Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The greatest treason?

December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral, by the king's henchmen. This "troublesome priest" got in the way of a tyrant's desire to control even the church.

There is a couplet in T. S. Eliot's play on Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, which has stuck with me since I first read it in the 1960s:
“The last temptation is the greatest treason,
to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
In 2004, I took a five day retreat after Christmas with a Jesuit director at the Creighton Spirituality Center in south west Iowa.

This was shortly after a two week visit to the Holy Land – to Palestine and Israel – where I visited a friend who was volunteering with the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. It was a life-changing experience, especially since I had the chance to meet people and not just do the touristy, semi-pilgrim stuff.

I did visit Bethlehem, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. One highlight was a day spent alone, in silence, in Jerusalem.

I saw a little of the Jewish experience close up since a professor at Tel Aviv University had contacted me and had me speak on Catholicism to his class.

But I spent a lot of time in the West Bank, staying in Bethlehem, visiting Hebron, Jericho, and Lydd, and spending time visiting with my friend’s relatives in Ramallah. I got a taste of the life of Palestinians.

I came back, enthused – anxious to do something.

I shared this during my retreat and my director asked, astutely, “Are you seeking the consolation of God – or the God of consolation?”

Ah!

And so I waited – and three years later I began my ministry in Honduras.

It is good – and I have a deep sense of peace that this is where God wants me to be. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Car problems and cold weather this week are the least of my difficulties.

But this new year offers possibilities for new beginnings. Most of all, I’ll be spending more time in rural areas of the parish of Dulce Nombre.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, the martyred bishop of Canterbury, who died refusing to give in to a tyrannical king in 1170. Several centuries later, in 1535, another Thomas, St. Thomas More, died, refusing to give in to a different king.

The witness of these two English saints and martyrs has inspired me. Jean Anouilh’s play Becket and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons touched me in my high school years.

But the phrase from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, mentioned above, has stayed with me since I first read it decades ago.
“The last temptation is the greatest treason,
to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
It is not enough to do good – we must strive to do it for the right reason.

And so I look forward to a new year – with lots of opportunities and challenges. May God guide me and all of us to respond with love.

----

The photo is from a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A blessed Christmas

Midnight Christmas. The fireworks are going off. (Oh, how they love fireworks here!)

I am in Gracias, Lempira, for Christmas. I spent the afternoon with Sisters Nancy Meyerhofer and Brenda Whetstone, two Franciscan sisters from Dubuque, talking, playing dominoes, and having a great dinner. Nancy's s great cook. And I lost really bad in dominoes!

After dinner the lights went off three times, but finally came on in time for the 9:00 PM Mass, which was moving - with a good homily by Padre Loncho.


Before Mass I noticed the Saint Joseph figure they use in the Nativity here. What struck me is that Joseph seems Honduran - not one of the indigenous Hondurans, but definitely Honduran in my eyes. (I'm sure the straw hat helps.) It reminds me that Christ was borne among real people - and that we are called, as Padre Loncho noted - to let Christ be borne where we live.

At the end of Mass some of the altar servers sang some villancios, folksy Christmas songs. They then did a beautiful Nativity scene - with a real baby. One of the young girls sang a beautiful song.


At the end of Mass, the figures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were taken from in front of the altar and placed in the Nacimiento, the Nativity creche, at the back of the church. Nancy told me that several base communities in the parish took three days to prepare it. The nacimiento was marvelous with many scenes from daily life here in Gracias, as well as little signs designating the various ministries and base communities of the parish. Even Lempira, the indigenous hero who was killed by the Spaniards, is there.

Christ is made flesh - here and now - among the poor.

.
That's the parish church - San Marcos.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A genuine Christmas


No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.

The self sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have everything,
look down on others, those who have no need of God
— for them there will be no Christmas.

Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.

That someone is God,
Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Without poverty of spirit,
there can be no abundance of God.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, December 24, 1978

The original can be found in Spanish on my Spanish blog. Click here.

The Nativity is a miniature carving from Ecuador,
painted by Carmen, a friend of mine, from Colombia.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Advent Gift

One of the joys I’ve experienced this year is accompanying groups in several deaneries of the diocese as they study Catholic Social Teaching. The leaders of the workshops who have gone to three diocesan workshops are sharing the material with other lay leaders throughout the diocese.

I have gone mostly to bring the money to pay for food and travel expenses for the participants (provided by a grant from the US bishops’ Latin America collection), but I have occasionally been asked to help with one of the presentations.

On Thursday, December 16, I took part in a workshop in the deanery of the north of Lempira, Honduras, the final workshop in that deanery.

The themes of the last workshops were the destruction of nature and generalized corruption - two major problems identified by the diocese of Santa Rosa. I had given the presentation on a theology of creation at the diocesan workshop but the lay leaders are responsible for sharing the information, which they normally do very well.

The person who was supposed to lead the presentation on a theology of creation couldn’t come and so the two other leaders asked me to lead the discussion, which was not hard to do since I had already shared this presentation at the diocesan workshop that preceded this. But this experience was remarkably different.

The workshop was in a small training center at the farm of Moisés Rodríguez, just outside of Gracias, Lempira.

I arrived early and walked around with Moisés. I have visited his farm many times , often with visitors who have an agricultural background who marvel at what he has done. And I remind them that Moisés has not studied in school past the second grade.

Each time I am amazed at what he has done with a hillside that is mostly rock. There are fruit trees, fish ponds, vegetable beds, chickens, and more. With a combination of organic farming practices – including drip irrigation, use of frijol de abono (the nitrogen-fixing velvet bean) – and integrated pest management, he has made a garden of a “desert.”

This time he explained how he deals with zompopos, leaf cutter ants that can strip a tree or bush in no time at all. Most farmers use chemicals to kill them. But Moisés noted that the ants are not eating the vegetation on his fruit trees or vegetable plants because they are eating the leaves of the hibiscus plants and some of the frijol de abono. Give them what they like to eat, he said, and they won’t eat the other plants.

Moises with a branch of an orange tree, October 2008 photo

The folks finally arrived and we sat down to a substantial breakfast prepared by his wife Carmela. Many of the ingredients for the meal came from the farm.

Carmela preparing a meal, May 2010

After breakfast I led the presentation of a theology of creation. I started by asking the participants to look at the two creation stories in Genesis.

In Genesis 1, we find the liturgical poem of creation in seven days, which also relates seven times that God sees what he has made as good.

But the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 took on a special meaning that morning.

The Garden of Eden is a place where Adam and Eve live in harmony with all creation. A river waters the garden and there are trees that are agreeable to look at and good to eat. It is truly a home, where there is life and peace, a place where God walked among them in the cool of the day.

As I spoke I could not help relating this account with Moises’ farm. He has enriched the soil with use of nitrogen-enriching legumes like the velvet bean; he has planted citrus trees using terraces to prevent erosion; he has installed a drip irrigation system to bring water to some vegetable crops. He has made it a real garden.

Later in the presentation we spoke of the destruction that sin brings, the breakdown of the original harmony. But I added that the vision of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, is a renewed garden of Eden.

Together we read Isaiah 65, the vision of a new heaven and a new earth which is really a return to Eden. (The parallel passage of Isaiah 11 is read on the first Tuesday of Advent and was read on the second Sunday of Advent this year.) The peaceable kingdom where lion and lamb and ox and child live together is a renewal of the harmony found in the garden of paradise.

One campesino, Pedrito, brought up the story of Saint Martin de Porres, who fed cats, rats, and dogs from the same dish. I can’t help but recall other stories of the saints who lived in harmony with creation, not least of all Saint Francis of Assisi and the story of the Wolf of Gubbio.

I recalled how Moisés deals with pests, like the zompopos, not killing them but providing them with the food they need. He has made his farm a type of “Garden of Eden,” and willingly shares this meesage in workshops he give there.

I didn’t mention it at this workshop but the parable of the peaceable kingdom reminds me of the myriad paintings of the scene by the nineteenth century Pennsylvania Quaker artist Edward Hicks. In the right foreground we see the Isaian scene but in the left background, in most of the paintings, William Penn is making his treaty with the indigenous people, an effort to live peaceably.


One of his paintings has these words inscribed around the outside of the painting:
The wolf did with the lambkin dwell in peace,
His grim carnivorous nature there did cease,
The leopard with the harmless kid laid down
And not one savage beast was seen to frown.
The lion with the fatling on did move
A little child was leading them in love
When the great PENN his famous treaty made
With Indian chiefs beneath the Elm-tree’s shade.
We are offered glimpses of the new creation, in scripture, in the lives of saints, in historical events, and in the farms of campesinos.

We are called to offer glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the Reign of God, in our lives, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom in heaven, but showing in small ways how we can live in harmony with nature.

That morning in Mejocote was an Advent gift to me. The scriptures came to life for me as the Honduran campesinos and I shared the story of the Garden of Eden and the prophecy of the Peaceable Kingdom in the midst of a twenty-first century attempt to live those scriptures in a hillside farm.

The paintings of Edward Hicks took on a new meaning for me as Pedrito shared a story of the saints bringing harmony among the creatures.

All this renewed my hope for and my commitment to the struggle for a new Honduras, where, in the words of Isaiah 65,
No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days…
They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…
They shall not plant and another eat….
My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity….
They will not destroy nor do any harm over all my holy mountain.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nacimientos

Nacimientos - nativity scenes are very much part of the popular piety here in Honduras. Often they are elaborate with loads of people, animals, buildings, and more. Some people make them in the front room of their houses or in a corner of their stores for all to see. And of course, there are nacimientos in churches, as this one in the church of Dulce Nombre de Maria.




The center of the nacimiento is what they call "El Misterio" - the images of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the ox. But imagination often runs wild, as in this nacimiento set up last year in the Church of San Marcos, Gracias, Lempira, which even has a miniature of the church among the figures.


There are others that are more traditional - like these two from the Santa Rosa campus of the Catholic University of Honduras.



These examples of the popular piety of the people here remind us of the mystery of this season - a God who became human as a poor child in the midst of the hub-bub of life. We have a God who is not looking on from afar but one who participated in the nitty-gritty of our lives, especially the lives of the poor.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Waiting- but in the streets

Why do the poor always have to wait?

Since March 2008, the people of Dulce Nombre and the surrounding towns and villages have been waiting for the government to pave a seven kilometer road from the main highway to Dulce Nombre (and hopefully beyond).

About June 2009 they blocked the highway for a bit and the government sent out a minister and an agreement was signed. But the coup came along and the coup government didn’t follow through.

Then this year, about June, the people were organizing for another blocking of the highway but the government sent its representatives and an agreement was made.

Still the road is not paved and had gotten much worse due to the rains.

The first contract was with a company of Jaime Rosenthal (one of the richest men in Honduras) but it was later handed over to a company connected with a certain Kildor. But it has not been worked on for quite some time – and, even though there is some equipment there, no one is working since the employees were not paid.

So, Monday, December 13, several thousand people gathered to take the main highway at the turn off to Dulce Nombre. The main highway is the major route between San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of the country, and Puerto Cortes, a major port on the north coast, to El Salvador and one of the major routes to Guatemala.

But this is not an effort of what some people here would call the “riff-raff” – the poor, whom I call “the salt of the earth.” The effort is headed up by the mayors of the five municipalities affected – Dulce Nombre de Copán, Concepción, San Agustín, Dolores, and – to a lesser degree- Vera Cruz. They had actually planned a blockage on Friday but only about 30 people arrived. They later consulted with and got the support of the church and others in the area.

They planned to “take the highway,“ as they say here, a little after 5. But when they arrived, after 6, the police were already there, blocking the highway – both the regular police and special police forces.

The police began to throw tear gas into the crowd about 7:30 pm. Two minors were arrested (and released in Santa Rosa in the afternoon) and several car windows were broken (by the police). Several people were injured and three were taken for medical treatment in La Entrada.

The mayors called Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, the bishop of Santa Rosa, to come and help. Being committed to the poor he arrived there soon after they called – about 9 pm. I decided to accompany him.

As we walked in, he was immediately recognized by the people who came up to greet him and were grateful for his accompaniment. We were told that the police had given the people only two hours’ permission to be in the highway – but only about a half hour remained.

The bishop spent time talking with the people and consulted with the mayors. He then called some government leaders, including Miguel Pastor, the minister of SOPTRAVI which in charge of roads. (Monseñor Santos knew him from his time as a teacher and rector of the Salesians’ men’s high school in Tegucigalpa.) He asked, really demanded, that the minister called the Minister of Security and not allow the police to use force against the people.

He also asked Pastor to arrange the situation and get money released to finish the project. The mayors also ended up speaking with Pastor. The minister said that there was no money. The bishop said that if there was a problem with the roads in the rich neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa they would not have to wait, as the poor do here always have to wait.

Pastor tried to say that the agreements for the road and the delays were in previous administrations, but Monseñor Santos said that this was a governmental commitment, not the commitment of a particular administration.

Pastor said he’d call back in an hour. Pastor did call the Minister of Security and the military took a less belligerent tome. In fact the bishop and the police commander spoke for a time.

Pastor called back several times and spoke with the mayors and the bishop. He offered to meet with the mayors in Tegucigalpa next week. Later he changed it to Wednesday, after a meeting of the Council of government ministers tomorrow.

That sounded good – but the bishop was not convinced. The pressure was here in Dulce Nombre and he had been insisting that the government send someone to talk with the people and finalize an agreement. If the taking of the highway was suspended, the mayors might go to Tegucigalpa and get nothing. The people would probably not come out again in support and so all this effort would be lost.

I returned to Santa Rosa with the bishop at about 2 o’clock. As of 4:30 pm, the situation is still up in the air.

I don’t know if I will have any more first hand information since I have to go to Guarita in the south of Lempira tomorrow for a Catholic Social Teaching workshop. I have to leave here about 5 am.

----

Follow up, Tuesday, December 14

The highway was opened up later Monday. I don't know what the government finally offered.

What is very frightening is what the Minister of Security, Oscar Álvarez, said in an interview yesterday. (Note that there has also been a longer blocking of the highway in the Bajo Aguan.)

"Will it be shown that they are in collusion with organized crime? Will there be drug-trafficking funds behind these actions?" he said.

He is referring in part to the major police and military operations in the past week in the north of Copán where there is a concentration of drug trafficking.

This type of language troubles me, first of all because it uses this charge to make them look like common criminals.

The people who planned the blockade in Dulce Nombre were not drug traffickers, as far as I know. There are mayors involved in drug-trafficking but I've never heard this charge against any of these mayors. Others involved in the blockade are land-owners and business-owners. The poor supported the cause because an improved road would make transportation easier and because church leaders support the cause.

Secondly, these types of charges are used to hide the reality.

Thirdly, this type of talk tries to criminalizes the efforts of people to demand their rights and the improvement of their communities. What will be next?


Latest news:

Minister of SOPTRAVI, Miguel Pastor, agreed to come to Dulce Nombre on Thursday, October 17, to discuss the road.

For some more information on the issue and also on Alvarez's remarks see Oscar Alvarez's Lame Visions on the Honduras Culture and Politics blog (a blog which I highly recommend.)

Final revision, Tuesday, December 14, 1:45 pm

Click here for an article in Spanish appeared Wednesday in the online news source Revistazo.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

El Salvador, friends, and more

I just returned from a short visit to El Salvador.

The reason for going was to meet with the overseeing organization as well as Cordaid's (the funding organization) representative for Caritas Santa Rosa's disaster management project. It was a good meeting and there will be funding for the project for the coming year. Original plans for a five year project are in the works as the Dutch government is considering making major cuts in its international aid programming.

It was good to be in El Salvador. There are lots of reports of violence there - and both Honduras and El Salvador are plagued with violence. I thus found this poster one many streets.
Where is your brother?
He is your blood.
He is your people.
In God's name, change right now!
The Catholic Church of El Salvador

But despite the situation. I didn't stay in the hotel. I took advantage of the trip to see people in El Salvador whom I haven't seen in a while, as well as to visit a few bookstores. I also took the Honduran Caritas worker whom I accompanied to visit the UCA, the Jesuit university, to see the memorials to the martyred Jesuits and the two women, killed in November 1979.

I was very moved by my visit on Thursday with Padre Pedro Cortez, a Salvadoran priest I worked with in 1987 when he was in San Roque parish in a very poor area of San Salvador. He is now pastor of a parish in Cuscatancingo, just north of San Salvador and has been there for about ten years. We talked about our experiences and about his efforts, forming base communities, getting a credit and loan coop set up, and several training programs for youth - to help them resist the allure of the gangs.


Padre Pedro is one priest who has been committed to the poor all his priestly life. He was among the priests who stood with the poor in the late 1970s and the 1980s when that was dangerous. And he has continued that.

I haven't seen him for more than four years but I plan to try to stay in touch a little better.

I also visited Sister Peggy O'Neill in Suchitoto. She has been connected with Suchitoto since 1987 and has started a Centro Arte por la Paz, a Peace center using the arts. It's always a joy and a personal and intellectual challenge to meet with Peggy. She is an inquiring and thoughtful person and loves to share ideas, but ideas grounded in reality, in particular the reality of the poor.


The center has an incredible museum, set up by young people, of the Suchitoto region. I was quite impressed but didn't have time to view any of the 45 videos they have. I will have to take time to go back (and maybe spend a few weeks there to try to finish the book I am writing on the role of the church in the struggle for justice in the parish of Suchitoto.

I also had a chance to visit some friends who live in a rural community, Haciendita 2. In 1992, when I spent 7 months in El Salvador, much of it helping in the Suchitoto parish, I spent time with Esteban and Rosa Elbia Clavel and their family. Going back they are still there with many of their children and grandchildren. Esteban and Rosa Elbia fled El Salvador in the late 1970s because Esteban was threatened because of his work with the church. They returned as the war was drawing to a close and finally settled here. Esteban has been ill (as a result of chagas) but is doing better, though he has to slow down and for about a year was very weak. It was so good to see them. Sadly I only had about two hours with them since I wanted to get back to Honduras before nightfall.

Esteban and Rosa Elbia

Though I left Haciendita 2 about noon, there were loads of delays and I didn't make it back until 9:15 pm. The worst delay was from Ocotepeque to Santa Rosa. The bus left at 5:30, instead of 4:30. Then about 3/4 of the way up the hill outside Ocotepeque we stop - engine problems - which were solved in less than 45 minutes.

But then, having arrived in Santa Rosa, but not by the main terminal, the bus was stopped by the police and the military. What happened was bizarre. Two men with no visible police or military identification with ski masks and large automatic weapons entered the bus and walked down the aisle. They hardly asked anyone for id. But they stopped by a Honduran-American - a US citizen - who was int eh bus on the way to San Pedro Sula with a friend. They looked over his passport and then had him get off the bus. The guy was large and tall, with a beard and a pony-tail. I had talked with him a bit and knew he was a truck driver in the US. They took him off and looked at his papers and had him identify his luggage.

As I looked outside the bus I saw several police, including - I belief - Bonilla, the local head of the police in the region. Hmm!

As I look back, I wish I had gotten off the bus and asked a question or two. It seemed bizarre that this guy alone was singled out. (I guess they thought he looked suspicious - since he "looked different," though he was born in Honduras.

But what was really disturbing was the way the armed men entered the bus. It was scary - and I wondered if they were a gang or something. Is this the way public security will be being enforced - with what come across as intimidating and terrorizing tactics? That does not inspire me with confidence on the training and professionalism of the Honduran military and police - especially since bribes are still being offered and taken.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A week of feasts

This first week of Advent has been full of feasts and anniversaries which help me refocus my life – and put things into perspective. I include a few remarks about people – and a few quotes.

For many years I read the Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp as an aid to living and praying during Lent.
Advent is a time for rousing.
Persons are shaken to the very depths, so that thy may wake up to the truths of themselves. The primary condition for a fruitful Advent is renunciation, surrender. Persons must let go of all their mistaken dreams, their conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which they hope to deceive themselves and others. If they fail to do this, stark reality may take hold of them and rouse them forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.
Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., Prison Meditations
The original edition has long been out of print but recently Orbis Books reprinted them as part of the book Alfred Delp: Prison Writings.

November 29, the first Monday of Advent, was thirty years after the death of Dorothy Day. The founder of the Catholic Worker, after a very interesting young adult life – hanging around with bohemians and radicals, getting jailed with suffragettes, having an abortion, living with a man and becoming a mother – became a Catholic and sought ways to bring her passion for justice for the poor together with her deep piety and faith. I met her once at a Friday Night Clarification of Thought at the New York City Catholic Worker. What I most remember is that meeting her felt like meeting a good and compassionate grandmother.
It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.
Dorothy Day
Two nice blog posts are on the blogs of Fr. Stephen Wang and Rebel Girl.

November 30 is the feast of Saint Andrew – the first to be called, as the Orthodox call him. It is also the anniversary of the death of Fritz Eichenberg, a Quaker artist whose etchings have appeared often in the Catholic Worker.
“There is enough excitement in our daily tasks if we approach them reverently and creatively, no matter in what medium we work. Whether we work in the field of human relations, in stone or wood, with pen and paper, there is the thrill of fighting injustice, inequality, disease, of suffering for our convictions, of having the courage to stand up and be counted for all the despised and unpopular causes for which we feel called upon to fight.”
Fritz Eichenberg
December 1, Worlds Aids day, was the fifty-fifth anniversary of the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a Birmingham city bus – the simple act (of a trained activist) which spurred on the Civil Rights movement.

December 1 is also the anniversary of the killing of Brother Charles de Foucauld, I 1916 in the Sahara. His life and writings are the inspiration for the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus. He sought to live the live of Jesus in Nazareth, living and working in the world. The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and the Little Brothers and sisters of the Gospel live this in their daily lives among the poorest.
We can wrap our Lord in swaddling clothes no less truly than did the Blessed Virgin: we do it when we clothe a poor person for love of him.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld

December 2 is thirty years since the brutal martyrdom of four US women in El Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan were brutally killed by Salvadoran government forces. Those who side with the poor have often risked their lives.
“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent. Can I say to my neighbors — I have no solutions to the situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness and learn from other poor ones?”
Sr. Ita Ford, M.M.
Check out the Commonweal blog post on the martyrs. Click here.

December 3
is the feast of St Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary to the Far East.
“Often I am overcome with the desire to cry out against the universities, especially against the University of Paris . . . and to rage with all my powers like a fool who has lost his senses.
“I would cry out against those who are more preoccupied with becoming scientists than with letting people in need profit from their science . . . I am afraid that many who learn their disciplines at the university are more interested in using them to acquire honors, bishoprics, privileges, and high position than in using them for what is just and necessary. . . The common word is: ‘I will study “letters” in order to get some good privileged position in the Church, and after that I will live for God.’ These people are brutes, following the guidance of their sensuality and disordered impulses. . . They do not trust in God, nor do they give themselves completely to him . . . they are afraid that God does not want what they desire and that when they obtain him they are forced to abandon their unjustly acquired privileges. . .
“How many would be enlightened by the faith of the Gospel if there were some who would put all their effort into finding good people who are willing to make sacrifices to search for and find not what belongs to them, but what belongs to Jesus Christ. In these lands so many people come to faith in Jesus Christ that many times my arms fail me because of the painful work of baptizing them.”
letter of St. Francis Xavier, cited in Henri Nouwen, Road to Daybreak
May these people of faith continue to inspire us to live the Gospel, in our homes and churches, in the streets – and most of all – among the poor.

Revised December 2

Wikileaks and Honduras

Among the documents recently leaked by Wikileaks was a cable from the US Ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens. You can find it by clicking here.

What is interesting and surprising about the cable is its clarity in regard to the June 28, 2009 coup. He is not uncritical of Zelaya but he systematically undermines some of the most outrageous "arguments" and "charges" against Zelaya and for the coup.

Many Hondurans against the coup think that Llorens was involved in the perpetration of the coup. On the other hand, those in support of the coup and many US expatriates in Honduras demonize Llorens as selling out Honduras.

But Llorens, though critical of Zelaya, states categorically
“No matter what the merits of the case against Zelaya, his forced removal by the military was clearly illegal, and Micheletti's ascendance as "interim president" was totally illegitimate.”
But what disturbs me is the failure of the US government to condemn the coup clearly. Later, the US State Department statements were very ambiguous and gave the impression – at least to me – that the US was prepared to accept the effects of the coup, as it did with its support and promotion of the November elections here.

The failure of the US to speak up clearly and critically is I believe, at the very least, a failure of nerve, if not a case of the worst type of diplomacy, one that deals with human rights in terms of the interests of the US and not in terms of the dignity of the human person and the common good.

So much for my two cents.

If you want good analysis on this and other events in Honduras I refer you to the blog of two University of California Berkeley anthropologists, Honduras Culture and Politics.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Busy weeks

Tomorrow I head to El Salvador for a meeting on one of Caritas’ projects. I will take advantage of the trip to visit friends in Suchitoto, El Salvador, for a day or two.

This past week I was in Pinalejo, Santa Bárbara, for two Catholic Social Teaching workshops – the third diocesan workshop and the second for the two deaneries in the department of Santa Bárbara.

The diocesan workshop went well – even though it was planned the Friday before and I was basically the person in charge of the whole workshop. I only gave one presentation, but I had to arrange and re-arrange the schedule when presenters didn’t show up at the time we’d planned.


I felt a little sad as the workshop ended since I’ve been with many of these folks for the three workshops as well as the workshops in their deaneries. I will get to the workshops in some of the deaneries and so will have a chance to see them again. But I really liked working with these people. I found them very attentive, very faith-filled, and very devoted to their ministries. And, as I’ve noted before, I have found them very capable of sharing the material in their deaneries.

The way back from the workshop went faster than before since they are doing some repair work on the major highway here – mostly filling in the potholes.

The next day I headed out with those who had been working with the infant and maternal health program in Caritas for an excursion in Guatemala. It was the most spectacular waterpark I’ve seen (since I’ve only been to one before here in Central America and never gone to one in the US).


On the way back vehicles were being stopped by the police and all identification cards checked. It was late – about 9:30 pm – but I was somewhat surprised. The police official in charge came in and then gave a speech saying that this was to provide security for the people and that, as the person in charge of the region, he would see that there was security here.

I found this quite strange. There is a lot of drug-trafficking through this area, but all the people on a bus had to get out of the bus to have their IDs checked and they checked all our IDs on the bus. But the police did what looked like a perfunctory check on the natural gas tanker in front of us.

Such is the state of security here. This is especially so in the context of a major conflict in the coastal department of Colón where there is a major conflict between campesino communities seeking land and one of the richest men in the country, Miguel Facussé. The conflict has left six campesinos dead – at the hands of Facussé’s security forces. The story is that there was a confrontation, but that is contested.

The minister of security is claiming that the campesinos are armed and that some people are being trained in Nicaragua to overthrow the Honduran government with arms.

All this seems absurd to me – a repeat of the charges of “communist” infiltration that has beset this region for more than fifty years. (I’m reading Dan Koeppel’s Banana which documents how similar charges were used to overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala in the 1950.)

What are we facing? At the very least – ungovernability. At the worst, signs of more repression to come.

But in the midst of these we must preserve hope.

My hope is not in the government, but rather my hope is nurtured by the people I work with in the rural villages and in the diocesan and deanery workshops. People of faith – very poor bur committed and willing to give their time and their lives to preach and live the Good News.

They give me hope.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beans at $1.58 a pound

In July beans were between 8 and 12 lempiras a pound – between 42 and 62 cents. Monday in Pinalejo, Santa Bárbara, the stores were selling beans at 30 lempiras, $1.58. But generally this past month the prices have been about 22 to 25 lempiras.

At dinner during a diocesan workshop on Catholic Social Teaching being held here in Pinalejo, someone remarked that meat is cheaper per pound than beans – and beans are a staple of life here, a major source of protein when combined with corn tortillas.

People here plant beans, mostly red beans – sometimes more than they can store and so they sell them at a low price to the intermediaries (sometimes called “coyotes”). And so, as one person at the workshop lamented, campesinos – people of the countryside – are buying beans, instead of eating what they produce and producing what they can eat.

What are the poor to do? That’s another post – and perhaps a project for the next five years. Since, if all goes as Padre Efraín, the pastor of the Dulce Nombre parish, and I are thinking, I’ll be working with three of the poorest villages in the parish – not just in faith formation, but also trying to work with them for the total and integral well-being of the villages. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.

But I also want to share some interesting stories I’ve heard during this workshop.

The mayor of one municipality, an evangelical pastor, regularly consults with the Catholic priest. He once asked him what he should do with some money that had come in, whether he should give each family 1000 lempiras (about $52). The priest suggested that the money should be put into the infrastructure of the 30 some villages in the municipality. Now these villages have electricity and water.

In one rural village someone planted a few hundred coffee plants in the land set aside as a reserve to protect the water source. The water committee of the village found out and investigated the matter. They consulted with a nearby village, also dependent on the water source. They met and decided what to do. The situation was rather tense for while – with some threats being made. But the water committee met with the person violating the reserve. He agreed to respect the reserve. A few days ago the two communities and the person affected met and reached an accord. This is a clear account of the people organizing and acting very responsibly, avoiding the violence that such a conflict could generate.

Another young farmer told me of the water situation in his community. There is a source several communities use for their basic needs, but a very wealth cattle rancher (who also owns a major newspaper and lots of land) is taking advantage of their source to water his cattle. There was some talk with his reps but they still have a hose siphoning off water.

A wide variety of experiences, but a little of what life is like here for the poor – yet very competent – campesinos in western Honduras.

-----

In the afternoon the groups listed various examples of corruption which they knew of. Here's their list:

Examples of corruption
  • Political fanaticism – political parties have their members who defend the leaders and receive favors, jobs, etc., for being active members of the party
  • Falsification of projects – a projects that cost 50,000 lempiras get paid 200,000 for the work; works that are only on the books, but are not ever finished; fictitious valuation of projects.
  • Mayors who have robbed funds for the Eradication of Poverty
  • Police ask for money from criminals and let them loose.
  • Teachers who do work but are paid.
  • Local authorities selling timber – or looking the other way when it’s being taken out of their municipality.
  • Authorities who ask people to sign receipts so they can get money even though no services were rendered.
  • Judges who take bribes and don’t promote justice.
  • People being paid off to keep silent in the face of crimes or corruption.
  • Giving out the “bono 10,000” – a gift from the government of 10,000 lempiras for poor families – as a political tool – at times only to members of the parties in power in the municipality.
  • Teachers being fired for political reasons.
  • Large businesses having their debts forgiven.

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Finally, another interesting story:

A project called Lempira Sur offered a priest a monthly stipend, which he refused.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King – life and death

The solemnity of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the Catholic church year – seems to be a big celebration here in Honduras. I think it has a lot to do with celebrating Christ as King and Ruler – the one in charge – but also with showing one’s identity as a Catholic. (Some might find this a little triumphalistic, but it’s more than that.) It’s also the day the church here celebrates Delegates of the Word, those who lead the celebrations of the Word in their villages.

Some parishes here have one big Mass where all the villages are invited. I’ve been to three such celebrations of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María where I help – all in the rural village of Candelaria.

For me it is always a chance to see people I haven’t seen for a while. This year is was especially so because I haven’t been out to the villages of the parish for almost six weeks, due to visits to the US and some work. So there were many hugs and conversations.

But this year the celebration had a somber note. Late Saturday, Modesto Melgar, a delegate of the Word in Agua Buena who has worked with the church for about seventeen years was assasinated. He was killed, it appears, by a hired assassin, who also seriously wounded two girls. The motive is unknown, but people have identified the vehicle and the license plate.

The coffin was brought onto the field in front of the altar and various times during the Mass it was incensed, sprinkled with holy water, and prayed over.


In his homily the pastor, Padre Efraín Romero, described this as an example of the ungovernability found here in Honduras. Sure, there are laws on the books, but there is little hope that justice will be done. He castigated the system, as well as ineffective or corrupt officials who fail to bring criminals to justice. Padre Efraín also spoke of the need to pardon – and the need for assassins to repent and seek forgiveness.

But he also presented a message of hope – “This blood [shed by Modesto] will provide new shoots of more convinced Christians,” he said, echoing the saying that “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

But the message was also one of hope in the resurrection.

After the prayers over the coffin, Padre Efraín led the congregation in a spirited medley of songs about resurrection and hope. Two particularly touched me:

The first has a very straightforward message of faith and hope”
“Yo tengo fe que todo cambiará, que triunfará por siempre el amor…”
"I have faith that all will change, that love will always triumph..”

The second is a little more pointed. The title is “Nadia hay tan grande como tu” – No one is as great as you are.” But the verses speak boldly:
“No con la fuerza, ni la violence es como el mundo cambiará.
Sólo el amor lo cambiará; solo lo salvará.
“No con las armas, ni con la Guerra es como el mundo cambiará…”
“Not by force nor by violence will the world be changed,
Only love will change it, will save it.
“No with weapons nor by war will the world be changed…”


This Sunday evening Modesto Melgar was laid to rest in the cemetery in the town of Dulce Nombre de Copán. I know that I’ve met him and talked with him several times, in parish council meetings and in parish formation sessions. But when I looked at his bandaged face in the casket window, I could not recognize him.

Another life has been lost here in Honduras – through violence. One of many.

But many more die each day, from hunger and the system that keeps the poor down.

Remembering Modesto, I pray that our church here in the diocese may be life-giving – preaching the Word, without faltering, without fear of risking ourselves; organizing the people to be active for the common good with a special effort for the poor and marginalized; and celebrating the Eucharist, the feast of Christ the King, a King who risked His life, but rose to save us and give us hope.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The weather and more

Some people think that because I live in Latin America it's always warm here.

NO!

I'm in La Esperanza, Intibucá - one of the highest municipalities in Honduras - for a four day assembly of the diocese. Last night, someone told me, it was 4 degress centrigrade - that's about 40 fahrenheit. And there's no heat in the buildings.

I had on a red ISU sweatshirt and a red cap - and so they called me "Santa Claus."


Also someone suggested I'd put on weight. True - three weeks in the US probably meant between 10 and 15 pounds. Now to eat more simply (and walk a lot more).

Revised.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Returning home - after nearly a month away

I left Honduras on October 11 for three weeks in the United States. I first spent some time in Pennsylvania with relatives and giving a talk at the University of Scranton, my alma mater.

It was especially good to see my aunt Mary who turned 93 a few days before my arrival as well as my cousin Mary, a Sister of St. Joseph. My cousin invited me to their congregation’s founder’s day Mass, a beautiful liturgy in their Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, motherhouse. The only males present were the priest and I! After Mass I joined Mary and the sisters she lives with for dinner. A delightful time. It looks as if I’ll get a chance to do some speaking at their parish when I get back to the US next year.

Mary and Aunt Mary

I also took time to visit two Iowa State University people who now live in the Philadelphia area.

The visit to Scranton was very important for me. I got to see Rosellen Garrett, the widow of my favorite undergraduate professor, Tom Garrett, who was a mentor and a friend. The world was blessed by his presence.

I was asked to give a public lecture at the university. I offered several possible topics but they chose “From Scranton to Iowa to Honduras, via New Orleans.” It was the story of my journey of faith and commitment to the poor. I have thought much about this and shared it with friends, but it was the first time I’d publicly shared it. I should probably write it out.

This helped me to put my Honduras ministry in perspective and decide to make some changes in where and how I serve those in need there.

After Pennsylvania, I spent two weeks in Iowa. This time I stayed around Ames, with just a short trip to Des Moines. Most of my time was visiting with small groups of friends and St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners, as well as talking to religious education classes and some young people from the youth group.

It was good to be there, to catch up on relationships with friends. I ate out so much that I think I gained about ten pounds!


Liturgy is always a blessing at St. Thomas. But the last Saturday night I felt very blessed. The presider was a priest from Ghana who is a grad student at Iowa State. The first reading was read by an undergraduate student from Ecuador. The psalm was sung by a woman who was Asian. We truly are an international church.

There were many fruitful meetings in Ames, but amid all my meetings and meals I did have some time for reflection on Honduras from a distance. During the coming year I hope that I can get out to the rural areas of the parish of Dulce Nombre more often and help in some faith formation. The pastor had briefly spoken about the possibility of going out to the three rural zone meetings each month to provide a short period of faith formation. I’m definitely going to take him up on this.

After Ames, I was supposed to go to Colombia through San Pedro Sula, Honduras, spending a night there. Well, delays of the flight from Des Moines changed that and provided a challenge – how to leave my bags with a friend who owns Hotel Maya Copan in San Pedro and make the flight to Colombia in two hours. And then the flight arrived about thirty minutes late in Honduras. But customs went smoothly and the taxi driver was there to take my bags.

Monseñor Artemio Flores, from Mexico, presiding at one of the liturgies in Bogotá.

In Bogotá, Colombia, I was part of the team which was mostly World Vision employees giving a short workshop on World Vision’s program for awareness of HIV and AIDS in the churches. All went well, except that I flubbed my first presentation. There were so many medical personnel and people with experience in this area that I felt intimidated and was really nervous.

The workshop was held under the auspices of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops Conference. There were 30 participants from about 15 countries, including two bishops, six priests, two deacons, at least five men and women members of religious orders, and a number of lay people (at least five doctors). What surprised me was the openness to the topic and the methodology which is very participative. The bishops especially impressed me by their willingness to participate – even in some skits.

It was a very good experience and I think the Catholic Church in Latin America will be working more on this area.


The workshop ended early on Friday and most went out into the city. I wrote about this is the previous blog,

Saturday morning as a group of the participants sat around a table for breakfast, an evangelical pastor who works for World Vision shared his reflections on the situation in Columbia and the suffering the people have suffered and the wounds that will take decades to heal. Participants from El Salvador and Perú shared a little of their experience and the need fro healing. I was filled with a deep sadness – not a sadness of depression, but of solidarity. What a blessing to be able to share in the sufferings – as well as in the joys.

Two nights we sat around the rec room of the center where we were staying and Brazilian Franciscans prepared drinks from the Brazilian sugar cane liquor Cachaça. Laughter and jokes abounded. But we could also share a bit of the suffering of Latin America during the workshop and at the last breakfast.

What a way to live the first lines of Vatican Council II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Saturday - back in Honduras

Saturday, November 7, I'll be back in Honduras after nearly four weeks away. I'm anxious to get home.

A lot happened during the three weeks in the US - in Pennsylvania and then in Iowa.

The last four days I've been in Bogotá, Colombia, as part of the team for a workshop on HIV and AIDS that World Vision gave for CELAM, the Latin American bishops conference. There were people from 15 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, including two bishops. I'll write more on this later and will post some photos on my Flickr site.

Today, Friday, the workshop ended in mid-afternoon and I went to downtown Bogotá with five of the participants. It was a very sobering experience, to put it mildly. The city is congested and there's lots of begging. There are people on the streets selling time on cell phones for 11 cents.

I was also a bit put off by the people with me spending so much time in stores.

But there was one event that made the visit worth it.

About two hundred people marched in the main street in downtown Bogotá. (The street is closed to traffic in that area.) They were marching for the disappeared and against impunity.

Here are some photos:


The sign reads: "A cry of dignity against impunity."


Impunity means that those who have committed crimes - in Latin America, usually disappearances, torture, or assassinations -
are not brought to justice and "get away with murder."

A row of people carried chairs with names on them - presumably the disappeared.


When they stopped in the street for about half an hour they put their chairs down.
Note the picture, presumably of a woman who had been disappeared.



Two banners were in support of the Peace Community of San José de Apartado,
a community that declared itself a peace zone and has been hassled by the government as well as by the guerrilla.
They are calling for the right to memory, life, truth, and justice.
Their struggle for justice has been sustained for many years despite government opposition and a nasty column in the Wall Street Journal last year by Mary Anastasia O'Grady that questioned their sincerity.
Their web page in Spanish is http://cdpsanjose.org/

I didn't take the opportunity to speak with any of those in march but I admire their courage and determination. May God bless their efforts.

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Addendum:

I write this quote quickly, having forgotten that the marchers handed out a flier. I found it when I emptied my pants pockets. Here’s my translation.
25 years – a cry of dignity ? against impunity
Palace of Justice
25 years of injustice with the disappeared

The families of those disappeared in the Palace of Justice, [Court House] commemorating 25 years of the bloody retaking by the National Army and the forced disappearance of the employees and occasional visitors of the palace cafeteria, invite the organizations of the families of the victims of forced disappearance and other social organizations to accompany us in the act of commemorating that will take place next November 5 starting at 5:00 pm with a march between Santander Park and the Casa del Florero/Plaza Bolivar as well as in the cultural activities around the Casa de Florero/Plaza Bolivar.

We invite everyone to bring a white candle to light at 6:30 pm for our beloved who were disappeared in the Palace of Justice and for all the persons forcibly disappeared in Colombia.

We firmly believe in the need for persistence from the families in order to advance on the road toward truth and justice.

In those fateful days 0 November 6 and 7, 1985, not only were the lives of our dear loved ones and our families cut short, but the hopes and faith in justice were eaten away by a sea of flames destroyed by the bullets of the state’s armed forces.

We invite you to accompany us.

Relatives of Lucy Amparo Oviedo, Ana Rosa Castiblanco, Cristina del Pilar Guarin, Luz Mary Portela Leon, Gloria Anzola de Lanao, Gloria Stella Lizarazo, Norma Constanza Esguerra, Hestor Jaime Beltran Fuentes, Bernardo Beltran Hernandez, David Suspes Celis, and Carlos Augusto Rodriguez Vera.

Accompany us in commemorating our victims and all the victims!!...
Let us all light a white candle in their memory this November 5.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In central Iowa

I’ve been in the US for two weeks for what I used to call a home visit. It’s been a good experience. But as I left Honduras in the plane I had this feeling of a reluctance to leave – and now have times of real homesickness here in the states.

