by Tom Pouliot
Nancy Wiens, the chair of the board of Sister Parish, brought a meditation to our fall board meeting in 2015. In the meditation she offered the following quote from Pope Francis:
“When God comes, he always calls us out of our house. We are visited so that we can visit others; we are encountered so as to encounter others; we receive love in order to give love.”
She also brought an article, written July 1, 2015, by Thomas J Eggleston in the Houston Catholic Worker that discussed what Pope Francis meant by a culture of encounter. A lively discussion ensued about how this related to our work and our lives in Sister Parish. At the end, Nancy suggested that we declare The Year of Encounter as the theme for Sister Parish in 2016. In addition, it was agreed that the culminating event for the year would be a Southern Encounter to be hosted in Guatemala.
Invitations went out from the northern board to the Sister Parish community in the United States to join members of the board and representatives from the Sister Parish linkages in Guatemala and El Salvador for the Southern Encounter. Four board members, Nancy Wiens, Mike Spellman, Luis Cuyun and Tom Pouliot, along with staff member David Ericson, joined Karen Hupchick, Rick Nelson, and Greg Huang-Dale (former board member) to form the delegation from the United States.
“Interpersonal encounter in the Christian sense is thus both active and relational—it occurs between two or more persons or between a person and God. An encounter between two people is a graced experience in which one realizes a strange paradox: the seemingly contradictory human situation of the utter connectedness within which we live in solidarity with each other and at the same time the wild otherness which makes us our own beings living in solitude.
As many of us had done with other delegations, we allowed ourselves to enter into the sacred space of encounter. From across many parts of Guatemala, from areas around El Salvador and from various places in the United States, we came together in Guatemala City to start our journey of encounter and walking with each other. And walk we did. Over the course of 10 days we walked in many places, with many people, in many ways.
We walked the first day with Javier who was instrumental in peaceful protests in Guatemala City that helped bring down president Otto Perez Molina in 2015. Javier shared the philosophies, the solidarity, and the spirit hopefulness that brought so many people together.
The second day, on our way to Chichicastenango and Chontalá, we stopped at the archaeological site Iximchē, where we walked with the spirits of people who walked the space for hundreds of years. Here Don Otto performed ceremony calling on the ancestors to bring health to our encounter. In this sacred place we spent time in ice breakers getting to know the people we would be spending the next days with in meetings, in prayer, at meals and in informal times.
We were welcomed at our home for a few days, Ruth y Nohemi by Pastor Diego, where we were fed and where we heard a brief history about the area. Using Ruth y Nohemi as a base, we travelled the short distance to Chontalá where we were again welcomed with introductions, with dance and song, and with food. Our walk in solidarity took us through the streets of Chontalá as we sang songs and read passages describing the joys of encounter and solidarity.
In Chontalá we also conducted the business portion of our encounter. The business of Sister Parish is to come to know each other, so while we talked some, most of us listened as we discussed the joys of Sister Parish as well as the risks and challenges involved in maintaining a healthy organization.
Informal times of the encounter were every bit as important as the more formal times. In those less formal times we worked to break down the barriers of language and culture. There were times of intense joy and times of intense pain as we talked, laughed and shared our lives.
While in Guatemala we were blessed to walk the streets of Tierra Nueva 1 & 2, and to meet the people and hear the history of those communities. We shared a wonderful meal together, sang songs and felt yet another encounter with the sacred.
Our time in Guatemala was relatively short, but the connections that were made through this encounter were life changing. These “graced experiences” allowed us to strengthen interpersonal relationships as well as the corporate relationships to the Sister Parish organization. We are blessed with committed people who will travel hours in busses to join together in this blessed encounter.
From Guatemala, the group from the United States, together with Clementina from Tierra Nueva 2, and staff members Brian Tyler (Guatemala) and Julieta Borja (El Salvador) next set off to Guarjila, El Salvador.
In Guarjila we walked through the community learning the reality of El Salvador and of Guarjila. We saw and heard the pride of new projects and of projects that have been an important part of the region for many years. Most importantly, we lived in the homes of people we came to know better and now call friends.
There were more meetings in Guarjila – more times to listen to the voices calling us to deep encounter. At the same time, there were those moments of deep spiritual calling as we toured the museum in memory of Father Jon Cortina, and there were moments of laughter and joy as we shared food, sang and played games at El Alto.
This picture of the Southern Encounter is not meant to be a travelogue or a recitation of every detail, but rather to give some feeling of what it was like to step out away from home and take a chance to be open to the living spirit. If you have been on a Sister Parish delegation at some time then you probably know the feelings of love, joy, pain and hope that was in this encounter.
Many things from this encounter, this solidarity walk of 10 days, will stay in my heart as long as I live. I will hold within me the joys and pains discussed late into the night. I will hear the musical background of Greg playing his mandolin throughout the trip. I will relive the moments of walking through Guatemala and El Salvador with people I had never met but now call beloved friends.
In the Eggleston article on encounter he says:
“The Culture of Encounter places value on mystery. To see the world through the lens of encounter is to realize the presence of God all around us and that we are connected to each other through ties both visible and invisible…The Culture of Encounter moves us to walk the journey of our lives tenderly holding each other’s hands knowing all the while that it is Christ who is our veiled and shining companion.”
This is the essence of the Southern Encounter every bit as much as it is the essence of Sister Parish.