An Interview With Spencer Reece
“Listening, Sister Ann said, is a memorable form of love.” That line is from the title poem of the poet and priest Spencer Reece’s latest collection of verse, The Road to Emmaus, which finds him remembering his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, “Durell” – a wounded, complicated, and lonely man who nevertheless helped sustain Reece during his own struggles. Perhaps such a relationship explains why the story in Luke’s gospel of the resurrected Jesus, who appeared in a strange, unrecognizable form to two disciples traveling to Emmaus, is so powerful for Reece. It was only after sharing a simple meal with Jesus, talking and listening, that they knew who he was. Revelation, it seems, does not require the grand gesture, and does not happen in the way we expect. Simply “abiding” with another person, to use the language of the King James Bible, is a form of grace that can begin to heal the world’s brokenness.
The interview that follows, I’d argue, really is about listening as a form of love – listening to those whose stories we all too often ignore. Reece lived for year in Honduras on a Fulbright fellowship, teaching English to the girls at the Our Little Roses orphanage in San Pedro Sula – the murder capital of the world. To help them learn English, he taught them about poetry, and had them write their own poems. A selection of these poems was published in last month’s issue of Poetry magazine as “Las Chavas,” a slang term that can be translated as “Homegirls.” Reading them can offer a deeper sense of what life really is like there than statistics about poverty and death, as bracing as those are. Here is one of the poems, “I Was Six Years Old,” written by a girl named Katherine:
We live in a world that’s full of hate. I live in Pequeñas Rosas in Honduras, that is why I am close to El Bordo. El Bordo is one of the most dangerous places because they kill you, attack women, and follow you when you aren’t looking.
My name is Katherine and I am fifteen years old. My mother is dead and I never knew my father. At the age of six, I came here. I felt I was in paradise, but I missed my family even though I knew this was safer for me.
In this place we live behind a giant wall and this May some people are coming to make a grand mural. I would like the mural to be shiny, full of people and happiness. I hope the world will know of my life in this place and that people realize what they have. Do you realize the violence we live in?
In addition to the poems published in Poetry, Reece is working on a full-length manuscript that includes a memoir of his time in Honduras alongside the girls’ poems. A documentary about his experiences there, and the lives of the girls at the orphanage, is also nearing completion. I spoke with Reece about all these matters in New York City this fall.
MATTHEW SITMAN: Thanks for sitting down with me, Spencer. To start with, how did this project come about?
SPENCER REECE: It was an accident. I went down to Honduras the first time about four or five years ago, because my bishop suggested it. I was working in an emergency room at Hartford Hospital as a chaplain during seminary – Hartford has a lot of gang violence, and a lot of people that do not speak English, only Spanish. It was becoming increasingly apparent to me that I was going to need to learn Spanish anyway if I was going to be a priest in my home diocese, which was in the Miami area. So Leo, my bishop, encouraged me to get a grant, and I went to Honduras. I had never been there before, I had never lived in poverty like that. I had never lived in an orphanage. I had never been surrounded by that intensity of violence. It’s currently the murder capital of the world. I had never lived with all girls. It was uncomfortable on every single level – and I didn’t know the language. I lived there for two months and I still didn’t know the language, even after trying to learn for those two months. It takes a while.
The day I was leaving the orphanage, I still didn’t understand why I was there, and I was ready to go home. We’d had a lot of electrical shortages, we’d had days without water, and I didn’t understand why I was there. I didn’t really feel like the girls were relating to me that much. Yet something was affecting me – I was moved by these girls who were just found on the street and given food and were like resurrections in front of me. But I just couldn’t make sense of it yet.
Near the end of my stay, I was going back to my apartment, which was on the second floor of one of the buildings, and there was a girl waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs – her name was Gwendolyn. And I said, “What are you doing here?” And she paused and said, “I heard you’re leaving tomorrow.” I said, “You did?” I didn’t even think that anyone had registered that I was there. She said, “We know you’re going tomorrow.” I asked her if there was something she wanted to tell me. She paused again and said, “Don’t forget us.” And those three words changed the course of my whole life.
