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My Latest Visit To Hogar Ayau Raphael
By Michaelyn Sloan

"This is not a safe barrio [neighborhood]," Emilcar, my Guatemalan driver, announced. I had suddenly recognized the familiar, massive concrete wall that sets the Hogar Ayau Raphael orphanage apart from the surrounding inner-city neighborhood. Eyeing the 10-foot high, fully armed guardhouse at the Hogar gate, Emilcar looked relieved.

I had been in Guatamala for eight days with a humanitarian group doing construction work in another orphanage as well as providing medical assistance in villages. For four days we were in a port city on the border of Guatemala and Belize. One travel book described this city as a town of "...brothels and bars..." (Because of it's dirt streets, gunslingers, and rifle-toting residents, our group called it "the wild, wild West of Guatemala").

The other four days were filled with visits to villages, sometimes located hours off the main highway. Guatemalan police with machine guns manned various checkpoints, hoping to uncover drug runners. Our vehicles were always stopped!

Once inside the Hogar, the only Orthodox orphanage in Guatemala, Emilcar crossed himself before the floor to ceiling icon of Saint Raphael, patron saint of the orphanage. Tension left his face as he laid down the suitcases of supplies I had brought from St. Luke parish. Then he hugged me in farewell. Emilcar had quickly ascertained what each child entering the Hogar comes to learn, "You are safe here!"

The Hogar was now housing approximately 165 abandoned children (up from 115 children at my visit seven months earlier). The children ranged in age from newborn through age 16 years. The police bring most children to the Hogar, while others are abandoned at the gate. The children spend ten days in quarantine, and their heads are shaved. (A visitor can readily discern the "new girls" by the hats that cover their heads). Thereafter, the children are assimilated into the orphanage by age and gender.

Many of these children are available for adoption. Others await court proceedings to issue papers of abandonment, eventually making adoption possible. Because the children become immersed into the Orthodox Liturgical life in the Hogar, Mother Ines, the Director, allows only Orthodox families to adopt the school age children. However, the younger children are available to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian families alike.

Five years ago, the Guatemalan government gave this orphanage to the Orthodox Church in Guatemala, rent free, for a period of 50 years. The Hogar takes no other funds from the government. It exists solely on adoption fees and donations. Summer Orthodox mission teams and various individuals and groups of people also provide financial assistance as well as hands-on assistance to the Hogar.

During my three days at the Hogar I helped wherever I was needed. Taking two, sometimes three, infants out of their cribs, I played all the "peek-a-boo" and "patty cakes" games both they and I could tolerate. Then I moved onto the next set of cribs and repeated these activities. I also assisted at mealtimes, especially helping the twenty-or-so two- and three-year-old children-this, while protecting my own food and coffee from little hands that were still hungry and thirsty. According to American missionaries seven million people live in Guatamala. Of these, 80% live in poverty with 65% in extreme poverty.

I attended church services at the Hogar, which included Matins each morning and Vespers each evening. The children sang all the responses in Spanish. My stay ended with Sunday Divine Liturgy. As the children entered by age groups, each went forward to receive Mother Ines' blessing. Throughout the Liturgy, Mother Ines, Mother Maria, and Mother Yvonne moved among the children, giving hugs, signaling to the mischievous ones, and affirming the attempts the little ones made to cross themselves. In my travels to various orphanages throughout the world, I have witnessed a variety of living environments, caregivers, and children. The Hogar adds another dimension: Christ's love.

That evening, arriving back in the US, I overheard a fellow traveler sigh, "Ah, back on good old USA soil; safe at last!" I didn't need a plane ride home to assure me of that. I had been to the Hogar where all are safe in knowing Christ and experiencing His love.

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