BY SCO Admin | December 9 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

8-A-MISSIONARY-CHRISTMAS

Spirit of Christ lives on

— MARTIN DUNLOP speaks with Fr Martin Chambers about his amazing experience of Christmas during his missionary years spent in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Family life is something that has always been very important to Fr Martin Chambers. When speaking of Christmas, the parish priest of St Matthew’s Church, Kilmarnock, recalls time spent with his mother and father, his two brothers and his sister, enjoying festive meals and celebrations together. Between the years of 2004 and 2009, however, the celebration of Christmas took on a somewhat different pattern for the priest. These years were spent in Nueva Prosperina, a shantytown in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, where he served as a missionary priest with the society of St James.

During his first Christmas in Ecuador, December 2004, he realised there were many differences between the celebrations in Latin America and those back home in Scotland.

“In Scotland, we always view December 25 and January 1 as the big days,” Fr Chambers said. “In Latin America and Ecuador, particularly in Nueva Prosperina, the big dates are December 24 and December 31.”

Away from home

Speaking of this first Christmas away from home, family and friends, Fr Chambers said that the expected feelings of homesickness and loneliness were not as bad as he previously thought, given that he had, only five months earlier, said goodbye to his mother, who has MS, his father and almost everybody that he loved, while still unclear as to what the future would have in store for him.

“Looking back on it, the worst moment of my life was not Christmas 2004 but what happened in July of that year, leaving my family at that point and thinking: ‘This could be it, at any point things could all go wrong,’” Fr Chambers said. “I had gone through such a traumatic experience in leaving home, with family meaning so much to me, that by the time Christmas came it was another call home.

“Yes, it had Christmas attached to it… but I was conscious that I was talking to people for whom that day was much more tearful than it was for me.

“On that first Christmas Day away, I do remember phoning home, and phoning everyone, my mum and dad, my brothers and sister, all my friends. I was conscious that they were all quite emotional on the phone, telling me how much they were missing me.

“It wasn’t that I was saying: ‘I haven’t missed you’ but in many ways it was just another day and there was nothing special about it because there were no presents in Nueva Prosperina and there were no big parties. The people there would have a nice meal with their families. After midnight Mass they would get together, they would maybe have roast chicken and Coca Cola, if they had it.”

Christmas in Guayaquil

After celebrating Masses in their individual congregations, the priests of Guayaquil traditionally joined together for a meal on Christmas Day, but, as Fr Chambers explained, following the meal, the day was spent no different from any other in a missionary community.

In recalling his memories of Christmas time in Ecuador, Fr Chambers consistently spoke of the simplicity of the celebrations and mentioned one group of people in particular that provided him with a very humbling reminder of how, despite living in poverty, the Christmas message can be spread with joy.

“One of the things that I thought was quite bizarre in my first year, but I then saw it repeated in other years, was that one of the youth groups in the parish came and said to me: ‘We would like to help the poor people,’” Fr Chambers said. “I couldn’t help thinking to myself: ‘But you are the poor people.’”

He described how the young people spent Christmas Day as ‘totally amazing.’

“They went round the bamboo houses in Nueva Prosperina and gathered in a collection of clothes for the poor people,” Fr Chambers said. “They knew who the really destitute were. They knew, and they went to them and wrapped all the clothes up nicely.”

For Fr Chambers, such a gesture of generosity filled him with a great understanding of the ‘community’ he had now joined. “It was an astonishing thing,” he said. “To me, these people were the poor but yet they wanted to give to other people.”

Generosity

Anybody would be forgiven for thinking, on the delivery of the special gifts, that the youth group’s work had been completed for Christmas Day. This, however, as Fr Chambers discovered, was not to be the case, as the young people then made their way into Guayaquil city centre, where they wanted to visit two orphanages.

“On a service bus, they brought a massive pot of hot chocolate, which they had made up themselves, and 30 buns and took them to the orphanages to give out,” Fr Chambers recalled. “It was an amazing experience to see this happen.”

Although the Christmas experience was a much more simple one than that which Fr Chambers was used to in Scotland, he did note that—as Nueva Prosperina is part of a cosmopolitan city—the people were not completely closed off to the commercialism of Christmas, with television adverts constantly reminding them that Christmas is a time of giving and receiving gifts.

“In my first year over there, almost every day for two weeks prior to Christmas, the people would be asking me: ‘Padrecito, (little father) what are you giving me for Christmas?

“By that stage I realised that the people of Scotland had already given quite a lot (through various fundraising initiatives) so I decided to play them at their own game. In the subsequent Decembers I would be saying to the local people: ‘What are you getting me for Christmas? Remember the 25th!”

Special gift

As part of his missionary service in Nueva Prosperina, Fr Chambers set up a new parish, with a new church building, which opened in 2007.

In the three years prior to the opening of the church, he recalled celebrating Christmas Midnight Masses in bamboo huts.

“There was something poignant about that as you were celebrating the birth of the Christ child into poverty and you were able to understand in a more concrete way that this is what it must have been like,” Fr Chambers said.

Moments such as the Midnight Mass celebrations and recalling the Christmas Day generosity of the youth group in Nueva Prosperina have had a lasting effect on how Fr Chambers now celebrates Christmas at home in Scotland.

“What the experiences have made me do, in terms of Christmas, is that I do not send any cards, I do not give any presents—I’m not sure my nieces and nephews are very happy about this,” Fr Chambers said.

He prefers to buy presents using SCIAF Real Gifts, ensuring that poor people in other countries can benefit from the money people spend at this time of year. “I just have that sense that our Christmas doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said.

Homecoming

Fr Chambers will spend this Christmas Day, once again, with those closest to him but the sense of simplicity and generosity he experienced with the people of Nueva Prosperina will not be far from his thoughts.

“This Christmas Day, we will meet at my sister’s or my brother’s, wherever mum and dad go that’s where Martin goes, so much so that they haven’t actually asked me yet this year,” he said.

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