Friday, June 29, 2007

Nasty, brutish, and short

The seventeenth century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” I don’t subscribe to his philosophy which represents an individualism where life is a war of all against all and where “homo homini lupus” – where humans are as wolves to each other. But sometime that is the way it is for the poor.

The violence among the poor seems to be part of the reality of the poor here. A few days ago a woman I know who works in Santa Rosa de Copán told me of a man from her village, her aldea, who was in the hospital. There had been a fight in the village and he had been attacked with a machete and his right hand had been severed and his back and head were torn open by machete wounds. Another man had died in the same fight. Two of the woman’s sons may have been involved in the attack in some way. But she took him in for the night after he was released from the hospital too late to return that day to his village. Grace in the midst of violence.

I saw him briefly before he left. I was almost moved to tears – not only because he had lost his right arm. Though fairly young, he was nearly toothless. The weight of poverty had already laid him waste before this act of violence.

Last November visiting a friend in Alkmaar, Holland, I saw a stone plaque on the town hall with these words of Seneca: “Homo res sacra homini” – humans are something sacred to each other. I prefer this to Hobbes’ view, but I know that this is a task – not a mere hope.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Poverty

Poverty

I have been doing a lot of reading. A few days ago I finished a collection of the writings of Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., who was the Jesuit Father General for many years. Here's part of a reflection on poverty that hit me - especially since it speaks of my condition, as a missionary:

Poverty means total detachment, at least in attitude; it means withdrawing trust from all things created and placing all our trust and our hope in God, in the faith-certainty that our help can only come from him. It is to this total trust in the providence of God that poverty leads us by dispossessing us of everything and thus liberating us from attachment to anything. “The surest as well as the most needed contribution we can give to the reform of the universal church,” says St. Ignatius, “is to go about as lightly burdened with things as possible, as our Lord himself has shown us" The experience of human insecurity leads us to find shelter in the unfailing security of God…. 
We thus arrive at ultimate poverty: the giving up of everything, one’s own self included, which imitates the kenosis of Christ. Rooted in the love of the Father, it is the highest degree of interior humility. To strip oneself in this way is to experience powerlessness in the presence of those who, having possessions, seem to have power. It is to experience humiliation, for to be poor is to be despised, to be cast aside, to be roughly treated. 
In this connection, what a missionary must be ready to undergo in a foreign country is highly instructive. To find oneself alone in a great city, without a single friend or acquaintance, without provision of any kind, whether it be physical equipment or the support and security one derives from ordinary human relationships; to be poor even as far as language is concerned, unable to express oneself, to tell people what one is, what one knows; always to be in a position of inferiority, a child just learning to speak, contemptuously dismissed in every discussion, painfully aware of the poor impression one is always making, and of the pity, or else the hostility, with which one is regarded – all this brings home to a person better than empty theorizing what poverty, in the radical sense of dis-possession, really means. Not only does it take away external attachments, it makes one truly humble of heart; for to be poor is to be humiliated, and it is from being humiliated that one learns humility.
— “Simplicity of Life”
cited in Kevin F. Burke, S.J., ed., Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings [Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2004], pp. 84-85
A Day of Celebration

Today, June 25, the Catholic University celebrated its feast day – Our Lady, Queen of Peace. This is one of eleven campuses of the Catholic University of Honduras, founded only fourteen years ago. The local campus is only four years old and will celebrate its first graduations in two weeks.

Today’s celebration began with firecrackers early in the morning (5:45 AM) and a Mass at 8:30 AM on the grounds of the university. The bishop, Monseñor Santos, celebrated the Mass with three other priests — Fr. Roel, Fr. Efraim, and Fr. Marco Tulio, the chaplain of the university. The bishop’s homily covered a number of areas, noting the peace must include justice! At the end of Mass he introduced me to the university community and asked me to speak. What a good way to get introduced to the university.

The day’s activities then included a procession through town with the statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, which is a the entrance to the university. After a number of delays, the procession started with the statue on a truck, followed by an enthusiastic group of students carrying a 50 meter banner with the university’s color – blue, white, and yellow. The procession was broadcast over the diocesan radio station. I stayed with the procession until it reached the central square. (I forgot to put on suntan lotion and to bring some water!)

Friday, June 22, 2007

GETTING TO KNOW SANTA ROSA DE COPAN

This last week I have taken the time to meet a number of people who work here.

This morning, Friday, June 22, I had a good visit with Sor Inez, a Spanish Franciscan sister. Three sisters live in a house with young girls who come from outlying areas but are studying in Santa Rosa de Copán. The sisters are also involved in several ministries and projects in the area. Two work in the jail; one works in literacy and the other in projects, especially with a carpentry shop that has been set up there. They also work with a kindergarten in a neighborhood that lacks electricity. Two weeks from now I hope to accompany Sister Inez one day – to the kindergarten in the morning and to the jail in the afternoon. I also hope to meet the other sister who works with prisoners and with projects in outlying communities, which they call aldeas here.

Yesterday I spent a little time at Hogar San José, a home for malnourished children under five years old, run by the Missionaries of Charity. There are about 36 children there, though eleven were out for kindergarten. I played with the kids fro about an hour and then helped a little at lunch. Since the kids were beginning a nap I left after 90 minute there. Before leaving I helped carry a few to bed and then went around to see them. In the boys’ dormitory there was a tiny infant, two months old but probably just about 5 pounds. One of the women told me that he had been abandoned. My heart was touched. I will return to the hogar about once a week to help for a few hours. Since the workers are all women (except a male cook and male custodian), it might be good to have a male drop by to play every once in a while.

Last week I stopped by Caritas, what might be considered the office of Catholic Charities of the diocese. Caritas has done what we might call charity work in the past but now is concentrating on what we might call development and social justice projects. They have a good number of education projects, including a project with about 1000 students who listen to classes on the radio and then come together occasionally for more formal classes and tests. There is a popular education project which is working with groups to form leaders to do social analysis and to work on what we might call community organizing. One of the main issues they are treating are the mines in the area. They also have a pilot literacy project, based on a Cuban model, that enables people to read and write within three months. There are also programs to support small businesses. And, this is what I really want to see, they are working with six communities in a program they call “Agro-ecological experiences – sustainable communities,” in which they work on techniques, as well as diversification of crops, and natural medicine.

And then there is Padre Fausto, a priest almost 80 years old, who is involved in natural medicine. His group has a shop where they sell organic products and natural medicines. He also has several projects in the countryside that I want to visit some day soon. He and other are promoting organic farming and natural medicine.

Earlier this week I met the director of the local campus of the Catholic University of Honduras. He is a very friendly young man and I look forward to working with him. The chaplain of the university has been hard to locate, but I did spend Tuesday with him though we didn’t talk a lot about what I might do. I think he is waiting for the bishop to return.

There is supposed to be a meeting Saturday afternoon of university students. I will try to locate it and spend some time with them. More on that later.

The bishop has been gone since I got here – first to a meeting of the Honduran Bishops’ conference and then for a meeting of the priests of the diocese. He is due to be back Sunday and on Monday he may preside at a Mass at the Catholic University for its feast day – Our Lady of Peace. I hope to have some time with him next week.

Monday, June 18, 2007

MIGRATION AND HONDURAS

An issue that has come up several times over the last few days is immigration to the US. Twice I talked about it with two young men, neither of whom seems tempted to try to reach the country. They were well aware of the dangers of the travel in trains through Mexico. When the issue of migration is broached, I recall the book I read last year, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, which tells of the hazardous trip of a young Honduras from Tegucigalpa, to try to reach his mother in the US. (I highly recommend this book.)

But as I experience a little more of Honduras, witness the poverty and the poor infrastructure, and hear about the real crisis in education, I cannot help but recall the debate in the US which so often ignores the context and the causes of migration. Five years ago in 2002, the US and Mexican bishops issued a joint pastoral letter – Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States. They identified as the first principle in an ethical consideration of migration: “Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.”

As they wrote in paragraph 59, “persons should have the opportunity to remain in their homeland to support and to find full lives for themselves and their families. This is the ideal situation for which the world and both countries must strive: one in which migration flows are driven by choice, not necessity. Paramount to achieving this goal is the need to develop the economies of sending nations….”

Honduras needs that development. Earlier this week I read in a Honduran newspaper these facts: 60% of the households in the country do not have enough income to meet basic needs of food, shelter, education, health, and transportation; 1.5 million persons live on less than 20 lempira – about $1.04 – per day; 79.4% of those who entered first grade get to sixth grade. The last figure is actually an improvement, but education is only obligatory until the sixth grade!

This is the poverty that makes the dangerous route to the US attractive to so many.

But why is there such poverty here? Ah! That’s another question that I will leave to another day – at least until I’ve finished Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. I started it yesterday and find it intriguing.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

SAFE ARRIVAL

I wrote these reflections on June 15, my third day in Honduras. This day also happens to be the sixtieth anniversary of my baptism.

I arrived safely in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Wednesday, June 13, about 12:30 PM. the flight went well and all my baggage arrived.

The flight was uneventful except for an encounter on the flight from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula. As I approached my seat I saw someone sitting in it. I immediately spoke to him on Spanish. The flight attendant also came up and explained to him that his was the middle seat. When I sat he mentioned that here were we two viejitos, two old guys. (There were a good number of young people including a group of high school students from Harrisburg, PA, on a “mission” trip.) He said he was 65 and I told him I was only five years younger. We spoke a little more. I found out that his name was Plutarco – in English, Plutarch. He was named after an ancient Greek writer who wrote a good number of biographies of famous people.

During the flight the flight attendants handed out the immigration and customs forms. He looked rather perplexed. I mentioned that he needed to fill it out. A little later he told me that he could not write and so I filled it out for him. He seemed to be able to read a little bit because he could read the names of cities on the movies screens in the plane. But here he was, a Honduras worker, named after a famous writer, who could not write! A reality check.

In the airport all went well and Sister Nancy Meyerhofer met me and helped me take my five bags out to a taxi that would take us to a bus to Santa Rosa de Copán. At the new bus terminal we had to walk a few blocks seeking the right bus. How I wished I had less luggage. I was sweating like mad.

The two and a half hour bus ride was very pleasant as we left the terrific heat of San Pedro Sula for the pleasant climate of Santa Rosa de Copán. We passed a landscape which was, for the most part, incredibly green, since the rainy season started about two weeks ago. We had a great conversation about lots of topics and I felt truly welcomed.

Nancy left me at the Obispado in Santa Rosa de Copán so that she could get the last bus back to Gracias, Lempira, where she lives and works. I’ll be staying here until I can find a place of my own. The Obispado is a combination of chancery office and bishop’s residence.

The bishop is out of town this week at the meeting of the Honduras Bishops’ Conference and will be out next week at a meeting of the priests of the diocese. I have no idea when I will get to have a long talk with him, but I feel very good. The fact that I don’t have too much programmed for the next few days is probably a blessing since I have been so busy the last two weeks working on all the details of leaving, cleaning out the house, and selling or storing possessions. I need some down time.

I have, though, had time to walk around town, to meet with some people, and to arrange a few meetings for next week.

There’s a nice café – Ten Napel – run by a couple: she’s Honduran, he’s Dutch. The coffee is the best I’ve found and they even have whole wheat bread! He works in maps and GPS for a wide variety of projects.

Yesterday I visited a local NGO, CAMO, which does a lot of medical work. One of the assistant directors showed me around their center, which is near the major public hospital here. The director and founder, who was a Peace Corps worker in Honduras, is out of the country until late July. Check out their projects at their website, http://www.camo.org.

I spent much of yesterday trying to contact Padre Marco Tulio Izaguirre, who is the chaplain of the Catholic University. I had a few false leads, including a cell phone number which was completely wrong. I spent a few minutes speaking with someone who seemed rather confused until I realize it was not Padre Marco Tulio. Eventually I did speak with him Friday morning and arranged to meet him tomorrow morning. He also gave me a contact at the university.

Friday morning I went to the university office and asked for the woman who is the assistant to the director of the university. A man who appeared to be in his early thirties came out and introduced himself as Francisco Castro. he said that they were in a meeting and didn’t have enough time for a meeting. We arranged to meet on Monday at 9:00 AM. Finally he identified himself as the director of the university. (Since this is a regional campus of a national university he is not the rector/president, but he is in charge of this campus.) We talked briefly and I gave him a one page resumé in Spanish. He talked about a celebration they are having on June 25 and invited me to be a part of it. He also asked if I’d be interested in offering a class; I said that perhaps I would in the future but I need some time to get acclimated as well as to get my Spanish up to speed.

After visiting the university I passed by the diocesan office of CARITAS. the director, Fr. Saul, was not in but I spoke with the administrator, Miriam Villeda, to get an idea of their projects. They have a good number of projects. They are working with groups starting up small businesses – microempresas. They have a project in six communities which they call “agro-ecological, sustainable community experiences.” This sounds really interesting and I hope to learn more about this project.

They also have a pilot literacy project in a parish in the department of Santa Barbara. They use a model in which the illiterate students can read and write well in three months. They would like to expand this after the pilot project since it seems to be working very well, but it will probably cost about $17,000 for an eight month project.

But much of the work is in education. They have about a thousand students in a program to educate students who live in remote areas or do not have access to education, from first grade to the end of bacchilerato [high school]. There is work that is done at home and the student gather on Saturdays. This year they will graduate about 100 with a high school degree.

There is also a program in popular education which is operative on several levels. In these program they train leaders to do social analysis and other types of formation and education in the style of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed and promoted a liberating style of education.

Friday afternoon I was going to try to visit a priest involved in natural medicine. But, while checking my e-mail, a torrential rain began. I got soaked leaving the internet center for the Café Ten Napel, where I got a hot coffee. While there I noticed they were a WI-FI (wireless internet). All the more reason to go there.

And then there is a young man who is working at the Obispado. He’s 23 and comes form a poor community south of here. He told me that he has long had the desire to join a religious community, but that many were reluctant to accept him because he has not had much education – probably not more than six or eight years – because of the lack of opportunities in his home town and the need for him to go out and work. The bishop has taken him under his wing and he is now studying in town on weekends while doing odd jobs at the obispado. We talked and he told me of his desire to serve and his decision to join the Missionaries of Charity at the end of this year. (The Missionaries of Charity are the group that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded; there is a men’s congregation as well as the women’s community.)

As I listened to him I found that I share his great desire to serve those in need. But I have been privileged to get a quality education whereas he, and so many others here, lack even the most basic education.

All is going well, though not as easy or simple as I had hoped or thought. But I am glad to be here. God is good and the call is being affirmed. And so I can ask, concretely now, “How can I be of service to those most in need?”



SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE

I went to the university and found out that Father Marco Tulio is ill. I called and spoke briefly with him. I may see him Monday.

Monday, June 04, 2007

SIXTY YEARS

Last Friday I turned sixty. To celebrate I decided to have an un-birthday party. No gifts would be allowed, except food to share, but all who came would be expected to take something away. It was a great way to help dispossess myself of so many of my possessions before I leave next week for Honduras.


A few folks found it very strange - especially as I was giving away some icons, art pieces, textiles, some books and music cds. But for me it was a great way to share what I have accumulated that has some value with folks I know.

Well, at least sixty people showed up! and lots of stuff was shared.

One student who heard of the idea said that this was like a hobbit party, where all the guests get a gift. I haven't read the Tolkien works, but if that is the case, I am glad to continue the tradition.

As I tried to explain this to one graduate student later that night, I remembered something about potlatches that I learned in a Cultural Anthropology. Among some northwestern native peoples, great feasts were held in which the host would give away what he had accumulated through the years. Though the giving of gifts was meant to establish one's status in society, what had been accumulated was shared. For me, giving away was one way to share all the gifts I had accumulated to others - hoping that they will remember me in prayer. It also was a way to atone for all my overconsumption.

It was a very good experience - for which I am grateful.