Monday, May 26, 2008

Corpus Christi

This past Sunday, we Catholics celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a celebration of the gift of the Eucharist in which Jesus gives us his Body and Blood as our food and drink.

In Benedictine Daily Prayer, there is a reading from St. Thomas Aquinas for the feast which begins:
The only Son of God wanted to have us share his divinity, and therefore he took our nature to himself: by becoming human, he would make humanity divine.
We have a God who loves us and gives us Himself in His life, death and resurrection, and in the Eucharist – so that we can share His Life.

Here the feast was accompanied by processions in the streets. In Santa Rosa de Copán they made carpets of colored sawdust. In Dulce Nombre de María they walked around the main square and stopped at four altars to pray and reflect on the Eucharist and the challenges for the family.

The Mass in Dulce Nombre began with a hymn from the Salvadoran Campesino Mass:
Vamos todos al banquete
a la mesa de la Creación;
cada cual con su taburete
tiene un puesto y una misión.
Dios invita a todos los pobres
a este mesa común por la fe,
donde no hay acaparadores
y a nadie falta el con qué.

Let us all go to the banquet
to the table of creation:
every one with his own stool
has a place and a mission.
God invites all the poor
to this common table by faith
where there are none who hoard
and nobody lacks something more than tortillas.

The Eucharist for me is connected intimately with the hungers of the world – it reminds me that as God calls all to the heavenly banquet, he calls all of us to share so that there is a place at the table for everyone. (In 2002 the US bishops wrote a very fine reflection on hunger called A Place at the Table)

And so I was very happy to see the ecological oven in the parish which was made during a workshop last week, led by Marco. Eight people – men and women – took part in the three day workshop in the parish and eleven took part in the workshop in the remote village of Zapote de Santa Rosa.

Last Saturday Marco went to the community where there is a small project to raise pigs and pass on the piglets to other families. Padre Efraín told me that the sow gave birth to thirteen piglets. Since the people were not sure about what to do they called Marco on cell phones and he led them through the birthing process over a cell phone. What an interesting use of technology. I have to smile thinking about this.

The parish will have another workshop to train more people to make silos the first week of June. Padre Efraín would also like to begin helping people to start small family gardens to diversify the diets of the people in the parish. For a number of reasons many people limit their diets to beans and corn tortillas and a few eggs.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Taking life for granted

Last Friday the electricity was off in most of Santa Rosa de Copán for almost 8 hours. Today I don't have water in my house. Since I moved into this house last July I have not had to worry about water. I think I just let the water tank get emptied. I took water for granted.

It is, of course, different in the countryside where many villages do not have electricity and where some villages don’t have access to water. In these villages women and girls do fetch water from distant sources. This, of course, makes life precarious for many.

But even here in Santa Rosa there are some communities without electricity. The Colonia Divina Providencia, near the kindergarten where I volunteer, does not yet have electricity though there is a project in process, financed by the Spanish government, I believe, to bring electricity to the community. the poles are up, but the people are still waiting. This community also did not have running water until about two or three years ago. The city would send in tanker trucks with water about once a week and the people would fill barrels with water for their weekly needs.

This past Tuesday, Bree Sullivan, who recently graduated from Iowa State University, came to help out for two months. She’ll be here until late July and then return back to Ames to get married in early August! Her willingness to help amazes me. She is living with the Spanish Franciscan sisters who live up the street from me. She will be helping the girls who live with the sisters with their English and math. She also is going to help each day at the Kindergarten in the Colonia Divina Providencia.

I took Bree to the kindergarten on Thursday where she met Matilde, the professor, as well as Sor Marissa, one of the sisters who helps out three days a week in the kindergarten. (Otherwise the teacher works alone with up to 65 kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students.) Sor Marissa is trying to get the classroom areas organized – since there is a little classroom which was just added this March where the smallest kids will go. But since there is no second teacher Marissa will be working with the little kids three days and week and Bree will help the other two.

But there weren’t enough chairs and neither the government nor a local group have come through. Some friends gave me some money for projects and so I went on Friday with Matilde and Sor Marissa to buy 30 plastic chairs – about $2.60 a piece. And, since there are not enough desks for the kids, the sisters are going to have the carpentry shop in the jail make some.

Bree had seen the presentation of the group from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames that came here for Holy Week and wanted to spend some time at Hogar San José, a home for malnourished kids under five years old. Since December I have tried to go there once a week; so I know many of the kids enjoy going to play with the kids or help feed some of the infants.

When we arrived on Friday I was surprised to see an emaciated child who was severely malnourished. The child, Carla, was laying on a mattress, so extremely thin that you could count her ribs. Her stomach was extended and the flesh on her arms looked like the flesh of an old person. I had never met a child who was so undernourished. You can read the statistics and see the photos on tv but it’s quite a different experience to see such a child in the flesh - and then feed her a little rice.

A little later I learned that she was 18 months old. (Except for the fact that she had teeth I would have guessed her as just a few months old.) One of the workers told me that she had come here even thinner – and had spent ten days in the hospital. The sight of that child haunts me.

