Monday, November 26, 2007

Ups & Downs – but sun & celebrations

Campus ministry is always tricky – even in the US. Here it seems as if it is even more so. Thursday there was a meeting of professors to talk about some ministry with them. About twenty came and it was a very productive meeting. They will be meeting again – partly for their own enrichment, partly to discuss ways to bring faith into their classes. A couple of good ideas came from the meeting which I hope will bear fruit.

Friday the director, Dr. Francisco Castro, and I had agreed to pull together a meeting of students and faculty to discuss planning for next year. I invited a good number of students and asked the student coordinator of campus ministry and a faculty member involved in it to invite others. The director was going to invite faculty but he had forgotten and only made the invitations yesterday afternoon. Guess what? Only one student came and he came late. But Francisco and I had a very good extended conversation. People here don’t plan as much as we do in the states, but I had hoped that there would be some planning for next year. So it goes.

Saturday and Sunday I spent in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. I met three leaders in the town of Dolores and we went, through much mud, to El Ocote, about 90 minutes away. They had been thoughtful enough to get a horse for me to ride. This was my first extended ride on a horse – ever. The others helped me but I was finally getting the hang of it by the time I dismounted a very gentle horse in El Ocote.

The meeting there was a meeting of the leaders of the fourth sector of the parish, five communities in the municipality of Vera Cruz. They struggle with some of the same problems as the church does everywhere – needing more leaders, the struggle to have people donate to the church – as well as the particular problems of a poor church in widely scattered villages. Some of the leaders came to this meeting from villages three hours away.

I left with a group from two villages and we walked down a stony and muddy mountainside. A ten-year kid had come with them and was having fun trying to find paths for me to go on that had the most rocks and mud. Kids are the same everywhere. (However, this kid has never gone to school.)

We arrived at Vera Cruz and they asked Teodoso, who is the only church leader there, to arrange for me to stay there and be part of the celebration the next day, the feast of Christ the King. Despite being surprised by this, he arranged for me to stay the night in his house. The hospitality of the poor is humbling.

There I met several of his children. Two have graduated from high school and I spoke with them at length. The oldest, Bessy, would really like to study and to work in nutrition since she sees this as a great need in Honduras; but she doesn’t know of any program in Honduras to do this. Alex would like to become a priest; he was in the minor seminary for two years but will probably work one year to get some work experience.

Talking with young people and with college students has been an eye-opening experience. There are some with great dreams but the possibilities make it very difficult to pursue them. Some would like to study in a particular area, but since there is no local program they will sometimes settle for something less. And then there are those who may have the talent and the desire but the financial means are just not there.

Sunday morning we had a three hour celebration of the feast of Christ the King – complete with a procession around the town square. They asked me to preach, but I confined myself to about twenty minutes. (Here most sermons are from 30 to 45 minutes!)

The weekend was a time of great consolation, despite the poverty. Not only were the people so warm and welcoming, both days were bright and sunny. And, on the ride back to Santa Rosa, I suddenly realized that I’d been talking a lot in Spanish, without too much effort.

¡Gracias a Dios!
Pastoral Work

Wednesday, November 21, I made a short trip to Gracias, Lempira, about 75 minutes from Santa Rosa by bus. I went to talk with Fr. Loncho, the pastor there. Greg McGrath, an Iowa State University student is doing a study on possible sustainable energy sources for a Center fro training and Retreats that Fr. Loncho hopes to build near Gracias. Greg had a few questions that He wanted me to ask Fr. Loncho.

We had a nice lunch and Fr. Loncho answered Greg’s questions. We talked about his parish, where Sister Nancy Meyerhofer works. (Nancy is a Dubuque Franciscan sister who has been here in Honduras a little over two years.) There are over 70 rural villages in the parish. Next month there will be confirmations – 1600 of them – in four different locations in the parish. During the Easter Vigil next march there will be forty baptisms of youth, young adults, and others who began the Christian Initiation process last August.

In the next month the bishop will ordain two men to the priesthood which brings the number of priests to about 63 for over a million people in widely scattered villages. (A few weeks ago I was speaking with the bishop and he spoke, with concern, of the financial difficulties some priests face – the collections in some very poor rural parishes don’t equal $30 a month.)

The faith has survived here because over forty years ago the church began a program of training Delegates of the Word to preside over weekly celebrations in widely scattered villages.

