Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Christmas crib in the church of San Marcos in Gracias, Lempira, Honduras

This was my first Christmas outside the United States.

Sister Nancy Meyerhofer, OSF, invited me to join her in Gracias for La Noche Buena (December 24) and Christmas (December 25). Initially I had thought of staying in Santa Rosa but decided to go to Gracias.

After a moto-taxi ride and a short hike up the nearby mountain of Celaque and a two hour hike back, we had supper. Nancy took me to the house where the Posadas was going to begin and I walked with the folks who accompanied several children dressed as Joseph, Mary, an angel with a star, a shepherd girl, and three wise men. They knocked on the door of the church where several hundred people had gathered outside; when the door opened we surged into the church. I hardly needed to walk since the crowd pressed in so tightly that it could have carried me over the portal of the church.

Mass was beautiful, with many touching moments. The pastor, Padre Loncho, gave a beautiful and tender homily speaking of the God become flesh to save and liberate us, who came to welcome all – the poor and all those who are willing to share. During the offertory four little boys carried in the platform with the images of Mary and Joseph that had been used in most of the posadas in town. At one point I noticed the old woman in the pew in front of me: she wore a bright blue skirt with red flowers which sort of billowed around her waist; she had a unique covering on her head that looked like a folded towel; and she was bare-footed. (I wonder if she is an indigenous woman.) She reminded me what Christmas is about – God come among us, among the most needy.

I stayed that night in the rectory and so didn’t have to avoid getting caught in the firecrackers that went off in all parts of the country at midnight. Christ may have been born in the quiet of a manger but his birth is celebrated here with massive fireworks. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The next morning I went to the morning Mass where forty children were baptized. The Mass lasted almost three hours since the baptisms were celebrated within the Mass. But it was a very moving liturgy.

After a quiet day talking and eating with Nancy I returned to Santa Rosa with a US family that lives in Santa Rosa and was visiting friends in Gracias.

I went to bed Christmas night with a deep sense of the love of God which has been manifested in our midst.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

No room at the inn – but room in a jail cell

The posadas are a Advent tradition in many Latin American countries. It is a little bit like Christmas caroling but more dramatic. For about a week or so before Christmas groups go throughout their neighborhoods and stop at a house, usually prearranged. Often two people are dressed like Mary and Joseph or carry statues of Mary and Joseph. They go to the door and knock, seeking “posada” – a place to pass the night. There is a song with parts for the people on both sides of the door.

The words are pointed, especially these verses:
The group outside sings:
Beloved innkeeper,
the queen of heaven
seeks a place to stay
for only one night.
Those inside sing:
But if she’s a queen
who’s asking this,
how can it be that
she is wandering
so alone at night?
Finally the group inside relents and sings:
Come in, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
and even though my dwelling is poor,
I heartily give you this place to stay.

This past Wednesday I accompanied Sor [Sister] Inez to La Granja Penal, the local penitentiary. After we had helped some men with reading and writing, we were invited to take part in the posadas in the prison. Men from two adjacent jail cells divided up – one group within and one without carrying statues of Mary and Joseph. We sang the posadas and after we had all crammed into the cell we prayed together, with a reading led by a prisoner. We did this twice.

Each jail cell is about 8 feet by 18 feet and houses about 20 men in bunks four high. In the first cell, an inmate had made a Christmas crib out of cardboard.

I was deeply moved but not until today, Saturday, have I been able to figure out what moved me so much. Today there was a Christmas celebration for faculty at the Catholic University. A posada was part of the pastorela, a Christmas pageant. The difference was telling – but as I sat there after the posada my experience in the prison began to make sense.

Joseph and Mary sought shelter in Bethlehem but there was no room in the inn. Today still there is often no room at the inn for the poor, the homeless, the outcast, the refugee, the “illegal” immigrant. And there is little room for prisoners and ex-cons. But in a prison cell Joseph and Mary were welcomed. Christ can be born not only in stable but in a jail cell and in the hearts of prisoners.

Thomas Merton put it well in an essay, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” in Raids on the Unspeakable, a book which I highly recommend:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. . . . It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”

May Christ find room in our hearts this Christmas and may we welcome the marginalized in our lives.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thin places

The Irish and other Celts often speak of “thin places.” As Jim Forest writes in The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis Books, 2007), “A thin place is one where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence…. What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence.” This week I had an intimation of one such thin place.

Monday afternoon, December 10 – Human Rights Day, by chance – Sor Inez and Sor María Jesús, two of the Spanish Franciscan sisters who live up the street from me, invited me to join them in a trip to a rural community that was celebrating the first anniversary of the killing of one of the evangelizers in their community. They knew the family because one of his nine children had lived with them. (One of the sisters’ ministries is to provide a place for girls from the countryside to stay while they study in Santa Rosa de Copán.)

Victor Arturo Peña was a evangelizer and minister of the Eucharist in the remote village of Dormitorio Dos in the municipality of Florída. It is not clear why he was killed on December 10, 2006, but it was clear that he was much loved and is missed by his family and the community which packed the church. I had a deep sense of God's presence there, especially during the Eucharist. The priest spoke of Arturo’s deep faith and devotion to his ministry; he recalled how he has cherished the towel stained with Arturo’s blood and how he prays whenever he passes the sight of the killing. During the presentation of gifts Arturo’s family brought forward his bible, his alb, the wooden container which he used to carry the Eucharist as he went to rural villages, as well as the bread and wine for the Eucharist. At the consecration I sensed the mystery of the Word made Flesh present in the bread and wine. In fact, the entire Eucharist left me with a deep sense of God's presence.

Here was a thin place, in the midst of suffering and loss. As Jim Forest writes, “Thin places are hidden in dark places.”

There is a beautiful description of another thin place in Ron Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion, in the essay “Hearing the Cry of the Poor,” on the Jesuits killed at the Central America University in El Salvador in 1989.

A few weeks after the cold-blooded assassinations of November 16, an American Jesuit visited the hillside residence where the murders occurred. The house interior had been torn apart by the soldiers, chunks of wall were shot out by stray bullets, wherever he looked there were signs of wreckage and violence, and yet as he paused in a hallway he was suddenly overcome with a feeling of immense and surprising joy. Whatever anger, despair, and sadness he was feeling gave way to a mysterious happiness and peace. The America just stood there for a moment, fully absorbing it, and then he noticed an older Jesuit resident who smiled as he walked past and simply said, “I see you have found the spot.”

Wednesday, during an early morning walk, I began to think about the mystery of “thin places” in this season of Advent and Christmas. In one sense, the whole world is a “thin place” because the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. God has walked this earth with and for us; it all can be a sacrament, a sign of his presence. What is lacking is our attention to this healing mystery.

In his book, Jim Forest quotes from a talk of Thomas Merton on “Life and Solitude” that makes this clear:

Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through all the time…. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it, maybe, frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.

May Christmas be for all of us a time when we open our hearts to the “thin places” and let the Word become flesh in our hearts.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Signs of hope

This week Gary Guthrie, a good friend who was my farmer in Iowa, was visiting. Gary has a community support agriculture farm in Nevada, Iowa, where he grows organic vegetables for about 56 families on 2.5 acres (about a hectare). I miss his vegetables but his presence here this week has been good. We talked a lot and he has seen major parts of my ministry here. And the weather has been gorgeous – sunny and warm during the day and cool at night.

Tuesday morning, we went out with Padre Efraín, the pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. We spent some time in the village of Candelaria in the municipality of Concepción. The community has 14 base communities. They are building a new fairly large church. They have no outside financial support; men for the most part are providing the manual labor and the women are cooking and selling tamales to raise funds. The church will be quite impressive.

After lunch at the parish Gary and I left for Gracias where we met Moises Rodríguez who has carved out an incredible farm on less than a manzana. Moises has been there eight years and has eked out an impressive farm on an incredibly rocky hillside.

Wednesday was graduation at the Catholic University. I went to the Mass which Bishop Santos celebrated. At the end of his homily he encouraged the graduates to work for the good of Honduras, not just to earn money for their own families.

Thursday morning Gary and I met with the bishop. In the afternoon he took us out to the Polígono factory and compound. Monseñor Santos helped found this organization which has a variety of projects. Its main work is a factory to make products from paste, which is sometimes called loofa. They are plants which are made into various products which are often used to wash and defoliate the skin. The factory is to a large extent a training program for poor young people. They work Monday to Friday and get $4 a day which is a very good salary here. Leaving we passed a carpentry business where, the bishop said, the younger workers might make only $1 a day. There is also a weekend educational project there where they can study and finish high school. Polígono also has an outreach project that promotes a variety of program in the countryside. Monseñor is very proud of this project.

