Mud, trucks, and angels in Mayan villages

Shortly after ordination, I had a semester-long assignment at our Jesuit parish in S Belize, Central America

this is the car battery from the story. I am not making this up. note the shoelace [brown] and bike tire [black rubber] used to hold the battery in place

this is the car battery from the story. I am not making this up. note the shoelace [brown] and bike tire [black rubber] used to hold the battery in place

On Sunday I drove out to the villages of Barranco and Midway for Mass. You know those ads that show a guy driving his 4-wheel-drive Jeep through streams and mud? At the end of the 30-second commercial, he arrives at the lodge with a big grin and clean clothes.

The roads here are like that. Obstacles include rocks, pot-holes the size of a microwave, stray dogs, pigs, bicyclists, motorcycles, men riding horses, and ruts from the dump trucks that tried to repair the road before the last election. You weave back and forth looking for the smooth(er) parts of the road. Driving to Barranco resembles the Jeep commercial for the first 10 minutes or so. After 45 minutes your fillings feel loose — but you’re almost there. Later you have to drive back after Mass, at noon, in 99 percent humidity.

‘JP’ was a novice working in the parish for a few months. He and I decided to leave on Saturday afternoon to make the two-hour drive to a village where I would celebrate Mass on Sunday. Details were a bit murky. On Friday, I called the man who answers the one phone that the village has. He spoke little English, but said that we would spend the night in the church, or at his house, or at another house.

In addition to the Mass kit, we brought food, water, sleeping pads and blankets. I drove on a highway that turned to gravel, then dirt, then mud. In some places, I floored the accelerator to get through mud and 2-feet-deep water. In other places I slowed down because I didn’t know how deep it was. Slowing down worked until we got stuck. Fortunately a Salvadoran man in a bigger truck with a chain pulled us out.

I learned my lesson. Now I’m flooring it through all the muddy spots. The truck has no shocks; it’s like a monster truck rally. There is mud on the inside of the windshield. Both the truck and ourselves are taking a pounding. After one big bump, we hear a thud under the hood, and the truck grinds to a halt.

We opened the hood and discovered that the last big bump broke wires on the battery. We were somewhere between 2 to 10 miles from our destination. We messed with the battery without success. It was getting dark.

 JP and I decided to walk and bring all of the stuff with us, 40 to 60 pounds apiece. The Mass kit is a big briefcase that I tied to my backpack with an extra shoelace. We walked for an hour without seeing people, cars or houses. We heard howler monkeys and birds as 100 billion stars shone down on us. 

We took a break for water, exhausted. I suggested taking only the water, and leaving everything else at the side of the road, or just camping on the road for the night. John-Paul suggested we keep going.

Ten minutes later, we saw the village sign and then some thatch houses. We approached a house, and met someone who led us to the church. Over his shoulder in mumbled English he asked, “ . . . church, truck, you, Father? Benches.”

A few villagers were finishing a prayer vigil in the church. They were praying for us and hoped that we could have joined them for the vigil, but we were three hours late. They were glad we made it and left us three lit candles. Jean-Paul and I were so happy to be there. We offered dazed thank-yous.

I pushed three wooden benches together to form a flat-ish bed. We lay there for 30 minutes, exhausted, not talking, not moving. I had a huge softball-sized knot on my left shoulder. With food and rest we gradually came back to life.

The church was filled with grace. The candles lit up the altar, tabernacle and rafters. What century are we in? This scene could be from 1600, or even Ireland in the 500’s. Missionary priests go to a far-away place with only a foggy sense of geographic direction; they arrive late and find a warm welcome. Perhaps Pierre DeSmet, or Isaac Jogues, or St. Patrick had experiences similar to this. We did evening prayer to thank God.

The old air mattresses we brought do not hold air. We just hauled these heavy things 5 miles; now they are just vinyl sheets. We slept uncomfortably, waking up every hour or so to the sounds of monkeys, dogs, roosters and birds.

In the morning, the school principal took us to his house for breakfast – coffee, eggs, tortillas – then he drove us to Dolores village for 7 a.m. Mass. The choir in Dolores village has two marimbas, wooden xylophones straight out of the movie, The Mission.

The church is bright and well attended, with good singing and prayerful spirits. This Mass is the best of the Church here: fully Mayan and fully Catholic. Christ fulfills cultures; He takes the best of what we are and transforms us into the Body of Christ. He has done this through decades [centuries] of prayer and labor by past Jesuits, village leaders, and Mayan families. Again, I’m reminded of St. Patrick, who transformed Ireland into a Christian Irish people. 

Now to Corazon village. I was fading fast after only a few hours of sleep on a church bench. It was 11:30 a.m. and getting hot. The principal wanted us to show him our broken-down truck. When we found the truck, he opened the hood and said, “Oh, oh, wow, my. Hmm. Not good. But I think I can fix it.”

In his tool kit are pliers, a hammer and a fistful of extra wire. He uses my spare shoestring to tie the battery in place. After five minutes of jimmying and pounding, the truck starts!

The third Mass was rough. In the sanctuary are three speakers, each the size of a refrigerator. There’s a one-upmanship with the Pentecostal churches around here. They get speakers, we get bigger speakers. They turn up the volume, we turn it up more. Teenage boys played two guitars, two keyboards and an electronic drum set. I could feel the music vibrating my ribs. The two female cantors stood at the altar, using it as a big music stand. It was hard for me to get to the altar; I asked the cantors to move, but they could not hear me. By the end of Mass, JP and I were utterly spent, but the truck seemed fine. We drove slow, taking it easy.

We arrived home at 3 p.m. — almost exactly 24 hours after we left.

-Spring, 2012

-original publication,

-USA Jesuits, Central & Southern Province