Sunday, March 30, 2014

A range of emotions

I‘ve had a busy weekend in the Dulce Nombre parish.

Except for a Wednesday visit in Plan Grande with the person who’ll be building my house, I had not been out in the parish since before my retreat. I’ve had some responsibilities with Caritas in Santa Rosa that kept me here and I also spent a day pricing stuff for the house.

I called Padre German Thursday night and asked him what was up and how I could be of service.

He asked me to lead a discussion on the Eucharist and Lent with the Communion ministers. He was going out to one community where, as he said, there were always lots of confessions. (He’s trying to get to every village during Lent for confessions and Mass.)

It was good to share with the communion ministers as well as to talk with them about Holy Thursday and Good Friday celebrations in the communities. We are going through a Lent here, a hard time, and so I spent some time with them naming the signs of death and reflecting on Christ’s presence with us in the death of death. The communion ministers mentioned the murders, alcoholism, political partisanship, divisions, poverty, hunger, and other examples of death.

I didn’t realize at the time how much this would be reflected in my experience this weekend.

In the afternoon I went to accompany Padre German at a village. In the last five months the village has experienced four killings. The first seems to have been related to a series of killings over the course of many years. The old man who had been killed had asked for an end to the violence and may have been killed because the person being sought wasn’t there. The second was a robbery – probably for pistols that a man from the community had begun buying. The last two happened at a wedding in a village over the mountain and may have been related to lots of alcohol at a secular wedding celebration. Such tragedy.

Padre German had asked if I really wanted to go there. I said “Yes,” since I’ve been there several times.

He was rather strong in his homily – castigating the community for the violence. He was particularly strong in condemning the presence of guns and pistols. I think he might have been a little too strong since the perpetrators were from outside the community. Several in the community told him so during the homily. But the violence is real.

I left with a heavy heart.

Interestingly, he waited for me to follow him back to Dulce Nombre. He may be more worried about the violence than I was.

This may be the moment to begin working on training people on transformation of conflicts and alternatives to violence. I need to talk with him about this.

Saturday I decided to go out to visit several of the Maestro en Casa alternative education sites.

I went to Quebraditas where they have a high school program. The director had mentioned to me their need of a computer for the program. Providentially, a friend asked me if there was a need that her confirmation class could raise funds for. A computer is something needed and something that is not too expensive – for students in the US.

I went to get some pictures that she could share with her class. I also talked with a number of the students. Many of them work during the week and this is their only opportunity to get middle school or high school education – neither of which is less than an hour away by bus. Even considering that, some of the students walk long distances – up to two hours – to get to the classes on Saturday and Sunday, unless they can find or hitch a ride.

It was encouraging to talk with them and to see their enthusiasm. One high school student told me how he had asked the program director to see if they could get computer classes next year.


On the way back to Santa Rosa, I stopped at El Zapote Santa Rosa to see about their program. It’s only three classes of what we’d call middle school, but there are probably more than 30 students, many of them with partial scholarships provided by St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames.

After talking with them a bit, I went to the nearby church where Padre German was hearing confessions. I stopped to speak with three young guys who were hanging out and who later went to Mass. Though I had urged them to go to confession, I don’t think any of them went.

I also talked with two other pastoral workers. José, who is a catechist, told me that he has about 53 drawings from the First Communion class that he wants to send to St. Thomas Aquinas. I was moved by his initiative in doing this. We’ve arranged for him to get the pictures to me and then I’ll send them on.

Padre finished confessions and so I went to Mass.

Sunday I agreed to accompany Padre for an afternoon Mass in San Agustín. There are 17 catechumens there and I’d hoped that they would have the rite of scrutinies at Mass, but they had already prayed them at the morning Celebration of the Word.  I did, however, get a chance to see the meeting of twenty young people preparing for confirmation.

On the way back, there were a lot of people in the street as we passed through Caleras. Then, all of a sudden, all vehicles were stopped.  Padre asked and we found out that someone had been murdered about half an hour ago and his body was there in the middle of the dirt road.

I approached with Padre and he spoke with the police who were there. Interesting the policeman didn’t ask him who he was and was, in fact, a bit rude. However, we found out that the fiscal, the public prosecutor, had been called and they were awaiting his or her arrival before they could move the body. But who knows how long it would be before the fiscal arrived – it’s the weekend and the fiscales are overworked.

The body of the man was in the middle of the dirt road, a puddle of blood by his neck.

The body was about 25 feet from where we were. This was the first time I had been close to the body of a person who had been murdered.

I mostly felt sad. Another life wasted. Another family devastated. More death.