In the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, this has been slightly expanded and the church tries to have at least three evangelizers in every village, with responsibility for the three areas of pastoral ministry – the prophetic (teaching, formation, preaching), the liturgical (preparing liturgies, music), and the social. Also, the diocese sees comunidades eclesiales de base –church base communities – as the way that people grow in faith. Many rural villages have more than one base community and so in a parish like Dulce Nombre de María where I’m helping there are probably two hundred or more base communities in about 46 villages and municipalities. Of course, the quality of the experience will vary. I think Father Efraín Romero, the pastor of Dulce Nombre, hopes that I can help in some education and formation work with the leaders in his parish.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Last Friday, during a break in the retreat on Christian Maturity for Catholic University students, I sat and talked with two of the other presenters. We were eating baleadas, a Honduran quick food of wheat tortillas filled with beans, heavy cream, and cheese. Talk soon turned to the prices of food. Eggs used to cost 1.5 lempiras a piece (about 8¢) but now are 2.5 lempiras (about 13¢). Beans, a staple of the Honduran diet, that recently cost 8 lempira a pound (about 45¢), now cost 15 lempira a pound (about 80¢). Fredy, who owns a small business making flour tortillas for baleadas, had to raise the price of a bag of five from 6 to 9 lempiras (from 32¢ to 44¢) because the cost of a 100 pound bag of flour rose from 350 lempiras to 600 lempiras (from about $18 to $32). He lamented, “What is a small business owner to do?”

This past week the local bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, was again in the midst of the conflict over the demand for a new mining law. In Honduras the current law, which was virtually written by the mining companies in 1998, gives them major concessions throughout the country and demands minimal tax payments. Its environmental controls are minimal. Open pit mining using the cyanide leeching method is used in several places in Honduras including one site within the diocese. Parts of the current law were declared unconstitutional by the Honduras Supreme Court.

Last week one deputy of the National Assembly (Honduras' unicameral legislature) called a meeting to discuss a possible new law and invited various interested parties. Monseñor came, together with the people from the Civic Alliance for Democracy. But it seems as if the meeting was packed with pro-mining interests and at least one corrupt lawyer who had written the old mining law, probably with the mining companies' help.

Monseñor came with a 70 page report, which included information on the assets and profits of the mining interests. It seems the mining companies underreported their profits by 16 million dollars. He was interrupted during his talk. Some said he shouldn’t be speaking on this; he’s a bishop. He said that he was a Honduran and there is freedom of speech here. Obviously they didn’t want to hear him and so he left. But he left not before he had revealed the underhanded actions of the mining companies. After he left he went to the diocesan pastoral meeting with the priests and representatives of the parishes who welcomed him warmly, grateful for his witness.

It is great to have such a committed bishop.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Weekend in San Juan

Friday, November 9, I left Santa Rosa about 11:30 am to spend two full days in the aldea of San Juan, in the municipality of Concepción, about an hour away in bus.

But first I spent about half an hour at the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia; it was the last official day of class and I wanted to drop by. But first I bought some chocolate-filled lollypops. I’ll miss my weekly visits with the kids, though those going into first grade will have another week or two of classes.

The bus ride was uneventful but Moisés, one of the eight evangelizers in San Juan, joined me in the bus just outside of Dulce Nombre and accompanied me to San Juan. San Juan has about 80 families spread out throughout a beautiful valley.

Soon after arriving we stopped in a house near the soccer field and Moisés went to find the church key. I spoke with the young woman there who had two brothers working in a turkey plant in Minnesota; the wife of one of them soon dropped by. I later found out that there are at least 27 men and 1 woman from San Juan in the US.

Moisés opened the church, rang the bell and put some music on the sound system (run by a battery, since there is no electricity in the village). Throughout the afternoon a number of kids and young people passed by. I had brought my small Spanish Bible and a Spanish liturgy of the hours. The kids were fascinated by the books and the cards I had in them.

One little nine year, who had just finished first grade, started reading parts of the liturgy of the hours. I was surprised at how well he read with only one year of school.

The kids had a very healthy curiosity but didn't want to be photographed. As the afternoon proceeded some of the kids started asking me all sorts of questions. One young adolescent girl asked me if it was wrong for women to wear slacks! I tried to answer in a way that helped her see why some would say this but also might help her to see that the issue is not slacks per se – but modesty. On the way to dinner Moisés threw me another trick question: Is it wrong to play soccer? Whew!

After dinner there was a prayer in the church. I gave the reflection on the readings for the feast of the dedication of the basilica of St. John Lateran – in the little chapel of San Juan – St. John. I spoke of the dignity we have as the Body of Christ, the living stones of the Church, who have a commitment to build up the Body of Christ in our communities. I shared with them how much I was impressed by the young people. I stopped after about 15 minutes but they wanted me to speak more. And so I did – probably too long. In the course of speaking, without even thinking, I inadvertently paraphrased a passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Drum Major instinct sermon which has meant a lot to me:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

… by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Saturday I had my meals with Karla, one of the school teachers, and her husband Dani. It was probably the nicest house in the village since Dani is both a carpenter and an albanil (skilled in all types of construction, especially brick-laying.) Karla teaches three grades (2nd, 4th, and 6th) in a school with 96 kids in six grades. Of her ten students in sixth grade only four will continue their studies; they will be studying by a long-distance course which meets once week Dulce Nombre, four kilometers away.

