Up Front and Personal

Trekking Through the Amazon with Atheists

by Msgr. Steven A. Ferrari

“What in God’s name am I doing here?” was the question I asked myself as I trudged through the 90-degree, 95-percent humidity of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

I was walking on the leaf-strewn, muddy, almost imperceptible trail of the rain forest. I was journeying with two card-carrying, self-professed atheists, an agnostic (at best) and our intrepid native guide, a Christian with a deep interest in, and knowledge of, Chinese metaphysics. Soaked to the skin, we were searching for the elusive cinnamon-rumped foliage-gleaner, a bird of the tropics. We had already been to the 13,000-plus-feet Andean highlands, where we observed the tufted tit-tyrant and the plumbeous sierra finch.

I spent the last two weeks of September on a birding expedition in northern Ecuador. My first visit to this beautiful South American country offered me the opportunity to see many of its natural wonders and hundreds of its remarkable birds, including one of the world’s largest, the Andean Condor. We saw, or heard, over 500 of the country’s more than 1,600 different species.

Being in the company of committed non-believers nearly 24 hours a day (we were up each morning at 4:30 a.m. – “the early bird catches the worm,” after all) presented real challenges to me as a priest. The two atheists, my fellow birders, respected my faith but at times would roll their eyes or glance at me with incredulity when I said, whether in English or in Spanish, “God bless you,” “God willing” or “Thank God.” And yet, I noticed that it didn’t stop them from exclaiming, “Oh my God!” when an amazingly beautiful bird species appeared before our binoculared eyes.

How could one deny the existence of a God when presented with such exquisite beauty as a flame-faced tanager or an orange-bellied euphonia? Who else created the starry skies of a clear Andean night when you could almost touch the brightness of the Milky Way? Did the sword-billed hummingbird just decide to evolve that way all by itself?

Together, we visited some outstanding colonial churches in Quito, the country’s capital. I explained to my companions the meaning of the symbols and the stories of the saints represented in statues in this very Catholic country.

My friends are good people, yet I wondered, what is life without faith, without a Higher Power, a God, by any name? I can only hope and pray that they saw in my personal expressions of faith some connection to a greater reality – a Being of Love, Light and Creation.[hr]

Msgr. Steven Ferrari, pastor of St. Teresa, Woodside, is an avid birder.