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!