Sylvestre and
the Chicken

In the Sierra Madre Mountains, two hundred kilometres northeast of Mexico City, rivers rush down slopes into green valleys. Totonac villages high up interrupt the panorama of green—splotches of brown surrounded by a patchwork of fields. Hundreds crowd into these villages, striving to make their living by farming the steep ridges. Coffee, vanilla, corn and black beans are the staple crops. Pneumonia, snake bites, gashes from razor-sharp machetes, and falls from mountain-side coffee fields rob the lives of many of these gentle people. Medical care in this remote region is so inadequate that many have died unnecessarily. The situation prompted a group of Canadian volunteers to construct a sixteen-bed hospital at the Totonac Bible Centre, La Union, Puebla.

During the years of construction, the volunteers became friends of many Totonacs, including Pastor Sylvestre and his family, who lived in rustic comfort at the Centre. Those days ended when Sylvestre felt God calling his family to minister eleven kilometres away in a new squatters’ town, named La Colonia de 25 Mai, after the date of its founding.

After the other Canadian workers had left, a close friend and I hiked over the hills on foot, Totonac-style, to visit Sylvestre in his new home. After climbing up and down sweltering trails for almost six hours, we had to concede that we were hopelessly lost and needed to retrace every tiring step. More than two hours later, a lone coffee truck wheezed around a sharp curve in the road behind us. Exhausted, we hopped into the back along with six cactus plants, two coffee pickers, their dog and a tired-looking mother, nursing her infant. The truck jarred every bone in our weary bodies back to the Totonac Bible Centre. We started our journey all over, as soon as the next bus appeared.

By noon the next day, we arrived near Sylvestre’s town. There he stood, smiling broadly. He had met every bus for the past twenty-four hours! We stumbled the short distance up the cobblestone streets and across a stone bridge to Sylvestre’s home. Their three boys—Jeremias, Juanito and David raced out of their house and down the trail to welcome us.

In a gesture of Totonac hospitality, Sylvestre offered us a bar of soap, then generously sloshed water over our grimy hands. The water had been carried by hand from a stream in the valley far below. Their home consisted of six wooden posts driven into the fertile, black soil, with plastic coffee bags strung between the posts as walls and corrugated asphalt for the roof. Its hilltop perch gave the strong winds and frequent torrential rains unlimited access to every inch of the interior. The family of six slept in a single plank bed supported above the damp floor by rocks. However, their view over the valley and market town below was breath-taking.

Sylvestre’s wife, Josefa, prepared freshly squeezed orange juice, sweet black coffee and chicken legs—huge, lukewarm and fatty, floating in a hot chilli sauce. The deep brown eyes of the kids were riveted on Sylvestre and us as we consumed the family’s total weekly supply of meat.

As I was attempting to swallow a quantity of skin and pin feathers, a young chicken clucked boldly over and stood eyeing me. Her expression of disapproval in those beady seemed very clear. I was already pondering the possibility that there might be some ancient Pharisaical law that forbade the eating of the mother hen in the presence of her offspring. Suddenly there was a triumphant cackling. Sylvestre calmly reached down and retrieved a fresh, warm egg from under my chair.

I began to visualize Christ as a welcome guest—comfortable in this home. We felt humbled to be treated with such sacrifice and love. Somehow the material needs of the family were muted in the light of their great spiritual abundance. We had only set out to walk over the mountains and visit friends, yet never before had the reality of Christ’s teaching on another green hillside in Galilee come so vividly to life: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”