Later Thursday I had to go to the Catholic University while Gary rested. I had a very good meeting with some faculty where we discussed the role of faith in the university. They will meet regularly in the spring for discussions. I am very glad this initiative is bearing fruit.

Before that meeting, I was invited to a class where a group of students reported on their study of the religious profile of the campus. It was a very good and thorough study in which they analyzed surveys from 528 students (which is about 2/3 of the student body). This will definitely help in the planning for the future of campus ministry there.

Friday Gary left for El Salvador. Sister Pat Farrell who works in Omaha but worked for many years in Suchitoto, El Salvador, dropped by on her way back to El Salvador from visiting with Sister Nancy Meyerhofer in Gracias, Lempira. It was so good to see them.

Gary’s visit was very helpful. We spent hours talking about our lives and our ministries. It really helps to talk in depth with a friend.

Visitors are a blessing.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Working children

Classes in most primary schools finished in early November and won’t begin again until the beginning of February. It’s vacation and so there are more kids on the streets. This also means there are more kids working.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I walk from my house to the campus of the Catholic University. I often pass a small construction site where, during the last few weeks, at least three young boys are working. One of them greets me, “Ola, abuelito,” “Hi, grand-pop!” I appreciate the greeting but the presence of these kids doing adult work bothers me. I have seen any number of kids under 12 years old working on construction sites, shoveling sand, carrying large rocks or pails of sand, and other hard work.

November to February also happens to be coffee harvest time. Some folks go out to work on their small coffee plots but many – adults and children – will work for others on larger coffee plantations during these months. One young man told me how he has been going out for many years – even as a child – removing the ripe coffee berries from the trees. For many families this is one of the very few ways people in the countryside earn money.

I know that even in the United States kids work, especially on family farms. But there are laws which are enforced that prevent child labor and that place restrictions on the types of work kids can do. Here there may be laws but forget about enforcement.

The kids are probably working to help their families survive. But child labor is another of the side effects of poverty and of an economy that does not work for the poor.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ups & Downs – but sun & celebrations

Campus ministry is always tricky – even in the US. Here it seems as if it is even more so. Thursday there was a meeting of professors to talk about some ministry with them. About twenty came and it was a very productive meeting. They will be meeting again – partly for their own enrichment, partly to discuss ways to bring faith into their classes. A couple of good ideas came from the meeting which I hope will bear fruit.

Friday the director, Dr. Francisco Castro, and I had agreed to pull together a meeting of students and faculty to discuss planning for next year. I invited a good number of students and asked the student coordinator of campus ministry and a faculty member involved in it to invite others. The director was going to invite faculty but he had forgotten and only made the invitations yesterday afternoon. Guess what? Only one student came and he came late. But Francisco and I had a very good extended conversation. People here don’t plan as much as we do in the states, but I had hoped that there would be some planning for next year. So it goes.

Saturday and Sunday I spent in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. I met three leaders in the town of Dolores and we went, through much mud, to El Ocote, about 90 minutes away. They had been thoughtful enough to get a horse for me to ride. This was my first extended ride on a horse – ever. The others helped me but I was finally getting the hang of it by the time I dismounted a very gentle horse in El Ocote.

The meeting there was a meeting of the leaders of the fourth sector of the parish, five communities in the municipality of Vera Cruz. They struggle with some of the same problems as the church does everywhere – needing more leaders, the struggle to have people donate to the church – as well as the particular problems of a poor church in widely scattered villages. Some of the leaders came to this meeting from villages three hours away.

I left with a group from two villages and we walked down a stony and muddy mountainside. A ten-year kid had come with them and was having fun trying to find paths for me to go on that had the most rocks and mud. Kids are the same everywhere. (However, this kid has never gone to school.)

We arrived at Vera Cruz and they asked Teodoso, who is the only church leader there, to arrange for me to stay there and be part of the celebration the next day, the feast of Christ the King. Despite being surprised by this, he arranged for me to stay the night in his house. The hospitality of the poor is humbling.

There I met several of his children. Two have graduated from high school and I spoke with them at length. The oldest, Bessy, would really like to study and to work in nutrition since she sees this as a great need in Honduras; but she doesn’t know of any program in Honduras to do this. Alex would like to become a priest; he was in the minor seminary for two years but will probably work one year to get some work experience.

Talking with young people and with college students has been an eye-opening experience. There are some with great dreams but the possibilities make it very difficult to pursue them. Some would like to study in a particular area, but since there is no local program they will sometimes settle for something less. And then there are those who may have the talent and the desire but the financial means are just not there.

Sunday morning we had a three hour celebration of the feast of Christ the King – complete with a procession around the town square. They asked me to preach, but I confined myself to about twenty minutes. (Here most sermons are from 30 to 45 minutes!)

The weekend was a time of great consolation, despite the poverty. Not only were the people so warm and welcoming, both days were bright and sunny. And, on the ride back to Santa Rosa, I suddenly realized that I’d been talking a lot in Spanish, without too much effort.

¡Gracias a Dios!
Pastoral Work

Wednesday, November 21, I made a short trip to Gracias, Lempira, about 75 minutes from Santa Rosa by bus. I went to talk with Fr. Loncho, the pastor there. Greg McGrath, an Iowa State University student is doing a study on possible sustainable energy sources for a Center fro training and Retreats that Fr. Loncho hopes to build near Gracias. Greg had a few questions that He wanted me to ask Fr. Loncho.

We had a nice lunch and Fr. Loncho answered Greg’s questions. We talked about his parish, where Sister Nancy Meyerhofer works. (Nancy is a Dubuque Franciscan sister who has been here in Honduras a little over two years.) There are over 70 rural villages in the parish. Next month there will be confirmations – 1600 of them – in four different locations in the parish. During the Easter Vigil next march there will be forty baptisms of youth, young adults, and others who began the Christian Initiation process last August.

In the next month the bishop will ordain two men to the priesthood which brings the number of priests to about 63 for over a million people in widely scattered villages. (A few weeks ago I was speaking with the bishop and he spoke, with concern, of the financial difficulties some priests face – the collections in some very poor rural parishes don’t equal $30 a month.)

The faith has survived here because over forty years ago the church began a program of training Delegates of the Word to preside over weekly celebrations in widely scattered villages.

In the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, this has been slightly expanded and the church tries to have at least three evangelizers in every village, with responsibility for the three areas of pastoral ministry – the prophetic (teaching, formation, preaching), the liturgical (preparing liturgies, music), and the social. Also, the diocese sees comunidades eclesiales de base –church base communities – as the way that people grow in faith. Many rural villages have more than one base community and so in a parish like Dulce Nombre de María where I’m helping there are probably two hundred or more base communities in about 46 villages and municipalities. Of course, the quality of the experience will vary. I think Father Efraín Romero, the pastor of Dulce Nombre, hopes that I can help in some education and formation work with the leaders in his parish.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Last Friday, during a break in the retreat on Christian Maturity for Catholic University students, I sat and talked with two of the other presenters. We were eating baleadas, a Honduran quick food of wheat tortillas filled with beans, heavy cream, and cheese. Talk soon turned to the prices of food. Eggs used to cost 1.5 lempiras a piece (about 8¢) but now are 2.5 lempiras (about 13¢). Beans, a staple of the Honduran diet, that recently cost 8 lempira a pound (about 45¢), now cost 15 lempira a pound (about 80¢). Fredy, who owns a small business making flour tortillas for baleadas, had to raise the price of a bag of five from 6 to 9 lempiras (from 32¢ to 44¢) because the cost of a 100 pound bag of flour rose from 350 lempiras to 600 lempiras (from about $18 to $32). He lamented, “What is a small business owner to do?”

This past week the local bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, was again in the midst of the conflict over the demand for a new mining law. In Honduras the current law, which was virtually written by the mining companies in 1998, gives them major concessions throughout the country and demands minimal tax payments. Its environmental controls are minimal. Open pit mining using the cyanide leeching method is used in several places in Honduras including one site within the diocese. Parts of the current law were declared unconstitutional by the Honduras Supreme Court.

Last week one deputy of the National Assembly (Honduras' unicameral legislature) called a meeting to discuss a possible new law and invited various interested parties. Monseñor came, together with the people from the Civic Alliance for Democracy. But it seems as if the meeting was packed with pro-mining interests and at least one corrupt lawyer who had written the old mining law, probably with the mining companies' help.

Monseñor came with a 70 page report, which included information on the assets and profits of the mining interests. It seems the mining companies underreported their profits by 16 million dollars. He was interrupted during his talk. Some said he shouldn’t be speaking on this; he’s a bishop. He said that he was a Honduran and there is freedom of speech here. Obviously they didn’t want to hear him and so he left. But he left not before he had revealed the underhanded actions of the mining companies. After he left he went to the diocesan pastoral meeting with the priests and representatives of the parishes who welcomed him warmly, grateful for his witness.

It is great to have such a committed bishop.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Weekend in San Juan

Friday, November 9, I left Santa Rosa about 11:30 am to spend two full days in the aldea of San Juan, in the municipality of Concepción, about an hour away in bus.

But first I spent about half an hour at the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia; it was the last official day of class and I wanted to drop by. But first I bought some chocolate-filled lollypops. I’ll miss my weekly visits with the kids, though those going into first grade will have another week or two of classes.

The bus ride was uneventful but Moisés, one of the eight evangelizers in San Juan, joined me in the bus just outside of Dulce Nombre and accompanied me to San Juan. San Juan has about 80 families spread out throughout a beautiful valley.

Soon after arriving we stopped in a house near the soccer field and Moisés went to find the church key. I spoke with the young woman there who had two brothers working in a turkey plant in Minnesota; the wife of one of them soon dropped by. I later found out that there are at least 27 men and 1 woman from San Juan in the US.

Moisés opened the church, rang the bell and put some music on the sound system (run by a battery, since there is no electricity in the village). Throughout the afternoon a number of kids and young people passed by. I had brought my small Spanish Bible and a Spanish liturgy of the hours. The kids were fascinated by the books and the cards I had in them.

One little nine year, who had just finished first grade, started reading parts of the liturgy of the hours. I was surprised at how well he read with only one year of school.

The kids had a very healthy curiosity but didn't want to be photographed. As the afternoon proceeded some of the kids started asking me all sorts of questions. One young adolescent girl asked me if it was wrong for women to wear slacks! I tried to answer in a way that helped her see why some would say this but also might help her to see that the issue is not slacks per se – but modesty. On the way to dinner Moisés threw me another trick question: Is it wrong to play soccer? Whew!

After dinner there was a prayer in the church. I gave the reflection on the readings for the feast of the dedication of the basilica of St. John Lateran – in the little chapel of San Juan – St. John. I spoke of the dignity we have as the Body of Christ, the living stones of the Church, who have a commitment to build up the Body of Christ in our communities. I shared with them how much I was impressed by the young people. I stopped after about 15 minutes but they wanted me to speak more. And so I did – probably too long. In the course of speaking, without even thinking, I inadvertently paraphrased a passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Drum Major instinct sermon which has meant a lot to me:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

… by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Saturday I had my meals with Karla, one of the school teachers, and her husband Dani. It was probably the nicest house in the village since Dani is both a carpenter and an albanil (skilled in all types of construction, especially brick-laying.) Karla teaches three grades (2nd, 4th, and 6th) in a school with 96 kids in six grades. Of her ten students in sixth grade only four will continue their studies; they will be studying by a long-distance course which meets once week Dulce Nombre, four kilometers away.

When I speak with kids I often ask them about school. It still surprises me that there are so many adolescents who have only studied up to the third grade. I even find some who have not gone to school. But then I find a few who are studying in what we would call junior high and high school. To do this the kids in San Juan have to go to Dulce Nombre for a four hour session to supplement what they study at home. If they are lucky they can get a ride in a pick up; otherwise they walk about an hour to get there –uphill (and downhill) both ways.

Saturday morning, Belarmino, an 18 year old, took me on a walk through the village. He’s studying in high school on Sundays as well as working. He works some land in corn and beans – for subsistence. I asked him how he and others earned money for school and other needs. From late November till March he and many others work on the coffee harvest – maybe earning 1000 or 1500 lempiras (about $55 or $80) a week. Also, when there is not much work to do in the fields he’ll go to a nearby town and work in construction. We talked a little about folks who’ve gone to the US but it appears that he is not one of those who will leave. He could be a real asset to his community.

In the afternoon there was a youth group meeting scheduled at one o’clock. It started at 2:15, not abnormal here. But I soon found out that I was expected to lead part of the meeting. I did a few icebreakers and then tried to get them to think about the goodness of God’s creation – and the obligation to respect each other and the created world. It worked, to my surprise.

Saturday night there was another prayer service but I only spoke fifteen minutes, partly because I knew some of them were going to a velorio, an all night vigil for an 84-year old man who had died that afternoon. I begged off joining them since it was a one hour walk to the house where the vigil was being held. Interestingly, Moisés talked of the old man as dying young due to poverty; I think Moisés has a 96-year old father.

Sunday morning we had the usual Celebration of the Word that they have every Sunday in the community. They asked me to “preach” again – my fourth talk in Spanish in three days. They seemed to understand me – and I tried to be brief.

They also took up a collection to cover my costs to get there – 110 Lempiras, about $5.15. I tried to give the leaders the money to help with community projects, but they said no. I will have to find some way to use it for the benefit of this and other communities. That morning I had also asked the teacher if there were something I could give her for the food. She, too, said no. But I think I’ll try to find books to give her for the should since this is one thing she told me the school needs. It also needs a new roof, more desks, and a new fence.

A little after noon I caught a ride in the back of a pick up back to Dulce Nombre where I took a bus back to Santa Rosa. I had gone out on Friday with a little trepidation – How would I react to the mud and the poverty? Would I be able to understand folks and would they understand me? I returned tired but grateful. It was also humbling, since they were so grateful for my presence and at times I felt so inadequate. Perhaps what my visit says is that in a very real sense the Church is accompanying them.

I am glad I have decided to try to spend at least two weekends a month in a rural area in the parish of Dulce Nombre. It will be a reality check as well as a way to meet the really poor. I also hope it will be a place for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Ames find a way to be in connection with the poor and help them.
Filthy Lucre

“Make friends for yourselves with filthy money, so that, when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9)
Saturday night in San Juan I had to preach on the Gospel that begins with that sentence and ends with this admonition:
“”You cannot serve God and Money.” (Luke 16: 13)

How do you speak of money in the midst of the poor?

I actually began my reflection with this question. I mentioned that if I were in the US I might share a quotation from St. Gaudentius of Brescia, a fifth century bishop, that I found in Spanish on a daily Gospel site :
Those friends who will obtain salvation for us are, evidently, the poor, because, according to the word of Christ, He himself is the author of the eternal reward and will gather up in the poor the services which our charity will have procured for them. Thus, the poor will receive us not in their name but in the name of Him who in them tastes the refreshing fruit of our obedience and our faith. Those who carry out this service of love will be received in the eternal mansions of the Kingdom of the heavens, since Christ will say, “Come blessed of my Father, receive as inheritance the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mat 25, 34)
But, I added, how can I, who am rich in comparison to all the people in San Juan, preach on this Gospel? A woman interrupted me and reminded me that there are rich in Honduras who don’t share and need to hear that word of Gaudentius.

But instead of pursuing this idea, I went on to try to help them think about what this Gospel means for them. I mentioned that it obviously refers to all who are attached to money and that there are poor who have the heart of the rapacious rich who only wish to hoard things for themselves. And there are the rich with the heart of the poor who know how to share.

I asked them to think of people in their community who share the wealth they have: these are showing something of God’s love for others and making “friends.”

I also reminded them that no matter how little we have all we have is God’s gift to us and we are called to be good administrators, of even the little we have.

But, all in all, I felt very inadequate – even though I know that Jesus himself was talking to the poor who had little or nothing.

I wonder how Jesus would explain this to the people of San Juan. I did the best I could but in some ways this Gospel passage may be meant more as a challenge to us who are rich.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mission Month

Thursday and Friday last week were cold and rainy. Thursday afternoon the outdoor thermometer at the Catholic University campus read 15° Celsius – about 59° Fahrenheit. It felt colder since it was so damp. Friday I was inside most of the day since I went to a workshop on the rights of the child where I got a chance to meet some of the people her working on children’s issues. Saturday it was still cold, with some light showers, but no sun.

But the sun was visible on Sunday, October 28, when I went to Dulce Nombre de Copán for Mass and to attend the celebration of the month of Missions.

In the Honduran church, almost every month has a theme: August is the month of the family, September celebrates the Bible, and October is the month of Missions. Throughout the Catholic world the third Sunday is Mission Sunday.

In the parish of Dulce Nombre de Maria, base community members from one sector of the parish spent a day evangelizing in another sector, visiting from door to door. There are probably more than one hundred base communities in the parish and so a good number of people participated throughout the parish.

The end of the month was celebrated with a special Mass and festival of song in Dulce Nombre.

I arrived a little early and talked with a few young guys who had been part of the mission effort the day before. One wore a t-shirt that read “Upper Iowa Youth Soccer.” We talked and I found out that of the seven guys only three were in school. The guy with the Iowa shirt was illiterate and hadn’t ever gone to school. Why? his parents had died and he had to work on the land to support the family.

After Mass the mission festival was held in the parish hall, packed with several hundred people. There were a wide range of performances – including a few skits with kids. A number of people had taken the pastor’s challenge to heart and had written songs – both music and lyrics – with a mission theme. The two best groups were all-male groups from small villages. One sang ranchero style, but both had four or five stringed instruments.

I was really impressed at the talent there is in these villages and so I am looking forward to visits to these areas. I’m going out to one area the weekend of November 11-13 and another two weeks later.

This week is fairly full. A faculty member at the Catholic University campus has agreed to help begin a series of meetings of professors to talk about their faith and their vocation as teachers; the first is Thursday. This Saturday campus ministry is sponsoring a futbolito competition. (Futbolito is a miniature soccer game played in a smaller enclosed space with only five players per team.) I have been asked to lead a little prayer or reflection between the matches! This should be interesting.

Also, with the help of a neighbor’s nephew I’ll soon be meeting with students from the local campus of the national University of Honduras. It looks as if I'll finally have an entry there.

What else? I continue visiting the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia and occasionally helping a sister with her literacy work in the jail. I am waiting for the bishop to get back this week to talk with him about the children’s lunch program which I hope can get started in a few months.

As you can read, I am finding myself a place – or rather a series of places. Keep all of us in your prayers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


On Wednesday, October 24, my 144th day in Honduras, I got my “Honduran residency.” I took the two and half hour bus ride to San Pedro Sula, spent two hours in the Migration Office where I was finger-printed and photographed and got my constancia (proof) of being recognized as an official Honduran resident. I still have to wait for an official ID card, but now I don’t need to carry around my passport. I am not a Honduran citizen – that would mean giving up my US citizenship – and no matter how critical I may be of the US I still have my roots there.

This week has also been full of little surprises – gifts of hope.

Last Saturday I went to Dulce Nombre de Copán and met with the Parish Council. If all goes well and there are no objections from the bishop, I’ll probably spend about two or more weekends a month out there, helping in many ways. The pastor, Padre Efraín Romero, suggested to the council that I help with some workshops on the bible and on the Mass. This will be a welcome challenge.

By the way, there were about 28 people at the meeting, a few of whom had traveled almost four hours (on foot) to get there! They meet once a month. Talk about dedication.

Tuesday I had the second weekly bible study at the Catholic University. Four people showed up this week – three more than last week’s “crowd.” Each week we’ll be reading the Gospel for the following Sunday and I hope to offer the students a variety ways of reading and interpreting the Gospels.

Next week we will probably begin the first of a series of meetings with faculty members at the Catholic University. The director of the Catholic University has found a faculty member to coordinate these meetings. I’ll be attending these meetings and helping out.

There is also an opening to meet regularly with a group of students from the National University. I’ve been hoping for this for quite some time. Patience is the word here!

These are just a few of the opportunities opening up. I am still visiting the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia here in Santa Rosa about once a week and also going out to the jail every two weeks or so. The last time at the jail one guy wanted me to work with him on English while I worked with another student on reading and multiplication. I sat between the two of them alternating languages.

The lunch program for kids is delayed a bit but i hope we can get it going early next year. I also hope I can find the funds for the community center in Colonia Divina Providencia.

The needs are great, but God is good.

Friday, October 19, 2007


After four months the challenges are becoming clearer.

Though there is a commitment to campus ministry at the Catholic University at the institutional level and from the director of the local campus, there are great challenges to ministry on campus. A few years ago there was, I have been told, a flourishing campus ministry, but in the last year it has weakened almost to the point of dying out.

The causes are many – the challenges of a campus that is much like a commuter school, the intense schedule of classes in a trimester system – four or five classes for each subject a week, the attraction of a consumer culture, the upwardly mobile student body, and the weak support that campus ministry has received and the lack of careful accompaniment of the process in the past year or two. It pains me to write this – partly because this means a long hard process of trying to resurrect the ministry.

Yet in the midst of this I am trying to plug along. Each week I am spending part of Tuesday and almost all of Thursday on campus, sitting around and talking with students and faculty. I am getting to know a lot of them – and, of course, forgetting their names. I have had any number of very interesting conversations. Many of them, especially the guys, are quite surprised to find that I am single and have no children! Machismo runs deep.

I am trying to do a few activities on my own as well as work with the two folks involved in campus ministry. This week I started a bible study on Tuesdays at 4 pm; one person showed up but she promised to try to get more folks for next week.

Friday, October 18, I went back to the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia. Some students will be volunteering there as part of a class which includes 25 hours of volunteer service in the community.

Saturday, I’ll be going out to nearby town of Dulce Nombre de Copán for the parish meeting. If all goes well, I may very well be helping out in this rural parish not far from here for several days each month.

The project of the comedor infantil, the lunch program for children, is on hold for a bit. The bishop is out of the country until the end of October, visiting the US and Europe, mostly in pursuit of support for his opposition to open pit mining and the current mining law. We have to speak with him about where we will house the program, since the first site has not proved feasible.

I continue to go to the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia. I have also been going a few more times to the local jail with the Spanish Franciscan sisters who live on my street. Last Wednesday I was helping one student with writing Spanish sentences I dictated and with simple multiplication as well as helping another young prisoner who wants to learn English.

Speaking of English I have run across Catholic University students who know English – some of whom lived and worked in the US for a number of years. I also keep encountering people who have relatives in the US.

But the real challenges here are more often the challenges of the spirit – how to be patient when things don’t go as planned or when people don’t follow up, how to just try to be present when I’d really like to be doing a lot of projects, how to trust in God’s ways when things seem so complicated and difficult.

Today I ran across this prayer in an e-mail from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:

We adore you, Jesus our Shepherd and Savior.
And we praise and thank you for your living among us.
We ask you to walk beside your missionaries as they seek to proclaim your Gospel. Cherish, guide, and strengthen them; help them to be patient when they meet frustrations, and encourage them when they are disappointed.
Lead them, we beseech you, along the path you desire for them.
For you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever.

Monday, October 08, 2007

How easy it is not to see

Thursday, October 4, I went with 48 students and 4 faculty members of the Santa Rosa campus of the Catholic University to the Catholic University retreat center in Valle de Angeles, a seven to eight hour bus ride for a Professional Life retreat. It is a mandatory retreat for students who would soon be graduating. The faculty and I went so that we could eventually lead the retreat at a site closer to Santa Rosa.

We left in an air-conditioned bus, complete with comfortable reclining seats and a television to watch movies. I settled back, listening to music on my iPod and began reading my book. I didn’t watch most of the movies which were much too violent for me.

I was reading Mark and Louise Zwick’s The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins – which provides an insightful look at the roots of the Catholic Worker, giving a few insights into the saints and authors who inspired Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. I heartily remember it.

At one point I put the book down and looked out the window and saw some shacks at the side of the road. All of a sudden I realized that I felt like I was not in Honduras but in the comfort of the first world, passing through. I realized that it is very easy to fail to see the reality of poverty and misery around me. If it can happen here, how easy it is when the suffering is distant.

The retreat is meant to prepare the graduating students to live their faith in their professions. It was mostly some basic insights into faith and life and I would have liked to see some more direct effort to encourage students to find ways to integrate their faith and their work. There was some reference to the need to care fro the poor and to justice at work, but I would have liked to see a stronger challenge to work for justice in a country rife with corruption and unjust structures in both the private and the public spheres. Maybe my role is to help this happen.

