Friday, April 25, 2008

The food crisis

I have been reading a number of articles on the internet about the current food crisis – the prices for rice, wheat, beans, and corn have risen astronomically. Last Wednesday night I spoke of the crisis over dinner with some folks I know. The husband is working on a project in a rural village funded by an evangelical group in the US.

I don’t know how this is affecting folks in the US, though I saw a headline on an article in the Iowa State Daily that the price of beer may go up. And so far I have not seen exactly how it is affecting people here, though I expect I'll know a little more in early may when I go out for a workshop on making silos in the remote aldea of Oromilaca.

But one statistic that is troubling is that people in countries like Honduras spend 40% to 60% of their budget on food, while people in the US spend about 13%. That means when the prices go up, the people have to spend more on the basics.

What do they do? - eat one less meal? give the kids the basics and cut back on what the adults eat? Keep kids home from school because they cannot afford shoes or school supplies? Who knows?

But the next few months will be crucial for many people here since their reserves from the last harvest may run out in May and June and they have to wait till the next harvest in July or August.

That's why the project to teach people to make silos to store their basic grains is so important. That's why Padre Efraín in the Dulce Nombre parish is so intent on developing agricultural projects to help promote sustainable food security.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Catechists’ workshop

Last Friday and Saturday I helped with a training for catechists (the teachers of religious education) in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. To the surprise of the pastor 128 catechists came for the day and a half training. (An interesting note: each community that sends catechists is supposed to provide some support for the meeting – a few dollars per person and/or some food items – whether vegetables or corn or beans.)

Some catechists had participated in the first training session two months ago but over half of these who came hadn’t. So there were two tracks to the training session. I was scheduled to do a session on the sacraments in general for Saturday morning but spent much of Friday helping out in various ways since the cook and others were overwhelmed by the numbers who came. (My favorite part of this was doing “tortilla runs” during lunch on Friday – getting tortillas from the place where they were making them and bringing them to where the plates with the rest of the meal were being distributed. I wonder if the women making the tortillas were thinking – “that crazy gringo!”)

The parish infrastructure is woefully inadequate. There is a hall for meetings as well as two “dormitories.” But there weren’t enough mattresses and so Padre Efraín had to drive to Santa Rosa to borrow some from a parish there. There are also only three bathrooms in the center and there are problems with the water tank. For Friday’s workshops we used the sisters’ buildings for one group, but on Saturdays and Sundays the sisters host a school for students who work during the week or who don’t have advanced classes in their villages. So Saturday morning one group met in the meeting hall, the other in the church, and the Parish Council (which meets on the third Saturday of the month) met in one of the dormitories. There were more that 160 people at the parish center that Saturday morning.

After the meeting Padre Efraín, spoke with Misael, an albañil, a sort of construction worker who can supervise and do projects on his own. This week, God willing, Misael will work on constructing two or more new bathrooms, repair the current toilets, and repair a concrete tank so that there is another tank to store water. Padre Efraín really wants to improve the facilities so that they can be welcome places for the training sessions and other meetings held there. He is particularly concerned about hygiene, especially since there is workshop on liturgy next weekend.

Various people led the workshops – the sisters who live and work in Dulce Nombre, several teachers who are involved in the parish, the pastor and me. They covered the range from sections on God’s call, the Bible, and the sacraments, to sessions on how to teach religion to children. The training ended with Mass at 11 am on Saturday.

During the meals and the breaks I had a little time to talk to some of the catechists. Some have been doing it for years. Some are in their forties and fifties, but there are a good number of young people in their teens and twenties. At lunch on Saturday I listened as Father talked with one woman who was concerned since she cannot read – but her teenage daughter can and will help with the class.

What is amazing is that almost all the rural villages have a few catechists who end up being responsible for the basic religious education – which is now divided into four levels – as well as for preparing children for first communion and for confirmation. That is quite a lot of responsibility, but it is encouraging to see that the parish is serious about the training of the catechists, with sessions planned for every two months. For the most part I will be helping with the sessions on the sacraments. It is challenging to try to do a workshop in Spanish that meets their needs and is somewhat participative – but it’s something that I am really finding fulfilling.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

What do I do?

As I begin my eleventh month in Honduras, I thought it might be useful to take a look at this past week and let you know what I’ve been doing. It’s a little detailed and so I hope you have a high boredom tolerance. It also is not a normal week, as if there is any such thing here.

Last Saturday, April 5, I went to Dulce Nombre de Copán in a packed mini-bus for a meeting in the parish of pastoral workers in Zone One of the parish. (The parish is divided into three zones, which comprise eleven sectors, to cover 46 towns and villages.) During the meeting, Padre Efraín shared what the diocese is projecting for Social Ministry, from the village to the diocesan level. He and the pastoral workers talked about upcoming week-long workshops in May, in particular those for teaching people to construct silos. They decided to have one workshop in a rural village for two villages and another workshop for representatives from the three zones in the parish center.

