This past week I have been with six university students from St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ames, Iowa.
For three days we stayed in Dulce Nombre de Copán on the grounds of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, where they took part in a parish council meeting, went to see one site of the parish’s agricultural project, participation in the Mass and soccer tournament for the parish youth, and went to Masses and a Celebration of the Word in various communities of the parish.
Monday through Wednesday we were in the rural village of Montaña Adentro, about 9 kilometers from Dulce Nombre, but in a very mountainous area. Montaña Adentro – “the mountain inside” – is on the side of the hill.
|Part of Montaña Adentro|
There are about thirty families in the village, many of them involved in the three base communities in the parish. There is one schoolroom with a teacher and assistant for the 35 or so students in six grades.
The major purpose of our visit was to get to know the people as well as to help the local people work on their church. Until now they have been meeting on Sundays in the school room.
|With the community church council, in the school|
The work was simple – digging trenches and placing rocks and cement for part of the foundations as well as making the rebar for the churches columns. In addition, two of the women helped one morning with the school.
|Digging the foundations for the sacristy|
We ate simple meals in the home of Daniel and María Eva. I brought some vegetables they asked me to bring, as well as rice. But they provided the tortillas, beans, plantains, eggs, and more.
In addition, we had fresh oranges and mandarins which someone had climbed a tree to get for us.
|Freddy picking oranges for us|
I had told the people that the visitors would pay for the meals, but in the end the people refused to charge us for the meals. But the students left a donation behind.
Such generosity is not uncommon here and I’ve experienced it many times. But I think it caught the students off guard.
The students were also surprised at how all the church meetings begin not just with a prayer, but also with a reading of the Gospel of the day with a reflection.
We spent not a few hours meeting and playing with the people in the house where we ate. Many of the family’s children and grandchildren passed through, so that it was sometimes hard to figure who really lived there. There was a strong sense of extended family. Yet one of the sons had left a wife, two children, and some coffee land to go to the US for three years to earn some money for the family.
The last morning, after almost all of our work was done – though much of the work still lies ahead – I asked Daniel and Antonio, two of the leaders who would be the church’s patron. Saint Anthony of Padua, they answered.
But then they told me that the village was thinking of changing its name. Some people feel a little ashamed when someone in town asks them where they’re from and they respond Montaña Adentro – “the mountain way back there.”
What name? I asked. Nueva Jerusalén, they told me – the New Jerusalem.
I thought of the passages in Isaiah and Revelation where the scriptures speak of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven. It’s a place of healing where people live in peace and where there are no more tears. It’s a vision of life as God wills it.
I think the people want this new name because they want to try to live such a life. It won’t be easy – not only because of their poverty and because of the challenges of community, but because the structures here work against that vision.
But it is a vision that I think we experienced in part in our days there. They shared their homes and their food with us; they let us work with them; they gave us a warm welcome, even though most of the students don’t speak Spanish.
It was a little taste of what the New Jerusalem is and it was a blessing to be able to share that with them on the side of a mountain in rural Honduras.
Reflecting with the students last night I realized that their visit is probably very different from that of other groups.
They got a chance to live in a rural village and share people’s live. They got to see the capacities and the resiliency of the people here who are poor.
I don’t like the idea of some “poverty tours” that show people all the terrible things the poor suffer, emphasizing the poor as victims.
They got to see people who are intelligent even if they have little formal education, children who are very sharp even though they learn in a one-room schoolhouse, communities that work together even when they do not have many material goods. They saw people who are capable and are leaders, people of faith who live and love and work together and seem to have good, happy families.
They saw a taste of the New Jerusalem.