I spent time with family and friends in the Philadelphia area the first week. I also had the chance to visit the University of Scranton and speak there in three classes and at a public lecture.

The hosts in Scranton asked me to speak about my journey and so I entitled my talk “From Scranton to Iowa to Honduras, via New Orleans.”

For me it was a blessing to be forced to relate the journey that led me to Honduras. I realize that much happened because I listened – usually was forced to listen – to the poor and to people in my lives. Being a “heady” person, that is still at times a big challenge. But I am deeply grateful that so many people have helped me become who I am and be where I am.

At Scranton, I spoke from an outline, but I really think I need to take time to sit down and write the story, at least for myself.

I was also touched by the chance to visit Rosellen, the widow of a college prof, Tom Garrett. He was a great mentor, an inspiration, and, as we both grew older, a friend. We spoke for a mere two hours, a time of blessing.

Monday, October 18, I flew into Iowa and I have been in Ames, connecting with friends, doing a little speaking to small groups and getting a few things I need (or want).

As I walk into stores, looking for something specific I find myself not offended by all the things, nor do I feel myself compelled to buy – even to buy lots of books – as I would have in the past. Honduras has almost vaccinated me against consumerism. What a blessing.

Last night a friend who is a Lutheran minister asked me how I felt seeing so much abundance and opulence. I don’t feel angry or resentful or irate. But I’m still not sure why. Perhaps it’s age, he suggested. Perhaps it’s because I’ve developed a different perspective. I’ve seen some people with large houses and good incomes but who walk about worried and anxious. Their money has not bought them happiness. And so I feel compassion – not pity.

Last Friday night there was a fundraiser at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, that is supporting me and is developing a relation of solidarity with the parish of Dulce Nombre de María in Honduras. It was a trivia night and raised more than $2000 to help the parish build small housing units to be used by people who come in to the parish center for workshops and other events. Right now the facilities in Dulce Nombre are very poor and the people, some of whom walk up to four hours to get there, deserve better. It is good to see the generosity of people for the parish.

I’ll be here another week, spending some time with religious education classes. There are great opportunities to talk with the children and youth, who have been very supportive of the Honduras project.

I’ve also had time to reconnect with friends. As they asked questions and as we talked about my ministry many things have become clearer to me about what I’ve been doing and about what has been happening to me. I also have a better idea of how I hope to make changes in my life and ministry this coming year. I really hope I can spend more time with people in the rural areas of Dulce Nombre parish. My car will help make that more possible.

My visit has been good, but next year I hope I can take a little more time to visit the US and hope to speak in a few more universities in Iowa, visit friends in the Minneapolis area, and continue my connections with the good folks at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames.

But I am anxious to return home to Honduras – that’s where I am called to be. My trip here is part of my mission. But now my home is Honduras.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

U S Visit

I'm in the US for a visit, first to the east coast to visit relatives and to give a talk at the University of Scranton, and then to Ames, Iowa, to visit the parish which supports my presence in Honduras as well as projects with the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.

It's strange to be here. Though I've been here less than a week, it seems so long ago that I left Honduras - and I miss it.

I've had to go out and get some things in stores. What I find interesting is that I don't feel pressed to buy a lot - as I would have several years ago. I know what I'm looking for and that usually satisfies me - a new watch, a few clothes, etc. Has my experience in Honduras vaccinated me against rampant consumerism? (I hope so. It also helps that I have a limited budget.)

But there is so much here in the US.

There are good people who have been very kind to me. In Scranton I encountered some students at the U who connect with the poor in the US and elsewhere.

But it's another world and I really do feel more at home in Honduras.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Water

Today is blog action day with the theme of water.

Just one thought about the situation in Honduras.

In several parts of the country private companies are contemplating setting up major hydro-electric projects with dams that would inundate people’s lands and reap major profits for the private businesses. One major project is in the municipality of San Francisco de Opalaca, Intibucá, which would build two or three dams to generate electricity but result in major displacement.

The situation is rather conflictive for although the mayor and others signed an agreement there is major opposition from the indigenous people in the municipality and from a former mayor.

As I understand it, the project would benefit the multi-millionaire Fredy Nassr, a nephew of another multimillionaire, Adolfo Facussé, a major supporter of the coup.

Water must be used to support the common good – not private interests or profits.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The price of beans - and the church Honduras needs

Beans and corn are staples of the Honduran diet. Many don’t consider that they’ve eaten a real meal unless they have tortillas. And beans are usually eaten at two meals each day.

Note the pile of tortillas and the plate of beans.

The corn tortillas here in western Honduras are thick – not the flimsy almost transparent tortillas they have in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. They’re hefty – and I’ve seen people put away five tortillas or more in a meal.

Combined with beans, the tortillas make for almost all the protein we need. Cheese helps fill in some of the protein unavailable in the corn and bean combination.

But beans may become a luxury. About 60% of this year’s crop is lost – mostly due to the severe rains and flooding. The cost of beans has tripled since July!

The Zelaya government established a strategic reserve after a 2008 shortage, but the coup government of Micheletti sold it off to make money for itself.

A good analysis of this can be found at Honduras Culture and Politics.

What does this mean?

The hunger situation is already very serious in our part of the country. Workers in the Caritas/CRS mothers and infant health program have been telling me for months about the scarcity of food in the countryside. Even some of the women they’ve trained as monitors of the health of mothers and infants are having a hard time getting enough food. The small stipend they received for their time in trainings makes a difference in their families’ diets.

And so, the struggle continues.

But here in the diocese the struggle is not just for enough food. The diocese has taken a stand for real change in Honduras. The clergy and the bishop have agreed to promote a “National Constituent Assembly” to rewrite the constitution, but an assembly that reflects the poor who are the majority here.

The diocese considers it important to have people who are critically conscious of the reality here, their role as Christian citizens, and what can be done. And so the “schools for governability and participation” are being held in 10 sites throughout the diocese. In addition, there are series of workshops on Catholic Social Teaching.

The Church Honduras needs (and has in some places)

This past week I went out to Gaujiniquil, in the municipality of La Virtud, in southern Lempira for one of the Catholic Social Teaching workshops.

It was five hours driving there, mostly on horrendous roads – both paved and unpaved. (There was one 22 kilometer patch of the best road I have seen in Honduras – between San Marcos Ocotepeque and Cololaca, Lempira.)


The vistas from the road were incredible, though I had to concentrate on the road, since in a few places it is on the ridge of a mountain, with deep drop offs on both sides. A few times I stopped to take photos which don’t reflect the awesome beauty.

But the real beauty, as almost always, is the people.

The workshop for four parishes in southern Lempira deanery was largely run by lay people who had been to a training session a few weeks ago. Padre Ildefonzo helped a bit, as did I, but two lay women did an awesome job.

Clementina and Dunia observing a small group working on a topic in the workshop.

This was the second of three sessions and so Clementina began the workshop, asking people to share what they remembered from the first workshop. It was incredibly good, covering almost all the topics we treated in Tomala in August. (I think it was so good because they had shared the material in their parishes.)

