Inside a Children’s Ark

by Renée Zitzloff

At the end of February, six women from Orthodox parishes in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, traveled to the Hogar RafaelAyau Orphanage in Guatemala City to spend a week assisting children being cared for by a community of Orthodox nuns. The following are extracts from the journal Rénee Zitzloff kept during her week on board a modern day “ark.”

Sunday, March 25th

Today I am still in Minnesota, and our group, nicknamed the “Guatemala Seven,” has not left on our journey yet. Still I feel that today is the first day of our journey.

Before dismissal of the Liturgy, Fr. Harry and Fr. John commissioned and blessed us for the trip. How right it is for the community to send us out, because we truly represent this community. We are going to The Hogar bearing gifts and love from our community to theirs. We will be there seven days, such a small fragment of our lives. I find myself wondering what we can possibly accomplish in one week. Yet, I know God promises that even small things have eternal importance. I was moved when several people told me they would be praying for us. A friend said she lit a candle for me. Small things perhaps, yet they are deeply moving and knowing we have the support of the “extended family” we are leaving gives us strength.

March 26

We’ve arrived in Guatemala City, and most of us are waved right through customs (must be our angelic faces!). Zoe is stopped for the first time since she has been coming here and questioned about the contents of her luggage. She finally declares a banana, it is duly confiscated and the “crisis” passes. We continue outside and are greeted by Mother Ivonne from the orphanage.

We pack our entire luggage into her van including the 150 pairs of shoes and various other items we have brought as donations from St Mary’s. Then we are off, careening around Guatemala City, Mother Ivonne at the helm (we’ve finally met the real “Flying Nun”). We are quickly shown the prosperous section of the city; plenty of American style malls and large mansions enclosed in walls covered with hot pink bougainvillea. Mother Ivonne notes that some of the wealthy people in these homes are benefactors of The Hogar.

The day is hot (how blissful to us coming from Minnesota!) and we have the windows open, but as we approach the area of the city where the orphanage is situated, Mother Ivonne directs us to shut our windows and keep them closed. It is as if we drive into darkness. Suddenly the homes and businesses are poor and ragged, and most of the people on the sidewalks look ravaged and tired. Women in skimpy clothing stand near street corners with glazed eyes, men leer, and homeless scraps of humanity lie half hidden in the shadows. Thanks to the sudden splashes of bright colors the grayness is somewhat relieved, and occasional groups of chattering schoolgirls go by giving a feeling of normality to the place. Still one feels that there is a struggle going on here that does not immediately meet the eye. There is an atmosphere of lethargy and despair.

Then we see the gates of the orphanage, with its high walls and armed guard. The gates open, we enter and join the crowd of little brown children safely stowed away inside. I feel as if we have entered an ark.

March 27

Yesterday kind and joyful Sister Lucia showed us the orphanage grounds. She tells us that the abbess, Mother Ines, has assigned us to work with the toddlers. We will be using neuro-net therapy, a method that helps stimulate and integrate a child’s mind and body. We met the toddlers and are each told to pick a child to try to bond with during the upcoming week.

I zeroed in on a darling girl with curly hair and round brown eyes. I am ashamed when I realize my criterion is to find a cute child. Before I choose the curly-headed girl, Ione puts her arms around her. Spunky Ione has chosen spunky Jacquelyn. They will both have their hands full. I look around again and see a girl with distrustful eyes and a sad, withdrawn face. Suddenly she looks up at me and flashes the most beautiful grin I have ever seen. I choose Yasuri, or perhaps it is she who chooses me.

The toddlers outnumber us, but over the week, each child is given love and attention. This little group represents a great deal of trauma and pain. Many of them are withdrawn or angry. As the week goes on we find that we are able to draw them out of their shells and see God work in their hearts.

Part of the children’s therapy is walking in line in a figure eight pattern. This is usually accompanied by the nannies singing “uno, dos, tres.” We jazz things up considerably! With Doria leading on the guitar, we belt out “When the Saints go Marching In” with all the “bop, boppedy-boops (you had to be there). Next we sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” inserting each child’s name in the proper spot. We dance and sing the morning away. We must have been a crazy sight, but what joy and laughter!

March 28

We are awakened by small whispering voices coming up the stairs. Zoe’s goddaughter Delfina and two friends come in to rouse us with a cheerful, slightly accented “Good morning!” We each get a hug and a kiss then downstairs for coffee, hot chocolate and pastries. I could get used to this.

We are learning more about the orphanage, the children’s lives here, what they have come from, and where they may go. Though this is not their ultimate home, there is great goodness, acceptance and healing here. We ask about one little boy we can’t help but notice during a service. He stands close to Mother Ines. Almost every time she does a prostration, he leaps onto her back like a little monkey. This makes it very hard for her to stand up again! Mother Ines is good-humored and very loving. She holds his hand or puts her arms around him when she can. We learn that this little boy was beaten and gang-raped and left in the streets to die. His body is better, but his little heart and spirit are deeply wounded. The prayers and hymns of the Liturgy and services are an integral part of his healing. None of the children are compelled to go to church, but most of them do. There is some fidgeting and whispering, and once in awhile a child does a prostration and doesn’t get up again they fall asleep so easily! The children sing loudly and with their whole hearts. The older children take turns reading, and the older boys take turns censing, because there is no priest.

Once a member of our group asked if the services weren’t too long for children. “The children love it in church,” Mother Ines replied. “See if you can drag them out!”

March 29

The week is starting to take a toll on us. We are giving everything we have emotionally and physically. Yet, by God’s grace each one of us has found a niche. Connie has found hers with the older girls, age 6-12. She spends a great deal of time in the orphanage’s school with them, and has made many friends no doubt for life.

Martha spends most of her time with the babies. They are so needy for individual attention and love. She already knows most of their names and little stories about them. It is a wonderful sight to see the beautiful cribs our parish bought for the nursery, all bright and colorful and lined up in rows with little brown eyes peeking through the bars.

The rest of us are usually found with the toddlers. Not only do we do therapy and play with them, we also help with their meals and bathe and dress them after lunch. Many of them cry during bath time because the water is usually cold! Doria’s little one, Sophia is happy as a lark and the more water Doria pours on her, the more she writhes and giggles with joy!

In the evenings we have group singing with the girls about age 6 or older. Doria plays the guitar, everyone sings loudly and the most daring girls come up to the front to dance and make up motions with me. It’s a great time, and I have a sneaky feeling that Mother Ivonne is the one having the most fun. After singing there is a soccer game for the brave (or drugged). This is not a “powder puff game,” but intensely competitive, led by the Flying Nun herself. Not only is she good, she also has a long black dress on that is a wonderful accessory for trapping the ball. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite fair!

March 30

This afternoon we had a much-needed break and were able to go into town to a very crowded little marketplace where we bought some souvenirs. It was good to have some down time, because we are so busy we have not had much time as a group to share our experiences. Joy and I find ourselves consoling each other quite a bit. It is easy to break into tears because of the intensity of what we are experiencing. We have become attached to these little ones, yet we will have to leave them. Now many of them come running to our arms when they see us, they know who they “belong” to. We see changes in the children since our first day here. They are much more playful and responsive and smile and giggle more. Even the hardest cases have become more cooperative, and the nannies also seem happier. They love the children, but are spread thin. Our presence gives them some relief. We are all thankful Joy is here. She speaks an appreciable amount of Spanish, and with her help we can communicate better with the children and the nannies.

March 31

Today we spent most of the day at the monastery about 45 minutes away. Mother Ines has been there most of the week and she invited us to have lunch with her and the other Mothers and Sisters. The monastery is a long low Quonset hut perched on a hill overlooking a lake the nuns call the Sea of Galilee. The monastery has an open air feeling with rows of beautifully arched windows that overlook the “sea” below. The chapel is at one end, the kitchen at the other. In between is a dining and sitting area. The nuns serve us sautéed mushrooms with pasta, a green salad, “vegetarian patties” and rolls. After this we have coffee and cookies and eat honey in the comb from the bees the nuns keep. Mother Ines says the proper way to eat this treat is to put the whole chunk in one’s mouth at once, wax and all. When at the monastery obey!

We ply Mother Ines with questions. She explains how the orphanage was started, how children come there, and what is involved in the adoption process. She tells us stories of individual children, and of the “holy” families that adopt them. She tells us story after story of how God provides miraculously for the orphanage and is adamant that the glory for all their work go to Him. As their sole custodian once the court issues abandonment papers, she is fiercely protective of the children. She is as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. She has the most mischievous twinkle in her eye!

April 1

Today is our last full day in Guatemala. We celebrate a moving Liturgy in the morning, thanks to a visiting priest from Ohio. Including Orthros we are in church three and a one half hours with the children. They are all bright and shiny in their Sunday clothes. What singing, what praying, what love and joy. When it is time for the Eucharist all the toddlers are in line with their little arms crossed reverently. The nuns and Fr. Ian are on their knees to serve them. “We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth …”

April 2

With pain, we are leaving this little community to return to Minnesota. The nuns tell us we have brought great joy and hope and that the lives of the children have been changed. I sense the gifts that we brought were mostly intangible. The children cling to us and do not want us to leave, calling us “mama.” Little Delfina weeps and hugs Zoe. There is much exchanging of addresses. Photos are taken and promises made to write. I found during the week that my little Yasuri has two older sisters at the orphanage, Ancy, 3, and Madai 7. I gather them together and with Joy’s help tell them they are in my heart and I will write to them. Madai cradles the little icon I gave her of the Theotokos.

We are leaving an ark built for children, a holy place which now contains a piece of my heart.

Epilogue

Madai, Ancy and Yasuri were all baptized two weeks later at Pascha, and I became their “Madrina” or godmother.

Renée Zitzloff is a free-lance writer, thinker and creator. Some of her best creations (with the help of her husband, Tim) are six children. She is an ardent member of the OPF and belongs to St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis.