Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 7, 2005
A priest finds himself a stranger in a strange land
Gualemala welcomes, but there's still that Spanish to learn
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
I've been in Guatemala seven months and it's been a positive experience overall. I needed a change after eight years of parish mission ministry. I was invited to go and help out in this poor Central American country. It was an invitation I most gladly embraced and continue to be grateful for.
With my superiors' blessing, I left Edmonton and began a new odyssey - if one can call it that. I studied Spanish for a couple of months and am still learning, although I'm well involved in full-fledged ministry.
It takes time to feel totally comfortable in a new language and I feel at ease in casual conversations, but preaching is still a challenge. Notes are not enough: I'm writing my homilies and I stay close to the written text when I preach.
The language issue is a big one. Some people speak fast and you grasp the main intent, but a word or two escapes and soon you're lost. Some people speak what appears to me to be slang which leaves you out. You ask them to repeat it and the second time you might get it better, but there are soft nuances in languages that take a long time to master.
You're with groups of people who've known each other for years. You're an outsider. People are polite and kind. But it seems all so superficial. It can't be anything else, can it? They welcome you; they even may want you there. And so you end up smiling a lot.
The bottom line is that a lot of times I feel like a stranger in this new land and there is more to it than just learning a language. More important is the need to establish meaningful relationships with people, and this isn't done overnight.
I'm grateful to have my two Oblate brothers to share with, but even that isn't so simple as they communicate well together in Spanish and speak rapidly with their distinctive accents, one English and the other Mexican. I have to ask them to repeat things I miss during our meetings. They gladly oblige and it's no bother to them, but it is to me.
A surprising discovery I made was that I wasn't alone struggling with Spanish. For a majority of Guatemalans, Spanish is a second language that they have not mastered. The main population here is indigenous. There are 23 indigenous languages spoken in this small country, one-sixth the size of Alberta.
In my priestly ministry, the sacrament of Reconciliation is celebrated almost daily as we go from community to community. I listen to confessions in languages including Quiche, Poconchi, Mam, Queckchi. I don't understand a word. I don't worry about it as I know that the confession is made to God who forgives through this feeble instrument of mercy that I am.
God's forgiveness is given to them in Spanish which is the best that I can muster. It is good enough for them and I'm sure also for God.
I'm writing this because Canada is a country that has been built largely by immigrants who came in great waves from many foreign countries and still do. They came, carrying with them their own language, culture, abilities and sometimes little else. They also come from other parts of Canada as people from Quebec and the Maritimes move West and have to adapt, forced to learn English if they're to fit in.
One can only begin to imagine the pain of leaving behind a country that has been their home for centuries, waving goodbye to friends and relatives, often never to see them again. Then to arrive in a land where the common language is unknown to them.
The indigenous population is presently a small but important entity of our nation and they too often move to new settings, especially to the cities.
All these immigrants have to live an experience of death to a past that was dear to them, and struggle long and hard in order to feel secure and comfortable in their new home and their new country.
The cost is a painful uprooting, lots of sacrifice and hard work in order to fit in. But for most, I suspect, it has been worthwhile. At least it is that for this "immigrant" trying his wings in a new, foreign and fascinating land.
A thought crosses my mind: think of Jesus who also left home and country to join us on this beautiful planet of ours. He had challenges in order to fit into our human family and he had to pay a great price for the gifts and the unique insights he shared with us.
He wasn't always well received. Indeed, he was mainly rejected and it was strongly communicated to him that he was neither believed nor trusted by the authorities.
Yet the poor, the humble people believed, trusted and welcomed him. And he's here to stay as long as we keep opening the door to strangers and welcoming them into our lives; as long as we recognize the sister, the brother in the fellow travellers we encounter on the street or welcome to share the same pew in Church.
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