On Sunday. October 7, I went to the Colonia Divina Providencia here in Santa Rosa for what I thought would be a meeting with the community council, but it was with the entire community organization – about 65 people – meeting in a dirt floored, tin roofed structure. They had a report for me on the community – at least 400 people in the community, including 149 children and 111 young people! I have been pulled (not unwillingly) into helping them find finds for the materials for their community center.

Here I saw the reality of poverty – the hopeful and the discouraging. There is the effort to work together to get things done. But Manuela, the president of the community council, spoke about the need to work together; she was particularly strong in her critique of some members of the community who are not cooperating in the communal work.

And so? In the Zwicks’ book on the Catholic Worker they quote the pre-eminent twentieth century Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain who was supportive of the Catholic Worker:

The gospel text “The poor you will always have with you” … means on the contrary: Christ himself will not always be among you, but you will recognize Him in the poor, whom you must love and serve.
Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism

Monday, October 01, 2007

Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

Sunday, September 30, I heard two homilies on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In the neighborhood chapel of San Martín, Padre Fausto talked about this “terrible” parable and spoke forcefully against the imbalance in the world and in the Honduran society where a few have much and don’t see the many poor in our midst. (This week several people have mentioned that the nine or ten families own most of the wealth here.)

A few hours later, Padre Efraín, speaking to a church full of poor campesinos in San Agustín, talked of the need to notice the needy in their midst and to care for them.

I needed to hear both messages as do most of us. This parable is rich; in many ways it presents the Kingdom of God as the exact opposite of the world we live in. But what especially struck me is that though the rich man is unnamed Jesus names the poor man Lazarus – “God helps.” The question that should be asked today in all the churches of the world is “Do you know the names of the poor?”

Sad to say I am very bad with names and so I forget the names of the kids in the kindergarten in the Colonia Divina Providencia.

But I think the first step in combating poverty is getting to know the poor personally. And so I am looking forward to starting up the “comedor infantil” – the lunch program for street kids and other poor kids. I am glad that St. Thomas will be helping this.

I am also hoping that I can raise funds for the community center in Colonia Divina Providencia, a poor community of about 90 families with about 300 children. The city donated the land and the residents will supply the people power; about $5000 is needed for materials and hiring a mason to supervise the work. Last Monday, September 24, Sor Inés took me to meet with the community council, headed by a woman, who explained the project and their hopes for the future. The center will be a good place for workshops for the residents of the community as well as for all sorts of programs. (I can foresee taking students there to help tutor kids.)

This past week there have been a few forward steps in my hopes for involvement of Catholic University students with the poor. A woman student came up to me and we talked briefly about her interest in service. I’ll be meeting with her and a few of her friends this coming week to see what we can do. Saturday, I offered my help to a young professor of a class that gets students involved in service projects; I will be helping two groups to contact two places that need assistance.

But I still hope I can begin to find a rural parish where I can help. Sunday, September 30, I went out to Padre Efraín’s parish, Dulce Nombre de Copán. There was a Mass in San Agustín, about 22 from Dulce Nombre. The church was packed and there were about 18 baptisms after Mass – infants, kids, and two men in their late twenties. There were a fair number of young people since a team from Dulce Nombre had just finished a two day workshop for the youth in the towns that make up this sector of the parish. It was great to see this effort to work with the young and to train youth leaders, especially since probably half of the people in Honduras are under 19 years of age.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

- to serve those most in need

Tuesday evening, September 18, I met with ten Hondurans to talk about initiating a lunch program for street kids and other poor kids on the grounds of the bishop’s office. This “comedor infantil” has been a dream of the bishop’s for some time and there is a couple that is taking the lead. But my willingness to assist seems to have helped jumpstart the project.

Several of those who attended are retired professionals – teachers or nurses – who are very enthused about t he project and are willing to help. We’ll be meeting every Tuesday night for a few weeks to begin to work out details.

As we prayed at the beginning of the meeting one woman prayed for “those most in need.” It reminded me that when I have been asked why I wanted to minister in Honduras, my response was “to be of service to those most in need.”

One major detail of the project is renovating the building we’ll be using. Bishop Santos arrived as the meeting was about to end. He had spoken to a local contractor who examined the place and noted the needs, including a new roof and some structural repairs. It might be a little costly. I told the bishop that there was $2000 available from the Community Outreach Tithe of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Ames, to use for this. This should help.

I am looking forward to helping with this very concrete project to help kids here. Malnutrition is quite a major problem here.

As I reflected on the project and also on my work in campus ministry at the Catholic University here, I noticed that in one sense I am not really doing a lot, but my presence here has helped local people move forward. This is very different from what I expected, but perhaps this is, at this time, the best way to be an instrument of God’s love and justice.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Day of the Child

Honduras celebrates September 10 as Día del Niño, the Day of the Child. I spent most of the morning at the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia which I has been visiting about once every two weeks. the kindergarten is named after Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, our bishop.

The kindergarten has over 45 children with only one teacher and an aide. Usually one of the Spanish Franciscan sisters helps each day and for about three months about five high school students are helping as part of their studies. There is also a young woman who has helping a bit the past few weeks. The teacher, Miriam, is incredible. Not only does she try to teach all these kids, but she tries to make sure that they get something to eat every day, even if only cookies

The children are extremely active – tremendos, they say here. Some are from houses of Aldeas Infantiles, which provides a home atmosphere for abandoned children in about 16 homes; others come from a nearby very poor neighborhood, called Colonia Divina Providencia. They have lived in poverty and desperation for most of their short lives; those from the colonia live in the midst of poverty, crime, and even prostitution and alcoholism. With the help of some people, including Sor Inés, the colonia got water about a year ago and is just now getting electricity. They have gotten land for a casa communal, a community center, which they can then use for meetings as well as for workshops for the community.

Today the kindergarten was wilder than usual. The bishop had sent some money for a meal and cakes. But there were two piñatas ready for the kids to break open and rush like mad to get the candy. But soon a group of police arrived (complete with television cameras) with more piñatas and lots of candy. So the kids broke open two more piñatas. Some kids had bags of candy to take home. The police had also distributed cakes and soda which they had brought.

The kids were almost calming down when another group arrived with a piñata, the local Lions Club. But the teacher decided to wait until tomorrow to break open that piñata. But she did decide to give the children the lunch – rice, tortillas, salad, and a piece of chicken. I thought the kids wouldn’t be hungry, but most of them ate all their food.

I was thinking as all the people arrived with piñatas: It’s great that people think about kids today, but what of the other 364 days of the year? Many of these children don’t have enough food to eat each day. Also, today the kindergarten had no water!

Recognizing the need for something more, Bishop Santos has had the dream of setting up a comedor for the street children and children who don’t get enough to eat. He has talked with me and I decided to help with setting up this “tortilla kitchen” in a building on the grounds of the diocese. I am meeting with several Hondurans to get this started. The first need is to repair and renovate the place where we hope to put the comedor. There is a small store on the diocesan grounds whose profits might be used to help buy the needed food. But we’ll have to see about funding for the renovation and to get the project set up.

So, as you can read, I am slowly getting involved in some projects – trying to be at the service of those most in need.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Eye of the Storm

Yes, Hurricane Felix – the “happy” hurricane – is passing by Honduras, but yesterday, September 3, I was in the middle of a quite different storm.

Monseñor invited me to join him on a visit to San Andrés Las Minas Monday afternoon. We went with two members of the regional Human Rights Office and several others. A group of people had taken over the road there and were preventing mining vehicles from passing. The local police had received calls to remove them but didn’t want to remove them since there were women and children. So the bishop and the Human Rights office went to see what they could do.

As we left the main highway I noticed the shacks along the side of the road. This was the poorest area that I had seen - shacks of mud and bamboo. I was moved by the intense poverty - as we were going toward a gold mine!

When we got to San Andrés Las Minas there were probably about 40 people - mostly women and children - standing in a narrow road with a rope across the road with a Honduran flag and a hand-lettered sign. The bishop spoke with them but soon after he and three others went with the leaders for a private discussion to find out what their concerns were there. I stayed at the blocked road, observed, and spoke with the people.

I found out that there was also another group of people from a community closer to the mines – Azaqualpa – whose lands would be taken with the mine expansion., They were also blockading the road further up the road, closer to the mine, demanding that they be moved and get compensation for the move.

What amazed me at the blockade was that every car was allowed through, including one that almost surely was driven by someone from the mining company. They even let the security guards through, though the guards got off their truck and walked through the blockade. But across the valley there was another group of people, some of them employees from the mine but also people who had been brought in from other places; there were also people from Yamana Gold, the mining company, with them. Whereas the opponents of the mine were firm but respectful, the others were being revved up to a fury, probably by the company leaders. Whenever someone they thought was on their side came past them they screamed.

The people protesting the mining company had taken the road for a number of reasons. Most had been moved from their homes to the present town when the mine was established nine years ago. The mining company is planning to extend the mine to within 700 meters of the town. Some folks believed the company had not followed up on its promises when they were relocated in 1998; they wanted to be given land and homes in another place. Others were concerned about what the mine expansion would do to the local environment. There were even some who wanted the mine closed. They had a few demands but the company and the mayor had not negotiated with them.

After almost three hours, the bishop and the others returned. But to get back to Santa Rosa we had to pass the crowd who supported the mining company. Thanks be to God the police had passed by the blockade and had stopped by the pro-mining crowd.

As our van approached with the Human Rights office director driving and the bishop in the front seat, the people crowded around the van and began banging on it, preventing us from going forward.

The crowd was ugly, obviously whipped into a fury. At one point they opened the back door of the van and began shouting and hitting the floor. It was a very tense moment but I took a picture. Looking at it later many of the people didn’t appear to be angry, but appeared as if they were just “having fun” by trying to terrify us. This was my first experience of a real mob and it was ugly. The police intervened and closed the door. The police slowly opened up a path for us, even while the mob banged on the windows. But as we slowly progressed, we noticed several people walking beside the van. The people from the blockade were walking beside the van. They had come to protect their bishop. What courage!

As we left the bishop said that he had thought of getting out of the car. Thank God he didn’t; he would probably have been beaten, at the very least.

I was a little shaken up – but more than that I have a sense of gratitude for having had the chance to accompany the bishop, the human rights office, and the people.

When you touch an electric wire, your get a shock. Obviously the bishop has touched a live wire, speaking out so forcefully about the mines. And the mining companies have responded in some very underhanded ways; this was one of the most blatant.

Yet the bishop continues to speak out!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mass for Life

Monday, August 27, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos celebrated a Mass for Life in the park in front of the cathedral, with 16 priests, two deacons, and hundreds of people, mostly from rural villages. ( A sympathetic news source said there were 3000 present for the Mass.) The Mass coincided with a nation-wide mobilization of civic groups united in the National Coordination of Popular Resistance. They are taking to the streets with their concerns about mining, deforestation, water, corruption, and poverty.

Here the bishop and the priests decided to celebrate a Mass for life. It was supposed to start at 9:00 AM but didn’t begin until about 10:30. This was due in part to the fact that some communities had a hard time getting there. The Mass lasted until 1:30 PM - three hours, standing!

At the beginning of Mass, Bishop Santos provided a framework for this Eucharist – the concern for the land God has given us. He spoke of the fears that the free trade agreements make it easier for outsiders to come in and buy up land and exploit the land. His continuing concern about foreign mining interests who have received mining concerns, almost as a gift, and contaminate the land. He spoke about his concern for the forests and advised the campesinos to learn to use organic fertilizer and to stop the practice of burning the land before planting.

We are here in this Mass, he said, because God is a God of justice. Our hope is in God; we don’t put any hope in the political parties, he continued which impose laws on the people and put the rich and representatives of the mining interests in powerful political positions. They poor need to organize themselves in civic association. They cannot put their trust in political parties. He referred to the hymn from the Misa Salvadoreña: “ Cuando el pobre crea en el pobre” whose refrain, loosely translated says: “When the poor believe in the poor, they we will be able to sing freedom; when the poor believe in the poor, we will build community.” He passionately asked “¿Hasta cuando?” – “How much longer will the poor endure this?”

The Mass proceeded with appropriate readings: the story of creation in Genesis 1, the heavenly city Jerusalem in Revelation 21, and one of the Gospels where Jesus ask, “What does it profit to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”

At the end of Mass, before the blessing, the bishop spoke again and urged the people to defend what is ours – mentioning especially the forests and the sources of water.

It was a long Mass but the people were attentive, especially when the bishop spoke. he was warmly applauded, especially when he alluded to the false charges that have been made against him.

The situation here is grave – but there are people trying to change the society. The poverty is immense but there are small efforts being made. Experiencing this helps me reaffirm my commitment to be here, to be I in some way – of service to those most in need. In this way, I pray and work that the Kingdom of God may come.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Saint Rose of Lima

Today, August 23, is the feast of Saint Rose of Lime (1586-1617), the first canonized saint born in the Americas and patron of the diocese and the city of Santa Rosa de Copán.

Bishop Santos celebrated the feast day Mass this morning in the cathedral. A local Catholic high school, Instituto Católico Santa Rosa de Copán, was out in force. After Mass they had a procession with their marching band and a statue of Santa Rosa.

Saint Rose is an interesting saint. She was quite beautiful and got the name from a maid when she was an infant – “How much like a Rose.” But she had decided to dedicate her life to Christ – but not as a nun. She joined the lay Dominicans, who followed the example of St. Dominic and his Order of Preachers, but continued to live in the world.

She resisted marriage – cutting her hair and, according to some accounts, disfiguring her face to chase away suitors. She lived a very ascetical life, given to prayer and fairly intense acts of penance. However, she was also known for her care of poor children and sick old people.

The city itself is on the midst of the ferias agostinos – the August festivities – with concerts, cultural events, coronations of the queen of Santa Rosa, the child queen of Santa Rosa, and even the queen of tobacco. (This reminded me of the Iowa pork queens.) These events are loosely organized by a volunteer committee.

But there has been a controversy brewing for the last few weeks that the bishop alluded to in his sermon this morning. These August festivities have a religious origin, the feast of Santa Rosa de Lima, but the festivities have a decidedly secular character, some of which are spoken of as “pagan.” There seem to have been a number of events, that got printed in the official program, that are something like big drinking parties. The local church has been denouncing this, saying the it promotes alcoholism among youth and adults. There are also charges that some events, some dance parties, promote sexual promiscuity. There are also concerns about drug addiction and prostitution. For me it has been hard to figure all this out, but it is an interesting part of life here in Honduras where the church takes a strong open stand about these issues and is taken seriously.

But that’s not all the bishop talked about in his sermon. He also talked about what looks like a campaign to undermine the credibility of the bishop and some priests who are speaking out strongly on issues such a mining.

Finally at the end of Mass the bishop invited people to join him and the priests of the diocese in a demonstration next Monday which will start at the bus terminal in the lower part of town and proceed to the central square. Pray for us.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two months – paso a paso

A little over two months ago I arrived in Honduras. Though I have met a lot of people, I still feel as if I am still trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing. But I still feel that God has a place for me here. Events of the past few weeks have helped me see this amidst some discouragements.

Greg McGrath, a student from Iowa State who is active at St. Thomas visited for 18 days. His visit provided me an opportunity to get around to meet a lot of people whom I had planned to meet earlier. His desire to help here – and his hopes to do some research in his fall classes on projects that might help here – really inspired me. I think he had a great experience here, as I did. I welcome other visitors!

This past Monday night I met with another professor at CUROC, the local campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). He is clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities of some campus ministry at the university. After we talked a bit he took me to the house of another professor and shared his enthusiasm. The next day he and I met with the director of the university campus who is very open to campus ministry there. This coming week I hope to meet with some of the professors to get things started. This is very encouraging.

Yesterday, Friday August 17, I planned a full retreat for the administrative personnel of the Santa Rosa campus of the Catholic University of Honduras (UNICAH), using the final message of the Latin American Bishops conference recent meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, which stressed the call to be disciples of Jesus and missionaries of His Kingdom. It turned out very well. We brought in two people to give short talks on what it means to be a disciple and a missionary. Fr. Roel Mejía, who directs the diocesan radio and teaches at the university spoke prophetically on the call to be missionaries. He challenged the university administrators to have the university to be really “Catholic” at the service of the Kingdom of God and to reach out to the poor in this part of Honduras. He fears that the university is graduating young people whose main concern will be fitting into the consumer capitalist system and who are not really formed by a clear Catholic ethical and social conscience. I was encouraged and will speak with him this week to try to develop a few projects. I am really longing to find a way to work with some poor rural communities.

