Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reading to understand the world…

I am a voracious reader. It is, perhaps, one of my vices.

After the group from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames left, I found myself tired and fighting a cold. Taking some time to relax and recuperate I picked up William Powers’ Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge. (Mitch, one of the folks who came down, had picked it up from my shelf and intently read it.) It’s a sort of memoir and commentary on his work for several years in Liberia with Catholic Relief Services. I devoured it in two days. Powers portrays the people he encountered with both sensitivity and a critical eye. He is especially critical of the foreign NGO culture, even criticizing some of his own efforts.

Powers’ uses a quote from Wendell Berry at the front of his book. It deserves quoting:

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong, We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never clearly understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays

I will try to keep Powers’ book here on a shelf for people who come for extended visits. As I finished it, I thought of another moving book, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, which tells the story of Paul Farmer, a doctor who has worked in Haiti, Perú, Russia, and Cambridge, Massachusetts – especially on tuberculosis and AIDS. I’ll have to get a copy to keep here since these would be good to lend to people.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Week in Honduras - Breaking Down Barriers

Holy Week is always special in Latin America – even though many spend it at the beach.

This year, a delegation of four students and one resident parishioner who recently graduated from Iowa State University came to visit – to meet people here, to understand the reality of life here, and to experience the holiest week of the Christian year with a poor, but very pious people.

Very early Sunday morning – about 5:00 am – we joined my base community to make alfombras, carpets of colored sawdust, for the Palm Sunday procession, on a street in our neighborhood. While making the carpets a little girl from a poor family, who live in a house without electricity on the block, came out and joined us. She even brought us snacks to share.

On Monday we visited the kindergarten in the Colonia Divina Providencia where I go about once a week. We paid for breakfast for the kids since this was not regular school day and spent a lot of time playing with them. In the afternoon we went to Hogar San José, the home for malnourished kids run by the Missionaries of Charity. The kids were delighted to have more attention. I was touched at how one of our group, Mitch, spent a lot of time with Valentín, a very emaciated nine year old who cannot talk or walk and whose body is twisted. Valentín at times seems to reject affection, but Mitch held him for quite some time and Valentín even reached out to hug Mitch, at least once.

On Wednesday we went to Plan Grande in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María to help them build their new church. We hauled stones for several hours with the members of the community, When we got there men and boys were working, but a little later the little girls, in their dresses, came and helped carry stones for the foundations of the walls of the church. They probably saw the women of our group and decided that this was not just men’s work. Two of our group also helped a little in the kitchen preparing lunch. The women taught Nora how to make tortillas, though Nora wondered about the quality of her work.

Thursday, after Chrism Mass in the Cathedral in Santa Rosa in the morning, we went to the town of Dolores in the parish of Dulce Nombre where we participated in a meeting of base communities in the afternoon and in the evening celebration of Holy Thursday. Two sisters from the community Oblates of Divine Love were doing a mission in the community and involved us in the base community meeting. The community was very welcoming.

Good Friday we spent in Santa Rosa, so that the group could experience the many expressions of popular piety. In the morning there was the Stations of the Cross. We stopped for two of these in the upper part of town before going to spend a little time in the Hogar San José. We got out of the Hogar in time to experience the last stations in the parish of Our Lady of Fatima in the lower part of town.

After lunch and a rest, we went to see the procession of “Santo Entierro,” the Holy Burial. At 3:00 pm, a procession left the church with a glass coffin with an image of Jesus, followed by images of Mary, St. John, and Mary Magdalene.

After watching the procession for a bit we went down to the church of Fatima where I hoped to meet with Erlin, a student from the Catholic University, after the service of sermons on the seven last words of Christ. We arrived as they were beginning the Seventh Word – “Into Your hands, I commend my spirit.” As the group waited outside I listened at the door of the church as Fr. Roel spoke. What touched me is that he prayed Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment.

After the service, Erlin came out and the group talked for two hours with Erlin and his cousin Albert. It was great to see the interchange. In the midst of our conversation a little elderly lady came toward us and began throwing small hard candies to us. Marita joyfully ran away after regaling us with these gifts.

Finally that night we arrived late to the evening service, which was followed by another procession, of la Virgen de Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude. We watched as the procession left the church and then went home.

Holy Saturday we did a reflection by a river on Mount Celaque, outside Gracias, and had dinner with Nancy. We went to the Easter Vigil that began at 8:00 pm (and ended at 1:40 am). The service was so long since it began with a blessing of the fire outside, followed by a procession, all the nine readings were used and all the psalm responses were sung, and there were about fifty baptisms. It was a very well done liturgy.

The baptized approached an improvised font in the front of the church which they climbed into to be baptized. I noticed that some were dressed fairly well but that at least some wore tattered jeans, obviously poor people from the countryside. But after all the baptisms, they entered the church in white shirts or blouses with dark pants or skirts – their baptismal garments. The economic differences were erased, for a time, by their integration in the Body of Christ, by baptism. There are no poor or rich in the Kingdom of God.

As I reflect on the week, I see how God has worked to break down barriers. A poor girl joined us making alfombras; the kids at the kindergarten and Hogar San José swarmed over us and Valentín clung to Mitch; the people of Plan Grande let us help them build their church and the little girls joined the men and boys in the hard physical work; in Dolores we experienced solidarity and welcome at the Holy Thursday activities; there were long conversations on the street outside the church of Fatima on Good Friday; on Holy Saturday the baptismal garments covered over economic differences.

This is the challenge of Easter – to live the reconciliation that Jesus has brought, breaking down barriers that sin, personal and social, creates. In some way Holy Week was for me – and, I trust, for the group - an expression of the Reign of God, where all are called to sit together and share at the Lord’s Table.

May that Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.

Prayer of Abandonment
Father, I put myself in your hands;
Father, I abandon myself to you.
I entrust myself to you.
Father, do with me as it pleases you.
Whatever you do with me, I will thank you for it.
Giving thanks for anything, I am ready for anything.
As long as your will, O God, is done in me,
as long as your will is done in all your creatures,
I ask for nothing else, O God.
I put my soul into your hands.
I give it to you, O God, with all the love of my heart,
because I love you,
and because my love requires me to give myself,
I put myself unreservedly in your hands with infinite confidence,
because you are my Father.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858 – 1916)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Prophets and a prophetic church

On Friday, March 14, the diocese sponsored a Stations of the Cross in the streets of Santa Rosa with a strong justice message. I could only stay for eleven stations since I had to go to San Pedro Sula to meet the group coming from St. Thomas Aquinas for Holy Week.

Several thousand people walked the streets of Santa Rosa, mostly from the countryside, recalling that “The passion, the suffering of the people is the passion of Christ.” Not only is Jesus identified with the suffering but the poor are reminded that their suffering reflects the suffering of Christ. A song which was sung a few times, from Nicaragua, says “Christ, identify with us; be in solidarity with us, the oppressed, and not with the oppressor.”

The first station, Jesus is condemned to death, was a strong indictment of the three powers of the state which “condemn” the people to injustice and poverty, through corruption, bribes and failure to seek justice.

At the second station, Jesus carries his cross, the excessive increases in the cost of basic food stuffs was noted. In words that reflect the Gospels, the meditation noted that “They [the political and economic powers] only give us crumbs…. They treat us like mules, to carry their burdens; they don’t lift a finger to help.”

The third station, Jesus falls the first time, was very pointed. The people fall in the face of the anti-values of foreign culture. With pointed references to US fast food and US fashions, the meditation spoke of how the people are made to feel that their culture is inadequate, that they are “indios brutos” – stupid Indians. And so they look to adopt costumes from the North. People are tempted to leaver behind their culture and even their food, looking for “Mexican avocados,” instead of local fruit and vegetables. (An old woman next to me, mumbled that that’s the truth.)

Other stations treated abuse of women, migration, lack of land reform, and other major issues. It was a very moving experience.

The prophecy of the stations is reflected in a recent action of the bishop.

Last Monday, March 10, Bishop Luis Santos and several others testified before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington, DC, about the mining situation in Honduras. The Honduran government has permitted mining concessions for 30% of the Honduran territory and which gives the companies unlimited access to water with minimum environmental protection and extremely low taxes.

