Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Empowering the poor and oppressed

This past weekend I experienced two sides of the efforts here to improve the lives of the people of Honduras.

Saturday I went to the parish of Dulce Nombre with a young woman who is studying in the Masters of Social Justice program at Loyola University of Chicago and with three Spaniards who are volunteering here for a month and staying with the Franciscan sisters who live up the street.

I showed them the silos and the ecological oven which were made in Dulce Nombre as part of the training program the parish has for teaching people to make ecological ovens and small grain silos to store corn and beans. After Padre Efraín celebrated a wedding Mass and spoke with the parish formation team, he took us out to Plan Grande. For a number of reasons the instructor, Marcos, had not been there to lead them, but some of those who had been trained previously came and helped the people make an oven. The multiplier effect is beginning already.

We arrived and found the people a little disheartened since they told us that the oven didn’t heat up. They fired up the oven and with the help of Padre Efraín and one of the Spaniards who is an engineer they discovered a few of the problems, some of which they fixed on the spot. After this the oven did heat up very well but there’s some smoke escaping where it shouldn’t and so they will probably wait for Marcos to come and help them make all the needed repairs. It was good though that we came, since they were much less discouraged when we left. They had thought that they did it all wrong.

We had expected to spend only a short time there, but they insisted that we eat there and so we sat down and eat beans, eggs, and tortillas.

Sunday El Movimiento Amplio para la dignidad y la justicia – the Broad-Based Movement for Dignity and Justice – held n assembly here in Santa Rosa as part of their hopes of building a national movement which is locally-based against corruption and for justice. The movement springs from the 38 day hunger strike of several prosecuting attorneys (part of the Attorney General’s offices) earlier this year.

Several hundred people were there, mostly from the local area. The leader of the fast spoke as well as attorneys and others involved in the movement. Several religious leaders spoke, including the local bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, an evangelical pastor, Dr. Evelio Reyes, and Padre Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit from El Progreso. The leader of the Mennonite Church in Honduras was also present. But the auditorium as full of a broad cross-section of Honduran society – campesinos, professionals, students, and women.

It was intriguing to watch the dynamics, especially when they opened the discussion to the floor. A woman spoke up strongly for the need to make sure that women are involved. When they proposed to form a committee, the process proposed was quickly amended when someone suggested that they caucus by towns and villages.

It will be interesting to see where this leads and whether this will really lead to a broad-based movement that can make some changes here. There were a lot of differences among the people gathered. Some suggested boycotting the up-coming elections, partly because they see the two major parties as part of the problem of Honduras, tainted with corruption, cronyism, and inability to make real changes.

But one proposal made by the Jesuit was accepted by all. He proposed that a public fast on the first Friday of every month. The hunger strike of the prosecutors inspired this movement as so it is an appropriate action to bring the people together and reinforce their commitment to work together, to organize for a better Honduras.

And so, this weekend I encountered two ways of empowering people. I pray that both truly help change this poor, poor country.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Eucharist

Wednesday, July 16, the newly built church in Candelaria, Concepción, was dedicated. It was also the day that a young woman from the village made her final vows as a sister. Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos and the pastor, Father Efraín Romero, were joined by five other priests and more than 600 people.

Communion was moving as priests moved through the crowds distributing the Eucharist.

This picture says more than I can about the people's love of the Eucharist.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Last week a national newspaper, La Prensa, there are 300,000 children that suffer chronic malnutrition. If you add adults the number of chronically malnourished reaches half a million. In Honduras, a country of about 7 million, that means that about 14% of the people in this country do not have enough food to nourish themselves.

I fear that this might become worse this year since the costs of seeds, fertilizer, and other farming products has increased significantly and the costs of basics – corn and beans – have skyrocketed.

I have seen a little of this here in Santa Rosa de Copán. Each week I try to go to Hogar San José, a home for malnourished children under five, run by the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by mother Teresa of Calcutta.

About two months ago I saw Saul, an 18 month old boy with severe malnutrition – complete with extended belly and the skin that looked like an old man’s. The last time I visited he was standing with help. There are other stories of successes, I am glad when I hear that a child is returning to his parents. The hogar is helping the child, but you cannot help but see the sadness in the eyes of some of the kids whose parents left them there so that they could recover.

The other week I walked through Colonia Divina Providencia with Sister Inez and two women volunteering here for two months. We saw a few kids with patches of blond hair – a sign of malnutrition.

This past Saturday I spoke with Father Efraín in Dulce Nombre. He told me that the Missionaries of Charity are distributing basic food baskets to 1000 families in the parish. There are only about 55,000 people in the area of the parish!

This is only a makeshift solution, he said. And so he’s been trying to develop a number of projects to help promote food security. The silos will provide a way for people to store their corn and not have to sell it to speculators who will sell it back to them when they run out at inflated prices. Father Efraín also wants to promote small family gardens to help people diversify their diets.

But there is another problem. When I told him how poor the village of Yaruconte seemed to me, he spoke of other areas on the parish which are very poor. One problem he mentioned was the lack of land for growing corn and beans. There is land but it is in the hands of a few landowners, many of whom use the land for cattle grazing. He talked of possible long term solutions – perhaps getting some land to work communally. But that’s a big project that will need a lot of careful planning.