I went up to my room, and was crying. I didn’t know why I was crying, but it hurt me that she was worried that people were going to forget her, or all of them. That somebody could just be forgotten. That registered very deeply with me, I believe, because I had an experience of my cousin, who was the same age as me, being murdered when we were both 23. John was not a very “important person,” and it seemed like everyone forgot about him after he died. That hurt me. And so I think her request hit that button, and that’s how all this started.
MS: That first trip to Honduras, then, was in the midst of seminary? You hadn’t finished yet, and you weren’t ordained yet?
SR: Right. I went back to seminary and I went to chapel where we had Morning Prayer, and a woman – an older woman now in Boston – came up to me after Morning Prayer and said, “You’re different.” It was unsolicited. She said “Something’s happened to you, you’re different.” Something had changed in me. It just was a dawning realization that those girls had done something to me – I couldn’t get them out of my head. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that there was some way for them to be heard.
In October 2011, Reece traveled to Spain and was ordained in Madrid. He returned to Honduras in December 2012.
MS: So you have your Fulbright, and you’ve been ordained. The project is conceived, but now with the girls writing poetry themselves. And so you return to Honduras. What were your expectations for what teaching them poetry would do? In your manuscript, you note the Auden line, “Poetry does nothing.” But we all know it does something, right? What did you think teaching them to write poetry would mean for them, what impact would it have – what were you hoping they’d get out of it?
SR: I really wasn’t sure. I’d never taught before – never taught kids. And I was kind of afraid of teenagers. The word “teenager” made me nervous. But somehow – I don’t know, that girl’s request not to forget them gave me courage.
The first semester was really rough. The kids didn’t really respect me. They talked in Spanish really fast so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They weren’t paying attention. And I thought, “Oh my God, what if this doesn’t work.” But it had to work. I did love them, there was something about them that I really felt a lot of love for. And I conferred with the founder of the orphanage, and I told her that I was having problems, that I wasn’t getting the respect I deserved, they weren’t paying attention, they weren’t doing their work. She said, “Well, wait until I get there.” I thought alright, I’ll wait.
She brought me into her office and she said, “You know that girl in your class?” – and she mentioned one girl by name. She told me that girl had the worst story in the orphanage. I said, “What do you mean?” I didn’t know many of the girls’ stories. She said they found this girl when she was four, she was thrown into a well with a rock tied around her neck by her stepmother. She was screaming for days. Neighbors found her and brought her to the orphanage, and she’s been here for fourteen years. No relatives have ever come to see her. We don’t even know if she has any relatives.
This story was so sobering for me. I guess that I thought, “Okay, the pressure’s off. If this girl doesn’t write anything, it’s fine. It’s all fine. I’m just going to go in there again tomorrow and just be more loose.” Something began to work after that.
I just thought they didn’t teach poetry in the school, and they needed to know poetry. I didn’t know if it could help them. The girl with the worst story, the one I just mentioned, asked, “Well what good is this going to do me? Is it going to help me get a job in the future?” And I said, “It may not. It probably won’t. But I want to teach it to you anyway.” And things really changed after that. The next semester really got better. And by the third semester, it was really rocking. The kids were dancing to Diana Ross and The Supremes. After every vocabulary test they took, I said “We’re going to dance.” They were like, “What do you mean we’re going to dance?” And so we danced, and they memorized the lines to Diana Ross and The Supremes.
I got rid of all the textbooks, because those didn’t seem to be working. I said we’re getting rid of everything, and I’m just going to recite the poem to you. You’re going to close your eyes and you’re going to hear me say the poem, then I’ll say the poem again and you’re going to write it on the board. You’re going to hear me say the poem and then you’re going to write it. And we’re going to do it and do it until you understand every single word. And that’s the way they learned Gerard Manley Hopkins. That’s the way they learned Emily Dickinson. That’s the way they learned all the poems.