One of the exercises was to look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT in English, FODA in Spanish) of the country, the deanery, and the parishes, as well as in the ministries. At one point they had to prioritize the weaknesses and threats of their original lists.

Some themes that came to the fore were the political and economic situation of the country, the breakdown of the family, and emigration. In addition, when they looked at the three ministries of pastoral work (prophetic, liturgical, and social), each group identified fear as a weakness, in one case the fear of denouncing injustice.

Some of them shared briefly the situation in this area in the 1980s, when delegates of the Word and other pastoral workers feared for their lives – and a few were killed by government or paramilitary troops.

The bravery of these people, their commitment to their faith, and their willingness to be involved in a church that has committed itself to those most in need is inspiring and challenging.

I’m continually reminded of this. On the way back I gave a ride to one of the participants and dropped him off on the way. He had to walk four hours to get to his village!

And what do they want? Justice, enough food for their families, land to work, and more.

And what do they want of the church?

One exercise of the workshop was applying a short article of Father Pablo Richard to their situation, answering the question “What model of church does Honduras need to overcome the present crisis?”

The responses included:
  • a deanery that is unified from the lay people to the pastors, working for the same cause: the preferential option for the poor, defending their rights and denouncing the attacks and injustice that are committed against the people.
  • a church that is the voice of those who don’t have a voice
  • a united parish, in solidarity, seeking the preferential option for the poorest
  • strengthening the church base community and the Triple Ministry [prophetic, liturgical, and social] looking at the example of the first Christian communities
  • A transforming church that takes up the pain of the people with deeds, and not [only] with words
  • base communities that are the seed or the starting point of the solutions and the demands [that come from] the Church’s social teaching.
I could write much more, but I think this is enough to get us thinking about what kind of Church do we need – and that we are called to live. What strikes me is that these people are thinking of a church that does not close itself off from the world, nor of a church that is serving their needs, but of a church that serves the neediest.

May we begin to see more signs of this here in Honduras – and throughout the world.

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One closing thought, Penny Lernoux, a journalist committed to the church of the poor in Latin America, died on October 8, 1989, 21 years ago. Her 1982 book, The Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America — the Catholic Church in conflict with U.S. Policy, is a classic for understanding what has happened and is happening here. Her later book, People of God, details the challenges that the liberating pastoral work of the Latin American Church faced. I recommend both books.

This morning I read this quote from her in Robert Ellsberg's Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.
You can look at a slum or peasant village ... but it is only by entering into that world — by living in it – that you begin to understand what it is like to be powerless, to be like Christ.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The economic reality of Honduras

A lot of people are afraid of class analysis, claiming it promotes class struggle. But even Ruby K. Payne, the editor of A Framework for Understanding Poverty acknowledges the importance of recognizing class, though her proposed solution is to make the US poor middle class, without acknowledging, I think, the dangers of middle class consumerism and individualism nor the intrinsic value of sharing as seen among some of the poor.

For the past few months the staff of Caritas has been meeting every Monday morning, for prayer, a short study of Catholic Social Teaching (which I lead), and a section of Caritas’ school on governability and participation.

A few weeks ago we did an exercise on the different economic levels in Honduras: the super rich, the rich, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the poor with possibilities, the extremely poor, and the indigent.

Here were some of the reflections shared by the participants. This is not a scientific analysis but it is revealing.

The Super Rich: Millionaires, whose children study in prestigious expensive foreign universities, who drive this year’s cars, who have helicopters, yachts and planes. They live in mansions and have large plantations (haciendas), They own multinational business, franchises, banks, maquilas (piece work factories), dispensas (large stores – wholesale?), concessions for mining, rivers, etc. They would usually have chefs and nannies for their kids. They are usually thought of as being ten families. They are behind the scenes of politics. They are involved in the churches – but of the rich, with private baptisms and weddings, welcomed by some hierarchy.

The Rich: Landowners with haciendas (plantations), owners of transport and construction businesses. They have new cars. Their children study in private universities, They are the privileged clients of banks. They often speak English. They would often have good cooks and a nanny for their kids. They make up about 7% of the population. They are likely to be officials in the political parties and some of them would be congressional representatives.

The Upper Middle Class: Bilingual. Professionals, university trained, new cars bought on credit, owners of medium sized businesses, bureaucrats in administrative roles, are coffee or cattle farmers. They live in nice residential houses. The housekeeper/cook might also scare fro the kids at home.They are clients with loans from banks. Their salary is above 40000 lempiras (about $2100) per month. They are about 20% of the population. [I think this is a little high, but this might include both the upper and lower middle class.] In terms of partisan politics, they may hold positions and elected offices in departments and municipalities. Parts of this class would be sympathetic to the resistance.

Lower Middle Class: Used car, five years or less or an motorcycle. Nice houses but with mortgages. Small business owners, professionals in education. Small accounts in banks, clients of cooperatives. They have credit cards. Their children study in public universities and in public high schools. In political terms they might hold some public offices, as mayors, etc.

The Poor with Possibilities: a very modest home, and maybe an old car, animals. They are workers. Their children study in public schools or the distance education radio schools. They would deal with Cajas Rurales (rural borrowing and lending institutions), with private lenders (some of whom might be loan sharks). In political terms they would be party activists. They have some chickens and other animals. They would make between 5,000 and 8,000 lempiras ($260 - $425) per month. In this diocese they would be the mainstay of the base communities. Some of these would respond to the themes of the Resistance.

The extremely poor: Very poor houses - shacks, day laborers, live on credit. They leave school early. They work on borrowed land. They have cats and dogs. They eat “salteado” – tortilla with salt, and not much else. They are 40% of the population. They are often spoken of by international organizations as the “irrescatables” – the irredeemable. Not involved in church or politics.

The Indigent: Live in the street, wander around (sometimes selling trinkets), beg, collect food from wherever (trashcans, dumps), wear rags, steal. They, too, are often spoken of by international organizations as the irredeemable.

This is an interesting analysis of the situation. What I do find interesting is that the Caritas school for governability and participation is planning several pilot projects to involve base communities and some municipal governments in processes to help several extremely poor families.

As I understand it, the base communities of the local parish will seek out and suggest several really poor families and will “sponsor” them. The base communities will seek to find land that these families can work without paying rent. They will try to get the municipal government to provide loans to the families for seeds, fertilizers, and other supplies needed for growing basic grains (corn and beans). The municipality will subsidize the loan with public moneys and the families will pay back 60%. (In one municipality the mayor is proposing to subsidize it so that the loan is only for 50% of the cost.) The base communities will accompany the families and help them work through this process and hold them accountable.

It appears that this will be a reality in at least one municipality next year. Another seems interested but seems to try to put a partisan politics spin on the project. Another has expressed interest but has not yet come forward to have meetings to work on this.

This is a very interesting model since it seeks to respond to the extremely poor who are often neglected by nongovernmental organizations.

We’ll see where this goes.

In the mean time I'm sharing photos of this past week's session - where we provided drawings of our hopes for real communities where justice flourishes, human rights are respected, and nature is cared for. Here are the results from two of the groups.