Father Efraín also told me that there have been 19 deaths of children under two since the beginning of the year. to help deal with this a doctor whose work is supported by the Catholic Medical Mission Board is giving workshops in the parish for health workers on how to prevent such deaths.

In Santa Rosa, God willing, we’ll soon have a lunch program for kids - a comedor infantil. I’m part of a small committee planning to open a lunch program for 40 to 50 kids on the grounds of the bishop’s office and residence. We’re hiring a cook for about $135 a month and we’ll buy tortillas, 120 per day, for about $16 a week. There will be other costs – buying beans, rice, and spaghetti as well as vegetables and meat. This week I’ll be meeting with the cook and one of the leaders of the group to prepare a budget.

The infrastructure was prepared with some money that came from St. Thomas Aquinas and I hope that the parish and others will help with the continuing costs.

Offers of help have already come in from people here in Santa Rosa. A professor at the Catholic University of Honduras campus here is going to ask his class to donate some basic supplies of corn, beans, pasta, salt, and sugar so that we have some basic foodstuffs to work from. I have to follow up on two other offers of help.

But what more?

These are small efforts – absolutely essential. But I see the need for some structural change – here in Honduras and throughout the world.

Here corruption and bureaucratic interests have siphoned off much of the money that was supposed to go to the Eradication of Poverty funds that were related to the debt forgiveness that Honduras was granted a few years ago.

Poor farming practices, as well as the lack of good land and adequate financing for small farmers, have made it hard for people to produce enough for their needs.

In the world, there is enough food, but speculation, monopolization of food production and distribution, and other policies have raised the costs of basic food stuffs and made it more difficult for the poorest to access the food they need.

Gandhi once said, “There is enough for each one’s need, but not enough for each one’s greed.” And so in the end, it comes down to conversion – personal and social.

More on that later.

For more info on the food crisis, check out this resource on the Center of Concern website: http://www.coc.org/node/6136 or this resource from Bread for the World: http://www.bread.org/learn/background-papers/2008/june-08-background-paper.pdf

One last note.

This past week there have been a good number of heavy rains – not too unusual for this time of the year. But Wednesday we had one of the hardest and longest rains I have ever seen. I even had a little rain in my house front room.

A few days later I dropped by the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia. I saw Alex who lives in a house by the side of the stream which serves as a sewer for the city. I learned from the teacher that he was living temporarily in another house since his poor home had been flooded out Wednesday night. Alex often comes to school without shoes – but from the way he does his lessons he seems fairly smart. So much talent that may be wasted!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Lives in the countryside

In the past year I’ve visited a number of aldeas, rural villages, in the parish of Dulce Nombre, to get to know the people and their lives and to help them with their pastoral work.

I usually spend one or two nights, preaching at their Sunday Celebration of the Word, meeting with the children in religious education, and talking with a lot of people. Occasionally I meet with the youth group and a small base community.

I stay in people’s homes and eat with them. They are extremely generous and hospitable. This past weekend in Candelaria I could have eaten seven meals on Sunday if I had accepted all the invitations. I think they were vying to see who could feed me. The meals are very simple – usually tortillas and beans with cheese and an occasional egg. This past Sunday’s lunch, though, included delicious roasted potatoes and pataste, also called huisquil, a type of squash. They usually offer me more food than I can eat. They don’t find it too strange that I’m a vegetarian and don’t eat meat – especially when I tell them that I have enough protein and I am leaving the meat protein for them.

In the last two visits I’ve spent time with the children in religious education, speaking to them, teaching them new ice-breakers (called dinámicas, here). Though the older kids are often shy, the younger ones are often enthusiastic and very affectionate. Last Saturday when I got off the bus in Candelaria, the kids in the first two levels of religious education greeted me with sustained applause. Two weeks ago, as I left Plan Grande, three little girls ran after me to give me a few pieces of candy and hugs.

Life in the aldeas is hard. Many communities have water, but it is often in short supply during the dry season. And despite the fast that there are wells on private land near the villages some have to seek water sources miles away and dig ditches for the water lines.

A number of people do have small fincas, a few acres of coffee, that they cultivate. A few have some sugar cane fields. But most have to rent land to plant their basic crops of corn and beans. The land is often on steep hillsides, far from their houses. But it is often hard to find enough land that the landowners are willing to rent.

Though most families have chickens, very few have small gardens near their houses to grow vegetables. Father Efraín, the pastor, hopes to encourage more people to plant small gardens near their homes to provide more and varied nutrition in their diets. Malnutrition is a problkem, even int he countryside.

The area in the parish of Ducle Nombre is rugged and quite mountainous. Thus access is a big problem. A few have pickups, some have horses, but most people get around on footor rely on a few buses. It doesn’t help that most villages are very isolated, accessible on small dirt roads that turn to mud in the rainy season. A few buses that go out to rural communities, but most just get to the main towns. Since I hope to be able to help more in the parish of Dulce Nombre I am thinking of buying a used pick up, which will have to be four wheel drive to get through the muddy roads.

Life is hard, but the people have a deep faith and are very hospitable. Visiting with them has been a real blessing. Being able to help them with some projects has been a real gift from God.