Wednesday, December 31, 2008

World Peace Day, 2009

“What the fight against poverty really needs are men and women who live in a profoundly fraternal way and are able to accompany individuals, families, and communities on journeys of authentic human development.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Peace Day, 2009

This has been the joy of my life here in Honduras for almost 19 months – accompanying the people. True missionary work, I believe, is accompaniment, being present with the people, helping them in whatever ways one can and letting them help me. We are not bringing Christ to the people – we are together finding ways to let all of us encounter Christ in a deeper way.

Yesterday, on the bus to San Pedro Sula to pick up two visitors from the airport I finished Kelly S. Johnson’s The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. It’s a fascinating work – a little dense at spots (since it looks like a reworked doctoral dissertation). But a quote on page 209 struck me:
“The opposite of poverty is not plenty, but friendship.”
Johnson notes that poverty and plenty often exists side by side, which is obvious here in Honduras as well as throughout the world.

At times the plenty of the few is dependent on the poverty of the many. It’s now coffee harvest time in Honduras. You can see truckloads of people going out to work all day in harvesting the coffee beans; for many this is their one time in the year to work for cash. And I doubt they are paid very well. Those who have a small coffee farm, their finca, will sell their harvest to middle men who will make a good profit when they sell it to the few processors and exporters of coffee, who will really profit.

But, reflecting on Johnson’s book, I sometimes wonder whether the generosity of those with plenty (and that includes me) is more to alleviate our guilt or to look good before other people.

I recall the story told me of a US Sister of St Joseph of Peace who used to work in El Salvador, who obviously had little money. When a beggar approached her she would stop and talk with the beggar, ask her or his name, and establish a bit of a relationship.

I’m not as good as this. I often (not always) look directly at the person and say, “It’s not my custom to give to beggars.” I know that’s weak, but at least I’m trying to treat the person as a human.

And so I return to Johnson’s quote: “The opposite of poverty… is friendship.” I believe that we are called to be friends with the poor, to share their sufferings as our own, to link ourselves with others. This will mean sharing money and physical resources at times, but more it means taking time to share our lives.

That’s not easy. At times our hearts may be broken when we see a child with severe malnutrition or visit the shacks where people live. It may break our hearts at times.

But isn’t that the message of our faith – a God who became flesh and let his heart - and his body – be broken out of love for us.

And so as a new year begins, with all sorts of challenges for me, I see that I must keep letting others enter my life, by drawing near to them in their joys and in their pains. And so together we may healed by God’s love for us – healed by our sharing, by the love that God lets us share.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

FELIZ NAVIDAD
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

Monday, December 22, 2008

Posadas – Seeking Shelter

The Posadas are a Latin American religious celebration celebrated just before Christmas. An example of popular piety they are often celebrated in neighborhoods as a way to prepare for Christmas. It reenacts the journey of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem. In some places children dress up as Joseph and Mary, in other images of Mary and Joseph or a nativity set is carried, sometimes on ornate floats.

For several evenings – the number varies from place to place – people go in procession to one or more houses. This is all prearranged and so no one is surprised by a visit of Mary and Joseph.

One group waits outside while another is within with the people who live there. Some one knocks and those inside ask, “Who is it ?” “Mary and Joseph,” answer those outside. They then begin a song that alternates between both groups.

The innkeeper is wary of these visitors, but finally gives in and Mary and Joseph and all those outside enter as all sing, “Enter pilgrims!”

After this prayers are read and Christmas hymns are sung. In some houses a treat is shared with all.

This year our base community decided to celebrate the posadas in our neighborhood, starting Monday, December 15. This was the first time they had been celebrated in our neighborhood for many years.

We visited a good number of houses in the neighborhood and the last evening we went to the houses of the mother and sister of one neighbor in another part of Santa Rosa.

What struck me was the difference in the houses. Some were poor; others showed that the family were a little better off but lived fairly simply; a few were fairly nice houses (with big televisions). But we were received kindly in all of them.

Monday night at the last posada they asked me to read the final prayer. Before I led the prayer I commented that this was my first posadas in Honduras and that I was grateful for the welcomes that I had received from the people here.

I am touched by a deep sense of the hospitality of the people here – not just the people in the neighborhood, but especially by the poor I meet in the countryside. They have given me posada – a place at the inn – sometimes giving me a bed while others share a bed, always sharing food with me, and always being so welcoming ad tolerating my Spanish when I do a session with the kids or give a reflection at a celebration of the Word.

Their hospitality is a gift.

As I reflect on this I think of all those who have welcomed me into their homes, especially on my travels. I also think of the times I have had friends come and stay over or enjoy a meal. I also am grateful for the times I’ve been able to open my house to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala and to a student from Chiapas, Mexico. My hosts and my guests have enriched my lives.

In this time when we remember Joseph and Mary seeking shelter, when the world is full of refugees seeking shelter, when the US is torn apart by migrants, many from Central America, seeking a decent life, it is good to remember the many times we have been blessed by guests and by those who welcomed us as guests.

And so I recall Hebrews 13:3:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
---

This year we had a special visitor for the last two posadas - Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Vulnerability

In my last blog I wrote about Fr. Greg Schaeffer as an example of a healthy and holy vulnerability. But I am far from that.

Two days ago while I was out someone stole a new pair of pants and an old big backpack which were hanging on the line in the alcove at the back of my house.

Not only was I upset that I lost this good pair of pants, but I felt very vulnerable. Someone was right at my back door and stole two things. And no one saw it. (It was a rainy day and so few people were probably out.)

Yesterday when I left for Dulce Nombre for the Parish Council meeting, I felt worried that someone would return and steal something more, maybe break into the house. When I got back in the afternoon and had to go out again, I had a similar feeling. When I came back, nothing was disturbed.

I still find myself tied to the things I have, sometimes looking to them for comfort and release. The search for holy indifference is a long haul.

But the poor here and throughout the world are increasingly vulnerable. Not only do they have little, the economic crisis threatens even the little they have. The incidence of crime in the poorest areas is another sign of their social vulnerability – the likelihood that they will experience more loss than I would.

At the parish council meeting I heard of a killing in one of the villages that was related to a drinking binge. A quarrel arose and since at least some of those involved were drunk, violence ensued. In the newspapers you can read (and see pictures) of grisly crimes and read of robberies of buses, the transport of the poor.

In the face of loss of two items which I can easily replace, I found myself almost paralyzed with fear. What is going on here? Is it merely a reflection of the culture I come from, the society I was raised in – that I get overly concerned with what is mine?

I guess I need to pray more about this. Thomas Merton wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation an incredibly insightful essay, “The root of War is Fear.” I must go back and read it. Also, I should look at the book Megan McKenna sent me this past Easter, The Hour of the Tiger: Facing Our Fears. There’s a chapter on “Money, Possession, and Insecurity.” Her note to me in the book helps put this all in perspective: “May fear of the lord be the only fear you know and may you continue to live with courage and he Spirit of truth.”

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, once said that it would take him fifteen minutes to adjust if the order were suppressed. It took me more than a day to adjust to losing two items. God have mercy on me and help me learn holy indifference.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Guatemala visit

One of the joys of my years in campus ministry has been to see young people (and others) take off an extended period to live with the poor, whether in the US or around the world.

This year at least five people I know are long term volunteers this year.
Wes Meier is with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua - http://wesinnicaragua.blogspot.com;
Rachel and Brendan Egan with the Canossian Sisters in East Timor - http://www.easttimortrip.blogspot.com;
and Lois and Dan Fulton (with their 3 month old Clara Maria) in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala - http://www.loisanddan.blogspot.com.