MS: When they started writing their own poems, what did they write about?
SR: I had to have themes. Once I said to them, “Raise your hand if you know someone who walked out of town and never came back.” Every single kid raised their hand. So I said we’re going to write about that.
MS: What did you learn about your students through reading their poetry? The poems you include in the manuscript occasionally have these – well, the violence lurking in the poems, women being abandoned, their mother’s boyfriend is in jail. They were fascinating to read. Presumably those poems weren’t made up – they were connected to their experiences, or what they understood the world would be like outside the orphanage.
SR: Those poems honestly also were written in all manner of ways. They all memorized a poem in English to get the English inside of them. But some of them wrote their poem in Spanish and I translated it. There was one girl, Paolo, who came to me, who folded up her poem and handed it to me. And that poem is in the book. She just wrote that on her bunk bed – “Invisible for All My Life,” which is how so many of them feel. And that one she just did by herself.
Some of the things they would say would catch me off guard and take my breath away and I would think, an American kid would never say that. I don’t think an American girl would ever write, “I will be a happy girl” – willing themselves to be a happy girl. I don’t think an American kid would say, “Your school can be your home, even if you don’t have a bed.” So I read that and I was like, wow, I would never have thought of that. Things like that would happen.
And with other poems, I was right there with them: What about this word? What color is your favorite? What do you want to do? Almost like training wheels. They were written in different ways.
MS: You briefly allude to some girls wanting their poems to appear anonymously. I’m interested in how the girls reacted to this “gringo” coming down and saying “I’m going to do a book and your poems are going to be in it.” What did they make of that? Because you talk in your narration about Americans coming down to Honduras and making promises to the girls. Were they cynical? What made you different than the ten previous Americans who came to the orphanage and promised them something? How did they react to you, especially in that context? How did they react to this poetry project?
SR: In the beginning I don’t think they knew what to make of it. Poetry is not like teaching them math. You know, it’s like asking them to open up. The girls are very good at presenting a front. To really get into what’s going on inside of them – there’s a lot of shame, because they’re orphans, or they’ve been abandoned by their parents, or they’ve been sexually abused, or something terrible has happened to them. They didn’t get there because it’s been a happy story. Like any teenager they just don’t want to be different, they want to be like all the other kids. And so the only kids who would opt to have anonymous poems were the girls from the home. It was just astonishing to me, there were no kids from the neighborhood who ever wanted that – “put my name on it, it’s fine.” But the only ones who would come to me and say they didn’t want their name in the book were from the orphanage. They didn’t want to come out.
MS: Come out as?
SR: Who they were. They didn’t want to be different.
MS: It’s interesting you use the phrase coming out. How did being gay impact your ability to connect with them? The language you’re using – coming out, shame – it’s the language of growing up gay in some ways.
SR: Well, talking about being gay and having that have anything to do with this project was something I was trying to avoid, interestingly enough. I guess in that way I’ve just never been super open, and it took me a long time to come to terms with who I am. And then to be a priest, and being their teacher – I thought I’d work with them on these poems, but I don’t want to talk about myself. And I really avoided it. But it began to get more uncomfortable. You asked how they reacted to me – well, the longer I lived with them, the more it changed. Because most people came and went. I was one of the few people, let alone men, who had ever lived there with them for that length of time. It’s a small place – we ate and slept and were there together all the time. They weren’t used to that. And I think that the action of being with them began to change how they felt about me. I think – I can’t speak for them – that something began to change for sure.
At the same time the film crew wanted – we were getting down to the last few months – and the film crew wanted me to open up more, wanted me to tell my story to the girls, or a group of girls that I was teaching poems to at night. And I didn’t want to do it. I was really resistant, and the director and I got into a fight – not a bad fight, but I was difficult.
MS: How long was the film crew there?
