For many people of the Orthodox Church, especially those living in first-world countries, the mission of Christ is primarily viewed as something spiritual and otherworldly.  As such, the main emphasis is placed on liturgical rites and the teaching and preaching ministries of the faith. While these ministries are vital to the propagation of the faith, there is another equally compelling mission, that of our service to the sick. Jesus Himself emphasized the importance of this outreach by identifying Himself with the suffering: “I was sick and you took care of me…” (Math. 25: 36). To be sure such visits of mercy are dutifully made to the “least of the  brethren.” However, the patients that we visit more often than not find themselves in comfortable hospital beds attended by highly trained doctors and nurses. While such therapeutic treatment is not always perfect, it is readily available and usually competent. In other words, we don’t expect the worst when we have to go to the hospital for the majority of our ailments or injuries. The death rate has been declining each year since 1980 and new cures and breakthroughs in medicine allow us to live longer and higher quality lives.

Against this backdrop of improving medical treatment and its concomitant expectation of longevity, we, as Orthodox missionaries, come to places like Guatemala to work with the native people.   Although living so close to the United States, these people cannot benefit from the advances in both treatment and research that we have come to take for granted.  In fact, in most parts of Guatemala finding any kind of medical care can be a life or death matter.  According to one recent study, 80% of all the country’s doctors reside and work in the capital of Guatemala City (metro area 2.3 million).  According to a 2010 study of the World Health Association, Guatemala stands out as a country with slightly less than one doctor per 10,000 inhabitants.  That ratio becomes far worse for those living in more remote and hard-to-get-to areas when we consider that only 2o% of the doctors serve the rest of the 12 million inhabitants of the country.  Add to this the fact that the majority of these mostly uninsured people do not have the resources to travel long distances or to buy the medicines they need, much less pay the doctors.

As we can see, bringing the Orthodox Christian faith to countries like Guatemala requires more than just preaching the Gospel of peace.  Indeed, effective preaching takes on many forms besides words, or as Jesus taught, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Math. 5: 14).   This is how the words of the Gospel take on substance.  We are called to minister to the whole person, body and soul, thus fulfilling the call of Christ to show mercy as did the Holy Unmercenaries like Saints Cosmas and Damian. To this end, and in response to an urgent appeal for medicine from a brother priest in Guatemala – Fr. Blasius Monterroso- I traveled to Guatemala last week. I was accompanied by Robert Kirschner a volunteer with Surgicorps International, an organization which since 1994 has performed more than 3,000 life changing surgeries in 16 countries.  Through a generous donation from Brother’s Brother Foundation, an agency that  promotes international health and education, we we were able to carry 6 large suitcases of medicine to Guatemala. While in country we were escorted by Father Blasius to the proposed site of a medical clinic in the village of Javali, which will be serviced by a local doctor- Pedro Pablo Soto- once every two weeks on a voluntary basis.

Another purpose for our visit was to tour the facilities of the national public hospital and assess the medical needs in the bustling town of Tiquisate.  While there we met with the director of the hospital and members of his staff, all of whom expressed great enthusiasm for a possible Surgicorps mission that specializes in maxillofacial, burn, and hand deformation surgeries. This team of doctors already operates out of a mission hospital in Antigua every year.  If there is shown to be a big enough demand in Tiquisate, an additional team could be sent. It is our hope that this could be the first of many such teams, taking us further and further into the interior of the country where most of the poor and underserved people reside. Through networking in the church communities and through the media, an effort will be made to locate and pre-screen potential candidates for this Surgicorps outreach. By connecting the Church’s concern for the whole person with the skill of these selfless doctors, many lives will be changed and the name of Christ will be glorified among the people. Is this not the mission of the Church, to heal as Christ did?

Operating Room in Tiquisate

Operating Room in Tiquisate

Doctor Pedro Pablo to Volunteer His Service

Doctor Pedro Pablo to Volunteer His Service

Village Church-Javali-Serves as Clinic




  1. Father James Retelas says

    Father John,
    I have led several teams to Guatemala to assist the nuns at the Hogar. As a result, we have a few parishioners eager to return but I understand the needs of assisting with the emerging mission to the Mayan people is distinct from the work of the orphanage. Are short-term mission teams needed at this point? Please advise.

    WIth Brotherly Affection,
    Father James Retelas
    Sacramento, CA

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