Fr. Andrew shares Goods of Conscience's founding story firsthand.
During a 2004 Maryknoll retreat in Guatemala, in Santiago, I had come upon a stall down by the docks on Lake Atitilán that sold hand-woven cotton colored with natural dyes. A sample of it felt distinctly softer than the common clothing for sale, which turned out to be cheap, Chinese cotton. The shades stood out among all the artificially bright candy colors the Mayans presently use, both because it is cheaper and because they have grown to prefer the artificial colors over the more muted, natural plant dyes. I had seen unbleached cotton goods in Germany as well as color-grown cotton from Peru—but the richness of the color and the quality of the fiber I came upon in Santiago was truly exceptional.
At the same time, the servers’ albs at the Holy Trinity Church were in need of replacement. I confess that I relished opportunity to defeat the “cheap” mentality for which practicality reigns supreme. My idea—spawned by my experiences in Guatemala—was that we should produce, and that we should make the new albs from scratch; from growing the cotton, spinning it and weaving, cutting and sewing. Altar servers take the honor of serving seriously—so why not take them seriously too and cultivate in them as well as the parish community at large awe and reverence for the sacred and simple alb?
One final and critical factor in forming a dialogue of making was the witness of Fr. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoman diocesan priest who was assassinated on July 28th, 1981 in Santiago, Atitlán after 13 years work as a missionary there. Archbishop Salatka of Tulsa, flew down to Guatemala in the wake of the killing, called Stan “The Beautiful American” in his eulogy. The title is apt because of his loving and dedicated service to his faith community as opposed to “Ugly American,” the Cold War manipulator of political fortune and demise. It is apt also in the respect that Stan seemed to bloom in his American identity in the thirteen years of ministry among the T’zutuhil. He learned their language and translated the bible into it. He endeared himself quickly to them as a son of a corn farmer. They called him “Padre Áplas” or Father Francis because he could make things grow. His seamless and natural blending of the indigenous and the Oklahoman unveils an authentic “Native American” among the ranks of Americans claiming European ancestry.
Developing the Social Fabric
[A friend] made an initial contact with the Museo Ixchel’s weaver’s outreach called Textiles Proteje. The project employs traditional weaving techniques using wild cotton strains that the noted entomologist Horacio Villavincencio had collected and cultivated on his Pacific coast plantation of Las Naranjas.
That August Joe Bachich and Astrid sponsored me to come down with them to Guatemala with my 13-year-old niece Clare—who was the same age as their oldest daughter Natalie—in order to design the cloth, after a few false starts. I was now seeing Guatemala through the eyes of its indigenous people. It happened that the head weaver for Textiles Proteje, a mother of nine named Maria Elena Ramirez, came from an aldea or village in the hills surrounding Chicacao. That town is the provincial capital of the boca costa highlands that tumble down from the volcanoes that circle the fabled Lake Atitlán. Astrid’s sister Karen is married to Jaime Abascal, the youngest son of Basque farmers who have a coffee and rubber plantation in Chicacao called La Concha.
I brought with me a reflective glass fiber from a factory in Rhode Island. Combining something made by hand with something not made by hand stirs up the mystery of mixing god and man. I worked directly with Maria Elena Ramirez, a local weaver, on incorporating the asymmetric pinstripe and random cross bars that is the distinctive signature of "Social Fabric." Beside us was a cone of spun cotton. I wind the yarn onto the warp board. I learned how to weave for this project, but Maria has that effortless rhythm.