After returning from Dulce Nombre, I went to Ten Napel café, which has wireless internet service, to check e-mail.

On Sunday, I went to morning Mass in the nearby church of San Martín, where Padre Fausto Milla preached. Padre Fausto – an eighty year old vegetarian, advocate of healthy diets, and justice advocate – gave a 30 minute homily which, surprisingly had little political content. (A advocate of the poor, he usually is very critical of Honduran politics and the country’s economic reality.)

Sunday afternoon I went back to Dulce Nombre to take pictures of the religious education classes. The religious education program at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames is planning to raise funds to help subsidize the purchase of books for the 3000 or so children in religious education in the parish of Dulce Nombre. I went to two sites and took a number of photos. The first was in the building of the sisters, Oblates of the Love of God, who also provide a weekend program for junior high and high schools students who live in villages without these grades or who work during the week and still want to study. The second was in the home of a school teacher, Profesora Miriam. After taking photos and sitting for a while talking with the profesora and her family I headed back to Santa Rosa in a super-packed mini-bus.

Monday I was back in Dulce Nombre, this time to go with Padre Efraín to the two villages that would take part in the first silo construction workshop. To get to one village, Oromilaca, we passed over a stream, just near a major landslide. In the village we met with a few people who were very enthusiastic. (Most of the men of the village were out working on a project to bring electricity to the village.) Padre Efraín and the people decided to hold the workshop here, instead of in the other village, San Juan. The meeting was followed by Mass and then Father and I were fed lunch.

We then went to San Juan and spoke with a few people there about the workshop and then Father had another Mass. Since it was too late for me to take a bus, Father gave me a ride into Santa Rosa – about 20 minutes away.

That evening I went to the base community meeting in my neighborhood.

Tuesday and Thursday I have been spending part of each day at the Catholic University – mostly hanging around to speak with students. This Tuesday I went to the 8:30 am Mass and then met briefly with Dr. Francisco Castor, the director of the local campus. I then went downtown to the post office to mail package to St. Thomas in Ames. After a stop at Ten Napel café, doing some food shopping, and eating lunch, I returned to the University campus. Three I did spend some time talking to a student I know as well as casual visits with some students and faculty.

Wednesday I spent over two hours at a kindergarten in a poor neighborhood, Colonia Divina Providencia, as I do about once a week. There is only one teacher for about 65 rambunctious 4 and 5 year old. I am hoping to find ways to get some university students to come and help with me on Wednesday mornings.

On the way back I went and bought some plastic chairs for the house. On the way back I saw Sor MariaJesús, a Spanish Franciscan sister who lives up the block with me. She put the chairs in her truck and then asked me to get something for her in the Obispado (the bishop’s office) while she went to the bank. I went there, talked to the secretary, then got a ride home with Sor MariaJesús.

That afternoon I went with Sor Mariajesús and Sor Inez to La Granja Penal, the local jail (with about 520 men and 16 women prisoners.) I help Sor Inez with her literacy tutorials with male prisoners about once every two weeks. I spent my time with one man, helping with both reading and addition. At the end of our time another prisoner came up and asked about learning to read.

That evening I got a call from Sister Nancy Meyerhofer, a Dubuque Franciscan friend of mine who works in Gracias, Lempira, and who is – to some extent – a cause of me being here in this diocese. We’re going to meet for lunch next Wednesday when she’ll be here in Santa Rosa

Thursday I was back to the university after a short visit to the internet café. I also called Padre Efraín and asked if there is anything else I can do. There’s a catechists’ workshop next weekend and he asked me to do a section on sacraments.

Friday morning I went to Hogar San José, a home for malnourished kids under five, run by the Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I spent about two hours playing with the kids or just holding a few noisy infants.

I left and after going to a mini-supermarket, I headed off to the Catholic University for a meeting that the students were having at noon, but which started about 12:30. After a short visit to the internet café I headed back to the university for a meeting with the director and several priests to set a date for a workshop for faculty on the Vatican’s statement on Catholic universities, Ex corde ecclesiae.

After a walk home for dinner, I headed back to the university for a meeting of a community of teachers that I am connecting with.

It is not normal for me to make three trips to the Catholic University on Fridays but these were all important.

And so I rested today – well, not exactly. I washed clothes (by hand) and swept and mopped most of the rooms in the house.

Tomorrow I’ll stay here and try to do a little reading and cooking.

And so, I try to be a sign of God’s presence here amid frustrations and successes. In some ways I have been feeling that my ministry is going all too slow (and I think that’s true, partly due to the culture here.) But I also think I needed to read these words of the paleontologist and theologian Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
Above all trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
(This is found in the nice anthology of prayers Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits [Loyola Press, 2005].)

As so I need to remind myself of these words of St. Edith Stein’s: “Be patient with yourself: God is.”

