From Gulu, Uganda to North America, to Guatemala

Simon Menya

Simon Menya, a 2nd-year seminarian from Gulu, Uganda, recently accompanied four other St. Vladimir’s seminarians on a missionary journey to Guatemala, under the auspices of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). Happily, Seminarian Simon has recorded a thorough description of his Team’s travels through the provinces of Huehuetenango and Escuintla, culminating at Lake Amatitlán—his official report to OCMC, his sponsoring agency. His travelogue is full of warmth, sincerity, and captivating descriptions of the Team’s engagement with local residents and their customs, and so we are presenting it in full, in Simon’s own words—with minimal editing—so as to retain the charm and wonder of the sights and sounds through his eyes and ears. Enjoy

 I thank God for His wonderful plans for us all. I thank Him for our recent St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary seminarian trip to Guatemala organized by OCMC. It was a good chance for me to participate in the trip because I tasted and saw (Psalm 34:8): first, that the Lord is good; second, that OCMC have huge tasks in their mission works associated with challenges around the world to bring people to Christ; and, third, many faithful people in Guatemala have found the Orthodox Church recently and have devoted their lives to the Church with enough eagerness to learn more about God.

This is seen in engagement with them when they ask questions and share their experiences before and after their conversion into Orthodox Church. It was so good to see the work of the OCMC missionaries on the ground, like Fr. Juvenal, Jesse Brandow, and Jennifer Rice, working so hard with the rest of the priests there, like Fr. Evangelios Pata, Fr. Mihail Castellanos, Fr. Daniel Muxtay, and others, who are so active with efforts to defend the faith by teaching them after they converted to the Orthodox Church to live the Gospel. That way, Christ is kept alive among them.

They teach and explain, encourage, and print out monthly liturgical calendars in Spanish for people to read. This is helping in creating awareness about the Orthodox liturgical life and the Orthodox form of worship, to match the humility of the Guatemalans. The missionaries and priests there do travel long distances to visit different scattered Orthodox communities and teach.

I will never ever forget that a foreign mission is an important part of the Church’s work, to imitate Jesus Christ, who left the glory of heaven to come to [perform a] mission on this earth. And by this He made heaven close enough to the Church to share with everyone, reaching them and bringing them out of darkness to the participation into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9) in order that they too could become missionaries to His body, the Church.

Our short trip made me feel at home because I experienced a similar poverty level of the people and standard of life as in Uganda; for instance, I saw a young boy in Aguacate chew a corn stem because it is sweet like a cane sugar stem. This I did when I was a young boy too, because I was illiterate and there was no one to teach me. That proved to me the need for more education of the people in Guatemala to improve their general health status and standard of living.

It was surprising for me to see that the same tree species, like bamboo and others, that we have in Uganda, also grow in Guatemala.

Also waking up in that new environment: looking at volcanoes that I used to teach the children in high school in Uganda about, using my text book knowledge, on this visit was a reality! I saw a real volcanoes—even a steaming one!—making this visit a real learning avenue that will inform my ministry in a special way.

In different villages, hearing the sounds of the birds of nature in the night and day, the cork crows in the early mornings telling people it’s a new day. Villagers then getting up and putting their hand-held hoes onto their backs, and walking to their gardens for farming. Cows roam on the streets, village dogs bark when a car drives past their compound. Huge farmlands with corn growing for food, cane sugar planted alongside village paths grows untouched by the hands of passers-by. Drivers waving to greet each other, many pedestrians on a shared road, children going to school, and people walking to Church—all of this was such a “home feeling” for me.

The quiet nature with mountains and the love of the people, mended my broken soul, healed my disappointed self, by pouring healing balm right onto my heart as I said my unworthy prayers travelling between mountains. The young boys who gather at the football pitch next to the big Church in Aguacate to play soccer every evening till it’s dark, made me feel at home when they asked me to join them to play.

Many people who are not reached and [have not yet been] taught the Gospel are always ready and want to learn more about God. During a two-day retreat that we led, many catechists attended and were so willing to learn.

This shows the unbroken belief established by Christ Himself in the world which is being carried on by the Orthodox Church. I learnt here a reason why some people in the world resist the Gospel;  it’s simply because they are not reached and taught the Gospel and the words of Christ, which they need to hear and to get comfort from, by God’s words (Mathew 9:35–38).

By seeing the need to know more about Christ among the people of Guatemala, I experienced what Fr. Martin Ritsi at OCMC said during our orientation at Florida: that out of the people called to be missionaries only 5% of the them become missionaries around the world!

