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.