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

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


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 -;
Rachel and Brendan Egan with the Canossian Sisters in East Timor -;
and Lois and Dan Fulton (with their 3 month old Clara Maria) in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala -

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 ( 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


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.