A missionary martyr from Oklahoma?
Ash Wednesday I finished a new book about a missionary martyr, The Shepherd Who Didn't Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma by María Ruiz Scaperlanda.
I have read Henri Nouwen’s book, Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story, as well as the chapter on Fr. Stan Rother in Murdered in Central America: The Stories of Eleven U.S. Missionaries by Donna Whitson Brett and Edward T. Brett.
I have twice visited Santiago Atitlán, once with a Guatemalan who spoke one of the languages spoken there and knew some of the people. I remember the shrine with Fr. Stan’s heart on the right side as I entered the church. I took some pictures a few of which I scanned. But I only have one of the cross and retable available here in Honduras.
But this book helped me to understand even more deeply the witness of this US missionary and to make it personal.
María Ruiz Scaperlanda gives us a moving portrait of Fr. Stan. What comes through in the book is Stan’s humanity which included his struggle with anger. He is no plaster saint, but a real person.
I was particularly impressed by his simplicity – an Oklahoma farm boy who flourished in a different context, because of his love for the people. Reading the book, I was reminded of Father Ron Hennessey, a Maryknoll missionary and Iowa farm boy, who also served in Guatemala about the same time as Father Stan Rother. (I wrote about Ron here.)
As María Ruiz Scaperlanda writes (p. 228):
Because he understood the Gospel values, not as a set of ideas but an affair of the heart, Father Stanley could take care of the most menial duties with his whole being. Whether listening to someone’s pain, fixing a car, changing a diaper, driving someone to the doctor, or shopping for supplies for the mission, he understood the reality of God’s presence in each act — and by doing so, he proclaimed the Gospel of love, joy, and hope with his whole being.
At the end of the book, the author compares Fr. Stan with Saint John Marie Vianney, the Curé de Ars. They both struggled with seminary studies. They both served in out of the way parishes where their love of the people was exemplary.
But what really hit me as I finished reading it on Ash Wednesday evening was Fr. Stan’s commitment and his total giving of himself to the people. The word often used here is entrega, giving oneself over. It stirred me to examine what I am doing here. Am I really given myself to the people, really moving out of myself in order to serve the people here.
I especially appreciated the author’s discussion of the importance of presence. For me, one of the essential aspects of missionary life is being present. What we do is often less important than our presence, or accompanying the people in their lives and in their struggles.
As the author wrote (p. 228):
By constantly striving to deliberately be present to the people in front of him, to the needs in front of him, Father Stanley proclaimed a God who lives and suffers with his people.
Fr. Stanley Rother explained it this way (pp. 181-182):
“[O]ur presence here means a lot for the people,” Father Stanley wrote to Frankie Williams. He continued: When I hear the people during Mass here on Sunday or Thursday, the cacophony of prayers going up to the Lord, His presence must be there. I am delighted to be a part…. At first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run and leave the sheep fend for themselves.”
A few years ago, before the 2009 Honduras coup, a friend here asked me if I’d leave in the face of violence or military invasion. I said no because I am here with the people and they are for me God’s security.
I therefore take great comfort and courage from Father Stan’s note to a friend (p. 158):
I haven’t received any threats as such, but if anything happens that is the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t intend to run from danger, but at the same time I don’t intend to unnecessarily put myself into danger. I want to live like anyone else. What I have told you here is just for you, not to say any of this to the folks…. We just need the help of God to do our work well and to be able to take it if the time comes that we are asked to suffer for Him.
I treasure this book as reminder of my mission and as a challenge and consolation in the midst of my ministry in western Honduras.