Cathedral of Stars: A Memoir of Home & Faith on the Move
by Gloria Engel
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9781988783901
Cathedral of Stars: A Memoir of Home & Faith on the Move by SK-born Gloria Engel is utterly fascinating. The stories about her peripatetic life—and constant faith—as a linguist with Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics is indeed hard to put down. The intrepid author asks and adeptly answers this question: “How can you find a sense of belonging in home and church when you’re constantly on the move?” Much of this global zinger of a book takes place in Guatemala, and Engel paints a colourful portrait of the family’s authentic experiences there.
Now in her eighties, the joy-filled wife, mother of four boys, linguist, writer and dancer (a verboten activity re: her strict Lutheran upbringing) experienced “forty-five changes of residence in five countries,” before settling in Biggar, SK. The anecdotes about her resourceful family and rural SK upbringing (no indoor plumbing; folks said her father “could hold machinery together with macaroni”) are compelling, but the Guatemalan accounts left me gasping.
First came linguistics training at the University of North Dakota. Orientation sessions took place in Mexico City, then it was on to Chiapas, Mexico. After twelve weeks of “jungle survival training” there—Engel was pregnant and had three young sons at the time—the writer, her husband (fellow linguist, Ted), and their sons (aged one to six), drove to Guatemala “to do Bible translation work with Mayan people of the Pokomchi language group,” and they remained in the highland town of San Cristóbal Verapaz for a decade.
Imagine being pregnant and navigating rapids in a dugout canoe: “We capsized, and our canoe went down the river without me, while I hung on to a protruding branch.” And that’s Main Base camp, where “several poisonous snakes were killed”. At Advance Base, her training included a “survival hike”. With machete in tow, hearty Engel “had to construct [her] own survival bed and build a campfire for warmth and protection”. Apart from the clothes on her back and a canteen, her “only equipment was a small food pack, a first-aid kit and a plastic sheet”. Even so, she says “it was a night of contentment and peace”.
The family also spent years in Guatemala City, and one riveting chapter concerns the 1974 Guatemala earthquake and Engel’s epiphany: “I felt as though Judgment Day had come, and God was there in his terrible beauty and justice. He seemed to be shaking and breaking the whole world, while cradling me gently in his hand”. Engel was also “roughed up” during a robbery.
Post-Guatemala and after eight years in Texas, the husband and wife team were then commissioned by two drastically different churches in Vancouver: one in the infamous Downtown Eastside, the other in the wealthy Shaughnessy neighbourhood.
Chapter after chapter, this author astounds with detailed stories about her family, and how hiking, orchid-hunting, reading, music and fellowship elevated their lives. Wherever life has taken Engel, she’s proven that “she’s got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in her heart”.
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