SR: They were there four times for extended periods. They came when I arrived and they were there for two or three weeks. They left, and then they came again, but there was four or five months where I was there without them. They came another time for two or three weeks, and then at the end.
MS: What did the girls make of this film crew?
SR: One of member of the film crew was really cute and young and handsome, and they loved him. They were kind of fascinated and difficult with the crew, too. Some of them just did not want to be filmed. The girl who was found in the well did not want to be filmed. I think because that piece of them was the one thing they had – so to just give that over was not easy. And they were teenagers.
MS: So you went down there having basically just been ordained. But you describe that Honduras is where you really became a priest. What do you mean by that?
SR: I don’t think I understood what it meant. I don’t think I understood what it meant to be a Christian. I don’t think I understood what the Eucharist meant. I don’t think I really understood any of it. I could repeat it intellectually, or write something on an exam. I had studied all of it. But it was all book knowledge, it wasn’t heart knowledge. I knew I was moving in the right direction, but I really didn’t know what it meant. But when I was with them, as time went on it, I began to understand all of it.
The Eucharist is a moment of intimacy, eating together, looking at each other. Like on the Road to Emmaus. And when I put the wafers in the mouths of all those girls lined up, I think I began to understand it.
Also, they have nobody, so they belong to God. There’s just no other way to explain it.
So then that began to make sense. I as a priest – as a shepherd, as a father, all those words that are used for priests – I literally became a father-like figure, which I’d never been, because I didn’t have children. I never thought I’d be in that position. That was happening to me. I believe what George Herbert wrote, that for him, he craved simplicity. And one of the things that he liked simple was his religion and his understanding of God, and that all God was, was love. As a priest, to communicate that message is what we’re supposed to try to do. We can’t do it perfectly, but that began to come through me. You know a priest really has to be there and not be there – the ego has to die in the spiritual life, so you have to kind of use yourself and not be there at the same time, so that God’s message can come through you. It’s not “Spencer’s” message. Of course it’s going to be some of my message, because it’s me, but you hope that there’ll be little sparks that are God’s that are coming through you. That seemed really important there with those girls.
It just all made sense to me, being with them. And the girls were literally resurrections. That word made sense to me. Little Sandy, who would get her wafer in her mouth every Sunday, was six – although she looked like she was three, because they found her on the sidewalk, all of her teeth had fallen out, her stomach was bloated, and she couldn’t talk. She came to the orphanage and they fed her, and her teeth came in, thank God, and her stomach went down, and there she is in front of me.
MS: You said that your experiences in Honduras reminded you that God is love, but what did all this teach you about what love is? It’s a word that we can use in so many different ways. What did love come to mean to you?
SR: It meant that they accepted me. It meant, as when it says in the Bible – Paul brings it up – that we’re all the body of Christ, that we’re all working together. “For all of you are one,” he says in Galatians. And in the Gospel of Mark, with Mary and Jesus, Jesus says his family is all these people, beyond his mother – all the people that aren’t biologically related to him are his family, too. All those things made sense to me with them when we were on the yellow school bus going to church on Sundays – me and seventy-two girls on a bus, and the driver.
I don’t want to romanticize it, but they just accepted me. And I think there was something very powerful about that for me, because I was coming into the church in later life. I didn’t really know if the church was really going to embrace gay priests – they don’t always. I guess God just wanted me to know on a really profound level that it was going to be okay. So much of it was happening outside of words, because my Spanish was still – it was getting better, because I had been in Madrid a year, so it was starting to get better. But when your language skills are kind of primitive, things are affecting you on a primal level.
I was talking about this project to a group in St. Louis, and I told the story about the girl who had the rock tied around her neck, and I said she affirmed me. And this woman came up to me afterward and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh no, she didn’t affirm you.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “That girl ordained you.” It gave me the chills. From that moment on, I didn’t have the insecurities I had before. I didn’t feel like I had to apologize for who I was.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Photos courtesy of Spencer Reece.)