For a week in January each of the past two years, about ten members of our parish have gone on mission to the village of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, where we work in partnership with the Church of St. John the Baptist (Iglesia San Juan Bautista), the local Roman Catholic parish founded by the Spanish in the 1580s.
Measured by GDP, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti). Its population of about 5.5 million occupies a territory the size of New York or North Carolina. Most Nicaraguans live in rural areas, villages, and small towns. Agriculture remains a mainstay of the economy, although tourism is growing in importance.
In San Juan de Oriente, population 5,000, the main industry is production of handmade clay pottery, from excavation of clay through the formation, firing, and decoration and finishing of ornamental ceramics. By Nicaraguan standards, San Juan de Oriente is reasonably prosperous. Still, many homes have dirt floors and ramshackle walls made of boards or even plastic sheeting. Almost everyone uses barrels to store water delivered via the town water system a few days a week for a few hours at a time.
The anchor of our time on mission was Mass on Sunday and each of the four succeeding workdays at Iglesia San Juan Bautista. Padre Gerardo Rodriguez, the Rector, welcomes us to join fully in worship, and our clergy and acolytes join Padre and his acolytes (some of whom are great translators) at altar. The many, many children in the congregation are extraordinarily well behaved.
Our other mission activities include staffing (or helping staff, with great assistance from local parishioners) a vacation Bible school for pre-K through 6th grade students, all in Spanish, of course! Classes include discussion, music, and art, all focused on a Bible verse or theme, and playground activity (like "Simon Dice," or Simon Says). The missionaries help serve a nutritious lunch on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday to approximately 350 local children, many of whom would not otherwise eat a well-balanced meal. Ascension & St. Agnes helps support this feeding program throughout the year. The missionaries have had a major building project each year -- painting the parish hall in 2008, and painting the public elementary school in 2009.
A highlight each year has been bilingual evening Bible study. We read the same verse in English and Spanish and then, after a period of meditation, share what it means (in native tongue and in translation). Any thought that the parishioners of San Juan Bautista are simple village folk will be banished by hearing their interpretations of Scripture.
"Gracias à Dios" (thanks be to God) is an expression freely used by Nicaraguans, and one of the most powerful impressions made by the parishioners of Iglesia San Juan Bautista is their profound gratitude for His many gifts. Their thanks to the mission group for our days spent with them in worship and service was expressed with such conviction that most of us "frozen chosen" became emotionally overwhelmed. This missionary, at least, has learned a lot about gratitude and faith from the people of San Juan de Oriente.
In coming editions of the bulletin you will hear from many of our 2008 and 2009 missionaries what the experience meant to them. Our past missionaries met in mid-June and decided without hesitation to plan another trip in January 2010 (we're tentatively planning on January 16-23 to coincide with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday). We hope you will consider joining the mission to Nicaragua. All have something to contribute, and all have something to learn. If you're interested in learning more, Stephanie Partridge (202-244-2749, email@example.com) and Bill Glew (202-441-0157, firstname.lastname@example.org) are serving as mission coordinators.