WESTERLY – The Rev. Spencer Reece, the priest who served as a seminarian at Christ Church Episcopal during his days as a student at Yale's Berkeley Divinity School back in 2010, will return to Westerly this Saturday with a new book and a remarkable story to tell.
Reece, who currently serves as Secretary to the Bishop of the Spanish Episcopal Church in Madrid, is also a distinguished poet whose his poems have been published in The New Yorker and whose work has been compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop. Reece’s debut collection of poetry, “The Clerk’s Tale,” (2004), was chosen for the Bakeless Poetry Prize by Louise Glück.
But he will not be talking about his own poems on Saturday. Rather he’ll discuss the poetry of his students – the little girls who live at Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras who changed his life forever – and the documentary produced by the actor James Franco.
Reece traveled to Honduras in 2010 following a personal crisis, he recently told the Anglican Communion News Service.
“Seven years ago I worked as an emergency room chaplain at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut,” he told the news service. “Gang violence filled our nights. Half the gangs or their families did not speak English.”
One night, he said, he stood in the morgue next to a grieving Puerto Rican mother whose only son had been stabbed to death. Yet he was unable to comfort her with words since he did not speak Spanish.
The very next morning, he told the service, he told his bishop that he had to learn Spanish. When the bishop told him to go to Our Little Roses in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, he asked; “Where’s that?”
Soon after, Our Little Roses orphanage, located in San Pedro Sula, Honduras – a city known for having the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere – welcomed the priest to their midst.
In Honduras, Reece said he may have seen poverty like he had never seen before: “children with bloated stomachs, everyone behind walls and locked gates,” but he had never experienced such joy: “seventy abandoned girls hugging me while we languished over dripping mangos.”
But, he told the news service, after two months, he thought he was done with Honduras: “I was ready to move on.”
“Yet the night I left, one of the girls came to me and said: ‘Don’t forget us.’” he said. “It shocked me those girls thought they would be forgotten. I couldn’t let that go, didn’t want that to be true.”
“The only way I can think of to honor this request is to teach them poetry and put together a book of their poems,” he wrote in an essay published in the online magazine “Electric Lit.”
Reece not only compiled the poems for an anthology called “Counting Time Like People Count Stars” but he also took part in the filming of a documentary to ensure that the girls would never be forgot. Produced by Hollywood actor Franco, the documentary was originally called “Las Chavas,” or home girls – but has been retitled “Voices Beyond the Wall” and premiered at the Miami International Film Festival earlier this year.
“For so long I thought they needed someone with better Spanish or a Latino or someone better informed about social justice,” Reece wrote in “Electric Lit.” “I’d tried mightily to hand off this project to anyone the year before and the year during when I lived there. But it didn’t work out. God kept pushing me to the center of the room. Who’s to make sense of it?”
Reece said the girls’ poems “dispense with the naiveté that often makes children’s poems so charming. Instead, we find their haunting art burdened with a premature and hard-earned wisdom. In their reckoning with despair and hope, these poems inspire admiration and awe. Here poetry and stories transcend the pain of loss that often goes unexpressed. Here poetry serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration in the shadows.”
“I’m proud of this book,” he told the news service, “maybe more than other things I’ve done. More is at stake. This book contains a country trying to speak to the world.”
“Much time has gone since I taught those girls,” Reece wrote in the “Electric Lit” essay. “Yet not a day passes that I don’t think about them in my church office in Madrid, how they trusted me to pastor their book of poems to the world this Christmas.”
Reece will talk about his experience on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Church. It will be an evening, organizers said, full of wonderful poetry. Copies of “Counting Time Like People Count Stars” will be for sale with the profits going to Our Little Roses.