And so, keep us in your thoughts and prayers. And drop me a line when you have a chance.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

SILOS and more

Saturday at a meeting of one of the three zones of the Dulce Nombre parish, Padre Efraín and the people talked about the social ministry of the parish. Padre Efraín explained how St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ames is aiding in a project to teach people to make silos so that they can store basic grains. The money from St. Thomas will help initiate the project in the parish. Marcos, a jack-of-all-trades, will spend a month in the parish training people how to make silos as well as training others how to make and use ecological ovens and working with a pig production project in another community.

Father and the people then proceeded to decide what communities would be invited to send participants to the workshops. The first silo workshop will be for five persons from two adjoining villages which grow a fair amount of basic grains. The second will be held on the parish grounds in Dulce Nombre with five persons from each of the three zones of the parish. The participants will be trained how to make silos and will proceed to make several. Those who received the silos will pay for the materials and the payments will be put into a revolving fund so that other communities can make and have silos. In this way a small investment has the possibility of having major effects on the area.

On Monday Padre Efraín and I will be going out to the two villages and speaking with the people there. The silos are a way to begin to deal with food security in the area, enabling people to conserve their harvests – instead of having to sell them at a low price when the harvest comes in and then having to buy basic grains at higher prices when their supply runs out.

Fr. Efraín also hopes to develop some other agricultural projects, including small home vegetable gardens.

What was exciting at the meeting was the enthusiasm I saw. They see these as ways to help themselves as well as their communities. I am really glad that St. Thomas is helping this project.

Fr. Efraín also told the people about the efforts that St. Thomas Religious Education will be making to help provide the children in religious education in the parish with books. The books are fairly inexpensive but it would put a burden on many to have to pay the full price. This is a really fine act of solidarity and I hope that this can develop even more into a real mutual sharing.

The visit of the five folks from St. Thomas over Holy Week has meant a lot to the people of the parish. Fr. Efraín told me that it was very important for the people of the parish to see that there are Catholics in the US who come to be with them. They see a lot of evangelical groups coming but don’t see many Catholics. He also continued to note how the presence of the group in helping to construct the foundations for the church in Plan Grande really encouraged the people. At the zone meeting he mentioned how the women from St. Thomas worked hard, carrying big rocks. Not very subtly, he was trying to let the people know that women can do a lot. (Strike a blow against machismo!)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Last weekend the Catholic University of Honduras had a “retreat” for the professors and administrators of all the seven or so distinct campuses of the University. About 800 attended the retreat in a center owned by the university in Valle de Angeles outside Tegucigalpa.

This year the retreat – on the Catechism of the Catholic Church – was led by Padre Roel from Santa Rosa. Father Roel gave a number of spirited talks in which he explained several parts of the Compendium of the Catechism and related them to the reality of life in Honduras. His critique of governmental policies was very strong and probably aroused a little ire from some of the attendees. Recently he has become very concerned about global warming and the environment and so, in response to the sections on creation, he showed most of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. The film makes a strong case about global warming – and talks abut the need for action.

However, the film left me uneasy. Up to the point where the film was stopped so we could go for lunch, there was almost nothing about the need for changes in life style. (Perhaps there is something toward the end.) I’m not just talking abut recycling and reforestation and the like.

I really believe that a major part of the problem is the consumption levels of the developed countries of the world together with the models of development which emphasize consumption. I believe that China and India are affecting global warming, not because of their poor, but because of the growing demand for high quality meat and consumer goods. I fear that many of the students (and faculty) here in Honduras may buy into the dream of being like the US with its life style of consumption.

I fear that the critique of this life style found in Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical On Social Concern is easily ignored.
...side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This superdevelopment, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of "possession" and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of "consumption" or "consumerism", which involves so much "throwing-away" and "waste".
Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern - Solicitudio Rei Socialis, ¶28 (italics added)
Struggling against global warning does not make sense without real conversion – a conversion to a Christ who became poor fro our sake, who lived simply, who shared with those in need. Conversion to a community of faith where there were no needy among them, because they shared. Conversion to what Jesuit father Ignacio Ellacuría, the martyred rector of the Central American University in El Salvador called “the civilization of poverty,” an ideal that “makes the universal satisfaction of basic necessities the principle of development and makes the growth of shared solidarity the foundation of humanization.”

Perhaps I feel so critical because of the trip we made for the retreat and the site of the retreat. We traveled the seven hours each way in an air-conditioned bus which is understandable. But as I looked out the window I saw hundreds of poor houses of mud and bamboo, or tin. But the site that most haunts me was the child sitting atop a large dumpster at the side of the road, searching through the garbage.

It’s for that child that I am here – and I pray that I may find the ways to respond and to help others see the need, respond, and work for a country and a world where all may share in the Lord’s banquet – not only in heaven, but here on earth.

If the first Christians tried to see that there was no poor among them (Acts 4:34), why don’t we?