex being built on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake. The school is on the first; the bakery, kitchen, and dining room are on the second; and the dorms are on the third.
There is also a place for parties. “We love parties,” Madre Ines says, commenting that in heaven there will be a great feast and a big party, and that we need to have parties to practice how to behave in heaven.
To read about the orphanage and view photos, go to their web site, www.hogarafaelayau.org. A foundation has been established to help support the orphanage; donations can be sent to the following address: Friends of Hogar Rafael Ayau, c/o Harriet Stratis, 3150 N. Lake Shore Drive, #27A, Chicago, IL 60657.
Roberta Libb Royhab is the President of the Antiochian Women of the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest.