Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

May I be able to pray this prayer with all my heart.

Take, Lord,
and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To you, O Lord, I return it.
All is yours,
dispose of it wholly according to your will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
for this is sufficient for me.
St. Ignatius Loyola, S.J.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Six weeks in Honduras. I’m still trying to find my way, to get to know more of the people here, and to figure out how I can best serve. But the last week there have been a number of openings.

At the July 17 mobilization I met or re-met a number of people. I met one person involved in organizing communities to demand some transparency in finances from their local officials and two women involved in fair trade coffee. Francis, a Honduran community development worker with Fundacion El Polígono, invited me to go with him to a rural community. A priest from a nearby parish asked me when I was going to come out and visit his parish. (I think he’d like me to work with him.)

Thursday after meeting briefly with the director of the Catholic University a student approached me to ask if I’d be willing to help with a group of young people he helps facilitate in his parish, doing a workshop or something.

Friday I went to Gracias, Lempira. sister Nancy had suggested that I come for the festival of Lempira, the Indian resistance leader who had been killed by the Spanish in 1538. There was a very impressive parade with students from the local schools, most in costumes of the indigenous peoples or the Spanish conquerors. After there is a dramatization by students of the death of Lempira – which we watched on television in the house of a friend of Nancy’s.

I got a ride to Gracias from a professor in agriculture at the National University campus here and his wife. We spoke at length on a number of topics, including agricultural development, He’d like to develop a program at the campus on local development. I look forward to finding ways to work with him.

Sunday I went with Francis from Polígono to a rural community. He brought a woman who has been working with the women in this community in a cooking workshop to help the women develop greater skills in making sweet breads and pastries which they will be able to sell. While the women were working I accompanied him to a community further up where he was exploring with the community the possibility of bringing a workshop on the making of piñatas. After we got back to Santa Rosa he took me out to the campus of Fundación Polígono where I got to drop by a few of the classrooms where they hold weekend classes for students in what would be the equivalent of junior high and high school. Many of the students study during the week at home and then come for the weekend sessions with teachers. All this is part of the work of the foundation which the bishop helped start years ago with the mission of education and the development of projects for local people, especially the youth.

Where I end up actually helping I don’t know, but doors are opening.

Greg McGrath, a student from Iowa State, arrived on Monday, July 23, to visit here for about 17 days. It is great to have someone here, especially someone so inquisitive. It also offers me a number of opportunities to connect with some other groups here.

Wednesday afternoon Greg and I accompanied Sister Inés to the jail. Only later did I remember the judgment scene in Matthew 25: 31-46, where the Lord welcomes into the Kingdom those who visit him in prison. Jesus identifies himself with the prisoner. The first inmate that Greg spoke to was named Jesús!

This doesn’t mean that the prisoners haven’t committed crimes and may be capable of vicious acts, but I does mean that they are human, made in God’s image, like us. Even more, to quote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Each one is Jesus in his distressing disguise.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Revealed to the simple

A day after the major mobilization for a new mining law, I stopped by my neighbor's corner store and spoke with her and her nephew, Franklin, a university student who occasionally works there. We spoke about the demonstration and Franklin noted that he saw only one other from his parish’s youth group. We all noted that there weren’t many people from Santa Rosa de Copán but that most of the people were from the rural communities, the aldeas.

As they noted, there were very few of the cultos, the educated class there; most were incultos, without a lot of education. But they didn’t say this disparagingly for they noted that often those who’ve studied a lot are not really “educated.”

After I returned home, I remembered the Gospel of the Mass that day:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to simple people.” (Matthew 11: 25-27)

Again, where can we find the wisdom of God?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Prayer in action

About thirty years ago I took part in a Holy Week protest against torture in Washington, DC, sponsored by Sojourners and Christians against Torture. It was a week of prayer, lobbying, prayerful public protest, and education, But not until this Tuesday have I ever experienced a protest like that.

On Tuesday, July 17, Hondurans gathered at eleven sites throughout the country and blocked the roads in support of a new mining law. The mobilization was sponsored by Alianza Cívica por la Democrácia – the Civil Alliance for Democracy, with the support of the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, the priests of the diocese, and many people here and throughout the country.

Here the people were going to take the road and block traffic on the major highway near the turn off to Gracias, Lempira. I arrived there about 6:00 am with a Spanish Franciscan sister. But the day had begun earlier for some Honduran Mennonites who had gathered at 4:00 AM to pray for the success of the mobilization.

After enough people began to arrive, the people went into the road and unfurled their banners. A detachment of the police were already there and a burly menacing police official, with three tear canisters hanging from his vest, was none too happy. He met with a local organizer and a priest and tried to intimidate them. They refused to back down and said that we only want to take the road for a day!