And so I asked myself: Is it OCMC to be blamed for not sending many missionaries around the world to teach and spread the Gospel? No only 5% out of the people who learnt about the mission do respond. The need for more missionary work around the world is needed to spread the Gospel, which is a move toward God that all of us can bring to people. This can only be possible and can only happen when we allow our hearts to be transformed by mission works: to go outside our town, cities, and countries to other nations and spread the Gospel. The only hardship is making our decision to “Go,” but it’s a blessing to have OCMC, an organization that support missions with its staff ready to share experiences about mission works, and it’s also a blessing to have others who support missions.

Remembering the time we set up to the airport, Fr. Chad Hatfield, the president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, woke up and by 5:00 a.m., he was ready to bless our travel, teaching us for tomorrow to support mission works at any time and to spread the Gospel to other communities both in our local churches and abroad. He also gave us copies of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary Annual reports that we handed to the people in Guatemala.

Our time in Guatemala showed all of us that Christ calls us to meet Him anywhere when we hear the call and to respond in order to share Him with others.

When I was preparing my presentation in Guatemala, I prayed, and I found the strength to talk about the power of the Holy Spirit: how the Holy Spirit performs miracles, convinces and restrains; commands and directs people; can be prayed to and asked to intercede on a person's behalf; and how He gives believers gifts.

I then chose to talk about the life of St. Nektarios, and I used his icon [in my talk]. I described how the saint himself lived in poverty with his parents at an early age and endured just like the Guatemalan people are living and enduring; and how he used prayers as the primary tools or weapons for anything in his life as a Christian. His miracles are understood in relation to the power of Holy Spirit, when we believe. So when we follow his footsteps we become holy icons through the power of the Holy Spirit and that becomes our better way to see heaven.

It was good to see children sit with their parents and listen to our teachings in Church. This reminded me of the teaching of St. George that says, “Teach them when they are young” found in Proverbs 22:6.

Liturgically, it was so joyous to be in the four different Divine Liturgies we attended, listening to the music sung by everyone by heart. And even if we didn’t understand the language, we were still moved by the beautiful liturgies, which were a blessing. I was so moved by seeing a full Church during the weekday liturgies that we attended, showing that people put God first in their lives.

Seeing people line up to offer their little gifts in Church from their meager earnings, answered my question: Who is a poor person? It was good to see that the [people of the] Guatemalan Church make their own vestments with the local materials. Some priests are so gifted, and they paint icons for the local Orthodox churches filled with meanings within the culture.

We visited Orthodox churches and Holy Trinity Monastery, where we also learned projects like bee-keeping, [and keeping] fish, pigs, chicken, rabbit, goats and sheep, which help [to support] the monastery, priests, schools, and other Church growth.

It was also a wonderful endeavor to see Fr. Evangelios nurture the four young seminarians in Guatemala who are exploring Orthodoxy, with a great need to learn more about the faith to serve as ordained ministers in the future, if it’s God’s will. This is a blessing for the already existing priests because a priest told us many young-abled men leave the country, mostly at the productive age of 18 to go and look for Jobs in North America, leaving few to be trained to help the Church. These seminarians were so joyful to be with, especially when we had a session to talk to them and encourage them to help the church.

This is similar to how I came to seminary in America after meeting OCMC mission team in 2008: I became an OCMC mission team translator for 9 years, which led to God working through the members (Sue and Fr. Joseph) whom I continued to meet, and who inspired me to come to study at the Seminary. From the Seminary, my confessor priest, Fr. Chad Hatfield, tries to help me like biological father, together with other professors and my fellow students who are all there for me all the times. This is a real blessing for me. There are always people whom God sends to meet us wherever and whenever we are, and they are actually God’s true messengers, with a message and influence to change our lives forever.

Visiting the Holy Trinity Monastery was a blessing: getting my first blessing from Abbess Nun Mama Ines, hearing all the words of wisdom from Sister Maria who welcomed us, and all the unforgettable joy with the sisters!

The nuns in the Monastery run the first online university in Guatemala, and they enroll and train many young boys and girls, while hiring professors around the world [to teach them]. They are also busy with translations of books into local languages, and running wood workshops that produce Orthodox crosses and pens, and sewing vestments—and many other things.

I thank OCMC and all who supported this trip for us and all who supports OCMC missions. I pray that may God bless all the works of your hands to continue to multiply everyday into productive endings.