A Missionary’s Journey in the Andes
Since childhood I have been fascinated with geography. At times I would build different islands and mountains on the seashore and imagined myself at the top of them. It was a lifelong dream for me to travel from one place to another, but being in Peru was far beyond my imagination. Flying for almost 40 hours was the longest flight that I had. I crossed every continent, ocean and mountain. The whole experience was breathtaking.
Having stayed in Lima for a year, I got used to the busy and sophisticated life of the metropolis. I wondered how other parts of Peru would look like since Lima is just a speck of the whole of Peru. The whole country is big and is divided into three major parts: costa (coastal), sierra (Andes mountains) and the selva (amazon). These three are distinct which makes Peru one of the most beautiful countries in the world. My sense of awe brought me to an experience that will have a significant impact in my first missionary assignment (FMA).
In August 2015, Manuel, my FMA companion, and I traveled from Lima to Cusco where we were assigned for a week-long exposure in the high plains region of southern Peru. I was very excited since Cusco is the birthplace of the Inca civilization and famous for being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Pichu. Finally, we arrived in Cusco, and the first thing that I felt was faintness which came as no surprise since we were told that the place is 4,400 meters above sea-level. We were accompanied by Fr. Gregory Kim Young-In, a Korean Columban who was assigned in Parroquia Santiago Apostol de Yanaoca (St. James the Apostle Parish). We spent the whole night in Cusco to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude of the place since the next destination we were heading to was higher than Cusco. I was so delighted with what I saw in the central part of Cusco.
One can witness the remnants of the empire that was once considered the most influential civilization in South America, that is, it is the birthplace of the Incan civilization. The architectural designs stood out, and the whole place was very magical. It was a night filled with awe and wonder as we prepared ourselves physically for the continuation of the journey.
Early in the morning on the next day we continued our journey and after two and a half hours of driving we arrived at the Parish of St. James the Apostle of Yanaoca. On behalf of the community, we were welcomed by Fr. Paul Prendegast, a Columban from New Zealand, with their traditional tea made of cocoa leaves that was helpful in alleviating altitude sickness. The serenity of the place and the simplicity of the locals amazed me. It was very cold, and the air penetrated my bones. Despite the cold weather I was mesmerized by the beauty of God’s creation. It was my first time to see snow in my life. The thrill took away my dizziness. The inner child in me has manifested my actions which took away the attention of the people who surrounded me. I was roaming around the place feeling excited about the experiences that I would encounter. I had the opportunity to talk with the people. At times I struggled to understand them since a majority of the locals spoke in their native tongue, which is called “Quechua.”
The presence of the Columbans had been a great help in the area. Aside from the main parish, there were several chapels and far-away communities where Columbans administered the Sacraments to the people. It is customary that once a year, holy Mass has to be celebrated in honor of their feast-saint. At that time we visited “Machucayo A,” which is a far-flung community 90 kilometers away from the main parish. While we were driving, I was reminded of what Fr. Paul Prendegast shared with me during his early years as a priest where most of the time he walked or rode a horse to reach far-flung areas. He spent most of his life building friendships with people. As a missionary, bringing God’s love and building friendships with the locals are inseparable. We can only be effective in our ministry once we value the dignity of every person that we encounter. His love of his ministry transcends time. He is almost 80, but his passion in doing his ministry was an inspiration for me. It is his love of the people and his care for them that gave him reasons to look forward to every single moment that he has with his community.
When we arrived at the chapel, people slowly began to arrive. Most of them walked for a long distance just to attend the Mass. I had a chance to talk to one of the ladies who was catching her breath as she laid down her basket full of fruits and vegetables. She told me that they walked for almost five hours in order to attend the Holy Mass in honor of the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The chapel looks like a shack. It was very old and empty except the little altar in front of the chapel. As we commenced the celebration, the whole community sung wholeheartedly the hymns of the Masses. I was amazed by the participation of the people. I didn’t understand any word since the Mass was in Quechua. Their gestures showed their reverence to the celebration of the Mass.
I’ve been to different Masses, but my experience in that community was totally different. I felt the importance of the Mass in the lives of everyone who was present there. Not a single moment was wasted. They offered everything to God: their time, presence, family and the works of their hands. While I was reflecting on what I’ve experienced, I had a glimpse of what a heavenly banquet looks like. That moment of grace seems that the heavenly banquet had taken place on earth. I was moved to tears, and it was a life-changing experience for me.
Through that experience, I’ve realized that sometimes those people who had ample time and opportunity to attend Masses often missed those opportunities, while those who hardly had time cherished every moment of the Mass. These people who walked five to six hours were mostly mothers who made a tremendous effort in order to thank the Lord through the celebration of the Eucharist. I believe in my heart that God has revealed Himself unto me through the faith of the local people who have touched me deeply.
After the Mass, we were invited by the head catechist of the community to have lunch in their house. He lived in a very small house with his ailing mother. In spite of his mother’s health he still offered his generosity for us as he prepared us a delicious meal, a traditional Andean delicacy. Their generosity moved me. As the mother served the food for us, she spoke in low tone: “La casa es chiquita pero el Corazon es grande (the house is small but the heart is big).
Reflecting on those words I’ve learned that encountering the presence of God doesn’t have to be extraordinary. Experiencing Him doesn’t have to be mystical. Even in the most ordinary of days, you will encounter Him, so long as your heart is open to encountering Him. The beauty of the place and the goodness of the locals has prepared me for that unforgettable encounter of the God who is always at the side of the lowly. Those people may be deprived of material things, but their faith of a loving God as expressed in their daily lives was very rich. In their simple lives the God of encounter is being manifested.
As I bade farewell to the locals, I was reminded of a beautiful song that was always sung during the mission sending: “I’ll shout it from the mountain top, I want the world to know. The Lord of love has come to me; I want to pass it on.” As I continue my journey in becoming a future missionary, I want to retell the story of this encounter of a God whom I encountered in the Andes.
Erl Dylan J. Tabaco is a Columban seminarian.