Nearby in San Andrés, a Canadian-Honduran company has an open pit gold mine which uses the dangerous procedure of cyanide leeching to separate out the gold. A few years ago, under a different management, the mine released over 300 gallons of cyanide into the River Lara which provides the drinking water for Santa Rosa.

But there is concern that the contamination continues. “In December 2006” the bishop stated in an internet periodical, “samples were again taken and the results demonstrated the presence of metals: aluminum, copper, iron, and manganese above the international norms and the mean PH of the water of 8.6 to 8.8”

“Obviously this shows the companies’ lack of seriousness and responsibility, since they ought to foresee these cases and have alternative solutions which contaminate less.”

“We have approached the authorities… and we have had no answer to our denunciations of the violations of the rights of the environment and the right to life,” the bishop noted.
Therefore the bishop and the civic organization, Alianza Cívica para la Democracia – the Civic Alliance for Democracy, approached the Inter-American Court.

I spoke with the bishop and he told me that he believes that this will help resolve the dilemma of mining. He has accompanied the people in opposition to open pit mining for at least three years and been defamed and even physically threatened.

It is a blessing to have such a bishop committed to the defense of life, the poor, and the environment.

But there is another side of the bishop – his great hospitality. He offered to drive two hours to San Pedro Sula to bring the spring break delegation from St. Thomas from the airport to Santa Rosa. He couldn't make it because he was meeting with the President of the country, but sent two cars to get us. He also invited us to dinner on Sunday with him.

Prophecy and hospitality – what a great combination in a bishop, in any person.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On yogurt, cold, and Holy Week

I’ve twice successfully made yogurt at home. It’s a really simple process and since it’s hard to get plain yogurt here I’m glad that I have found a way to do it.

But I have had to wait for warm days.

Surprisingly twice in the last month we have had cold days. I know that this is not the bitter cold I experienced in Iowa in January (-17 below zero Fahrenheit). But one day it was about 55° and rainy. But worse was last Saturday.

Saturday I went with Fr. Efraín to a the village of Zapote de Santa Rosa in the parish of Dulce Nombre. It was cool when I left Santa Rosa but I didn’t bring a coat. When I got to Dulce Nombre, Fr. Efraín offered me a coat since the weather might be bad. I’m glad I took his offer.

The village of Zapote is fairly high up. It was raining and misty the whole way there and when we entered the church a fierce wind was blowing through the open windows and doors. The people closed a window which made the church fairly dark, since they have no electricity there. A few times they opened the window during the day and the wind blew my papers all over the place.

After the retreat Fr. Efraín went to the village of Delicias de Concepción, even higher up, for a Mass for the 15th birthday of a young woman there. I don’t think he usually goes for these celebrations, but he hadn’t yet had the chance to get to Delicias. Much to my relief the celebration was subdued – no men dressed up in tux, no flower girls or boys, no dressed up women attendants; just the young women in a sleeveless pink, floor-length dress. I don’t know how she endured it since it was so cold in the church that I was shivering all through the Mass. A misty rain made the cold worse.

But I survived it, and the trip back in a thick fog. When I got back to Santa Rosa it looked as if it hadn’t rained much. What a difference a few miles and an increase in altitude can mean.

However, since then it has been warm and should be even warmer for Holy Week. There are five people coming from St. Thomas and I am trying to get everything arranged.

I am looking forward to their visit and to my first Holy Week in Honduras.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

All your fruitfulness

On Friday, February 29, I read the first of the lectionary readings, Hosea 14: 2-10, in several translations in both English and Spanish. In the Jerusalem Bible and the Christian Community Bible, the next to the last verse was translated: “all your fruitfulness comes from me.”

Things have been going fairly well and there have been quite a few positive signs, but the day before I had a really difficult situation which really hit me hard. But this passage of Hosea touched me and stayed with me for several hours, as I began to quietly repeat it, in English and in an improvised Spanish translation “toda tu fecundidad viene de mi.” It became sort of a mantra for me as I walked to the bus to go to Dulce Nombre.

It is so easy to try to prove myself in what I do, to seek fulfillment in the results of what I do and in the approval I get from others. But what is most important is to remember that God works through me – with all my limitations and talents – working so that God’s Reign, not mine, might come.