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.