To hear Bishop Benito Juarez-Martinez tell it, the relationships between the Diocese of Southeast Mexico and the Diocese of Chicago began almost by accident.
In 2001, the Rev. Narciso Diaz was leaving Juarez-Martinez’s diocese to become priest-in-charge of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Waukegan. One day Juarez-Martinez received a request for some paperwork regarding the transfer from one of his counterparts in Chicago, a bishop named Victor Scantlebury.
The two men had worked in youth ministry together during the 1970s in Province IX, the primarily Caribbean and South American jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church, and Juarez-Martinez was happy for the chance to renew the relationship. He put in a call to Scantlebury, who is now the interim bishop of Central Ecuador, but was then an assisting bishop in Chicago. His timing was perfect.
The Diocese of Chicago, under Bishop William Persell, was looking for a companion diocese, and the Diocese of Southeast Mexico was looking for companions as well. One thing led quickly to another. Today, 13 years later, 11 churches in the Diocese of Chicago have companion relationships with parishes or ministries in the southeastern Mexico, and activity is intensifying.
The diocese’s subcommittee on Southeast Mexico will play host when Juarez-Martinez visits Chicago May 2-11 to consult with parishes currently involved in companion parish relationships, and, possibly, “to recruit one or two more,” said Charles Stewart, a member of Church of Our Saviour in Chicago and the sub-committee’s chair.
The subcommittee is also facilitating a meeting between the bishop and representatives of Living Waters for the World, a global network that builds and operates systems that bring clean water to communities that would otherwise be without it.
“There are many projects we are involved in,” said Juarez-Martinez in a recent interview during which his son Eigner served as translator. “Bakeries. Mills to make the cornmeal into masa for tortillas. Water purification. Embroidering projects. Scholarships for the students, from elementary to university, to support some of their expenses.”
Members of some Chicago-area parishes will have the opportunity to see this projects at work during the next year. All Saints’, Chicago, Christ Church, Winnetka and St. Mark’s, Glen Ellyn are planning trips to their companion parishes this summer, and Church of our Saviour and St. Chrysostom’s, Chicago, have scheduled visits with communities in Chiapas early in 2015.
They will also have the chance to participate in relationships that Stewart described as transformative.
“At the beginning our visits were marked by curiosity—on both sides—and wonder—on both sides—as well, “said Stewart, who has visited churches in Chiapas four times with his wife, Sena. “But the unconditional love we felt from the children was overwhelming, and a great motivation for our return each year.
“One of the elders described us as God’s presence in their midst, but in fact, it was their growing presence in our lives that has led to our repeated visits. After four years we find ourselves returning to worship with families and friends. Curiosity has turned to compassion—on both sides.”
Forming relationships with parishes in the United States is sometimes difficult, Juarez-Martinez said. “Our greatest challenge is that sometimes the information the groups receive from Mexico blocks the intention of coming down and visiting us,” he added. “Sometimes people or groups get scared about making a trip.”
But the perception that Mexico is a violent place fades once people make a visit, Juarez-Martinez said. “What I have seen is that when groups visit our congregations and share in the life of the people, their perception changes completely. There is a transformation of their lives and the way they see our country, our diocese.
“From testimony that when people visit the parishes that have this relationship, especially the youth groups, they express that that trip has changed their lives and given them a new perspective when they return. They say: “I value even more what I have and realize I have more things than I need.”
The opportunity to worship in rural communities where the Eucharist is celebrated in the local Mayan language, and Spanish, with occasional musical English interludes for the benefit of Chicagoans, is deeply moving, Stewart said.
“If people come to visit us, they will meet a people whom they otherwise might never meet,” Juarez-Martinez said. “That means a great deal for both of our dioceses. The impact is not only in the material sense but in the personal lives of the members and the community. They have another way of seeing the ministry of their church.
“We are a big family, we are not just a small family in the community; we are a big family in the whole world.”