Dec 2 2017

‘We never saw him as a stranger’

Concepcion sits on the steps outside the church in Santiago Atitlan where Blessed Stanley Rother served as pastor.

Blessed Stanley Francis Rother was beatified Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City. It was the final step before formal recognition as a saint. Father Rother, an American priest who was martyred in Guatemala in 1981, was a contemporary of Unbound’s late co-founders Bob Hentzen and Jerry Tolle.

Our organization has long felt a special affinity for Father Rother, who, in the Tz’utujil dialect of those he served, was affectionately called “Padre A’plas” (Father Francisco). Several of those who knew and worked with him are also members of the Unbound community. The following interview, which took place in Guatemala in October, is with one of those individuals.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Concepcion, and on Oct. 11 I will turn 62 years old. I have 11 children. The eldest is 45 years old and the youngest is 15 years old. I now have 13 grandchildren.

My husband is 69 years old, and he works the in the field. I take care of the household duties, and whenever I have a chance I make traditional clothing.

How many years have you been in Unbound?

I have been part of Unbound for 15 years now. My first daughter who was sponsored graduated already, but my second daughter is starting her career in high school.

Did you meet Father A’plas in person?

Yes, I met him. He used to come give talks at the classroom. Actually, he helped build that classroom. He also helped purchase a plot of land. He cleared it and taught us how to plant wheat, beans, potatoes, garlic and corn.

How did you meet Father A’plas?

I met him through the work he did when he came to teach us to work the plot of land, then through the Masses he gave. But I really got to know him through my brother-in-law, who was part of the group of catechists who worked with him. I think he was God-sent, because with him I personally learned what compassion is. He taught us to help the sick and share food with those who have nothing.

What’s your most cherished memory of Father A’plas?

One day he gathered us to ask us about our needs. We, as a community, informed him that there was one person going through a severe health situation, and had debt at the hospital. We, along with him, agreed to help this person heal, and the community provided a way to feed this person.

How was the priest perceived by the community? As a stranger? A foreigner? As a friend? Or another member of the community?

He first learned our language, Tz’utujil. He would call the elder ladies, “Tie’” (grandma) and they felt a deep appreciation for him. People would ask him what he did, and he’d tell them that he worked the land to feed them. We never saw him as a stranger or a foreigner. We always saw him as part of us, and he taught us the Word of God.

I saw that [he] was destined to become beatified. He taught us what he learned in his country, to raise animals and plant. From the harvest he yielded, he distributed it to those most in need. He ate with us, and he ate the same things we ate in our homes. He taught us to love children and elders. He always talked to us and listened to us.

At Unbound, we strive to discover people’s skills and the family’s potential, to walk alongside them, create a community and develop their talents. Were Father A’plas’ ideas similar?

It is around these days that another year will have gone by since Don Roberto [Bob Hentzen, Unbound’s late co-founder] left us. I think that Don Roberto had the same mission as Father A’plas. Both taught us to get closer to God.

The parable of the talents comes to mind. I think that each of them came with their own talents, predestined. We are now seeing the fruits of their labor. Both, the priest and Unbound, have taught us to pray for others. I pray for the sponsors, for the Unbound staff and for everyone in Unbound. This work is just like as if Father A’plas had planted it for us. No one can just go to a rich man and ask for help, because that person will have a hard time extending his hand to help the needy. But Unbound tends to us and listens to us.

What do you think is Father A’plas’ legacy in the indigenous community of Guatemala?

First of all, he left us the interpretation of the Sacred Scripture, which he transformed into work through compassion. He made us participate in citing the Bible, he’d ask us our opinion about the Word of God, and he was able to turn our faith into deep faith in God.

Is there a special memory you have of Father A’plas?

One day we were all gathered to hear him preach. We had gathered in the classroom, and he had the idea to turn off the light. We were in complete darkness. He explained that that’s how a heart feels without God, and only the light of the Word of God can bring clarity into our lives.

How does it make you feel to know someone from your community will be a saint?

I feel happy because I met him. I admire his compassionate strength for everyone. I see how the projects he founded still stand today. I now feel free to pray and ask him to teach me to practice compassion, to enlighten me so that I can do the work he did for those most in need.

I now feel the need to help another person in need, to share the little that I have. I think that you don’t need to see the quantity of help, but rather, the worth that you give to the lives of those who are in need.

How has the community received this news?

We are all very happy. The day of his beatification, everyone gathered to celebrate the occasion. They showed us part of his blood that is still preserved in the altar of the church, which represents that he is still living with us.

No one worked on the day of his beatification. We saved that special moment to be part of the Holy Mass. There were people who didn’t have a house or land, and he helped them have a better life. He helped the sick, the elders and supported the children’s education by building schools.

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