Hogar by Annie LeMasters
Almost a month ago, I journeyed from the boring flat land of West Texas to the beautiful mountainside of Villa Nueva, Guatemala with two familiar faces and eight new ones. I was on a team put together by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) sent to the Hogar Rafael Ayau, an Orthodox residence for children in Guatemala. That’s all I knew going into it. I had shown interest in going on a mission trip, so my dad emailed OCMC about where someone my age could go, and we were told Guatemala was a possibility. The only preparation I had was 3 years of Spanish in the Texas public education system (so not much), babysitting, and growing up in the Orthodox church. I knew close to nothing about Guatemalan culture, orphanages in general, or even who was going with us. I honestly didn’t even feel like I was going on this big, exciting adventure until I was at the Hogar late on a humid Saturday night. What I found wasn’t the somber, dark orphanage I expected, but rather a beautiful safe haven filled with happy, healthy, beautiful children. Hogar translates from Spanish to home, which was exactly what it was.
I could easily give a day-by-day breakdown of my trip. I could write thousands of words on the joy and love I recieved at the Hogar. I could talk about how the trip shaped me more than the kids I was with, how I saw God working through everyone, and everything else that anyone who’s ever been on a mission trip has said. But I won’t, because we’ve it heard it all before.
What I experienced was home. The nuns, strict but kind, reminded me of my own parents. The children bickered like my sister and I do. The teens reminded me of friends at home, and we goofily danced and sang along to American/Hispanic music we all knew (Shakira was a favorite). The room I stayed in with other women on the trip felt like church camp. Matins, Orthros, and Liturgy (Orthodox church services), made me feel like I was right back in my tiny parish in Abilene, Texas. Sitting on the porch at night talking with my dad about everything from politics to family matters was just like some nights back home. The trip was strangely familiar and beautifully new.
I couldn’t talk about my experience without mentioning the contrast of the Hogar and the areas surrounding it. Riding through Guatemala City, I saw a kind of poverty I had yet to witness. We drove through seemingly endless slums, and traffic control is nearly nonexistant. Any respectable public place has at least one armed guard. You have to get past two to arrive at the Hogar. Yet, behind the Hogar’s gates, I found a safe, lovely oasis of smiles, hopeful children, and deep spirituality.
On my trip, I learned more than I often do during a semester of school. I discovered that arts and crafts with kids might not seem like much, but it can be their only break from the necessarily rigid schedule of living in an institution. I learned that yes, I can go ten days without Starbucks or cell phone service. I found Annie seemingly cannot be pronounced in Spanish (Ana quickly became my new name). I learned rabbit doesn’t taste half bad when you don’t think about eating Bugs Bunny, and that peanut butter can be a a life-saver. I heard and cried over stories of children with unthinkably tragic pasts. My patience was tested with seemingly pointless yard work. I found I speak more Spanish than I expected, but still not enough to not make a fool of myself. I learned how to properly cut vegtables and wash clothes without a machine. I saw how 30 children who aren’t biologically related can become a family similar to my own. I watched children so eager to go to church that they almost always arrived early voluntarily. Often, the nuns will punish children by not letting them go to a church service. (Certainly different from myself as a child.) My most important lesson has to be “big is God”. This is a phrase at the residence which essentially means “thank God” or “everything will be ok.” Big is God. His precense is everywhere, and I saw him in 30 children every day for over a week. I saw him in my team members. In the hard-working nuns who make sure the children are safe, healthy, and content every day. If I had to condense my experience into three words, “big is God” would be my choosing.
The Hogar was an experience so uniquely beautiful and challenging that I almost can’t put in words. When someone asks “How was Guatemala?”, I usually just smile and say “good!” because I honestly don’t know how to answer without crying and/or babbling on about it for hours.
Since the trip, I’ve struggled with feeling like my world in Texas, shaped by school, tennis, and friends isn’t deep enough. I’ve started working to treat those around me the way I saw children and nuns treating each other. I’m constantly reminded that “everyone you meet is Jesus in disguise.” (Mother Teresa). So, thank you to the Hogar for new friends, stories, and inspiration to make each day meaningful. Most importantly, thank you for my second hogar.