More people kept arriving, mostly from the countryside, often accompanied by their parish priest. A musical group arrived and the people began to sing. The first song, found in their hymnals, had this refrain: “We will free people from the sin of oppression; we will free them by the strength of love.”

But another force was also at work. More police and even soldiers arrived, about 80 in all, some with large riot control shields. At one point they were about 50 yards across the road from the demonstration. What I remember most about that moment was the old man who knelt and raised his hands to heaven.

But throughout all this the people kept praying and singing, interspersed with some speakers and shouted slogans. But prayer was central to this protest. At several key moments the people knelt on the hard macadam and prayed, led on a loudspeaker system by Fr. Roel Mejía, the director of the diocesan radio station. They prayed for an end to mining and for the protection of people and the environment. They prayed for the bishop and other leaders as well as for their families. They prayed for the police and the soldiers and for their families.

At several tense moments, Fr. Roel’s remarks echoed the last Sunday sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. Calling on the soldiers, Romero told them, “You are part of the same people, you are killing your own brother and sisters campesinos; in the face of an order to kill which a man may give, the law of God should prevail: You shall not kill.” Fr. Roel appealed to the police and soldiers, reminding them of the soldiers’ roots among the poor as well as the presence of children and the elderly in the crowd, and said that, of course, they would not harm them. An interesting appeal. He also led the people in prayer for the police and soldiers and their families. At one point in a prayer to Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of Honduras, he reminded the soldiers that she is invoked by the army as their “capitana” – their captain.

Throughout almost nine hours the people maintained a deep sense of prayer. I was moved many times by the deep devotion of these people – even as they were facing a possible forced removal. They prayed the rosary, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of St. Francis, and many other very traditional prayers. But there were often prayers which were quite strong and pointed. I was thrown a loop when a priest prayed that the mining companies would experience a financial failure. But the people have experienced major physical and environmental damages from the policies of the open pit mines in the country.

This could be seen in some of the handmade signs they carried. One read “Let’s throw out the gringos as they have thrown us out,” referring to the forced relocation of some towns by mining company, many with Canadian ties, but some based in the US. Another was merely a quote from Amos 2: 6: “They sell the poor for some money, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” One, made by some Franciscan sisters, merely read, “Francis of Assisi is with us.” (St. Francis was invoked several times since he is the patron of the environment.)

In all this I felt the deep strength of the people, a strength rooted in a profound faith of the people and their willingness to put prayer into action. The people were ready to suffer for the cause of justice. At more than one point, Fr. Roel said that it is better to die struggling than to die from the effects of the mines.

But that was not to be. In fact, there are signs of change.

In the afternoon the members of the Alianza Cívica por la Democrácia, accompanied by Santa Rosa bishop Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos and diocesan vicar general Fr. Rudy Mejía, were meeting with the president of the Honduran legislature and others in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. At the hour the meeting was to begin the people knelt and prayed. Something happened – the power of prayer and the power of hundreds of people on the streets moved the legislators. An agreement was reached to not continue to seek a mere reform of parts of the mining law. They agreed that suggestions of the Alianza Cívica will be included in a new law which the legislature will consider. Where that goes is another question.

But all was not well. In at least two places the police and soldiers forcibly removed the people from the highways. At one site of a mobilization in the diocese, a number of people were arrested and injured including two priests. The people agreed that they would not disperse until the priests were released. When the news arrived the people again joined in prayer, this time praying for the release of those arrested. Bishop Santos, though, insisted that not only the priests were to be freed but also all the people arrested. He pressured the president of Honduras and eventually all were freed.

At this news the bishop was heard on the radio encouraging the people to leave the highways and return to their homes. The people prayed and then sang, with great gusto, the Honduran national anthem. And then they returned to their homes, with the hope that there will really be a change.

On July 17, the same day as a major national mobilization in Honduras for a new mining law, this quote appeared in Sojourners “Verse and Voice.” See http//www.sojo.net.

“We campesinos are used to planting seeds and waiting to see if the seeds bear fruit. We’re used to working on harsh soil. And when our crops don’t grow, we’re used to planting again and again until they take hold. Like us, you must learn to persist.”

Elvia Alvarado
from Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


This coming Tuesday, July 17, there will be a series of public demonstrations in Honduras in support of a change in the mining laws in Honduras. A regional popular organization, Alianza Cívica por la Democracía – the Civic Alliance for Democracy, is spearheading this public mobilization.

The bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, has been in the forefront of this struggle, especially since last July. He is urging all the parishes of the diocese to support the current demonstration. He and others want an entirely new law, not just some changes, but many Honduran congressional leaders do not support such a change.

The current law allows open pit mining of gold, silver, lead, and zinc. A July 2001 report of Mining Watch Canada detailed some aspects of the situation:
“In 1996 and 1997 alone, the Honduran government licensed mining concessions totalling 21,000 square miles — more than 30% of Honduras’ territory — to foreign companies, mainly from the United States, Canada and Australia. Then in December 1998, just weeks after Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of the country, a new mining law was passed — written by the mining association (ANAMINH), primarily made up of US and Canadian companies. The new mining law offers companies lifelong concessions, low taxes, unlimited access to water, legal rights to expropriate campesino (peasant farmers) and indigenous lands, and few environmental restrictions on their operations. In December 2000, the IMF pressured Honduras to reduce taxes even further, with the elimination of the export tax on mining products. With land use fees as low as $1500 a year for a large mine, and a nominal 1% municipal tax, Honduras has created an ideal tributary environment for foreign companies. Several of the mines now entering production are planned to produce more than $30 million worth of gold annually.”
The issues are many and some are quite complicated. But they include environmental contamination, displacement of peoples from their lands for the mines, the failure of the lands to benefit the people of Honduras.

A few years ago one mine at San Andrés Minas, Copán, released cyanide into the Lara River which is a source of water for much of the western region of Honduras. Tests of the water in Santa Rosa de Copán revealed traces of cyanide and lead.

A major concern is that the wealth is going out of the country to enrich some international corporation. As I see it, in a country as poor as Honduras this is criminal.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


A Change of Place

After four weeks of living in the obispado, which serves as both the bishop’s residence and the diocesan office, I am moving to a house about six blocks up from the center of town, on a dirt street. It’s a little large for me but will serve as a great place to welcome visitors. The place was completely empty, but the bishop has given me some furniture which will significantly cut down the cost of setting up a household. I bought a refrigerator and will have to buy a stove as well as household supplies.

Moving to a house will make my move to Honduras much more real for me. I am no longer a guest in someone else’s house – but a member of a community.

The house is in a part of town called Colonia Prado Alto. There is a small chapel a few blocks up from my house – Saint Martin de Porres. I have already gone to Mass there and found it a very welcoming community. I had planned to go there on Sundays no latter where I lived, but now I can be part of their community. Furthermore, a few days ago I met the young man in charge of the base communities in the parish. He invited me to come to the meeting of the leaders on Tuesday nights. I hope to take him up on this and also plan to join one of the communities.

A Change of Pace

For a change of pace, I went twice this past weekend to the town of Gracias, Lempira, a small colonial town (founded about 1536). Saturday I accompanied the bishop who was blessing eighteen new communion ministers for the parish. The parish already had thirteen communion ministers, but these new ones were all from the countryside. These sixteen men and two women will take communion to the sick and dying and will distribute communion at celebrations of the word in their communities. The Eucharist will be reserved in the chapels in the communities where they live.

The parish of Gracias has one priest for about 100 widely scattered rural aldeas and Sister Nancy Meyerhofer, a Dubuque Franciscan sister, works in the parish and has visited many of these communities. But there seldom are Masses in the communities. Yet the people have a deep love of the Eucharist and a longing to receive. The presence of these new communion ministers will enable the people to receive communion more often.

It was really moving to see them, chosen by their communities, at the Mass on Saturday. To me they appeared to be simple campesinos, people from the countryside, truly the salt of the earth. They were trained by Sister Nancy. I hope I have a chance some day some to work with people like them. I love working with college students, but there is something real about the campesinos in Latin America.

Sunday I went back for a meal and a few hours with Sister Nancy and Sister Brenda. Brenda, also a Dubuque Franciscan, was raised in Ames, Iowa, and is visiting Nancy for a month. I think she’d like to be stationed here. It was the first time in two weeks I had had an extended conversation in English! It was great to connect with these two delightful women.

Getting on the return bus from Gracias I was greeted by a woman with two kids. She was the teacher from the kindergarten I had visited last week. A block later a student from the Catholic University got on the bus and greeted me. I am getting to know people and be recognized faster than I’d thought. I better watch what I do!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sin and grace

Wednesday, July 4, I spent much of the day with Sor Ines, a Spanish Franciscan sister who has been here at least five years.

In the morning we went to a neighborhood, just below the main highway in the lower part of town. Sor Ines spends two mornings a week there at a kindergarten.

Near the kindergarten I saw a number of fairly new houses that looked very nice. I asked her if these were “casas de lujo” – “luxury homes.” No, she said, they are houses of the Aldeas Infantiles, the Children’s Communities. (But then, I guess, poor children deserve the best.) Abandoned or orphaned children, or children whose parents cannot take care of them, are taken in by this international organization. Five to eight children, of all ages, live together in a house with a housemother and so children from a single family are not separated. The housemothers are carefully chosen and trained and are expected to spend many years working as a mother to the children in the houses. One housemother spoke of her role as a “vocation.” The idea is to be a place where the children grow up in as normal as household as possible.

