Sunday, March 27, 2011

Honduras - between pain and hope

The last three weeks I’ve been rather busy – first with a student from American University doing some research on the role of liberation theology in the church in Honduras, then with the group from Saint Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa, and then with a horrendous cold that left me almost speechless on Monday and Tuesday of last week and drained all week. On Friday and Saturday I had a major role in the retreat for pastoral workers in the parish of Dulce Nombre (with over 100 participants). Father Efraín Romero, the pastor, gave a few talks, heard confessions, and celebrated Mass Friday evening. Sor Pedrina led a number of prayer services and gave a few talks. I had to give four talks, lead the morning prayer service, and lead one activity. Luckily my voice held out - but barely so.

Yet, outside of this part of Honduras the situation has been rather tempestuous the past three weeks. The teachers have been on strike for a number of reasons – unpaid salaries, the looting of their pension fund by the government, and fears that a proposed law will privatize education. See here for a good discussion of the proposed law.

I don’t claim to understand the issues. The teachers’ unions are very strong and very combative. They have not been fairly treated by the government, especially in terms of salary and pension commitments. Many of the schools do not have sufficient supplies for the students. But the teachers’ strikes have left many children with less than 200 days of school in the last two years. (However, it should be noted that in 2009 the policies of the de facto coup government of Micheletti should be held responsible for any number of the days lost.) There are also some teachers who abuse their positions (some of which are like tenured positions) and only teach three days a week. But there are many devoted teachers who work – despite not getting paid, despite the lack of sufficient materials, sometimes teaching two, three, and even six grades in rural areas.

But what is saddening and distressing about the strike is the intransigence of President Lobo. The president is threatening to fire any teachers who do not get back to work by April 4.

Even more distressing are the repressive tactics used by the government. I cannot give first-hand testimony to the repression since it is, thank God, still fairly tranquil here in Santa Rosa. But this Sunday morning at Mass in San Martín Church in Santa Rosa de Copán, Padre Fausto Milla railed against the indiscriminate use of tear gas in Tegucigalpa. It is being thrown inside enclosed spaces, buildings which some of the teachers are occupying. Already one teacher has been killed and who knows how many others injured.

Because of all this the Resistance is calling for a national work stoppage – a paro – this coming Wednesday. We will see what this brings.

Yet I must add that Friday and Saturday were real days of blessing for me. Though I only knew what talks I had to give on the retreat on Friday morning at 7:00 am, God inspired me enough to be able to share a few words with the more than 100 pastoral workers gathered in the Dulce Nombre church.

They came from near and far – many walking several hours to get to the church on time: men, women, a good smattering of young people, and a few kids accompanying their parents. The cooks had quite a task and fed us all; since there is as yet no dining room, people ate wherever they could. (Thank God it was not raining.)

After lunch on Saturday, I headed out to Piedras Coloradas with people from that village. Four people fit into the cabin and about 7 were in the bed. But we all made it safely to our destinations. One of the surprises was passing through the village of Quebraditas with its new, still-unfinished pink church.

In all it took about an hour to drive to Piedras Coloradas from Dulce Nombre, stopping three times to let people off at other villages on the way. Piedras Coloradas is one of the villages I plan to work with on a pilot project to help the village work together to better their community. It was identified by the parish council as one of the poorest villages in the parish.

There are only 14 families in the village and a one teacher school for the 25 or so kids studying there from kindergarten to sixth grade. They have water, but the water source is not quite sufficient for their needs. They have no electricity, but they have gotten together to pay for a study and have raised their mandated contribution to the project. They hope the municipality and other agencies will be able to help them finish it in the near future.

Juventina, Julio Alonso, and Julio César, pastoral workers in the village, showed me their simple church, dedicated to San Antonio de Padua. (I mentioned to them that I started my mission here in Honduras on June 13, 2007, the feast of Saint Anthony.)

I visited with a few people and, as almost always in the countryside, I was offered food and drink. I drank two cups of café de palo (coffee from the family’s coffee plants) and was offered two hand-made baleadas (a Honduran specialty of a folded flour tortilla with beans and cheese inside). I could only eat one. But I noticed that other visitors on their way to a town ten minutes up the mountains were also given coffee and baleadas. The generosity of the poor.

After about an hour and a half talking with some of the people I headed out – but not without gifts: homemade cuajada (a type of cheese), a bunch of majonchos (a type of thick short plantain), and a bunch of datiles (small finger-sized bananas). A woman I stopped to talk with as I walked down to my car offered me patastes (a sort of hard squash); I gently refused the offer since I already had enough gifts from the community.

The ride back was fairly uneventful, except for the need to stop and put the pickup in four wheel drive on a steep hill.

The scenery was gorgeous, but what I most remembered as I drove the 90 minutes back to Santa Rosa was the tasty baleada in Julio’s house, a “breaking of bread” that filled my stomach and my spirit.

A letter written by Father Juan Polanco for St. Ignatius Loyola to the Jesuits in Padua reads: "Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the eternal King." I pray that I may continue to be so blessed.

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