There is so much I take for granted. Jon Sobrino, the Salvadoran Jesuit theologian, says that the difference between the poor and the rich is that the rich take life for granted, but each morning the poor have to consider what they will do to survive that day: Will there be work? Will there be water and food for them and their children? Will they survive?

And so, rich as I am, I am here. I am very glad to be here, happiest when I can help the poor and be with them. How this will work out in the long run I still don’t know, but becoming confident that God will show the way.

I have begun reading, in Spanish, a collection of writings of Carlo Carretto, who after years working in Catholic Action in Italy, left in his forties to become a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who live and work among the poorest. One passage he wrote about his novitiate in the Algerian desert which I just read struck and inspired me –
I tried to find a place for myself. I had left my native land, urged on by the desire to give up everything in order to give myself to God among all this poverty; to search out among the poor the crucified face of Jesus, to do something for my wretched and despised brethren, so that, by loving them, I might deepen my union with God.
But what was I to do for them?
Carlo Carretto, Selected Writings (Orbis Books), p. 27.
My motives are not as clear and God-centered as Carlo Carretto’s were, nor is my situation one of the poverty he embraced, but I pray that God will open me to seek to love him and serve those most in need and so encounter there Christ, the poor one.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

SILOS continued

Very appropriately, I am writing this blog on May 15, the feast of Saint Isidore the Farmer, the patron saint of farmers.

After a series of delays, the Dulce Nombre parish project of training people to make silos has begun. The first workshop is being held this week in the village of Oromilaca, a remote village, high on a ridge which is a center of corn production.

I spent Wednesday in the village observing the training. Marco, a friend of Padre Efraín from San Lucas, Santa Barbara, is doing the training. He received training in making silos about 12 years ago, has made about 300 silos, and has done training before. There are five men from the village (including two brothers and a father and son) and a young man from Dulce Nombre.

As I arrived they were making the seams for the sheets of galvanized steel. The process is very labor intensive and requires care and concentration. I noticed from the start how careful Marco is and how perceptive he is. Just looking at the sheet he could tell that the seam was off about 1 or 2 millimeters! He seems to be a very good teacher with a lot of patience as he gives everyone a chance to practice each of the steps of the process. At one point he noted that a seam was completely off. Rather than complaining or blaming the students, he said something like, “It is good that when we make mistakes we can correct them and thus learn how to do it right.” How empowering.

After lunch he taught them how to solder. I even tried my hand it at. To heat up the soldering irons (cautines), they had made a small oven the day before.

By the end of the day they had a cylinder. But they had a problem. Marco had decided to have them make a 3000 pound capacity silo first, since it is harder than the silos for 1800 pounds they will generally be making. But the assembled silo wouldn’t have passed through the doors of the community center where they were working and so they have another place to complete the silo. After that one is done, Marco will have them make one of the smaller silos on their own, with the aid of a manual he has. He’ll be there to oversee them but he wants them to work on their own.

I will see the results of this on Saturday evening. Padre Efraín is going out to Oromilaca on Saturday to bless the seeds for sowing and the completed silos.

Padre Efraín is very intent of this and other projects to help the people in the parish. But, as we spoke on Monday afternoon, he shared his perception that the people are a little skeptical about all these projects. They have been promised things in the past so often that they may not expect that that the promises will be fulfilled or that the project will make any difference. My guess is that this is a result of the corruption in the country and in the many unfilled promises of politicians who arrive in poor areas right before elections promising relief but who forget the poor once they are elected.

Last night, after dinner, people came to the church. I was asked to lead a celebration. Since it was late and the church was very hot, I decided to make it short. I used the Gospel of the day, John 15: 9-17 Padre Efraín has asked me to help motivate the community and so we shared ways to show our love of God and one another. I tried in some ways to get them to think of concrete ways – everything from visiting the sick to sending kids to religious education.

I ended my reflection with some words on Saint Isidore and his wife María, since the people in Oromilaca might find them kindred souls. I told them about this farm-worker – a campesino, like them – who went to Mass each day and worked hard on the land. He showed his love of God through his prayer and his work. I tried to help the people see that we serve God not only by praying, going to church, and serving others. We also serve God in what we do each day – working in the fields and in the kitchens of our communities.

This spirituality of work has been a part of me for many years and was central in my pastoral work with university students. I am somewhat surprised – though I shouldn’t be – that I find myself sharing this message with campesinos, who need to be reassured of their dignity when so many look down on them. Recently a presidential candidate spoke disparagingly about them. But they are for me the “salt of the earth” and they give me hope.

Monday, May 12, 2008


The parish of Dulce Nombre de María celebrated Pentecost with a vigil that began Saturday about 6:30 pm and ended about 4:00 am, Sunday morning. People came in from many rural villages – some walking, some in pickups or buses. After a procession with the Eucharist from Barrio Florida, about 2 kilometers from the church, the Dulce Nombre choir led some spirited singing, and then a group from the town of San Agustín sang. During all this time, Padre Efraín heard confessions.

Mass began at 10:00 pm and lasted until a little after midnight. After coffee and cookies, several other groups sang - from Oromilaca, Plan Grande, and Dolores. Some people left in busses about 2 am; I decided to go off and get some sleep at 3.

I am always amazed at the musical talent found here. But no group has the same style of music. The Dulce Nombre choir has a few set of instruments, including keyboard, drums, electrified guitars and plays loudly, influenced by the charismatic movement. The other groups are usually non-amplified and have all sorts of guitar-like instruments. The group from Oromilaca has many songs in the ranchero style, while the Plan Grande group – La Gran Familia – includes some songs that sound like cumbias.

Planting season will soon begin. Fields have been cleared and prepared for sowing. But the farmers await a few rains to soften the earth.

A traditional day to pray for rain is May 3, here celebrated as the Day of the Cross. (Before the revision of the church calendar it was the feast of the finding of the Cross, I believe.) That evening there was a good a soaking rain that lasted through the night. There were a few rains afterwards in Santa Rosa, but not much in Dulce Nombre.

Saturday, as we walked to the site where the procession would begin, it looked as if it would rain. There were also a few thunderclaps. I kept on hoping that it would wait until we returned to the church. I didn’t feel like getting soaked.

But, just as we stopped at the site where the procession would begin, it began to rain. Oh, no, I thought. But a young man at my side said, “La lluvia, una bendición de Dios.” The rain! What a blessing from God. Later another person remarked, “Que rica la lluvia.” How rich/delightful the rain is.

We walked to the church. I got soaked, as did almost everyone, even though someone let me walk part of the way under her umbrella. When we got to the church, I changed into a dry shirt (which most people did not have the luxury of doing) and my pants dried within a few hours.

As I look back on my experience, I realized that, even after 24 years in Iowa, I still have vestiges of the city outlook where rain is a pain, something to be avoided. However, I do remember how as a grad student I enjoyed walking in New York City during and after a shower on a hot summer day.

But for those who work on the land the first rains are a real blessing, since they offer the promise of food to feed the family. Rain is truly a blessing of God for them.

In many cultures, rain falling on a birthday, a wedding, or a special event is seen as a gift of God and a special sign of God’s blessing. Rain – water – is a gift of God, not something to be squandered not to be appropriated as one’s personal possession.

Water is not a commodity and so many people in Latin America and throughout the world are resisting efforts to privatize water. (See Vendana Shiva’s Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit.) Even the Vatican has warned that water must not be treated as a commodity; it is a public good and there is a right to water (Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, 485).

But more than that water is for the people here an absolute need – not only for crops. They need good drinking water – unpolluted and easily available. I know a number of people working on water projects, but the needs are greater than the projects presently planned and the funds which are available. But there are efforts to “give drink to the thirsty.”

Rain – water – is truly a blessing from God. And so our response should be gratitude and a commitment to see that all may have water to drink. Writing this I remembered that the Gospel reading from the vigil was John 7: 37-39, which includes these words of Jesus:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes drink…. ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ”
May Christ satisfy our thirst and may our hearts, full of living water, share that water – both material and spiritual – with all God’s thirsty people.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A week away

I spent last week in El Salvador visiting friends. It was my first time back in two years and it was a great experience. What really surprised me was how some young people I know grew in two years. I’ve known both of these 19 year olds for many years – one is my godson. When I last saw them they were adolescents. Now, having grown more than 6 inches in two years and having matured, they’re young men!

The situation in El Salvador is difficult, though not as bad as here in Honduras. But one friend in Suchitoto talked about how the price increases can affect people. A person who lives in Suchitoto and works in a factory near San Salvador may make about $5.75 a day – yes, a day. But when you subtract the cost of transportation and meals, that person really makes less than $1.00 a day! How can one live on that?

How can they survive? One friend suggested that survival is related to what families receive from family members in the US. Without that, El Salvador would be a real basket case. But that is not really a solution. Another friend told me of the situation of a small town she works with. In the last few months ten persons have returned from the US, not because they were deported, but because they hadn’t found work for six months.

Meanwhile in Honduras, there have been strikes and demonstrations in protest of the increase in prices of basic food stuffs. There have also been a fair number of protests, some organized by the church, against the increasing violence.

Last week prisoners were transferred from a jail in San Pedro Sula to one in Tegucigalpa, the capital. When they arrived 18 were killed, most gang members! This is not the first and some people are concerned that there is not enough being done to insure the safety of prisoners. But the overcrowding is phenomenal. An article in today’s paper says that the local jail was built fro about 50 male prisoners – but there are 533 men and 14 women there now. However, it appears that the local prison is more secure than some others. I’ll see when I go this afternoon with Sor Inez to help with the literacy project there.

Also, there are several lawyers – public prosecutors – on a hunger strike because of their concerns about corruption in the attorney general’s office and the supreme court.

One of the beauties of Honduras is the Celaque National Forest, on the slopes of Celaque, the highest mountain in Honduras and the source of about eleven rivers. There has been a forest fire there for the last week that has destroyed many acres of forest and it is still raging.

So much pain and suffering - but, as Padre Fausto said in his homily Sunday, for Christians the final word is LIFE.