The Sign of the Cross

I recently spent a week working with Faith in Practice, a medical mission group based in Antigua, Guatemala. What follows is one of their origin stories.

You see in this photo a simple, woven bracelet, made in Guatemala. At its center is a rustic, wooden cross. One of these crosses was given to each member of our traveling medical team by our local Guatemalan partner, Faith in Practice. I was a part of Team Hope in Motion, one of 40 US medical teams that comes to Guatemala each year to serve as part of Faith in Practice’s medical mission here. Hope in Motion is a team of 46 volunteer US medical professionals – orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists, physical therapists, registered nurses, scrub techs, biomedical implant engineers, a medical data specialist and a chaplain. We hail largely from the Midwest, though we have team members from as far afield as California and Florida. 

These crosses were given to us the night we arrived. At the time I didn’t realize how special this gift was. Later I learned the story of its origins and was deeply moved. 

I thought I would share that story with you. 

It’s a story about two challenges and a tragedy that Faith in Practice faced early in its history. What came out of those experiences and that tragedy can all be summed up in this simple cross.

Two Early Challenges

The first challenge, in the early years, was that patients would often ask Faith in Practice volunteers this question: why are you helping us? The original answer they gave to this question – “Somos hermanos en Christo” (We are brothers and sisters in Christ) – posed a problem.

For there were, at that time, some Christian medical missions in the area who placed a requirement on their patients. Before a patient could be treated, they needed to first accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This did not sit well with FIP founders, Joe and Vera Wiatt, and the Board. They had a different understanding of Christian mission work. The healing touch of Christian love was to be offered to all, without conditions. Also at the time, in the 90s, it was extremely rare for Catholics and Protestants to work together. There was distrust and a lack of understanding between these two groups. But Faith in Practice believed in a vision of the Christian body where Catholics and Protestants understood themselves as brothers and sisters, working side by side, in the same love, in a common faith. 

So what was the best way to convey these messages to patients, without being misunderstood, without saying too much? This was the first challenge.

The second challenge was this: people traveled to Faith in Practice hospitals to receive care from villages all across Guatemala. They were nervous. They had little funds. The Board felt that to better serve them they needed a place of hospitality; a refuge before their surgery; a place to recuperate afterwards, before the long journey home; a bed where they and their loved ones could sleep; a chapel where they could pray; a cafeteria where they could eat healthy meals. It was the goal of Faith in Practice to create such a place. 

Enter Christine VanOsdall. 33 years old, Christine had a heart for the trials and tribulations of Central and South American immigrants. In the states, she volunteered with the immigrant community. She taught English as a second language. She joined the Board of Faith in Practice and was a passionate Board Member. 

Fast forward to January 2000. The Faith in Practice Board met in Rock Port, Texas. At the time the Board was debating and considering the two main challenges I have just laid out. How could FIP team members best answer patients who asked: why are you helping me? And how could Faith in Practice best welcome and care for patients and their families, before and after their surgery?

Christine took a lead on both fronts. It was Christine who came up with the idea of volunteers being given crosses to wear on their wrists. Nothing more needed to be said. Our message would be love in action; love and service offered to every patient, regardless of their faith background; love offered from a united community of Christians, Catholics and Protestants side by side, the way Jesus wished it would be. 

The Cross – simple, wooden, made here in Guatemala – would express quietly our faith in Jesus. Would tell the patients – without words – whose was the love in which we served. If patients wished to ask us about our faith, the Cross would prompt questions. But we needn’t bring it up. And there was no litmus test to receive the care we provide.

This idea of the crosses won the day. 

Christine took another lead role. She assumed the head of the Fundraising Committee. There she was an avid proponent of the idea of creating a home of hospitality for patients and their families. Like a Ronald McDonald House: a place of refuge before and after their surgery. Christine eagerly set about raising the money so we could create this space. It would come to be known as Casa de Fe (House of Faith).

The Board Meeting adjourned, Christine went home and got to work.

A Tragedy Strikes

About a month after that January, 2000 Board meeting in Rock Port, Texas, Christine disappeared. Gone. Without a trace. 

After a few weeks, family and friends began to fear for the worst. In time, Christine’s body was found, buried in a forest. She had been murdered. Her family, her friends, and her Faith in Practice Community were devastated. 

Founders Vera and Joe Wiatt returned to the US for the funeral. Instead of flowers, Christine’s family decided they wished for donations to be made to help fund Casa de Fe. Donations flooded in . . . to the tune of $65,000.

Observing this miracle in action, Joe and Vera felt strongly that, even after her death, Christine was carrying out the mission to which she committed herself on earth. In the end, about 1/3 of the funds needed to fund Casa de Fe came from Christine’s memorials. Casa de Fe opened in 2002 and can now house up to 140 patients and their families. A refuge of love during a time of fragility and need.

Let that sink in: Here was a Christian witness that seemed to end in tragic loss of life but did not actually end. Here was a legacy that transcended death, flowering in a love that was expressed even from heaven. 

Joe and Vera returned to Antigua. They found a Cross that conveyed the simplicity, the purity and the quiet generosity of the Christian witness Christine had exemplified. A simple, rustic, wooden Cross, made in Guatemala, sold at the local gift shop of St. Francis Church. They liked the fact that funds from the Cross went to the upkeep of this local Church and to the care of the museum of Hermano Pedro. Hermano Pedro (Brother Peter) was the great local saint known for his love for the sick of Antigua and known as the great evangelist to the West Indies. 

The Sign of the Cross

A few weeks later, when the first medical team of year 2000 arrived in Antigua, Joe and Vera dedicated the Crosses to Christine’s memory. They explained to all the volunteers how this sign of the Cross expresses the nature of our work and mission:

A quiet witness; loving care; acts of love with few words; a common labor bonding all Christian denominations; love, service, compassion and skilled care offered to all.

This is this meaning of the Crosses we wear on our wrists. 

These Crosses also remind us of one particular disciple of Jesus – one of us – whose life was drawn up into the mystery of this love and this Cross. A mystery that reveals that nothing, not even death, can stop love poured out in this way. The message of these Crosses is one of triumph. The triumph of a love that transmits life; a love stronger even than death.

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