Things are slow in December – the Catholic University is on vacation; the schools are out of session; there are few pastoral formation programs this month and next; and many people are out working the coffee harvest, to earn cash for the year. And so I decided to take a few days to visit Dan and Lois in Guatemala.

Dan and Lois have been there since July and their daughter was born there. Lois finished her master program and is a licensed physical therapist; Dan just finished med school and put of residency for a year. They are both working with the San Lucas Tolimán Mission on the beautiful Lago Atitlán in Honduras.

I arrived about a day after I left Santa Rosa after a long series of bus rides, taxi, pick up, tuk-tuks (3 wheeled taxis), and walking, on Friday morning December 12.

The work of the San Lucas Mission is incredible (http://www.sanlucasmission.com) with a large number of projects, spearheaded by Fr. Greg Schaeffer who arrived there 45 years ago. You can read what they do on their website – everything from a school, a hospital, a coffee project, a land distribution program, and a women’s center to many Masses and pastoral activities.

Fr. Greg really impressed me – not only for his projects but for his spirit and his story. what most impressed me from the first was his willingness to learn from the poor – from the very beginning. He has the humility not to think that he has all the answers – though he has very strong opinions and will tell you what he thinks. He began the program of buying and distributing land to people who formerly worked on coffee plantations because some one said that giving people food wasn’t enough.

After listening to him speaking to a group, Lois and I spoke for a while. I think Fr. Greg is an example of someone who is truly “poor in spirit.” Why? Lois asked me. I think it’s because he is not afraid to be vulnerable; when he first came it seems that he felt really out of his element and the people responded to him. I really think the willingness to be vulnerable and let others see and respond to our vulnerability is one of the essential aspects of poverty of spirit. We can recognize our lack, our failures, our needs and then let others help us. In this way, mission becomes something mutual. We are in this together and we need each other – sharing our vulnerabilities as well as our gifts.

Lois and Dan are also impressive people – daring enough to take a year off from their “careers” and bold enough to have a child born in Guatemala. As we walked around town they were greeted by many people and many wanted to see little Clara Maria. Lois particularly noted how having a baby really opened up an entry to the people. Of course, all the women have advice for her. But you can see the love that Lois, Dan, and Clara Maria have elicited from the people.

The visit was fairly low key – mostly shadowing them or playing with Clara Maria or visiting with the volunteers. I did get to see some of the projects on Saturday morning. But Sunday, after Mass, Dan and Lois and I hiked up a hill opposite the town for an incredible view of the town and the lake. Afterwards, Dan went out to a fútbol (soccer) game – what they call fultbolito here in Honduras: five member teams on a area about the size of a basketball court. Well, when they arrived they only had four players, so they conned me into playing portero – goalie. I was wearing enclosed sandals and so would not have done well playing regularly, not to mention that I never really played fútbol! So for about an hour and a half. I attempted to prevent the other teams from getting a goal. (We started by playing with one team but another team arrived and so we switched off teams after a goal was made.) Needless to say our team never won – though I did prevent a few goal attempts and even scraped by knees on the astroturf! Was that fun!

And so I’m now in Santa Rosa (after traveling about 14 hours) , preparing for Christmas. Tonight our neighborhood base community will do the Posadas. (More on that later.)

Peace and blessings as we await the coming of the Prince of Peace – and in the meantime try to welcome the poor in our midst, making a place of welcome for the Child Jesus who comes to us in poverty.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

ADVENT

This is my second Advent in Honduras. It still feels strange to celebrate Advent without cold and snow. I do have four Advent candles, though I haven’t gone out and sought pine bows for an Advent wreath. Many people in Santa Rosa de Copán have lights and there was even a Santa Claus at the upscale supermarket here.

But Advent is more than cold and snow, Santa Claus and Advent wreaths. It’s about waiting. And there’s a lot of waiting here in Honduras.

One of my continual struggles is with patience in the face of things happening all too slowly – if they happen at all. I also struggle with patience in the face of people (mostly in-town professionals) who just seem not to respond to requests or who don’t plan how to do things or who do things at the last moment.

But the poor really wait – for good weather, for a ride into town (so they don’t have to walk three or four hours), for ways to feed their kids in the face of rising food prices, for justice.

Yet this year I have been privileged to work with the parish of Dulce Nombre, where devoted pastoral workers (all volunteers, many with little education) serve with a hard-working pastor to bring people in this poor parish some Good News.

The Good News is not just the many ways they try to bring the Gospel to people; it’s also the programs to improve people’s live through education in natural medicine, methods to prevent infant mortality, and making of silos to store basic grains.

But it is also the presence that the Church, especially the pastor and the sisters, Oblates of the Divine Love, who work in the parish.

The comedor de niños, the lunch program for kids, is also I believe a sign of hope. The kids are getting a good meal. Last Saturday students from the Catholic University had a special meal for the kids; a doctor also came and examined the fifty some kids who showed up. He found about eight with grade 3 malnutrition (which means severe malnutrition) and three with anemia. He left some medicine and vitamins. I am glad we are doing a little to help a few kids here in Santa Rosa.

The message of Advent is hope – for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom. But it is also a time to bring comfort.

What many people in the United States may find hard to believe is that our presence with the poor of the world makes a difference. By being here we tell them that they are important, that they are also daughters and sons of God and our brothers and sisters in faith.

And so, I pray that this Advent may find me waiting, alert to respond in love to those in need, to recognize Christ present in our midst - Emmanuel, God with us, who comes to save us, but also comes in the disguise of the most vulnerable.

What a blessing to have God who identifies with the poorest among us - and gives us a chance to show our love for Him through lovign and serving them.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Looking back and forward

Last week I hosted two staff members from St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa, where I had served until June 2007. They came to learn about the ministries here and to investigate ways to deepen relationships between St. Thomas and Honduras. It was a chance for me to look again at the areas where I am ministering.

It was a full week with visits with the bishop and the pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre. We spent the evening of November 22 in the village of Plan Grande where Kathy White, the Religious Education Director of St. Thomas, did an activity with the children on creation. I had interviewed some children from Plan Grande which were shared with the St. Thomas Vacation Bible School last summer. Also Plan Grande had sent cards to St. Thomas in October and Kathy brought cards from a fifth grade class at St. Thomas.

When we stepped off the bus in Plan Grande on Saturday, we were greeted by Jorleny, a nine year old girl, who had been one of the children I interviewed. She, her sister, and a few friends accompanied us to Gloria’s house near the church. Later we met with other children as well as with some folks in the evening. It was a great chance for Kathy and Shari White, St. Thomas’s director of campus ministry, to meet the children they had only heard of before.

The next day was the feast of Christ the King and there was a single parish Mass in the nearby village of Candelario. More than 1000 showed up for the Mass and Kathy and Shari had the chance to meet more people, including some of the catechists. Before and after Mass, music groups from the various villages sang for the crowd. One group, La Gran Familia, from Plan Grande, sang after Mass (as they had sung for us the night before); three of them wore St. Thomas Aquinas buttons that the spring break group had given them. Solidarity!

We spent a few days in Santa Rosa where Kathy and Shari had the chance to visit the home for malnourished kids, the kindergarten where I help once a week, as well as the nearby group home for kids and Colonia Divina Providencia, a very poor neighborhood.

For a change we spent Thanksgiving in Copán Ruinas, the Mayan ruins, more than three hours away in bus.