Next Monday there is a meeting to help plan events at the Catholic University for the next trimester – September 17 to December 15. I am hoping that I can begin to develop a few special programs. I would like to find a way to take groups of students to poor barrios (neighborhoods) here in Santa Rosa de Copán and to some rural aldeas (villages).

I am hoping this coming week to get a better idea of what I might do in a rural area. I need to talk with a few priests to see where I might be of most help.

The other day I spoke with Misael who is working in a number of projects, including one to help end hunger in communities by a small scale project which works with a few families and provides them some credit for the first year (about $120) to help them grow enough to subsist. He works with small groups of the very poorest and tries to convince them to try this. He works with them one on one and has found that it really helps convince them when he speaks from the perspective of faith. In the course of our conversation he mentioned a very disturbing detail: in this area of Honduras about 40% of the rural population suffers real hunger – not enough food to eat – for at least some period each year. What a challenge.

Yet there are signs of hope. Not the least of which are the signs that God shows us in the nature. On the day that Greg left I was riding back from San Pedro Sula to Santa Rosa with the Spanish Franciscan sisters. On the way we saw a double rainbow. Then, last week in the midst of a storm, I gazed at a rainbow from my street.

And so I look forward to another month full of the surprises that God continues to put in my path.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Another World Is Possible

Wednesday night, August 1, Greg McGrath. who is visiting, went with me to meet Alfonso Carranza, an agricultural engineer who teaches at the local campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. It was the beginning of four days full of meetings with people not only seeking alternatives but also living out the possibilities of a different world.

Alfonzo Carranza teaches many classes at the university, including botany, plant pathology, soils (which he really enjoys), and investigative methods. But his real passion is for the poor. From the beginning it was very clear that he has a great respect for the poor and a love for them.

Our conversation covered many topics, but several times he was eloquent in his defense of the poor. He spoke forcefully of their wisdom, their ability to survive in the worst of situations.

The poor are not “haraganes” – lazy, no goods. He quoted a study that revealed that, on average, a man in the countryside does 22 different tasks a day, while the women perform 52 duties!

The poor, he said, work hard, providing corn for the people of Honduras but getting little in return for their labor. In some ways, he suggested, the poor are the ones who subsidize the rich and others in providing inexpensive food.

He has done a lot of research and written on the practices of campesinos, the people who work in the countryside. His passion is to share this and also to find ways to help poor farmers. I look forward to finding ways to work with him.

Thursday morning we went to Mass at the Catholic University which Greg and I had been asked to help prepare. I gave a short reflection at the Mass. After Mass, Greg had breakfast and talked with students and I met with the director and the chaplain to plan a retreat in a few weeks for the members of the administration of the university. We will be using the final message of the bishops at the recent meeting of the Conference of Latin America bishops at La Aparecida, Brazil. It is posted in English at .

Later we left for Gracias, Lempira, an hour away by bus, to visit with Sister Nancy and others. We spent some time with Fr. Loncho (Luis Alonso), the pastor, and he shared his dreams of a center for retreats and workshops. He is very interested in the possibilities of using alternative sources of energy for the center. Greg took note and may pursue some possibilities.

Friday morning we left Gracias about 7 to visit Maximino Rivera, an illiterate farmer who lives a few miles outside of Gracias. “Maximino is a genius,” Alfonso Carranza had told us and that was not far from the truth.

He first showed us his “biodigestor” – a biogas system that provides gas for his house and organic fertilize for his farm. He learned how to do this at a workshop and, with the help of his sons, built the system. Two buckets of manure from his milk cows and two buckets of water every three or four days produce more than enough gas for his family’s use. He has also taught other and helped at least two persons build these systems for their use.

On the wall of his house near the system was a simple sketch of the design. Greg asked Maximino many questions and was clearly enthused to hear all how this worked. He was like a kid in a candy shop!

We also walked through part of his farm of about 7.5 acres with a variety of crops and fruit trees and some livestock . At the highest part of his property he’s building a tank for water which he will share with seven neighboring families.

After our tour we sat down to an incredibly delicious meal of food from his farm, which his wife had prepared. We had some toasted elotes (early corn) with butter and lime and riguas, which is like a corn pancake with kernels of elote, topped with cream.

We also met his fifteen year old son who seems to be a mechanical genius, who loves to take apart and put together machines of all sorts. His daughters also do some craft work, making small metal decorative pieces.

It is quite an extraordinary family. And Maximino is willing to share his knowledge with others. And he never went to school!

Saturday we visited the farm in Mejocote, outside Gracias, of another extraordinary man, Moisés. Due to a mix up we missed him and spoke with his wife, Carmela, who was a fantastic guide (and also helps with the Women’s Center about a kilometer from their house.) Moisés is an evangelizer for the parish in his area as well as the chair of the parish council. At his farm he has an educational center to teach other about his organic farming practices as well as the construction and use of energy efficient stoves and ovens.

Carmela and Moisés have lived here for about seven years. When they arrived it was mostly rock. To plant trees they had to dig holes in the rock and bring in sol and fertilizer. You would not believe it for it is now a verdant green space. They raise fish (tilapia) and chickens and have at least 20 different crops on the land – several kinds of oranges, some herbs, many kinds of chiles, many fruits and vegetables, including okra, sweet potatoes, squash, yucca, and corn and beans, of course, as well as lemon grass and flor de jamaica for tea. All this on about 1.5 acres.

We also saw the energy efficient stoves and ovens that use a minimum of firewood. Moisés learned how to make them in a ten day workshop in Mexico and is now teaching others how to make them. They also have small contraption in a metal can about two feet wide and one foot in diameter which used sawdust for fuel. This would provide a strong flame for four to five hours. These were two incredible examples of appropriate technology.

There were other little inventions on the farm which I found fascinating and marvelous. It is even more marvelous when you know that Moisés only has a second grade education!

What marvels these two men have been able to do and have shared with many who come by their farms to learn.

Another world is possible and I’ve seen signs of it near Gracias, Lempira, Honduras.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

May I be able to pray this prayer with all my heart.

Take, Lord,
and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To you, O Lord, I return it.
All is yours,
dispose of it wholly according to your will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
for this is sufficient for me.
St. Ignatius Loyola, S.J.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Six weeks in Honduras. I’m still trying to find my way, to get to know more of the people here, and to figure out how I can best serve. But the last week there have been a number of openings.

At the July 17 mobilization I met or re-met a number of people. I met one person involved in organizing communities to demand some transparency in finances from their local officials and two women involved in fair trade coffee. Francis, a Honduran community development worker with Fundacion El Polígono, invited me to go with him to a rural community. A priest from a nearby parish asked me when I was going to come out and visit his parish. (I think he’d like me to work with him.)

Thursday after meeting briefly with the director of the Catholic University a student approached me to ask if I’d be willing to help with a group of young people he helps facilitate in his parish, doing a workshop or something.

Friday I went to Gracias, Lempira. sister Nancy had suggested that I come for the festival of Lempira, the Indian resistance leader who had been killed by the Spanish in 1538. There was a very impressive parade with students from the local schools, most in costumes of the indigenous peoples or the Spanish conquerors. After there is a dramatization by students of the death of Lempira – which we watched on television in the house of a friend of Nancy’s.

I got a ride to Gracias from a professor in agriculture at the National University campus here and his wife. We spoke at length on a number of topics, including agricultural development, He’d like to develop a program at the campus on local development. I look forward to finding ways to work with him.

Sunday I went with Francis from Polígono to a rural community. He brought a woman who has been working with the women in this community in a cooking workshop to help the women develop greater skills in making sweet breads and pastries which they will be able to sell. While the women were working I accompanied him to a community further up where he was exploring with the community the possibility of bringing a workshop on the making of piñatas. After we got back to Santa Rosa he took me out to the campus of Fundación Polígono where I got to drop by a few of the classrooms where they hold weekend classes for students in what would be the equivalent of junior high and high school. Many of the students study during the week at home and then come for the weekend sessions with teachers. All this is part of the work of the foundation which the bishop helped start years ago with the mission of education and the development of projects for local people, especially the youth.

Where I end up actually helping I don’t know, but doors are opening.

Greg McGrath, a student from Iowa State, arrived on Monday, July 23, to visit here for about 17 days. It is great to have someone here, especially someone so inquisitive. It also offers me a number of opportunities to connect with some other groups here.