After speaking to the director we went to the kindergarten, where many of the children are from the Aldeas Infantiles. Sister and I took the four year olds on a walk where we passed by their houses. In one we stopped a saw a 10 month old who had newly arrived in his new home.

After this sister took me on a tour of the neighborhood – Colonia Divina Providencia, the Divine Providence neighborhood. But one must wonder if the Divine Providence has really arrived here.

We passed a site at the side of a stream of “aguas negras” – sewer waste – where the city had wanted to put the kindergarten. Sor Ines was one of those who fought against it, suggesting at one point that they should put offices there.

A little further along we saw some houses at the side of the stream, mostly made of bamboo and mud, tin, or adobe. There are ninety households in this area. About 41 families now have cement houses but many houses are very provisional. The community now has water and electricity is slowly arriving, but this is a very poor area. there are also some problems of drugs, prostitution, and occasional murders.

Yet I felt very safe here for Sor Ines is well known, having worked here for about five years. She must know almost everyone and always asks if the children are in kindergarten or school. What a light she is for these people, a true sign of Divine Providence.

After lunch I met Sor Ines and another Spanish Franciscan, Sor María Jesús and visited the jail. It is quite a ways out of town and holds about 550 men and 12 to 15 women. The sisters are among a number of people including a local priest and some Missionaries of Charity who minister in the jail. The sisters are responsible for setting up a carpentry shop in the jail as a way for the men to learn a trade and to earn some money. Sor María Jesús works a lot with the carpentry shop. Sor Ines has a literacy class twice a week. I ended up helping two men – one a 22 year old who could not read. (I don’t find this totally strange after finding out that the teachers in El Bálsamo usually only teach two days a week!) During a break he told me that he had tried to enter the US but had been caught at the Tijuana border and returned to Honduras.

Before I left one of the men showed me around the prison. The men were playing pool, weaving hammocks or fishing nets, playing cards, washing clothes, or just hanging out. He also showed me the room where he and 16 other sleep, with at least four levels of bunks.

As we left the prison an Argentinean-born Spanish woman who had come with us said to me – these two sisters are saints; they are always working and helping. I don’t know if they are saints, but they are signs of grace and God’s love. I am glad that I will be living in their neighborhood.

Monday, July 02, 2007

El Bálsamo

This past Saturday and Sunday morning I accompanied a class of students from the Catholic University on a trip to a remote village. As part of his class in professional ethics, Fr. Roel Mejía had his class visit this village to do a survey of the community.

Thirty some of us left at about 10:: AM on Saturday in three pickups. We drove about 15 minutes on the highway and then turned off onto a dirt road. We reached the town of Vega Redondo about noon and then walked about 40 minutes up hill and 20 minutes down hill to reach El Bálsamo.

El Bálsamo has about 45 households and 400 inhabitants, 80 of whom are students in the local school with classes up to the sixth grade. There is no electricity and the road is extremely poor, especially in the rainy season. Not all members of the community have access to water. Most are subsistence farmers, growing corn and rice mostly for their personal consumption, and many of these rent the little land they have for their crops. A few folks grow coffee.

The students were divided into eight groups which each visited 4 to 6 houses. They listened to the people talk about their lives and their communities. They people spoke of the lack of adequate housing, problems of access to water, the limited amount of land available for cultivation (since some of the best land is used by the land owning for grazing cattle). They told stories that revealed the precarious nature of their lives. A child had a bicycle accident and was taken to a nearby health center; but there was no surgical thread there to sew up the child’s wounds. The people were also honest about the situation of the community, about its conflicts and lack of unity. Some students also found some people resigned to their condition, without much hope of things changing. But they also found that the people welcomed them into their homes. One group noted that they had coffee and sweet bread five times!

The students’ interviews will help the local leadership team to begin to plan and prepare proposals for development which they will take to some international governments for funding of projects in the community. Two persons who had connections with development and funding agencies had accompanied the students.

Saturday night there was a cultural festival around the campfire with music and skits. One skit, which provoked a lot of laughter, was a commentary on the community and its experiences. Though I couldn’t follow all the dialogue, I did get the satirical portraits of abusive drunk husbands and politicians who promise everything before the next election (but deliver almost nothing).

After this the students shared heir reports with Fr. Roel and the local leadership team. Sunday morning we had Mass in the little chapel; Fr. Roel brought some of the insights into his homily to encourage the people to work together and overcome differences in order to meet the community’s needs.

There was one very interesting moment at the end of Mass when Fr. Roel invited the students and members of the community to share any reflections they had. The students expressed their gratitude as did the community members. Then, at the end, a community leader noted that there was a visitor from the United States – me. Here was someone who was interested in the good of their community. And, he said, it is good to know that there are Christians in the United States.