On our way back we stopped at Dulce Nombre for a few hours on Friday to see their evaluation and planning meeting. We noted that they had identified the connection with St. Thomas Aquinas as one of their opportunities for the future.

Shari and Kathy left on Saturday and I went to the final day of the planning session. What they hope to accomplish is quite ambitious, but they’ve done a lot this past year. Besides training for catechists, for celebrators of Sunday celebrations, and for extraordinary monsters of the Eucharist, as well as a number of retreats for the people, the parish will form a Pastoral de la Tierra, a ministry of the land, which will work on a number of projects to help combat hunger through training in sustainable farming, through the silo project, and through other programs to improve the health and nutrition of the people in the parish.

In light of the world economic crisis and the extreme poverty here, these are small but very important steps to help feed the people. In combination with the projects for the spiritual formation of the people, I think the parish is making great steps to being a sign for the people here of God’s love.

May the ministries flourish, with the help of God – and all the people who’ve helped so far, especially the parish of St. Thomas.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

AGRICULTURAL WORKSHOP

This week the Social Action Ministry of the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán held a three day workshop on agricultural practices on the small farm of Moises Rodriguez, in the village of Mejocote, just outside of Gracias, Lempira.

The group was small – 13 of us in all – and I could only stay two days. But the site was fantastic. About ten years ago, Moises and his family moved to a rocky hillside and began farming there.

Through his practices, which include intensive farming, terraces, use of “frijol de abono” (fertilizer beans- also known as velvet beans, Mucuna spp.), composting, and planting of fruit trees, he has created an incredible agricultural miracle. Gary Guthrie, when he visited Moises’ farm a year ago, noted that it is more rock than soil – but Moises has done wonders, as Gary has in Nevada, Iowa, on his community supported agriculture farm, Growing Harmony Farm.

Moises has a small conference center on his land, with bunk beds for up to 20 people. And there we learned.
The first day which included a presentation on “La finca humana” (the human farm), a concept developed by an Honduran educator, that emphasizes the importance of nourishing the human person and working through one’s mind, heart, and hands to develop one self and the world around one.

One idea that Moises repeated several times struck me: “If the mind of a campesino [a small farmer’ is a desert, the world around him will be a desert.” In a society where campesinos are looked down upon, the call for integral development and nurturing of the spirit of the campesinos is a truly important labor. In a society where there is so little self-esteem among the poor, this can be quite a revolutionary method.

After this very fruitful discussion, Moises talked about soil in a most fascinating way. I’ve just read Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both Moises and Pollen emphasize, in totally different ways, that soil is alive – it’s not simply a chemical composition. And therefore it needs to be nourished.

Besides all this theory, Moises showed us around his farm and gave us an idea of all that he does.

Tuesday was the day for practice.

In the morning we started by making bocachi, an organic fertilizer. The process is fascinating and after all is done it is only 21 days until it is transformed into fertilizer. It does cost a bit – about 48 lempiras ($2.55) if you count the materials and work hours, but you can sell it for about 100 lempiras ($5.30) a 100 pound bag . Of course, if you have some of the products on your farm, the costs go down.

After that we made a liquid fertilizer that can be added to water and sprayed on the crops.

These and other processes of producing fertilizer may be very important in the near future. One participant recalled that a government agricultural worker had said in a workshop that in three years campesinos may not be able to buy chemical fertilizer, because of the cost.

All this was very fascinating for me – non-farmer that I am, but more was to come.

In the afternoon, we worked on grafting. We grafted a branch of a productive orange tree onto another citrus that produces fruit faster. In this way it may be possible to have fruit in three years, rather than having to wait five or six. I got into it, but couldn’t quite get it right. I did get to take home the plant I worked on – but I have to wait twenty days to see if it really worked.

The last day was teaching home to make ecological ovens. Moises has an oven on his farm, the first ecological oven in Honduras! But it is five years old and he thought it would be good to take it down and rebuild it. I didn’t stay for this since I’ve seen some of this in the parish of Dulce Nombre (and I had to get back to Santa Rosa to prepare for some visitors from St. Thomas.)

I was very impressed by the workshop but sad there were so few people. The cost was a little high for people here (500 lempiras - $26.46) which is about week’s wage for some folks. Some folks had support from their parishes, but this also meant time away from their work.

The participants were also a little disappointed. One complaint from them was that there are too few people who see the importance of this type of agricultural development. They also lamented that in the church there are some who are very big on protesting government and business policies and can get people out to protest the mining policies, but there is so little support for real development efforts.

But for me it was a very fruitful two days. Not only did I get to meet some really great people but we had any number of good conversations, ranging from church issues to agricultural practices. One young man talked about his efforts to go to the US and how he never got past Nuevo Laredo in Mexico.

I also spent quite some time Tuesday night kicking around a soccer ball with them and some of Moises’ sons. I even did a few “headers.”

In the future I hope that I can find ways to support and encourage these types of educational and formation experiences.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Water, water
Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.

This morning I recalled these verses from a poem I learned as a child - Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It’s not exactly true that there’s water everywhere in Santa Rosa, but the local situation must have pulled this quote from the recesses of my memory.

Until about a week ago it had rained everyday for more than two weeks. The effects throughout the country have been disastrous – 35 or more dead, thousands left homeless, crops lost. In this are there have been about 80 families who lost their homes and hundreds had to leave their villagers because of the dangers.

The people have responded very generously, bringing food and clothing for those who are now staying in shelters. I was moved about a week ago when I saw all that the people in the poor parish of Dulce Nombre had brought to send to the victims.

This past week it has been sunny most days without rain which has provided a breather for those affected by the torrential rains.

But despite all the rain, we haven’t had water delivery for two weeks here in Santa Rosa.

In Santa Rosa most houses have tanks for water on their roofs. Water flows in neighborhoods about two or three times a week, enough usually to fill up the tanks. But my neighborhood hasn’t had water for two weeks. The tank in my house ran out last week, but I had water in the pila, the water basin but it’s almost out.

So I have been saving water from washing myself and clothes to flush the toilet and hoping that the water will soon arrive. Last week a city water truck delivered water up the street but it stopped delivery about 8 houses up and hasn’t returned, though they said they’d be back.

This afternoon, a little is coming but I don’t know if it will be enough. If enough water doesn’t arrive soon, I may have to try to buy some water which will cost about 250 lempiras ($13.20)for a small tanker of water.

Yet I do have water to drink, since I buy purified water for 16 lempiras (85¢) for a large container. Many people don’t trust the purity of the water supply enough to drink.

At least some of the water for Santa Rosa comes from a river, Rio Higuito. As a result of the rains and the landslides the contraption used to extract the water from the river was filled with sediment (mud and sand) about 3 meters (10 feet) deep. It had to be dug out by hand! According to the mayor it was finished last Thursday or so and he hoped that water would arrive soon in the neighborhoods of Santa Rosa.

All this has helped remind me of the importance of water. I take it for granted, even when visiting the rural villages in the parish of Dulce Nombre, since most of them have water, though I’m not sure of the water quality.

But there are many places in Honduras where the people have to carry water from springs or streams.

Water – so significant for life – but so precarious a gift. Above all, it must be considered, at Catholic Social Teaching notes, a public good, and a right of all peoples. (Confer The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ¶485). But, as with so much here and throughout the world, water often arrives last at the poor.

To conclude, I want to share these paragraphs on “A ‘culture of water’” from the 2006 document, Water, an Essential Element for Life, prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
Water is central to life. However all too often water is not perceived as the luxury it really is, but is paradoxically wasted. This action of wasting water is morally unsustainable. Citizens in some countries are used to taking advantage of a privileged situation without thinking of the consequences of their wasting water on the lives of their brothers and sisters in the rest of the world. In other situations, water is lost or wasted due to an infrastructure that is old, badly or improperly constructed or inadequately maintained.

There is an urgent need to regain a "culture of water," to educate society to a new attitude toward water. In many ways our esteem for water has fallen. Traditionally water was revered and protected, even celebrated. Today it runs the risk of becoming a mere consumer product. In the face of waste, water cannot be treated as a mere product of consumption among others since it has an inestimable and irreplaceable value. Cultural traditions and societal values determine how people perceive and manage water. Using solely pricing mechanisms as a response to the wasting of water will not foster a culture of water and ignores the factor of the poor who also need water to live.

It is necessary to recall that all human beings are united by a common origin and the same supreme destiny. Water must therefore be considered a public good, which all citizens should enjoy, but within the context of the duties, rights and responsibilities which accrue to each person.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

RAIN, RAIN . . . and chill

Today it’s been drizzling and about 59°. It’s been cold and rainy since I got back home in Honduras on Friday night, October 24. In some parts of the country it has been raining more than fifteen days straight.

As a result there have been landslides, flooding, and more. There are more than 33 dead and tens of thousands homeless due to the rains.

Just south of Santa Rosa de Copán there was a great landslide in a village named Suptal, in the municipality of Corquín. About 80 manzanas (138 acres) of land slid down the mountainside and formed a dike in the stream which filled up as a lake behind it. Fortunately, the water flowed out in an orderly manner. If it had broken it could have devastated some towns and villages downstream.

Sunday, in Dulce Nombre, I met the director of a high school in Corquín who had gone to Suptal the day before. He showed Padre Efraín Romero, the pastor, and me the photos he’d taken there. In one there was a house that looked in fairly decent shape. But it had originally been about 30 meters (about 48 feet) higher up the mountain.

People have also been evacuated from a number of towns and villages, especially in Belén Gualcho where there have been earth movements and tremors, because the earth is so saturated by water.

The bishop told me that there are more than 490 people in this area who have had to leave their homes. (I have heard higher figures.) The people are living in shelters, but many have lost almost everything and have to depend on donations. What is a blessing is that many people have provided help. But it has been quite cool here – low sixties and below – but it is a piercing cold due to the rain and the humidity. Some people even are living in higher altitudes where it is even colder.

This doesn’t take into account the long terms effects. People need to rebuild their homes. Also, many people have lost some of their crops, washed away. A friend who works in Belen Gualcho told me that one small farmer told him that only about 40% of his crop remains. The bean crop was already being affected in September by the rains. In addition, a friend told me that some lending agencies are not providing people with loans for next year’s planting.

What this means is that there will be more hunger, more suffering, more need.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Devastation

I am still in Ames, Iowa, but I am very anxious to get back to Honduras after a little more than two weeks away.

Sister Nancy Meyerhofer alerted me from Gracias, Lempira, Honduras, that there has been massive devastation due to several days of intense rains.

I checked in the Honduran press on line and found out that there have been more than 20 deaths and more than 22,000 persons forced to flee their homes due to the flooding and landslides and threats of landslides.

Several areas in the diocese have been severely affected. Belén Gualcho, where a friend works, has been devastated with more than 59 houses destroyed. Some people from the municipality of Vera Cruz (in the parish of Ducle Nombre where I work) have had to move because of the danger of landslides.

What makes this difficult for many is that it has been ten years since Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras.

I am, thus, really anxious to get there to see what I can do. In the meantime, prayers and solidarity are needed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Soeur Emanuelle

I just read that Soeur Emanuelle, a French nun who worked in the slums of Cairo, Egypt, died today. Many years ago I read a book of hers. This is a quote I wrote down at that time:
...the root of the problem must lie in the fact that, above all else, people need to be loved — to be loved for what they are, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, good or bad, dishonest or otherwise. Love them, I can, and when it comes down to it, that’s what they expect of me.
Sister Emmanuelle, To Share with God’s Poor, p.11

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Back in the USA

I'm back in Ames, Iowa, for a few weeks to connect with St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center where I worked fro 24 years and which is supporting me and providing a means for others to support me and the other ministries in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

It is good to be back, to see old friends, to relax a little. But it has been really a blessing to spend some time with the children in St. Thomas Aquinas' Religious Education program. They have provided a lot of support. The Vacation Bible School had Honduras as a sub-theme and raised more than $1000 for the silo project in the parish of Dulce
Nombre de María. See their photos at http://www.staparish.net/gallery/v/vbs08/.

The children in Vacation Bible School had sent a number of drawings and messages to the children of the Dulce
Nombre parish which I passed out to the catechists. The children in one village, Plan Grande, sent back small hand-made cards which I'm sharing with St. Thomas.

Ames, a university community, seems not to be too much affected by the current economic crisis in the US, but I am sure that there are more people suffering here and that contributions to churches and other groups have suffered. But all the indications are that the economy here is in trouble.

People are asking me about how this affects Honduras. It is hard to tell, since I am not in touch with all the figures. But the cost of living has increased significantly in Honduras in the last few months and people are having a hard time meeting basic needs.

That's why I am glad that I have been able to help with the Santa Rosa
comedor de niños (lunch program for kids) and that Fr. Efraín in Dulce Nombre and others in the diocese are looking at ways to assist people with some agricultural projects, including a projected project to encourage and support small family gardens, with both fruit trees and vegetable gardens. That's one project I hope I can support when I get back.

In the meantime, it's a privilege and a blessing to be able to help connect St. Thomas and my friends and families with the diocese of Santa Rosa and the parish of Dulce
Nombre - to help us share each other's joys and pains.

And our hope for you is confident,
since we know that, sharing our sufferings,
you will also share our consolations.
2 Corinthians 1, 7


Saturday, October 04, 2008

I lost it

October 2 through 4 there was a conference in Copán Ruinas sponsored by Project Honduras (http://www.projecthonduras.com) which brought together over 170 people, mostly from the US, who work in Honduras or support programs in Honduras. It was a great opportunity to make connections with others working in – or with – Honduras. Over all, it was a very good conference and I made a lot of connections. In future years I may try to make it back to the yearly conferences – at least to try to connect with more people and to hear about other projects throughout Honduras.

However, I lost it at one point.

I had read in the program that some people from US Task Force Bravo, which is headquartered at the Soto Can0 (Palmerola) Air Force Base would be there. They do some humanitarian work and I presumed they would talk about it. But I was uneasy, since many Hondurans I know are very critical of the presence of US troops (about 520 of them, I found out) on Honduran soil. It feels like an occupation to some, especially as they remember the role the US government had in the 1980s supporting a repressive regime in Honduras and using the US base at Palmerola to support the Contra in Nicaragua and the repressive regime in El Salvador.

The Ambassador spoke the first morning, commending the people assembled for their efforts to help Honduras and laying out what he saw as the problems of Honduras. What I found most amazing is he did mention corruption at all, when many Hondurans consider this a major problem and both source and symptom of other ills. (In fact the word corruption was not mentioned once until the afternoon of the second day!)

Friday morning a woman from Task Force Bravo spoke. She proceeded to describe what they did as well as how they help humanitarian efforts. But she also gave a short history of the base. She stated that the base was there in the 1980s to combat aggression. That deeply affected me because I know the role of the US government at that time and have seen the effects of US support of Central American regimes like Honduras and El Salvador in that time. It was, I believe, far from combating aggression. Using the excuse of “Communism,” the US supported militarily and financially regimes that killed and disappeared civilians. This was well-documented by Americas Watch and Amnesty International.

So, I was upset and walked to the back of the hall to try to compose myself – praying and breathing deeply. Calmed down a bit. I returned to my seat, still trying to breathe deeply and pray the Jesus Prayer. I had decided not to ask a question.

However, someone, noting that the power-point was labeled “unclassified,” asked if she could share something more specific about their efforts against drug trafficking. The woman said that she couldn’t share that information since it was classified. And, she added, “ If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.” And the people laughed.

That was it. I got up, first just thinking I’d move to the back . But as I walked I could not hold it in. I turned and said to her something like this. “That is not funny. It is not right to make a joke of killing. I know people who have been killed by governments in this region.” She insisted it was just a joke. I repeated my objection again. And then walked to the back.

As I got to the back, an attendee mentioned his support of what I had said. But it took me probably about three hours to restore some semblance of serenity in my spirit.

As I think back, perhaps I still harbor pain at the suffering I have seen in Latin America, often perpetrated in the past with the support of the US military and with the silence of diplomats.

But as I reflect I think my breaking point has something to do with the apolitical nature of the conference, with little social analysis except that provided by the ambassador and the woman from the airbase. The very fact that corruption was hardly addressed bothers me. But I think the fact that the person I work for, Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos, has received death threats (along with others) deeply affects me. There is structural violence and structural injustice here which must be addressed. People in Honduras are killed and threatened for less than seeing classified documents.

One cannot cover the injustices of a society by mere acts of charity. Transformation is necessary.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Last minute details

In a week I’ll be back in the US for about 16 days, spending most of my time in and around Ames, Iowa. But it is not as if I have been slacking off. In fact last weekend was quite busy.

It started Friday morning when I accompanied about 40 new students of the Catholic University for the first morning of their new student retreat. The retreat was held in San Juan de Opoa, about 15 miles from Santa Rosa. I gave a talk on God’s Love and then got a ride to a bus to get to Dulce Nombre.

Friday and Saturday the parish was offering a workshop on Saint Paul – for the Year of Saint Paul. I helped work on it and we’re using materials from the Jesuit University of El Salvador – the UCA – which is oriented to the poor and those without a lot of formal education.

I arrived and led an activity which went quite well. I gave each group a section on St, Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and they had to prepare a skit. I told them they could use humor, if they want. Well, most of the skits were fantastic, full of energy and imagination.

I also had to lead two study sessions, using the materials from the UCA, which are very participatory. It went well, although it was hard to lead a session at 6:30 am – yes, AM – without coffee! But it went well enough.

We’ll have another workshop in March, using the rest of the chapters of the booklet. But then the different sectors of the parish will be n charge of leading most of the sessions. I told them that I’ll come out and visit with them between late January and early March to help them, since this might be quite a challenge for some of the groups. But, with a little help, I think they’ll do a great job. It is amazing how much people with six years of schooling or less do.

I returned to Santa Rosa Saturday afternoon but left Sunday for La Campa, a remote village with a beautiful colonial church. I had to pas through Gracias and so I had a chance to visit with Sister Nancy Meyerhofer who works there. We had a quick lunch together.

In La Campa I spoke with Father Cándido Pineda, the pastor, who is also the diocesan director of social ministry. Social Ministry has no funding but manages to do a lot with almost nothing.

Fr. Candido’s vision is to help develop the capacities of people in the countryside, using sustainable practices, utilizing the wisdom and experience of many of the members of the diocesan social ministry commission which meets about every two months. When I attended their meeting two weeks ago I was astounded by the knowledge of alternative agricultural practices these small farmers (campesinos) have. I had seen some of this when I visited Moises Rodriguez’s farm last year. But Moises is only one of the people on the commission who have incredible stores of knowledge and experience.

The problem is that there is no financing. There will be a four day conference in Gracias – and at Moises’ farm – in November, but the people will have to pay for food and for travel. There is so much that could be done with incredible human resources, but there is not a lot of financing available.

Father Candido and I talked about a good number of his projects – small gardens with vegetables and fruit trees, household water filters (costly less than $5), reforestation projects, etc. It was exciting to be able to dream and discuss possibilities. When I’m in Ames I’ll be talking to a number of folks about these possibilities.

I only stayed one night in La Campa since I had a number of things to do in Santa Rosa – including the lunch program for kids and a visit ot the jail to help with the literacy project (and buy two hammocks for the silent auction at St. Thomas on October 12.)

This Thursday to Saturday I am off to Copán Ruinas for a conference run by Project Honduras which will bring together people from the US and Honduras to share about projects here which have support from the US. I hope it’s a good way to make connections with others here.

Then a few days back in Santa Rosa and back to Ames on Tuesday. I look forward to the time there – to thank people for their support, especially the kids in religious education classes, and to spend some time visiting with friends. This is for me an important part of my ministry – promoting solidarity and making connections. This, I believe, is central to our identity as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

As the US bishops wrote in 1986:
Christian communities that commit themselves to solidarity with those suffering and to confrontation with those attitudes and ways of acting which institutionalize injustice, will themselves experience the power and the presence of Christ. They will embody in their lives the values of the new creation while they labor under the old. The quest for economic and social justice will always combine hope and realism, and must be renewed by every generation. It involves diagnosing those situations that continue to alienate the world from God’s creative love as well as presenting hopeful alternatives that arise from living in a renewed creation. This quest arises from faith and is sustained by hope as it seeks to speak to a broken world of God’s justice and loving kindness.
US Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, 55

Monday, September 22, 2008

LOVE and FEAR

The past two weeks have been fairly busy. In two weeks I’ll be leaving for a short visit to Iowa, especially to St. Thomas Aquinas, the parish which has been providing support for this ministry in Honduras. But there’s still a lot to do in the next two weeks.

The comedor de niños – the lunch program for poor kids is up and running. On September 10, the day of the Child here in Honduras, we had a special inauguration. I led the opening prayer., the bishop spoke, and there was a hearty snack for all who were there, including the 20 or so children present. Since then there have been between 15 and 22 kids each day. There are more needy kids but many are in school in the morning or living fairly far away. However, school ends in early November and I expect that more kids will be coming during the three months of vacation.

The Catholic University began classes September 17 for the last trimester of this year. The weekend before I was invited to a retreat for the Administrative staff, led by Father Roel Mejía who teaches at the university, provides counseling for students and others, directs the radio station, and also serves with his brother in a parish in Santa Rosa. it was a good time to get away, to have some special time for prayer, and to spend time with some of the administrative staff.

This trimester there are about 75 new students. Last Friday and Saturday was the first of the two new student retreats; the second will be this week. (The retreats are mandatory.) I’m helping out with both retreats, giving a talk and getting to meet some of the new students. The new coordinator fro campus ministry at the university has reorganized the retreat a bit and initiated other activities in campus ministry which will help improve the ministry – hopefully reaching out to more students. We’ll see where this leads.

My talk for the retreat is entitled “God’s Love.” I emphasizing the unconditional nature of God’s love, using the parable of the Prodigal Son. There are serious issues of low self-esteem here, on the one-hand, as well as pressures on the students to prove themselves. And so I start presentation with the question, “What is your worst fear?” (Hint: not being loved or lovable?)

The university started classes on Tuesday because Monday, September 15, is Central American Independence Day. There were events leading up to Monday – lots of parades of school kids. But the big event here was the parade of September 15 parade with the high schools and their bands. At the end of the parade more than 70 people marched behind the banner for the newly-formed Moviemiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia – the Broad-Based Movement for Dignity and Justice. The movement calls for justice, an end to corruption, and much more. As their presentation at the march’s end in the city’s central plaza, a small group did a poignant skit, parodying the corruption in the major political parties and other signs of corruption and injustice.

I think their present was important, especially in light of a strange event of the previous week. In the 1980s there were several death squads and para-military groups, often linked to the Honduran military, who intimidated, killed or disappeared hundreds of political opponents.. Last week a list of 130 people was found in the possession of two military officers in Tegucigalpa. One of the women on the list had recently been killed and her name was crossed out followed with the word “dead.” Whether this is a list of a paramilitary group or not, it’s another attempt to intimidate people who have raised questions about government and private sector policies. The list included, beside political and other leaders, the bishop of Santa Rosa, Monseñor Luís Alfonso Santos, who has spoken strongly against corruption and mining interests; Father José Andrés Tamayo in Olancho who has forcibly opposed illegal mining; and Father Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit from El Progresso who is active in the Movement mentioned above and edits a highly critical monthly alternative newspaper.

This past week was the week for those deprived of liberty. I as asked to speak to the women in the local jail about Mary and women in Honduras. I started noting how inadequate I was for this topic – I’m neither a Honduran or a woman. And so I asked them to tell me about the situation of women here. They talked about who women are marginalized, how they suffer, how they encounter machismo and lower salaries than men. But one woman strongly affirmed that women here are valiosa - valuable, in terms of all they do. I had planned to speak of Mary as valiente – courageous and noted that at the crucifixion the men had fled away, except for the beloved disciple, and that is was the women who were there. Mary had suffered many things and therefore we can see her as one who is present for and with all who suffer – an example of God’s merciful love in the face of fear, terror, and violence.

On Friday, I saw another example of compassion. For about a year I have been a member of a nearby base community. However, some neighbor are trying to start one in our immediate neighborhood. What impressed me about these folks is their sense of mission. They’ve gone and visited almost all the Catholics in the neighborhood. At last Wednesday night’s meeting, while reflecting on the scriptures of the day, we talked about the needs of the poor. Not intent on just talking, on Friday two couples and I went to visit a family that one couple had helped before. – a family with three kids, raised by their grandmother. the idea was to invite them to the comedor de niños. We went and found the youngest, a six year old with a cough, huddling in the cold by a small fire. The house was a tiny shack – not poverty, but misery! We talked a bit and then Francisco went and got some bread and fruit drinks to leave. The grandmother and a little girl arrived and we talked. Two of the kids go to school in the morning but the oldest goes in the afternoon and so can come to the comedor.

While I spoke to the grandmother about the comedor, the women talked about inviting the six year to come in the afternoons to play with their sons who are about the same age. I was moved by their willingness not just to help this family but to welcome the little boy to come into their homes. That evening at I laid in bed, I was really overwhelmed by the love these couples had shown.

Grace abounds!

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These days people are harvesting elotes – the early harvest of corn that is eaten in tamales, in other food and drinks, as well as just like corn on the cob. It is not sweet, like sweet corn in Iowa or New Jersey, but it’s a great treat.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11 and the Gospel

The Gospel from the lectionary today – Luke 6: 27 – 38, is very appropriate for the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you….Do to others as you would have others do to you.
Would that the US government had paid heed to these words in 2001, when people throughout the world felt a great sympathy with the US. What power that solidarity in suffering could have brought to the world.

But the US government began one war, against Afghanistan, and then initiated another one a few years later against Iraq. Today I even hear threats of a war against Iran. More violence, more deaths, greater insecurity. More terrorism, not just from fanatics but the terror of war and torture which the US and some other governments have engaged in.

And then there is the “terror,” the “violence” of poverty. While trillions are wasted on weapons and war, so many suffer and die from hunger. Here in Honduras, in a nation of 7 million, 300,000 children suffer from malnutrition.

This morning, I heard a priest at the Mass broadcasted by the diocesan radio station speaking about President Bush as a terrorist and about the political and economic terrorism that Latin America has suffered from US policies. The language was strong, some would say harsh – though combined with a deep sympathy for the victims of the attacks. The Mass was offered for all of them.

The priest did not mention that September 11 is also the anniversary of the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the elected president of Chile, in 1973, with the assistance of some US companies and , very possibly, the CIA. That coup left in its wake thousands killed, tortured, and exiled.

The priest did not mention the charges of torture and maltreatment of prisoners of the “war against terror” held by the US. Just yesterday I learned that Joshua Casteel has recently published Letters from Abu Ghraib, a collection of the e-mails he sent while an interrogator in Iraq., I heard him speak in January 2006 at the Iowa Social Action conference. about his experience there and the struggles that led him to leave the army as a conscientious objector. I hope to find and read his book when I visit Iowa next month.

For me, the response to terrorism has to be love, solidarity, and strong nonviolent resistance to injustice and tyranny of all sorts.

It’s a challenge – but what I think we lack most is imagination.

Walter Wink’s commentary on the passage about turning the other cheek in Matthew’s Gospel has intrigued me. His little book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress Press, 2003), is a great summary of his exegesis.

Turning the other cheek is not giving in to violence. It is a type of moral jujitsu – a type of creative resistance; It says that you cannot treat me like a think you just bat around; I am a person. Know that if you hit me, you are hitting a real human being, like yourself.

Of course, this won’t always work. Nor does violence. But there are many personal and historical instances when creative nonviolent resistance has worked.

Even so, I think this is more like what Jesus calls us to do. For “the measure with which you measure will in turn be measured out to you.” (Luke 6: 38)

----

On another theme:

Yesterday we had the formal inauguration of the lunch program for poor kids - the Comedor de Niños. The bishop, Monseñor Luís Alfonso Santos, blessed the comedor after a few speeches. I gave the invocation, in which I reminded the people that the site had been the chapel of the diocesan office, where people had been fed on Jesus, the Bread of Life, and now we are planning to feed chidlren with their "daily bread." That's worth an extended meditation on the significance of the Eucharist for hunger.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Confirmations and comedor

Monday, September 8, the Nativity of Mary, was the feast of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María – the Sweet Name of Mary – where I’ve been helping.

This year Bishop Santos came to confirm 100 or so in Dulce Nombre in the morning another 50 in the village of El Zapote in the afternoon. I had led the retreat in Zapote and helped with the retreat in Dulce Nombre. About 100 confirmation candidates and their sponsors arrived fro the retreat – more than we had expected. During the retreat Padre Efraín heard the confessions of all the candidates and many of their sponsors.

I was unable to get to the confirmations in Dulce Nombre on Monday, since we were opening the comedor – the lunch program for poor children – on the same day. The comedor has been a dream of Bishop Santos and a group started working on it last September. Finally we are beginning this work of mercy.

The comedor has spurred some local support. A teacher at the Catholic University, Kevin Cruz, had his class bring some basic food stuff; and so we have more than 100 pounds of rice, beans, and sugar, more than 60 pounds of pasta, and much more which will cut down the costs for the first month or so. In addition, he arranged that a university conference of the Marketing Department made a generous financial contribution. A class from the Santa Rosa Catholic High School also made a contribution. There is hope that more will support. My hope is that a fair number of people will begin to come and help us each day.