Padre knew a way to get back to Dulce Nombre and as he drove we talked. He was concerned that I would be upset and fearful. Surprisingly, I was more sad than upset and I didn’t feel fearful.

He mentioned how he sometimes experiences fear – but then he drives back from villages at all hours of the night.

We talked more about the violence and the need to help restore respect for life. I also shared with him what I had read in The Locust Effect. Violence undercuts efforts at development. But it’s not merely random violence. The violence is related to the lack of a police that is fair, efficient, and professional. It is related to the overworked and under-equipped public prosecutors and a judicial system that just doesn’t work.

But, as Padre German noted, there are any number of police involved in the violence (as well as in crime). I now recall the recent beating by police of a priest in Tomalá, Lempira.

We got back to Dulce Nombre about 5:30 and I immediately  left for Santa Rosa – with a very heavy heart.

As I drove back I listened to some music. All of a sudden a song came up that helps me reflect on my role here in the face of violence. John McCutcheon’s The Streets of Sarajevo, where McCutcheon sings of the cellist who came out and played his cello in a place of death in Sarajevo.

Why am I here? To accompany the people, to be a witness of hope in the places of death and suffering, or as John McCutcheon sings:
“in defiance and to add a bit of grace,
to try to ease the awful hatred and the horror of this place.
to remember there is beauty no matter what they say…”


I don’t have answers – but I want to be presence, as my Lord is present to the suffering.

I have a great peace in this.

The other day, someone jokingly asked me if I had my body guard in the back seat. I rolled down the window so that he could see there was no one there.


And, I don’t know why, but I said that I had God as my bodyguard.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Back from retreat

I’ve been intending to go on retreat since September and finally pulled it off.

A retreat is a time apart from our ordinary endeavors, a time for quiet, a time to let God renew us.

I had asked a US Jesuit priest whom I’d met in September 2011 if I could come to his parish in Bonito Oriental, Colon, on the northern coast. I met him when I facilitated a retreat for some volunteers at the parish center. He’s been in Honduras since 1977.

I left last Sunday and drove about nine hours to get there. It’s the dry season here and it was really hot in Colon and all along the north coast. But what surprised and delighted me were the beautiful colors of flowering trees – yellow, peach, pink, red.

There are large plantations of African palm on the north coast. It is disconcerting driving through them and seeing the trees planted in rows that seem to stretch to infinity. What is even more disconcerting is seeing the remnants of trees which have died, rising above the newly planted trees. They seem like acres of columns of Roman ruins.



The zone, especially in Colon in the Aguan Valley is very conflictive because much of the land has been taken over by the Dinant Corportation, owned by Miguel Facussé. Many of the poor claim that the land was taken fraudulently and some have tried to retake their lands. There have been scores of deaths. It’s a human rights nightmare.

It is also a conflicted area because of the presence of drug-trafficking. Someone told me that a few days ago scores of landing fields were blown up. Someone also pointed out several homes of drug traffickers in the region and related horror stories of violence among the drug traffickers.

But I got to Bonito Oriental safely and spent a lot of time in quiet, taking the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as my guide. I found a nearby small cemetery where I could pray and read in the quiet and relative freshness. Several nights I accompanied the priest to Mass in various towns.

San José cemetary

It was a good time apart, though it was incredibly hot most of the time there and I’m exhausted from the drive back yesterday.

Now I’m ready to get back to my ministry here – with a renewed sense of mission.



Friday, March 14, 2014

Worthless

Lee Rainboth in his Green Mango blog, cites a character in Ishmael Beah’ Radiance of Tomorrow:

“You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.”

I have written several times on how the poor are looked down on here in Honduras.  A few years ago the president of the National Congress referred to the as ‘gente del monte’ – hicks, hay seeds, hill-billies.

Just recently I wrote of two people who stated, ”I can’t,” when asked to draw something. Why? because they could not read or write.

 I shared the story of these two men with a young woman who is a lawyer who grew up in Dulce Nombre.

She told me of a man in one of the workshops she was facilitating for Caritas. He too could not read or write. He told her that he really couldn’t do much. He was virtually worthless.

Reina asked him what he did. He was a farmer who raised corn and beans.

Her response was perfect.She has not forgotten her roots.
"If you don’t grow corn and beans, we in the cities would not eat."
I hope he went home with a little pride in what he does – feed us.


Monday, March 10, 2014

I can't

Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I heard someone say, “I can’t.”

Yesterday, after the rite of election with the catechumens, a few catechists and I went with them to a meeting room on the church grounds.


I talked about the temptations of Jesus and mentioned how we are all tempted. We handed out small sheets of paper and I asked the newly elect to write or draw a temptation that young people experience. Later they would place them on the floor in the shape of a cross.

As I went through the crowd, encouraging them to write or draw, I came across a young man who wasn’t doing anything. He told me he couldn’t read or write. He was not the only young person there would couldn’t; I’d guess there were at least five of the eighty-one who were illiterate.

I urged him to draw something. “No puedo,” he told me. I can’t.

Instead of pushing the point, I told him just to put a line on the paper. I wish I had more time to encourage him to try, knowing that he would probably be able to draw something.

Such a sense of powerlessness grieves me deeply.

I talked with him as we left the meeting hall to get back to the church for the end of Mass. He works on his family’s farm – with corn and beans. They had coffee, but it was ruined by the roya fungus; they have planted some on their half a manzana; but that won’t provide a harvest for three years.

How can we accompany these young people who feel so powerless, who feel they cannot even draw – just because they cannot read or write?

How can we accompany these people who feel so powerless in the face of a fungus that destroys what is one of their few sources of cash?

How can we accompany these people who feel so much at the mercy of those who have wealth and power?

How can we help them find hope and realize that they can?



Sunday, March 09, 2014

The newly elected

This morning about eighty-one mostly young people participated in the rite of election in the church in Dulce Nombre.

They have been in the catechumenate process here since last September and hope to be baptized and confirmed in the Easter Vigil.


The rite is simple – they are presented to the priest and the assembly after the homily. The priest inquires about their readiness. They then are inscribed as the elect.
 
Padre German addressing the sponsors (with raised hands)
In our celebration, we had the catechists read the names of the young people who were to be enrolled as the elect at the beginning on the rite.


When it came to the inscription we had to do something different.  Instead of having each person write her or his name in a book, we had all write their name on slips of paper which they then placed in a bowl at the front of the church.

With 81 persons, this made the rite a little less hectic.

I watched as they placed their names in the container. In some I saw a spark of life, a sense of peace, a quiet joy.



They are all very different, but in many ways they are a cross section of the young people here – mostly poor. Some cannot even write (and so had someone write their names for them.)  Many are working in their family’s fields.  A few are studying. Most are a little shy and not very talkative.

They were dismissed and a few catechists and we spent a little time with them. Then I had them wait at the back of the church for Mass to end so that people could greet them.



It was a blessed day.

The newly elect have just a few weeks until they are baptized. 

I have been joking with the catechists that these are the elect, but not those elected in the governmental elections. They are chosen by the faith community, the Church, to become a part of this Body of Christ present in the world.

Pray they may be faithful.

One of the elect waiting for a ride home after Mass


Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Stations of the poor

The Stations of the Cross is a Catholic devotion through which we follow Jesus in fourteen stations on his way from his condemnation by Pilate to his entombment. In the last few decades a fifteenth station – the Resurrection – has been added.

Last year Padre German challenged the people in the Dulce Nombre parish to take the Stations out of the church and into the streets of the villages. I was glad, since my experience in El Salvador in 1992 included Stations in the streets of the villages. I also appreciated the Good Friday tradition at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames to walk the Stations of the Cross on the Iowa State University campus.

Simon carries the Cross - at ISU

Today in the meeting of the parish’s Zone 2 – the St. Michael Zone – I asked about the stations. I was very pleased to hear that at least in one village they stopped for a station outside the houses of a few sick people. What a witness – to draw near to the sick so that they can hear the prayers of the Stations and connect their sufferings with the sufferings of Christ. What a simple way to accompany the poor in their suffering.

On the way back from the meeting, I saw a stooped old woman on the side of the road dragging about five large pieces of firewood. I stopped and put the limbs in the bed of the truck. She then got into the truck – with a broken arm.

In the meantime, someone ran up and asked for a ride to Dulce Nombre. “Just hurry up,” I said.

I talked with the young woman who carried a large 15 month old child. I asked if she were Catholic and if there were base communities in the village. Yes, she said. I then urged her to have the base community to see what they could do to bring wood every day to this 77 year old woman.

She then told me that she had carried wood for her the other day.

I told her that that is a great thing to do – yet it would be better if a base community helped here every day.

There are base communities that take on these challenge of solidarity among the poor.

But it is a challenge for some base communities who will respond to needs but are sometimes not organized enough to see what they can do together or are too focused on getting others (especially political leaders or non-governmental organizations) to help.

The need of the old woman and the act of kindness of the young woman touch me today, perhaps because of the first reading from today’s Mass, Isaiah 58: 9-14:

If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like noonday…