Wednesday afternoon Greg and I accompanied Sister Inés to the jail. Only later did I remember the judgment scene in Matthew 25: 31-46, where the Lord welcomes into the Kingdom those who visit him in prison. Jesus identifies himself with the prisoner. The first inmate that Greg spoke to was named Jesús!

This doesn’t mean that the prisoners haven’t committed crimes and may be capable of vicious acts, but I does mean that they are human, made in God’s image, like us. Even more, to quote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Each one is Jesus in his distressing disguise.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Revealed to the simple

A day after the major mobilization for a new mining law, I stopped by my neighbor's corner store and spoke with her and her nephew, Franklin, a university student who occasionally works there. We spoke about the demonstration and Franklin noted that he saw only one other from his parish’s youth group. We all noted that there weren’t many people from Santa Rosa de Copán but that most of the people were from the rural communities, the aldeas.

As they noted, there were very few of the cultos, the educated class there; most were incultos, without a lot of education. But they didn’t say this disparagingly for they noted that often those who’ve studied a lot are not really “educated.”

After I returned home, I remembered the Gospel of the Mass that day:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to simple people.” (Matthew 11: 25-27)

Again, where can we find the wisdom of God?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Prayer in action

About thirty years ago I took part in a Holy Week protest against torture in Washington, DC, sponsored by Sojourners and Christians against Torture. It was a week of prayer, lobbying, prayerful public protest, and education, But not until this Tuesday have I ever experienced a protest like that.

On Tuesday, July 17, Hondurans gathered at eleven sites throughout the country and blocked the roads in support of a new mining law. The mobilization was sponsored by Alianza Cívica por la Democrácia – the Civil Alliance for Democracy, with the support of the bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, the priests of the diocese, and many people here and throughout the country.

Here the people were going to take the road and block traffic on the major highway near the turn off to Gracias, Lempira. I arrived there about 6:00 am with a Spanish Franciscan sister. But the day had begun earlier for some Honduran Mennonites who had gathered at 4:00 AM to pray for the success of the mobilization.

After enough people began to arrive, the people went into the road and unfurled their banners. A detachment of the police were already there and a burly menacing police official, with three tear canisters hanging from his vest, was none too happy. He met with a local organizer and a priest and tried to intimidate them. They refused to back down and said that we only want to take the road for a day!

More people kept arriving, mostly from the countryside, often accompanied by their parish priest. A musical group arrived and the people began to sing. The first song, found in their hymnals, had this refrain: “We will free people from the sin of oppression; we will free them by the strength of love.”

But another force was also at work. More police and even soldiers arrived, about 80 in all, some with large riot control shields. At one point they were about 50 yards across the road from the demonstration. What I remember most about that moment was the old man who knelt and raised his hands to heaven.

But throughout all this the people kept praying and singing, interspersed with some speakers and shouted slogans. But prayer was central to this protest. At several key moments the people knelt on the hard macadam and prayed, led on a loudspeaker system by Fr. Roel Mejía, the director of the diocesan radio station. They prayed for an end to mining and for the protection of people and the environment. They prayed for the bishop and other leaders as well as for their families. They prayed for the police and the soldiers and for their families.

At several tense moments, Fr. Roel’s remarks echoed the last Sunday sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. Calling on the soldiers, Romero told them, “You are part of the same people, you are killing your own brother and sisters campesinos; in the face of an order to kill which a man may give, the law of God should prevail: You shall not kill.” Fr. Roel appealed to the police and soldiers, reminding them of the soldiers’ roots among the poor as well as the presence of children and the elderly in the crowd, and said that, of course, they would not harm them. An interesting appeal. He also led the people in prayer for the police and soldiers and their families. At one point in a prayer to Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of Honduras, he reminded the soldiers that she is invoked by the army as their “capitana” – their captain.

Throughout almost nine hours the people maintained a deep sense of prayer. I was moved many times by the deep devotion of these people – even as they were facing a possible forced removal. They prayed the rosary, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of St. Francis, and many other very traditional prayers. But there were often prayers which were quite strong and pointed. I was thrown a loop when a priest prayed that the mining companies would experience a financial failure. But the people have experienced major physical and environmental damages from the policies of the open pit mines in the country.

This could be seen in some of the handmade signs they carried. One read “Let’s throw out the gringos as they have thrown us out,” referring to the forced relocation of some towns by mining company, many with Canadian ties, but some based in the US. Another was merely a quote from Amos 2: 6: “They sell the poor for some money, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” One, made by some Franciscan sisters, merely read, “Francis of Assisi is with us.” (St. Francis was invoked several times since he is the patron of the environment.)

In all this I felt the deep strength of the people, a strength rooted in a profound faith of the people and their willingness to put prayer into action. The people were ready to suffer for the cause of justice. At more than one point, Fr. Roel said that it is better to die struggling than to die from the effects of the mines.

But that was not to be. In fact, there are signs of change.

In the afternoon the members of the Alianza Cívica por la Democrácia, accompanied by Santa Rosa bishop Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos and diocesan vicar general Fr. Rudy Mejía, were meeting with the president of the Honduran legislature and others in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. At the hour the meeting was to begin the people knelt and prayed. Something happened – the power of prayer and the power of hundreds of people on the streets moved the legislators. An agreement was reached to not continue to seek a mere reform of parts of the mining law. They agreed that suggestions of the Alianza Cívica will be included in a new law which the legislature will consider. Where that goes is another question.

But all was not well. In at least two places the police and soldiers forcibly removed the people from the highways. At one site of a mobilization in the diocese, a number of people were arrested and injured including two priests. The people agreed that they would not disperse until the priests were released. When the news arrived the people again joined in prayer, this time praying for the release of those arrested. Bishop Santos, though, insisted that not only the priests were to be freed but also all the people arrested. He pressured the president of Honduras and eventually all were freed.

At this news the bishop was heard on the radio encouraging the people to leave the highways and return to their homes. The people prayed and then sang, with great gusto, the Honduran national anthem. And then they returned to their homes, with the hope that there will really be a change.

On July 17, the same day as a major national mobilization in Honduras for a new mining law, this quote appeared in Sojourners “Verse and Voice.” See http//

“We campesinos are used to planting seeds and waiting to see if the seeds bear fruit. We’re used to working on harsh soil. And when our crops don’t grow, we’re used to planting again and again until they take hold. Like us, you must learn to persist.”

Elvia Alvarado
from Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


This coming Tuesday, July 17, there will be a series of public demonstrations in Honduras in support of a change in the mining laws in Honduras. A regional popular organization, Alianza Cívica por la Democracía – the Civic Alliance for Democracy, is spearheading this public mobilization.

The bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, has been in the forefront of this struggle, especially since last July. He is urging all the parishes of the diocese to support the current demonstration. He and others want an entirely new law, not just some changes, but many Honduran congressional leaders do not support such a change.

The current law allows open pit mining of gold, silver, lead, and zinc. A July 2001 report of Mining Watch Canada detailed some aspects of the situation:
“In 1996 and 1997 alone, the Honduran government licensed mining concessions totalling 21,000 square miles — more than 30% of Honduras’ territory — to foreign companies, mainly from the United States, Canada and Australia. Then in December 1998, just weeks after Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of the country, a new mining law was passed — written by the mining association (ANAMINH), primarily made up of US and Canadian companies. The new mining law offers companies lifelong concessions, low taxes, unlimited access to water, legal rights to expropriate campesino (peasant farmers) and indigenous lands, and few environmental restrictions on their operations. In December 2000, the IMF pressured Honduras to reduce taxes even further, with the elimination of the export tax on mining products. With land use fees as low as $1500 a year for a large mine, and a nominal 1% municipal tax, Honduras has created an ideal tributary environment for foreign companies. Several of the mines now entering production are planned to produce more than $30 million worth of gold annually.”
The issues are many and some are quite complicated. But they include environmental contamination, displacement of peoples from their lands for the mines, the failure of the lands to benefit the people of Honduras.

A few years ago one mine at San Andrés Minas, Copán, released cyanide into the Lara River which is a source of water for much of the western region of Honduras. Tests of the water in Santa Rosa de Copán revealed traces of cyanide and lead.

A major concern is that the wealth is going out of the country to enrich some international corporation. As I see it, in a country as poor as Honduras this is criminal.