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.

1 comment:

Nora said...

John, it sounds like you're doing great work. Thanks for sharing with us so we can continue to learn and grow in solidarity with the people of Honduras.