Monday, despite having enrolled about 30 children, only 14 arrived, and some of the parents of those who came were concerned about the distance they had to walk to get there. We will be re-evaluating how to respond to the nutrition needs of these and other children here in Santa Rosa.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Elections

I have been following the presidential race in the US a bit, reading articles in The New York Times and other sources. But Honduras is also in the midst of electoral campaigns.

In November of 2009, Honduras will have elections for the presidency, for congress, and for mayors throughout the nation. But this November there will be the elections within the parties – a bit like US primaries.

But elections here are another matter altogether.

People complain that the politicians arrive just before the elections with promises but never fulfill them when they’re elected. They also note that there are often a lot of projects begun in the year or so before the elections – to sort of show that the politicians can do something. This arouses a lot of cynicism.

During a visit to a rural village last weekend that doesn’t have electricity, a delegate of the Word told how a group supporting one of the presidential candidates arrived and promised to get their village electricity if they supported the candidate and his slate of candidates. A few thousand lempira would arrive soon but the rest would come after the candidate is elected. Isn’t this a form of corruption and bribery?

But it sometimes gets nastier than this.

Recently a presidential candidate for the withdrew, saying that he and his family had received death threats, presumably for his opposition to corruption.

People thus feel somewhat powerless in the face of this type of politics. I have found both cynicism and fatalism in many people.

In the face of this, many church people here castigate both of the major political parties for corruption, for inefficiency, and worse. They really hope for a different type of politics.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Comedor de niños

Within two weeks a lunch program for poor kids will begin in the diocesan building in Santa Rosa de Copán. We first started talking about it a year ago and it is finally coming to fruition.

We hope to serve between 30 and 50 poor kinds between 4 and 11 years old a substantial lunch five days a week.

Monday a group of the people organizing this went to visit some neighborhoods here in Santa Rosa de Copán where there are poor kids.

The first places we went were near the town dump. As we passed the dump we could see vultures and about twenty people (many kids) scavenging in the trash and rubbish. Some were seeking the plastic bottles so they can get about 5 cents per pound. I saw a kid with something that looked like a toy that he had found. The images still haunt me.

We talked to a women who lives about 100 yards from the dump and enrolled two of her kids and a grandchild in the lunch program. We then went below the dump and met with a few families to enroll more kids.

Then we went to the Colonia Divina Providencia, near the kindergarten where I help out. We met with families who live in shacks right next to the stream that carries some of the rain and sewer water of the city. Later we dropped by another house nearby, where I know the one kid who goes to the kindergarten. The mother was not there but we talked with the oldest daughter. While talking with her, I noted a huge rat just few yards away.

That night while I sat in the base community meeting, I could not get these images out of my mind.

There types of experiences help to put things in perspective.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A busy weekend in Dulce Nombre

All day Friday and Saturday morning the parish had a training session for 50 of the newer catechists. I did a workshop on Baptism on Saturday morning but spent much of Friday with them, getting to know them and encouraging them in their ministry.

They are a very interesting mix of people – mostly from small villages, mostly with less than six years of education, and from 15 to 60 or more years old. Some are new to teaching religious education, but some did it in the past and have decided to take up teaching again.

Most of the men are farmers – even the younger men work with their fathers or rent some land to farm on their own. The women mostly work in the house in the never ending labor of making tortillas and meals, washing clothes and cleaning the house. This is a society with pretty strong gender roles, though I have seen men helping around the house in varied ways.

Both men and women serve as catechists; many of the men also lead the Sunday celebrations of the Word in their villages. (There are a few women who lead these celebrations, but, up to this point, most of the celebrators are men.)

On Saturday morning another group arrived for a session of the year long workshop on medicinal plants and preventive medicine. This is being taught by people from an organization founded by Padre Fausto Milla to promote natural medicine and healthy eating habits – including a strong message against coke and chips (which abound here).

About noon, we had Mass for both groups. But it was not your normal Mass since there was a wedding in the midst of the Mass. Interestingly the bride had been a catechist.

Padre Efraín, the pastor, also met with some of those trained to make silos. To provide follow up and to promote the project he is proposing that those who are trained make silos for themselves and pay only 60% of the cost of the materials. This will be possible because of the funds that the students in the Vacation Bible School at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames raised.

Padre Efraín also has the hopes to establish a project to promote small family vegetable gardens to enrich the diet of the people who mostly eat beans and tortillas, with some rice, eggs, potatoes and carrots. He also will encourage them to plant fruit trees around their houses. His long term dream is to have a two person team hired by the parish to promote family gardens and other agricultural projects.

The parish of Dulce Nombre de María celebrates its feast day on September 8, the birthday of Mary. The bishop will come and celebrate confirmation in two places in the parish. To prepare for this there will be two retreats for those to be confirmed. The first one is in the distant village of El Zapote de Santa Rosa. Padre Efraín asked me to lead the retreat. He’ll be there to hear confessions and to celebrate Mass, but I’ll have to give a few talks, lead a few discussions, and get the music groups to lead us in some singing. You can guess what I’ll be up to this week. There will be another retreat in the town of Dulce Nombre on Saturday, September 6, but others will help me with this.

Fortunately the Catholic University is not in session during this time, but I will also be busy preparing for the opening of the comedor de niños, the lunch program for kids, which we hope to open in the first weeks of September.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A PASTOR’S LETTER

Each month Padre Efraín Romero, the pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, sends out a letter to all the communities in the parish. The members of the parish council distribute it to all the villages in the hopes that it will be read to all the parishioners.

The letter often covers a wide range of topics and sometimes announces meetings or training session or other opportunities.

This month, the month of the family here in Honduras, he reminded parents of their responsibilities – to provide food for the children, to make sure the kids go to school, to teach the Catholic faith to their children, to make sure the children receive the sacraments and go to religious education.

But he also raised other issues.

Honduras is now in the midst of the election season, with the parties choosing their candidates. But here there are some interesting twists. A few weeks ago the vice-president (who happens to be running for the presidency) revealed that the president called in some members of his party and distributed 1 million lempira (about $190,000) to each of them for projects in their areas. Here many complain that money comes to their communities for projects every four years, just before the elections. It’s just another form of corruption, trying to influence the voting.

In the face of this, Padre Efraín wrote: “Don’t sell your conscience. You’re worth more than a sheet of tin roofing. You ought to know that the tin or the cement is yours, because the money they gave you is yours and what they did was give you something that’s yours?... Wake up; reclaim your rights; don’t let yourself be deceived… I want to tell you very clearly that the evil of our country is bad public administration…”

He went on to describe the social reality of the parish: “Housing for many is very poor; many do not have land to work on; the level of education is very low since many don’t know how to read or write; some roads are in good shape, but others aren’t; health centers don’t have medicine; the young leave us because there are no spaces to develop their dreams and make them real.”

There’s a lot more that he wrote. The parish has formed a small group that will be visiting the mayors of the five municipalities in the parish asking them to be transparent in the use of funds. The parish itself gives the parish council members a monthly report of the income and expenses of the parish, an example of transparency.

And the pastoral work continues. This week he and I will meet together to talk about a few proposals. He has an ambitious proposal to train the catechists and pastoral workers in the parish. He wants to provide follow up in the training program for making silos as well as develop a program to promote family vegetable gardens. He is planning two educational sessions on Saint Paul in this year that is honoring the birth of St. Paul the Apostle.

The needs are great and, though the material resources of the parish are few, there are many people who devote their time in parish projects. And so the work continues – with a little, a lot is being done.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Multiplying loaves – the abundance of God

This last Sunday’s Gospel, found in all four Gospels, is one of my favorites – the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

I try to spend a few weekends each month in a rural village in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. This past weekend I visited Pascuingal, being hosted by Ovidio, a member of the villages’ pastoral team.

