[Editors' note: Fr. Andres Girón de Leon fell asleep in the Lord on February 16, 2014; this interview precedes his death.]
Last May, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt became the first head of state ever to be convicted of genocide by his own country. Under the guise of a civil war, the court found, he and his forces had targeted the indigenous Mayans of the Guatemalan highlands for slaughter, including the now-infamous massacre of the village of Dos Erres. During this period, Montt, an Pentecostal pastor with ties to American superstars Pat Robertson and Luis Palau, was enthusiastically praised by Ronald Reagan as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” This background is vital to understanding what is now happening among the same indigenous Mayans: a land reform movement, begun after this catastrophic period, that evolved into mass conversions to the Eastern Orthodox Faith.
For years, former Roman Catholic priest Andres Girón de Leon has fought for land reform, thereby gaining the trust of the indigenous Mayan population. According to Laura Saldivar Tanaka and Hannah Wittman of the Land Action Research Center, “Guatemala’s rural populations suffer from one of the most unequal land distributions in Latin America. Less than 1% of landowners hold 75% of the best agricultural land, 90% of rural inhabitants live in poverty, and over 500,000 campesino families live below subsistence level.” Fr. Girón would help raise donations and help acquire low interest loans to alleviate the plight of the Mayan people and to help purchase back their land. This earned him the title, often repeated in western news publications in the 1980s, of “Father Revolutionary”.
Andres Girón de Leon was not only trusted to protect indigenous land rights, but was also seen as a spiritual leader. After coming into conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, he was excommunicated in the mid-1990s. Several years ago, after a period in a non-canonical Orthodox group, he and hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans converted to canonical Orthodox Christianity. This now makes Guatemala the most Eastern Orthodox country, per-capita, in the western hemisphere. According to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, there are 338 newly Orthodox churches, now under the omophor of Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico, and approximately 500,000 faithful attending them.
Father John Chakos “retired” at age 70 as lead priest at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in order to teach at an Orthodox seminary that trains Mayans. He and his wife spend six months out of each year in Guatemala. Over the years he has worked closely with Fr. Girón to help establish Orthodoxy in Guatemala. Prior to becoming a priest, Father Chakos and his wife served in the U.S. Peace Corps and lived in the slums of Rio de Janeiro for almost three years in the 1960s. The following is a conversation with Father Chakos about the situation in Guatemala:
NLL: What makes orthodox missionary work in the country different than evangelical missionary work in the region, especially in the light of colonialism?
FJC: The first missionaries to Guatemala, like the Dominican friar Fray Bartolome [de las Casas], came with the Conquistadores, who committed many atrocities in order to subjugate the native population. In a system known as the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a person a specified number of natives for whom they were to take responsibility, protecting them and instructing them in the Catholic faith. In return they could exact tribute from the natives in the form of labor, gold or other products. The natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. This model of missions has rarely been practiced in Orthodoxy. Instead, we try to witness to the faith in a positive way without the use of force, always respecting the freedom of the individual. Because of this approach and not having a history of colonial domination, we are able to offer the faith to the natives without all the negative baggage of the past to weigh us down.
NLL: What were the central issues behind Fr. Andrés Girón’s conversion to the Orthodox Faith?
FJC: The main impetus that impelled Fr. Andres to embrace the Orthodox faith was the desire to join a church that would show the love of Jesus to his countrymen in a compelling and beautiful way. His own experience as a social reformer and senator, while still serving his church as a Catholic priest, often brought him into conflict with the hierarchy, the final result of which was his expulsion. While on this journey to find a spiritual home for himself and his many devoted followers from the Mayan villages, he found Orthodox Christianity.
NLL: In short, what was his role in land reform in the country?
FJC: Both as a Catholic priest and senator, Fr. Andres lobbied for land reform in a country where most of the arable land was controlled by a few families. He led the campesino movement to secure land and low interest loans so that the Mayan people could own and work their own land. Through donations and loans he was able to build 44 villages for his people in Guatemala. The transformation can be seen in these villages, whereas before the people worked as share croppers, now they were able to work for themselves on their own land.
NLL: What resistance have the Mayan people faced in pushing for land reform? Does it get dismissed as “leftist”?
FJC:The movement for land reform which Fr. Andres joined and later led grew out of a brutal civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. During this time a ruthless military, under orders from the dictatorship, tried to violently stamp out this resistance movement that was often labeled as leftist. Such was not the case, however. The Mayans, who were neither communists nor capitalists, were caught in the middle of the international struggle between the Iron Curtain countries and the West.
NLL: How does the wider church view this push for land reform?
FJC: I would say that the wider church has always stood for justice, especially in the case of the downtrodden. The Mayans, like so many of their predecessors in the Orthodox Church, desire the same freedoms and opportunities that the rest of us have. The church’s mission is to minister to the whole person, both body and soul. Jesus Himself spoke to this need by encouraging us to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, cloth the naked, etc. We can never separate the material needs from the spiritual ones. Land reform peacefully pursued in the name of Christ is only another dimension of the Gospel imperative to share what we have with those who have not. We cannot partake of the cup of Christ while ignoring the needs of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
NLL: What can the Church as a whole learn from the people of Guatemala?
FJC: We as a church have much to learn from the Mayans of Guatemala. Theirs is a pure and vibrant faith that is flourishing in a simple and communal way of life. While we may not be able return to such a simplistic lifestyle, we can simplify our lives so as not to be overwhelmed by the many maddening distractions that assail us every day.