(To listen to Fr. Mullen's sermon, please click here).
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11: 28)
The altar in the church of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados, on the outskirts of Puerto Cortez in Honduras, is free-standing. It is, in fact, a crudely made table, nailed together, its plank-top painted white. It was not difficult to lift it and carry it off of its platform and into the sacristy – through a door on the Gospel side, more or less the same location as the sacristy here at Saint Mark’s. But in this sacristy there are no vestments stored, and no precious vessels. The wooden chalice and paten we had used for the Mass were already washed up and placed in the shoebox they are kept in somewhere else.
The shelves of the sacristy had been lined with the contents of many of the duffel bags we carried with us to Honduras: Amoxicillin, Doxycycline, Lisinopril, Glipizide, Benadryl and its liquid sibling Banophen, Metoprolol, Cepahlexin, Ciprofloxacin, Ranitidine, Albendazole, Metronidazole, Prednisone, Azithromycin, Hydrochlorothiazide, Hydocortisone, triple-antibiotic, and Chlortrimazol creams, and Albutrin inhalers, along with liquid Tylenol for children in two different dosages, suspensions of antibiotics ready to be reconstituted (also for children), baby aspirin, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Tums by the thousands, and a small cache of injectable medications kept inside a locked metal cabinet that I was not allowed to look at, let alone touch that I know included insulin, and thousand and thousands of vitamins for children and adults.
I will not bore you with an inventory of the comparable supply of medical supplies also carried in those duffel bags: stethoscopes, scalpels, swabs, pulse-ox monitors, bandages, otoscopes, tongue depressors, blood-pressure cuffs, gauze, curettes, and all manner of other paraphernalia that was arrayed in another building, a short way down the hill, beneath the sacristy, which became the examination rooms for our four doctors.
Most of my time – during this past mission trip to Honduras, as in the last one we organized three years ago – was spent in what had been the sacristy but was now transformed into la farmacia. And here, the altar had become our work-table – its planks nailed close enough together that we did not have to worry about even the smallest pills slipping down in between them to the floor, as we counted them out into little zip-lock baggies, and wrote out instructions in Spanish, guided by our interpreters.
La farmacia – the pharmacy – was somewhat insulated from the organized chaos of the church, where patients were greeted, vital signs were taken, and triage was done so we could get an idea of the overall condition, complaints, and needs of the patients. Down the hill in the examination rooms is where the doctors were talking with, examining closely, and treating patients before sending them back up the hill with their diagnoses and prescriptions written out. The patients then waited in the church again, while we filled prescriptions in the pharmacy, had them checked by a nurse, and sent them out with a translator and a nurse to provide instructions. Which is to say that inside la farmacia we were also somewhat insulated from the actual human beings whom we had come to serve, since we had not been assigned to deal with the patients face-to-face.
But you must abandon any idea that the separation was meaningful between those of us in the small sacristy/pharmacy and the people we served on that hillside outside of Puerto Cortez. Because the sacristy – la farmacia – a room of maybe 10 x 12 feet – enjoyed two large windows, covered with bars, and a metal mesh, but no glass, and a large metal door that we kept open. The door allowed not only access down the path to the examination rooms, but also welcome ventilation during the hot, humid days.
And these three large openings to the room – two windows and one door – were almost constantly attended by children. Faces peered in through windows watching the counting of pills as though it might suddenly turn fascinating. And little bodies leaned on the door jambs, poked heads inside, struck up conversations, played patty-cake, asked for handouts of various sorts, and hovered constantly at the open door that led outside from la farmacia. So our actual contact – primarily with the children from the nearby school and the surrounding neighborhood – was non-stop. I never really saw a single patient, as such, in the clinic; but I sure did spend time with a lot of children!
The neighborhood around the church is nicknamed Colonia Episcopal. It was largely destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 – a storm that devastated Honduras. And the church on the hillside was left more or less a ruin afterward. Its school was turned over to the state, and the local residents were left to rebuild their shanty-town in the haphazard way that is seen a lot throughout Honduras. With few parishioners and damaged by the storm, the little church was eventually closed by the diocese and left to decay for several years, until a formidable woman, who happens also to be a midwife with whom we worked this past week, went to the bishop and asked him to allow them to reclaim the church and its school and to rebuild. The bishop gave them a chance, and a bit of help in funding for a new roof for the church building, which was by then in terrible disrepair.
Today the roof keeps rain out very effectively, I can attest. The church is painted bright yellow, and its large white cross is easily visible from the highway that leads past it into the city of Puerto Cortez. And every day last week children cavorted on every side of the church, inside and out, and at every window and door, including those that opened into la farmacia. I assume that our presence merely intensified the kind of cavorting that is probably a regular feature of the church of Nuestra Señora de los Desamaparados – which can be translated “Our Lady of the Dispossessed,” or “Our Lady of the Defenseless.”
Among the most striking experiences of the week 14 of us from Saint Mark’s just spent in Honduras was the experience of the church as a magnet for children, for there were children absolutely everywhere. About two -thirds or more of all our patients were children. But as I mentioned, the church was also surrounded by children every day – children in bare feet, covered in dirt, filthy-dirty as we sometimes say around here, too small for their ages because they are not sufficiently well nourished, their heads sometimes teeming with lice – and yet, of course, absolutely adorable in every way. The kids played with deflated soccer balls. They used rubber gloves given to them by our doctors as balloons. They chased each other, played tag, and they squealed with delight when we squirted them with water from 60-cc syringes.
The remarkable thing about children is that they often do not know that they have been given heavy burdens to bear. These children certainly showed few signs of being aware of the heavy burden of poverty that was draped over each of their shoulders, and which will weigh heavily on them all as they get older.
It is, of course, the most saccharine of clichés to point out that the future belongs to the young – to children. Perhaps it is a disdain for the clichéd, then, that renders Episcopalians so often indifferent to children in our churches. The idea that the church could be a magnet for children is laughable in many of our churches, outside of the South where the important place of children in the church remains an article of religion.
But on a hillside in poverty-wracked Honduras, where the church has almost nothing to work with, I know of a church that that for at least five days was an absolute magnet for children.
It is a tenet of mission work in this modern era that the missionaries will very likely bring at least as much back with them as they brought to those whom they were called to serve. Among the many lessons I hope I have brought back with me from Honduras is the image (I pray, a lasting one) of the church as a magnet for children: a church where children want to be, where they know their concerns are foremost in the minds of the adults who surround them, where they know there is something for them, where they will be fed and cared for, and maybe even healed, where they can play and sing and be joyful, and where, without doubt, they will be safe. Search the shelves of any pharmacy and you will discover that there is no easy prescription for this – though it is the cure the church is so dearly in need of.
We have begun, here at Saint Mark’s, to take children much more seriously, to begin to enjoy again their more numerous presence among us, and to see in them a vision of our future, unclear though that vision may yet be.
Over the doors of this church are inscribed the words from the Gospel we read today: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We don’t always hear in these words of Jesus a call to children – whose burdens are often masked by their innocence, their resiliency, and their smiles. And, God willing, it will be the case that not all the children who come to us will be weighed down by poverty or other burdens that are heavy to bear. But even the children of the well-to-do carry burdens with them.
By God’s blessing and mercy, may this place become a magnet for them and for all children. May they be peering in our windows and leaning up against our doors and playing in our gardens so they can’t help but spill inside. And may they always find rest and hope and joy here in this place. And, by God’s grace, perhaps the little children will become the prescription for whatever ails us now, and the hope for our future.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 July 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia