Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rest in peace, Esteban.

Tonight, the feast of St. Michael,  I learned that Esteban Clavel died earlier this year, resulting from chagas.

Esteban in the San Miguel Chapel in Haciendita II

Esteban Clavel, his wife Rosa Elbia, and his children welcomed me into their house in Hacienda II when I served in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, in 1992.

They had  taken abandoned cattle stalls and created a simple house.Esteban was ingenious and saw the possibilities to create a simple home for his family.

I brought a hammock to sleep in; otherwise several of the children would have given up their bed for me.

The meals were simple, mostly bean and tortillas and occasional cheese – usually with too much salt!

When the rainy season came, the rain came in under the door and ran under my hammock. I joked about the Rio Clavel, the Clavel River.

Many a night, in the darkness, I sat around with Esteban or his kids. At times the kid tried to have me solve word games – in Spanish, of course. But occasionally Esteban would take about his life.

He had been a pastoral worker in his village in Chalatenango in the 1970s. Once about 1980 he had been picked up by a death squad but escaped. He then settled and lived in Honduras for ten years, living under an assumed identity as a Honduran. This was not too difficult for him since his wife’s relatives are Honduran and their home in El Salvador was only a few kilometers from Honduras.

But instead of going into a refugee camp he and his family lived as Hondurans in the department of Santa Bárbara. It was a little easier for him since his wife was Honduran and her family came from that department.

He tried to help for a time with the pastoral work of the local parish, but he was suspicious of  the priest. The family moved and then he worked in pastoral work in another parish.

He also made a trip back to El Salvador once. He told me how the people were fleeing from the Salvadoran military, lest they be massacred. I don’t remember the details but his account was chilling.

The family returned to El Salvador in 1990, first to Chalatenango, but joined the community of Haciendita Dos in the municipality of Suchitoto, in late 1991.

Esteban was a small, simple man. He could be a little rigid at times but he was a man of deep faith.

Esteban and Rosa Elbia, December 2010
Esteban and Rosa Elbia were a special couple, full of love for each other and for their eleven children. More than once they took in a child who needed care for a while. Living in poverty, there was always room to feed more. They hardly raised their voices with their children, even when correcting them.

Esteban was sensitive, hoping for unity in the community.

In May, 1992, when I lived there, the pastoral team of the Haciendita II visited almost all the houses, including those of two evangelical (conservative Protestant) families in the community. In those homes, instead of praying the Rosary, they substituted a Bible reading and a group reflection on one of the mysteries of the Rosary. As Esteban explained, this was important to preserve the unity of the community. This is a  very interesting and probably rare example of ecumenism at the base, especially important here where some conservative Protestant sects are bitterly anti-Catholic and are sometimes manipulated by right-wing groups.

Because of his commitment to justice he could at times be a thorn in the side of people in the community. But he sought always to find a way to promote reconciliation. But it wasn’t easy and there were many conflicts, which troubled him.

He was a hard worker, in his milpa (corn field) and sugar cane fields, with his pastoral work, and around the house.

I will miss him. I am glad that I got a chance to see him last December. He was weak but still as welcome as ever.

He is for me one of the unrecognized witnesses of the resurrection, who suffered persecution, exile, poverty and more, but retained a deep faith in the God of Life.

It is many months since he died and passed on to the Lord. My prayer is the antiphon "In paradisum" for the incensing of the body at the end of the Requiem Mass:

In paradisum deducant angeli,
in tuo adventu suscipiant martires,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.

Chorus angelorum suscipiat
et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels receive you into paradise.
May the martyrs receive you as you come
and lead you into the holy city Jerusalem.

May the choir of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, who once was poor,
may you have eternal rest.

 God bless you, Esteban. Thank you for a life of love, a sign of God. You welcomed me, a stranger into your poor home. I am confident that God has welcomed you into Paradise. Pray for us.

Hope and inspiration

From Monday September 19 to Tuesday September 27 I was in Perú as part of the training team for World Vision’s process for religious communities to work on HIV and AIDS. Fourteen countries from Latin America sent 28 representatives to this training, all of them connected with the Church, some working in diocesan or national offices on health issues. The program was cosponsored by CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference.

It was a lot of work, but it was a joy to meet so many deeply committed to responding to HIV and AIDs. It was humbling to be in their presence for some of them have worked for years, often opening homes for people with HIV.

World Vision started working with evangelical groups, trying to sensitize them to what HIV and AIDS are and providing training for educating people and motivating them to respond as churches. In some parts of the world, especially in Africa, they are also working with Muslims. In the last few years they have begun to work with the Catholic Church in Latin America and soon hope to have an agreement with CELAM.

I was trained here in Honduras in January 20010 and have been involved in a few training and sensitizing sessions.

I am especially interested in their process of education. It’s definitely not academic, which is good; rather it uses adult education methods to help the learning process. I have learned a lot from the training I attended and from being involved in workshops – all, by the way, in Spanish! I have also profited by learning the methodology and trying to apply it to my work here in Honduras, especially in the formation program of the parish of Dulce Nombre.

I brought with me a copy of an icon Father William Hart McNichols, SJ,  Mary, Mother of God, Light in the Darkness. It became part of our prayer and was placed next to the candle which we lighted each morning, reminding ourselves of our call to be salt and light. 

In one exercise, used after the presentation of statistics on HIV and AIDS, we were asked to find stones representing those we knew who were infected with HIV, both the living and the dead, and place them by the candle and icon. I was amazed as some brought hands filled with stones. These are very committed people.

 I am very glad I had the chance to be a part of their training session. They do provide Channels for Hope – or, Canales de Esperanza, as the program is called in Spanish.

But God is very good since the training was book-ended between meeting two extraordinary missionary priests.

During the retreat I facilitated with volunteers of La Finca del Niño in Trujillo, I met a Jesuit priest who has been in Honduras for 34 years. He came in the late 1970s because he saw the incredible work the Jesuits were doing with cooperatives and other empowering programs. He worked with Father Guadalupe Carney, who was later thrown out of Honduras; Father Carney, later went to Nicaragua and returned clandestinely to Honduras as chaplain with a group of Honduran guerrillas. He was captured and killed by the Honduran military.

The priest I met had his run-in with the local authorities for his solidarity with the people and their organizing efforts. He was once picked up by the Honduran military and held several days. The US authorities were not helping in getting him released.

He worked in some of the most remote parts of northeastern Honduras, and now works in a large parish where he spends several days each week in the countryside.

It was a delight to meet him and I’m hoping to keep in contact.

On my last night in Perú I visited an Irish priest who serves with the Society of St. James. Friends of mine had lived in Lima for a year and had found his parish.

Part of a mosaic of Jesus the artisan in the parish church.

He has been in Perú for 44 years and is also a long term missionary who got it – the pastoral ministry which forms the poor to be followers of Christ in service of the Kingdom of God. He was among one of the groups that met with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, in the late 1960s and has continued to use a liberating pastoral practice with his parish. He has

We talked long about his experience and the trials and joys of his ministry. I had a chance to see him at work with a small group that prepared the readings for next Sundays liturgy. The group, all women – though a man or two occasionally comes, provided a very insightful conversation, spurred on by the pastor’s questions. I found out that a few of the women are in a group he formed that is reading Barbara Reid’s Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretation Through Latina and Feminist Eyes, in Spanish, of course.

We shared our great love for the people and our appreciation of the wisdom they share, especially when reading the Bible.

Again it was a blessing to be with him and I plan to stay in contact.

What a blessing it was to meet these two long-term missionaries who have lived through difficult times and still struggle to live the Word of God in a liberating mode. I pray that I may be like them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The suffering of children

On the plane to Lima I finished Uwem Akpan’s  Say You’re One of Them, a series of short stories by this Nigerian Jesuit. It was not an easy book to read – partly due to the use of African English phrases, partly due to the many details of the two longest stories,  but mostly because of the subject – Africa terrorized, from the perspective of children.

All of the stories, except one, are told by children. The children are extraordinary, in their ability to survive in the midst of poverty, child-trafficking, war, and inter-group violence.

The effect on me was cumulative, with tears in my eyes at the end of the last story. It is almost as if the evil and pain in the stories builds up until the final tale.

I am probably more sensitive to these stories after this past week.

I spent Tuesday through Friday leading a retreat with the volunteers at La Finca del Niño. Then I spent Friday afternoon till Sunday morning at the Finca, resting before my journey to San Pedro Sula and then to Lima, Perú.

Closing circle for the retreat around the Eucharist

The Finca cares for some of the myriads of Honduran children who are orphaned, abandoned, abused, and hungry. It’s a drop in the bucket – but a needed drop since they hope to prepare the children to contribute to building up their country.

As I spoke to a few of the volunteers I heard concerns about the kids but also hopes for them, especially when an elementary school child shares about wanting to help in the future.

I was at La Finca for one morning prayer, Lauds. The kids prayed and sang. but what really impressed me was how well the kids read. Some of them read much better than kids their own age in the Dulce Nombre parish and even better than some pastoral workers whom I know in the diocese. It’s obviously because the teaching is better and the kids are encouraged to read.

But I think of all the other kids I run across, especially the kids at the Comedor de Niños in Santa Rosa. Some of the children are really sharp; others are very shy. And then there are the rebellious. What will become of them?

Thanks be to God there are some people good at working with kids and are culturally sensitive, not coming in as if they have all the answers.

That’s what Honduras needs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A retreat, in more ways than one

Last Monday, I left Santa Rosa de Copán on the 4:00 am bus to San Pedro Sula and arrived in Trujillo on the north coast at 2:30 pm. It was three long bus rides to facilitate a retreat for the volunteers at La Finca del Niño.

A few months ago I got a message from one of the volunteers there, Sheena Jacobi,  the sister of one of the peer ministers I worked with at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames. She asked me if I’d be interested in leading their annual spiritual retreat.  Although I had never led a retreat myself, I said yes.

Later I had a series of contacts, including a visit in Santa Rosa, with Jacob Hurst, the director of volunteers, himself a volunteer at La Finca with his family. His insights helped me structure the retreat.

The participants – from the US and Nicaragua – are working with Honduran children in La Finca del Niño, The Farm of the Child, a Catholic program that provides a home, education, and Catholic faith formation for more than 36 children.

I arrived a day before – and was immediately identified by one of the kids as Mister Miyagi (from the movie Karate Kid.) This is not the first time this has happened.

The retreat went well. Looking back it ended up being structured in part on the progression of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, but I also tried to situate the retreat within the framework of the two major feasts we celebrated this week – the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and Mary, Our Mother of Sorrows.

The retreat was held in a beautiful center for the parish of Los Santos Martires de Centroamerica - The Holy Martyrs of Central America, in Bonito Oriental. One of the real joys for me was meeting the pastor, Jesuit Father John Donald, who came out for confessions and Mass. Padre Juan has been in Honduras since the late 1970s. He came here and took the church’s commitment to the poor seriously, so much so that he got into trouble with the government authorities. He’s written a short book on his experiences which I had a chance to read. He’s a real sign of God’s love in action, still going strong at 72 years old.

The other joy was to see how seriously these young men and women take their faith and how they are living this out through a two year commitment to La Finca.   The life is not easy. Except for a few who live in La Ceiba with those attending high school there, they live and work together on the grounds of La Finca, where the children also live. I was very glad to be able to meet them and talk at length with a few of them.

After the retreat I stayed Friday and Saturday at La Finca, mostly just resting, but seeing a little of the volunteers' interactions with the children.

An added attraction to my stay at La Finca was the chance on the beach. This is my first time on the Caribbean.  The water was warm and the view was gorgeous. I took loads of pictures, marveling at the glory of God’s creation. (Some of them are in a set, here, at my Flickr site.)

A Caribbean beach outside Trujillo

Twilight at the each outside La Finca del Niño.

An Iowa connection with the Finca. Two of the volunteers are from Iowa. Sheena Jacobi is ending her two year commitment in a few months and Scott Satterlee and his family are beginning a several year commitment with La Finca in their La Ceiba work. Sheena is from Cedar Falls and Scott from Cedar Rapids.

Scott, Sheena and me

A note on my travels: Sunday it is off to San Pedro Sula, though this time in a pickup. Monday, I’m off to Lima, Perú, as part of a training team for a workshop.

Though it is good to travel, I am missing Santa Rosa de Copán. I also feel as if I am out of the circuit in terms of what’s happening in Honduras. Even though I am near the Lower Aguan valley where there is a lot of conflict over land and a number of deaths, it feels so far away. It’s so easy to be insulated from the violence and injustice around us.

A final note. On the way back to Trujillo from the retreat center in Bonito Oriental a bridge was closed and so we had to cross the river by ferry. A very interesting experience, especially since the ferry carried two cars and two motorcycles.

And they added our car - a Land Rover



Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Busy weeks

These next few weeks I will be busy outside of Santa Rosa de Copán. I now am leading a retreat for the volunteers at La Finca del Niño en Trujillo, on the north east coast of Honduras. Then I will be in Lima, Perú, as part of the training team for World Vision’s Canales de Esperanza program which is oriented to involving the churches in responses to HIV and AIDS. Almost 30 people sent by Latin American  bishops’ conferences will be trained to lead activities in their countries. Then, after two days back in Santa Rosa de Copán, I’ll be off to the US to visit friends and family, give a few talks at the University of Detroit-Mercy, and spend time in Ames, mostly with St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center which has been sponsoring me here and is developing a relationship with the parish of Dulce Nombre de María here in Copán. (If anyone has a place for me to speak, let me know.) Thus the past week has been full, trying to put everything together before I leave.

The Sunday before last I took the Eucharist out to the village of Piedras Colorados for their Sunday Celebration of the Word.

Luis Alonso leading the celebration in Piedras Coloradas

After the celebration I spent some time with them talking about what they had been doing. They proudly showed me the poles which will bring electricity to the village and told me that the government electric company and the municipal authorities will help with the cost of getting the power lines to the houses. However, each family will have to pay about 3,500 lempiras ($160) for the installation of electricity inside the houses and for setting up outlets, light fixtures, and so on. The price sounds high to me, since most of the houses are fairly small. But most of the people don’t have that kind of money and, since the installation of the lines to the houses won’t happen until after the houses are wired, there is some urgency. What to do? Some mentioned that they might have to take out loans at 5% interest. That didn’t sound too bad until I realized that 5% per month – a whopping 60% per year. This makes it really clear how people take advantage of the poor and they have so few options.

Tuesday I led a presentation for the retreat for confirmation candidates on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I have taken the list for granted and actually found it quite challenging to try to make them understandable.

Several of the gifts are knowledge related – wisdom, understanding, knowledge (ciencia, in Spanish). But I wanted to avoid explaining them in merely intellectual terms. And so I thought awhile about ciencia (knowledge, learning). One explanation of this gift is that it what helps understand and distinguish the true and the false in regard to worldly things. So I compared it with the knowledge people have in terms of how to plant well and how to make tortillas well. (It’s important to affirm the dignity of the work most of these people do.) I think they grasped it because when I had them connect up saints with the gifts they immediately connected Saint Isidore the Farmer with ciencia.

Bishop Santos and Padre Efraín at the confirmation

Thursday was the feast day of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, the Sweet Name of Mary. I went for the confirmation Mass, with Bishop Santos, Padre Efráin, and the former associate Padre Julio César. The Mass was a little more subdued than some other confirmations but it was moving. What really struck me though is that after the normal petitions during the Prayer of the Faith, Bishop Santos said a long prayer for peace. He has obviously been concerned about the growing violence here. But I was struck by the emotion he put into the prayer.

Friday and Saturday, I went to the Zone 2 and Zone 3 meetings in the parish. Nothing special, except for a few conflicts that need to be dealt with but still a good chance to see folks.

Sunday I took the Eucharist to the community of Cerro Negro for their Sunday Celebration of the Word. The village is quite poor – with many people who have to rent land for raising corn or beans. But I’m always touched by the devotion of the people. 

Musicians in Cerro Negro

The choir at the celebration was not the best – in fact, they seem to have devised different melodies for two songs I know well. I did remind them of the training for choirs at the beginning of November. I hope some of them can go.

After twelve hours on a bus, I arrived in Trujillo, Colón, Honduras – almost the furthest that one can get from Santa Rosa. I passed acres and acres of African palm raised for the oil to cook snack food and to make biofuels, and most of it owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the richest men in Honduras.

This is also a very conflictive area since many campesinos claim that Facussé has taken over land underhandedly or illegally. Over the last few years, here have been over 40 deaths in this area related to the conflict. But, except for one truckload of soldiers it is not apparent on the main road, though there was at least one sign with graffiti right outside of Trujillo.

Military, get out of the Aguan!
But I also saw a Dole plant, since they export bananas from here, as well as other fruit.

I spent the night at La Finca del Niño and hope write more on the retreat and the Finca later.