What Father Rother’s ministry can teach us about serving people across the border

“We must devote ourselves to doing all we have to do, with the greatest fidelity, the greatest generosity, notwithstanding, of course, all our weakness, for we can never say, ‘I have done all I could.’”

Father Jean C.J. d’Elbée

Originally posted on Medium in 2019.

Well, as it turns out, even well-traveled individuals can come up against the worst of stomach illnesses. I made it back to the U.S. Wednesday night despite being infected with either a bacteria or a parasite — the verdict is still out on that one. My friend got sick as well, so we’ve been able to narrow it down to a couple possible meals at the lake. It was a rough way to end the trip, but I’m hopeful that everything will resolve soon. I had antibiotics on hand thanks to my doctor who now pre-prescribes them before I leave and am about halfway through the treatment process. For someone who loves to eat, it is quite strange to have no appetite and to fear food because of the pain it causes.

Being sick cast a mild shadow on what was a fantastic final week and a half in Guatemala. Another friend, Val, came to visit shortly after my parents left and she jumped right in to daily life in Guatemala. Again, we balanced activities with the school — home visits, house blessings, Mass at the school, playing with the kindergarteners, etc. — with some touristy fun. She was able to experience the spiritual and cultural richness of Antigua during the feast day of St. James, the patron saint of Antigua, a day where all schools and government businesses are closed to celebrate the life of St. James with masses, processions, concerts and, of course, lots of bombas (gunpowder explosions in the streets).

On Saturday, July 27, we left for the lake with Father Josh, Father Bryan and Evelyn, arriving by lancha (small boat) in Santiago, Atitlán, just after 1 p.m. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we ventured out through the town and arrived at the cathedral where, over the following 48 hours, we would learn about and participate in a celebration of life for the newly beatified Father Stanley Rother, a mission priest from Oklahoma.

Father Rother arrived in Santiago in 1968 to serve and advocate for the poor people of the lake. He worked tirelessly to make sure the Tz’utujil people had food, shelter, medical care and a place to pray. He even translated the entire New Testament into the native language. During the Guatemalan Civil War, Father Rother received threats for his work with the Tz’utujil people. He was murdered on July 28, 1981, in the church where he served. He was beatified on September 23, 2017, by Pope Francis, making him the first priest from the U.S. to be beatified.

A few days before we headed to the lake, I was perusing the books on Evelyn’s coffee table, as I like to do to see what books were there the year before and which ones recent travelers had left behind. One I never noticed before jumped out because of its title and author — Love in a Fearful Land. by Henri Nouwen. I’ve read a lot of Nouwen’s work and was somewhat surprised I didn’t know about this book or his connection to Guatemala. When I opened the book, I was in awe to discover that this was the story of Father Rother and a fellow priest, who later took his place in Santiago after his death. God works in very mysterious ways.

I read the book cover-to-cover while we were at the lake to better understand who it was we were celebrating during the feast day Mass on Sunday, July 28.

One section in particular stood out to me. When talking about the death of Father Rother and the plight of Guatemala in 1983, Pope Saint John Paul II said:

“Faith teaches us that humanity is the image and likeness of God… and that when people are abused… when flagrant injustices are committed against them, when they are tortured, kidnapped, or their right to life violated, a crime and most serious offence are committed against the Creator.”

Wow, let that sink in for a moment.

Father Rother’s ministry was a ministry to preserve and improve the sanctity of life of the indigenous people of Guatemala, and to advocate for justice. His life is a model for all of us who work with impacted populations — whether that be children in Title I schools in the U.S., migrant families who are being tortured at the border, or people who live in extreme poverty in the villages of Guatemala.

With Donald Trump’s latest aggressions against the people of Central America, he is forcing the idea of a “safe third country” agreement upon the government and people of Guatemala. While I will not go into an entire dissertation about my dislike of his presidency, I will speak to how this idea of a “safe third country” is asinine.

In order to stop people from crossing into the U.S., Trump is asking Guatemala to absorb the migrants and refugees from surrounding countries. What this requires is a refugee infrastructure that can take in and provide for people, which includes being able to provide jobs, food, health care and shelter. Eighty percent of Guatemala’s economy is informal, meaning that a large majority of people earn their wages in a cash economy through daily labor wages (farming, construction, housekeeping, etc.), rather than through a structured or salaried employment system, such as we are familiar with in the United States. To ask a country with an 80% informal economy to absorb thousands of people who are fleeing their countries because of lack of food, jobs, health care, etc., makes zero sense. To put it bluntly, Guatemala cannot and will not have the ability to support the people Trump is asking them to absorb.

These people, the people of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and all others who are fleeing their corrupt countries, are made in the image and likeness of God. Their humanity is just as valuable as the humanity of your mother, father, sister, brother, friend, neighbor and colleague. It is time for us to eliminate the “us” versus “them” dissonance we’ve created to keep ourselves in a “that’s their country’s problem” mindspace. And, it is time for our language and our policies to reflect this shift in thinking.

After spending the last three summers with the children and families of Escuela Integrada, I have a better grasp of what it means to live in extreme poverty, and how truly fortunate we are to have security of food, shelter and healthcare in the U.S. America is a great place to live, but it will fail to be the greatest country on earth until it is a country with greater compassion for those who have not. Father Rother knew this at an even deeper and more intimate level, and it was his very life’s mission in the way he serves the people in his village.

On Monday, July 29, Father Josh and Father Bryan said Mass in the room where Father Rother was killed. A glass box covers the place on the floor where the bullet hole remains and artifacts from Father Rother’s life adorn the small chapel. Evelyn, Val and I sat on a humble bench in front of the altar, the only three people to witness the Mass.

The readings that morning focused on Mary and Martha, two people intimately connected to the life of Jesus. Often, Father Josh reminded us, we think of Mary and Martha as opposites, one who sat at the feet of Jesus and gave Him her heart, and one who was too busy with work to pray. Rather than thinking of them as opposites, Father Josh suggested, we should think of them as complementary — we need both prayer and work in our lives. Both are good things. Our work should come from our prayer, and our prayer should come from our work.

It is easy to lose sight of the “why” behind our work and sometimes we need to reset the priority. I can think of no better example than Father Rother who exemplified a deep prayer life and work that stemmed from his prayer for the Tz’utujil people. May his ministry serve as a guide for our work and for our advocacy for justice and humanity for the people we encounter on a daily basis.

The Faithful Writer

An excerpt from Love in a Fearful Land by Henry Nouwen:

“If ever I saw the connection between martyrdom and prayer, it was in Guatemala. When malnutrition, poor health, poor housing, low pay, and long, tiring work mark life every day; when terror fills the air and torture and death are a constant threat, the human heart has to choose between despair and hope, between resignation to the power of darkness or a defiant reaching out to the light, between victimization and liberation. It is an inner choice, not dependent on outer conditions but on the will to claim one’s freedom whatever the circumstances. To cry out to the God of life in the midst of darkness, to hold on to joy while walking in the valley of tears, to keep speaking of peace when sounds of war fill the air — that is what prayer is about.”

By Autumn (Jones) Hartley

Writer. Educator. Social Media Strategist. Gonzaga ’10 (B.Ed.), CU-Boulder ’14 (M.A. Journalism).

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