Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Coffee - beginnings

I didn’t begin to drink coffee until high school. But now it is a part of my daily life – usually two big cups in the morning.

But I never realized what coffee production entails until I got here to Honduras. Nor did I realize all the work that goes into a cup of coffee.

I won’t bore you with all the details but here are a few reflections, related to what I’m seeing and doing at this point.

The parish's coffee field in Plan Grande
Coffee is a bush that will produce the coffee berries two or three years after it is planted. Some plants, if well cared for, can yield decent coffee for 10 to 15 years.

Coffee flowers in several phases, usually in May here in Honduras. The fields are white with the flower and I love the smell which reminds me of honeysuckle.

Flowering coffee bushes
The coffee matures from November to March, depending on the weather and the altitude. The coffee is harvested by hand, several times during the season, since not all the berries mature at the same time.

It’s hard work and for many it’s one of the few sources of cash income. Currently the rate for a gallon of berries is 35 lempiras (about $1.70), though it was 40 lempiras last week. Many people can harvest 3 gallons a day.

After the coffee is harvested, the coffee needs to be de-pulped: the berry is taken off the coffee bean. Then it needs to be washed and later dried. After it is dried well, the thin parchment-like covering needs to be removed. Then it is green coffee – or, as they say here, café en oro – gold coffee. This is the coffee bean that is sold and toasted.

Many of the small producers don’t have the capacity to prepare the coffee and so sell the coffee to intermediaries. They don’t get a good price.

Recently a fungus, roya, affected one variety of coffee, the variety that had the best yield and some say the best flavor. It was also the variety that most of the poor planted.

Some farmers have tried to control the roya but that’s expensive. Many just cut down the bushes and planted a new variety. That means they won’t have a good crop for about two or three years.

A small coffee coop is forming in El Zapote de Santa Rosa. Of its 15 members, many were affected by the roya and five won’t have a coffee crop this year. But they still belong to the coop and will be participating in its projects.

The project germinated in a number of minds, including an ISU graduate who visited last January with Father Jon Seda, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ames, the sister parish of Dulce Nombre de María parish here.

Tyler’s idea was to buy quality coffee from small farmers and sell it at a good price in the US. We talked one evening , partly because the parish’s orientation is toward promoting community and solidarity. Just seeking export quality coffee from individuals plays into an individualistic mindset.

I also emphasized the need to invest in the small producers so that they can learn and use best practices to improve their coffee.

One young producer, José, took this to heart and soon had 14 others in El Zapote, anxious to begin a coop. Three samples were sent to Tyler who had contacted a coffee toaster and distributor in Kansas City, EleosCoffee. The toaster liked the three samples.

So the coop continued to meet and took the name Café Hacia El Futuro – Coffee toward the future.

They even arranged a fund-raising event - una carrera de cintas. It's a competition in which horse riders try to get one of the locks with a small stick.

La carrera de cintas
They got the Honduran Coffee Institute – INHCAFE – to get them a solar dryer. They had to get the wood and set up the dryer which they did in time for this year's harvest.

A training session sponsored by INHCAFE was planned, then cancelled and rescheduled twice. The coop still awaits the promised training.

But some of them did get a short course. I took a group of four members to see the work of  La Unión Microfinanza, now called Aldea Coffee. There they witnessed the practices of this very successful project for the exportation of high quality coffee.  Though the organization is different, the members learned a few tips about what needs to be done to prepare high quality export coffee.

Within a week or two I hope to get samples from ten of the members to be processed and sent to Eleos Coffee to be evaluated. If the quality is good, I hope that the coop can send a good shipment of coffee – not just for Eleos Coffee, but also for St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

This is a small effort – which I hope works out.

What is amazing is that I thought that the project would begin this year only in terms of coop formation and training. The chance to export was not foreseen. The members know that any exportation this year depends on the quality. But, if the coffee is not up to quality, the idea is to work with them to improve the quality – doing soil analysis, learning best practices, learning about organic fertilizers and sprays, and more.

I hope and pray that they will be able to export something this year. It will be a real boost to their efforts to organize and produce good coffee.

Also, there is at least one other group of small coffee producers in the parish that is interested in something like this. We will invite them to any training sessions but we won't be trying to export their coffee until we see how the situation of the El Zapote coop goes.

Inside the solar dryer - the beans are raked once every 20 minutes!
Coffee sample drying

Monday, December 29, 2014

Stealing the Baby Jesus

I just came across two reports of the capture of the baby Jesus figure from Nativity scenes. 

A topless Ukrainian feminist stole the infant from the Vatican Christmas crib in St. Peter’s square but didn’t get far. A report and video are here

It also appears that a woman stole the infant Jesus from the manger outside Resurrection Church in Dubuque.

But at least in one parish here in Honduras stealing the baby Jesus is an annual event.

I don’t know the whole story, but here are snippets I've heard.

In Gracias, Lempira, the baby Jesus is often kidnapped soon after Christmas and sometimes held for ransom.

The kidnappers send regular messages from the Baby Jesus telling the church – or the owners of the manger scene – that He is doing well and is well-treated.

Sometimes the people are apprehended and a trial is held – complete with prosecuting and defense attorneys.

Sometimes the kidnappers, in defense, note that Jesus was left abandoned in the manger scene and they wanted to treat him better.

If anyone has heard about this tradition in other parts of Honduras or the world, please let me know. I’d love to pass the word around and let people know that we needn’t worry if the statue of the infant Jesus is stolen – or kidnapped.

Jesus is still here  and will return, if you can't see Him.

Nacimiento in Gracias - before the Christmas Eve Mass

Sunday, December 28, 2014

First week in Plan Grande

I’ve now been living in a new house in Plan Grande  - if you don’t count the two days I spent over Christmas with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters in nearby Gracias, Lempira.

It’s been a good experience. I find I’m a lot more centered than I was in Santa Rosa. The view helps; the quiet is amazing; my prayer/study room is comfortable and welcoming.

I’m reading more, praying a bit more, and using the internet less. (I thought I had no access until the other night. Now I have access, even though it’s slow.)

I’ve washed clothes by hand and hung them out to dry - several times. 

I've used the kitchen - making soup and I even baked cinnamon rolls for Christmas with the sisters (and shared a few with a neighbor before I left for Gracias.)

But the real joy has been to be here with the people.

I know that I am not living as they live. – I’m still a middle class gringo in Honduras.

But I’m finding myself a bit connected with people. 

I went to three of the Posadas – the pre-Christmas re-enactments of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging (posada) in Bethlehem.  I went to Sunday Mass here last week and to the Sunday celebration this morning.

I went to the local church council meeting Saturday night and afterwards invited the members to see the house.

I have kids – and adults – stopping by to see the crazy gringo and his house.

I hope to have curtains later this week as well as a living room sofa.

But I’ll soon have everything out of the house I rented in Santa Rosa and will hand over the keys to the owner. Then, this will really be the place where I am.

The access to other parts of the parish is much easier than when I lived in Santa Rosa. Friday I went to a meeting of a small coffee cooperative in formation – only 15 minutes away by car. Today I’ll go out to Mass in the same village.

All this is a blessing. I look forward to more involvement in the life of the parish, God willing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas 2014 letter

A blessed Advent and Christmas

Christmas crib (Nacimiento) in Plan Grande

This has been a year of many transitions.
Since last year I have been working more in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María – and loving it. Pastoral work in the countryside is what I feel called to.
Padre German giving me more responsibility and I’ve continued training catechists and preparing materials. I’ve also assisted in the training of delegates of the Word and base communities. There is more work next year; Padre has asked me to work with delegates of the Word (who lead Sunday celebrations in their villages) and youth leaders, as well as my continuing work with catechists.
To do this, I am withdrawing from work with the diocesan office of Caritas; I believe I can do more concentrating on ministry in the parish
I’ve also decided to move out of Santa Rosa de Copán. It’s comfortable living here – with easy access to restaurants and grocery stores. But I’ve been going out to the parish at least three days a week – which means more than an hour of driving each day.

I’ve slept in the house in Plan Grande since Friday, December 19. I’ve been to two Posadas as well as Mass on Sunday in the village church. It’s already beginning to feel like home.

So decided to move out to the countryside and chose Plan Grande, a good community which I’ve often visited. With the permission of the village church council I’m living there in a house I’ve had built – which will belong to the church after I leave or die (whichever comes first).  This enables me to be closer to the people and to visit the distant villages more easily. Plan Grande is almost in the center of the parish with almost all the towns and villages less than 45 minutes away.
I am very glad to move out there later this week and begin a new phase of my ministry.
This year I made two trips to the US – one in June for the ordination of two young men I knew when they were students at Iowa State; the other to Ames in later October to connect once more with St. Thomas Aquinas.
I sadly didn’t get a chance to get to the East Coast to visit friends and relatives; I haven’t been there for almost two years. If all goes well, I hope to visit after Easter.
I ask you to continue to keep me in your thoughts and prayers. Visitors are welcome; just let me know in time. There are two guest rooms in the house in Plan Grande.