The Washington Post has published the story behind a documentary just screened at George Mason University – Voices from Behind the Wall: Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World. The documentary, and a book of poetry, tell the stories of girls living in Our Little Roses, a home and school in the Honduras, girls who have survived abuse and abandonment by their parents, living in the impoverished city of San Pedro Sula.
The school and orphanage first opened in 1988, founded by Diana Frade, now wife of the Episcopal bishop of Miami, Leo Frade, when she discovered that the Episcopal Church ran a center for boys but nothing for girls. In 2009, Bishop Frade first pointed Fr. Spencer Reece, at the time a seminarian, to Our Little Roses when Reece asked him how he could learn Spanish. Reece
been working as a chaplain at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut in 2009 when a teenage boy was rushed into the ER late at night. Stabbed 25 times, the boy died at 6 the following morning, another gang-war casualty. Reece had tried as best he could to comfort the mother, but she spoke only Spanish. Reece, a Midwesterner who in a previous incarnation sold wingtips and windowpane suits at Brooks Brothers, spoke only English.
Reece spent a summer at Our Little Roses, studying Spanish but rarely seeing the girls who lived there, until one of them spoke to him on his last evening:
“We heard you are leaving tomorrow,’’ Reece recalled the girl responding. “It took me by surprise, as I didn’t know they knew I was there. She turned to me and said, ‘No nos olvides.’ Don’t forget us.’’
“Those three words changed the course of everything,’’ Reece said. “I went into my room, closed the door and cried.’
Poetry? It saved Reece first, when he was struggling with coming out as a gay man in the 1970s, and after the suicide of a friend and the murder of his cousin, both gay.
Those events had a profound impact on Reece, who twice attempted to take his own life and turned to the bottle.
“It was an arc of almost 30 years of work in church basements and coffeepots,’’ Reece said of his 12-step programs and therapists. “It took a long time to get to the top of the church steps.’’
Literature was his lifeline. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.’’ J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.’’ Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.’’
He read. He wrote.
Reece’s poem, “The Clerk’s Tale,’’ detailing his days at Brooks Brothers — “I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call “Sir.’’ — was published in the New Yorker, on the back page of the June 16, 2003, edition. The award-winning poem later became the title of his debut poetry collection in 2004, which was followed by a second volume, “The Road to Emmaus,” in 2014.
Reece applied for a Fullbright and was accepted, and in 2012, as an ordained Episcopal priest, he used the Fullbright to return to Our Little Roses to teach the girls there poetry and to document the project for film.
Reece’s ministry reached both ways:
A few days before he left, he talked to Tania, one of the girls featured in the film. Tania came to Our Little Roses as a 4-year-old, badly abused.
“Here was the girl with the most unspeakable story, who they found in a well with a rock around her neck, who met with me at the end of my time,’’ Reece says. “It didn’t matter that I was this unconventional gay poet who had spent time in a mental hospital [suicidal thoughts], who was estranged from his parents for 10 years, who had experienced the ravages of alcoholism.
“All these things she listened to. After she heard them, she said, ‘It makes sense to me now why God brought you here. It’s because you understand us.’’