When I speak with kids I often ask them about school. It still surprises me that there are so many adolescents who have only studied up to the third grade. I even find some who have not gone to school. But then I find a few who are studying in what we would call junior high and high school. To do this the kids in San Juan have to go to Dulce Nombre for a four hour session to supplement what they study at home. If they are lucky they can get a ride in a pick up; otherwise they walk about an hour to get there –uphill (and downhill) both ways.

Saturday morning, Belarmino, an 18 year old, took me on a walk through the village. He’s studying in high school on Sundays as well as working. He works some land in corn and beans – for subsistence. I asked him how he and others earned money for school and other needs. From late November till March he and many others work on the coffee harvest – maybe earning 1000 or 1500 lempiras (about $55 or $80) a week. Also, when there is not much work to do in the fields he’ll go to a nearby town and work in construction. We talked a little about folks who’ve gone to the US but it appears that he is not one of those who will leave. He could be a real asset to his community.

In the afternoon there was a youth group meeting scheduled at one o’clock. It started at 2:15, not abnormal here. But I soon found out that I was expected to lead part of the meeting. I did a few icebreakers and then tried to get them to think about the goodness of God’s creation – and the obligation to respect each other and the created world. It worked, to my surprise.

Saturday night there was another prayer service but I only spoke fifteen minutes, partly because I knew some of them were going to a velorio, an all night vigil for an 84-year old man who had died that afternoon. I begged off joining them since it was a one hour walk to the house where the vigil was being held. Interestingly, Moisés talked of the old man as dying young due to poverty; I think Moisés has a 96-year old father.

Sunday morning we had the usual Celebration of the Word that they have every Sunday in the community. They asked me to “preach” again – my fourth talk in Spanish in three days. They seemed to understand me – and I tried to be brief.

They also took up a collection to cover my costs to get there – 110 Lempiras, about $5.15. I tried to give the leaders the money to help with community projects, but they said no. I will have to find some way to use it for the benefit of this and other communities. That morning I had also asked the teacher if there were something I could give her for the food. She, too, said no. But I think I’ll try to find books to give her for the should since this is one thing she told me the school needs. It also needs a new roof, more desks, and a new fence.

A little after noon I caught a ride in the back of a pick up back to Dulce Nombre where I took a bus back to Santa Rosa. I had gone out on Friday with a little trepidation – How would I react to the mud and the poverty? Would I be able to understand folks and would they understand me? I returned tired but grateful. It was also humbling, since they were so grateful for my presence and at times I felt so inadequate. Perhaps what my visit says is that in a very real sense the Church is accompanying them.

I am glad I have decided to try to spend at least two weekends a month in a rural area in the parish of Dulce Nombre. It will be a reality check as well as a way to meet the really poor. I also hope it will be a place for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ames find a way to be in connection with the poor and help them.
Filthy Lucre

“Make friends for yourselves with filthy money, so that, when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
Saturday night in San Juan I had to preach on the Gospel that begins with that sentence and ends with this admonition:
“”You cannot serve God and Money.” (Luke 16: 13)

How do you speak of money in the midst of the poor?

I actually began my reflection with this question. I mentioned that if I were in the US I might share a quotation from St. Gaudentius of Brescia, a fifth century bishop, that I found in Spanish on a daily Gospel site :
Those friends who will obtain salvation for us are, evidently, the poor, because, according to the word of Christ, He himself is the author of the eternal reward and will gather up in the poor the services which our charity will have procured for them. Thus, the poor will receive us not in their name but in the name of Him who in them tastes the refreshing fruit of our obedience and our faith. Those who carry out this service of love will be received in the eternal mansions of the Kingdom of the heavens, since Christ will say, “Come blessed of my Father, receive as inheritance the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mat 25, 34)
But, I added, how can I, who am rich in comparison to all the people in San Juan, preach on this Gospel? A woman interrupted me and reminded me that there are rich in Honduras who don’t share and need to hear that word of Gaudentius.

But instead of pursuing this idea, I went on to try to help them think about what this Gospel means for them. I mentioned that it obviously refers to all who are attached to money and that there are poor who have the heart of the rapacious rich who only wish to hoard things for themselves. And there are the rich with the heart of the poor who know how to share.

I asked them to think of people in their community who share the wealth they have: these are showing something of God’s love for others and making “friends.”

I also reminded them that no matter how little we have all we have is God’s gift to us and we are called to be good administrators, of even the little we have.

But, all in all, I felt very inadequate – even though I know that Jesus himself was talking to the poor who had little or nothing.

I wonder how Jesus would explain this to the people of San Juan. I did the best I could but in some ways this Gospel passage may be meant more as a challenge to us who are rich.