In most of the villages they have me speak to the children. When it is the first time I visit a village I use the version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in John’s Gospel (John 6: 1-13), since it’s a small boy who offers the five loaves and two fish that eventually feed the multitudes. I want to children to realize that they have an important part to play in the church and the world, even if they are just kids.

This past weekend, since the Gospel was Matthew’s version of the story (Matthew 13: 13-21), I got to preach on it at the Sunday morning Celebration of the Word. The first reading is Isaiah 55 – another offer of free food and drink! What a great set of readings.

I started by asking the people if they were hungry. One woman said, "Yes, we’re hungry for the word of God." But I pushed the question and someone mentioned that during these months some are hungry since they don’t have a lot of corn and beans and the harvest isn’t until September for beans and October or November for corn. And so some don’t have enough to eat.

Reflecting on the Gospel I noted that the apostles wanted to send the people away to buy food in nearby villages. When Ovidio and I went over the Gospel early Sunday morning he noted that they were looking at the solution that money seems to offer. Money solves everything, many in the US (and here) think. But one of the commentaries I had read suggested that “the problem is not so much the lack of food as the lack of solidarity.” Or, as Gandhi said, “There is enough for what each one needs, but not enough for each one’s greed.” When I quoted Gandhi at the Celebration of the Word I could see the heads nod in agreement. I read Monday morning that Latin America produces enough food to feed 30% more than its current population. It is not so much a question of production as of distribution.

The reading from Isaiah is really inspiring – eat and drink, without paying a cent. God wants all the people to have enough to eat and when all have enough that is a sign of God’s Kingdom.

And I have seen signs of the Kingdom of God when I visit the rural villages. I always receive a warm welcome; I am offered more food than I could ever eat. In Pascuingal they were delighted to have me taste malanga and macus (chufle), two local vegetables. (Malanga is a root that tastes a little like potato but grainier.) I also left Monday morning with eight majonchos (a type of plantain), a guanaba, two lemons, a guayaba, and a pataste (guiscuil). They wanted me to take even more – including some passionfruit - but I had no room to carry all that. Out of their poverty they offer me abundance!

This hospitality is for me a sign of God’s Kingdom and I spoke about it with the people at the celebration. What I also noticed while preparing to preach was that the words used in Gospel at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes mirror the words used at the Last Supper. As Jesus shares his body and blood with us in the Eucharist so he shared the bread with the multitude and we are called to share with others. Our work to feed the hungry is an extension of the Eucharist!

One of the main joys of visits to the countryside is the chance to visit with people. Saturday Ovidio took me to see his parents who live about twenty minutes away. After greeting his mother, we went out into the woods where we met his eighty year old father Salatiel (cf. Matthew 1: 12), carrying an armful of tall grass to feed his cattle and oxen. he dropped the grass and with both arms extended walked toward me with a huge smile and hugged me. We introduced ourselves, he proudly proclaiming that he came from the department of Lempira and was a son of Lempira (the Indian cacique who fought the Spaniards) but that he had lived in the Dulce Nombre area for decades (probably more than fifty years). I mentioned that I came from Iowa but had been born in Pennsylvania. He immediately asked me if Harrisburg was the capital of Pennsylvania. He is still strong in mind and body.

The next day I went back to his parent’s where we went to the plot of his father’s land that Ovidio is planting with corn (5 manzanas) and bean (a quarter of a manzana). A manzana is roughly 1.7 acres.

We showed me his fields and we fixed part of the barbed wire fence and fed his horses. And we talked about the difficulties of the poor agricultural workers here. Most of the land is owned by a few landowners who often use much of it for coffee or pasture for cattle. And so most of the small farmers have to rent the land – if there is land available. They often rent for a price and then have to give the landowner a percentage of their crop. But one of the biggest problems is the lack of capital. The farmers often don’t have enough money to buy the fertilizer and pesticides needed. (They use about 4 sacks of fertilizer for every manzana – at about $27 a sack.) So the middle men come in and offer them what they need but they have to pay with part of their harvest. They might offer them 400 – 500 lempiras (about $10 - $14) for every carga (200 pounds of corn). Yet when they have to come later in the season to buy corn to eat from the same middle men the people might pay 365 lempiras (about $9) for one hundred pounds of corn.

The silo project that the Dulce Nombre parish is proposing is important but there still remains the problem of the small farmer’s lack of capital as well as the problem of the price of renting land.

As I write this I am again reminded of Sunday’s readings. Our God is a God who wants all to eat. What do we need to do so that all might eat?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Empowering the poor and oppressed

This past weekend I experienced two sides of the efforts here to improve the lives of the people of Honduras.

Saturday I went to the parish of Dulce Nombre with a young woman who is studying in the Masters of Social Justice program at Loyola University of Chicago and with three Spaniards who are volunteering here for a month and staying with the Franciscan sisters who live up the street.

I showed them the silos and the ecological oven which were made in Dulce Nombre as part of the training program the parish has for teaching people to make ecological ovens and small grain silos to store corn and beans. After Padre Efraín celebrated a wedding Mass and spoke with the parish formation team, he took us out to Plan Grande. For a number of reasons the instructor, Marcos, had not been there to lead them, but some of those who had been trained previously came and helped the people make an oven. The multiplier effect is beginning already.

We arrived and found the people a little disheartened since they told us that the oven didn’t heat up. They fired up the oven and with the help of Padre Efraín and one of the Spaniards who is an engineer they discovered a few of the problems, some of which they fixed on the spot. After this the oven did heat up very well but there’s some smoke escaping where it shouldn’t and so they will probably wait for Marcos to come and help them make all the needed repairs. It was good though that we came, since they were much less discouraged when we left. They had thought that they did it all wrong.

We had expected to spend only a short time there, but they insisted that we eat there and so we sat down and eat beans, eggs, and tortillas.

Sunday El Movimiento Amplio para la dignidad y la justicia – the Broad-Based Movement for Dignity and Justice – held n assembly here in Santa Rosa as part of their hopes of building a national movement which is locally-based against corruption and for justice. The movement springs from the 38 day hunger strike of several prosecuting attorneys (part of the Attorney General’s offices) earlier this year.

Several hundred people were there, mostly from the local area. The leader of the fast spoke as well as attorneys and others involved in the movement. Several religious leaders spoke, including the local bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, an evangelical pastor, Dr. Evelio Reyes, and Padre Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit from El Progreso. The leader of the Mennonite Church in Honduras was also present. But the auditorium as full of a broad cross-section of Honduran society – campesinos, professionals, students, and women.

It was intriguing to watch the dynamics, especially when they opened the discussion to the floor. A woman spoke up strongly for the need to make sure that women are involved. When they proposed to form a committee, the process proposed was quickly amended when someone suggested that they caucus by towns and villages.

It will be interesting to see where this leads and whether this will really lead to a broad-based movement that can make some changes here. There were a lot of differences among the people gathered. Some suggested boycotting the up-coming elections, partly because they see the two major parties as part of the problem of Honduras, tainted with corruption, cronyism, and inability to make real changes.

But one proposal made by the Jesuit was accepted by all. He proposed that a public fast on the first Friday of every month. The hunger strike of the prosecutors inspired this movement as so it is an appropriate action to bring the people together and reinforce their commitment to work together, to organize for a better Honduras.

And so, this weekend I encountered two ways of empowering people. I pray that both truly help change this poor, poor country.