Sunday, May 30, 2010


A lot has been happening in the last week - and so here's a disjointed blog entry.


It’s been raining here almost continually since Thursday – Tropical Storm Agatha. It’s been a personal inconvenience for me. From May 14 to 26 I was hosting people and on May 27 I went to Esquipulas, Guatemala, with an excursion of the staff of Caritas Santa Rosa. On May 28 I managed to wash a few clothes and hang them up to dry. But it poured and many of them are still wet, even though I’ve now hung them in a place protected from the rain.

But enough whining. The situation is serious throughout the Central American region with landslides, flooding and threats of dams breaking - as well as several deaths. A friend had to walk around a landslide to get through to a bus on the other side to get from Guatemala to El Salvador.

I saw a small indication of this yesterday on the way to Dulce Nombre to do a section of a workshop that morning. There was a tiny landslide at the place where the road to Dolores breaks off from the road to Dulce Nombre.

That afternoon I headed with Padre Efraín and Padre Julio to a celebration in El Progresso, Yoro, in the north of the country. As we passed over the Democracy Bridge over the River Ulua we noted how high the water was. (By the way, one lane of this bridge fell last May as result of an earthquake that hit the country.)

As we passed into town we could see streets flooded a few blocks from the river.

The situation is serious and there may be some emergency work that Caritas will need to do this week.


This area of the country is relatively safe, though I experienced a break in and robbery over a year ago.

But this week I heard a few disturbing reports.

The bishop’s secretary and her husband have a corner store (literally) in Santa Rosa, near the center of town. This week they suffered an armed robbery at about 6:30 Tuesday evening.

Monday, two of the St. Thomas visitors and I helped the Dulce Nombre parish agriculture project deliver about 19 sacks of fertilizer to the community of San Antonio, Dolores. The project bought them in quantity at a lower cost and is providing the fertilizer on simple and fair credit terms to help small farmers. I found out that five sacks of fertilizer were stolen from the church where they were stored.

The theft was reported to the police but I doubt they will make any serious efforts to investigate the crime. Some people in the village are investigating to see what happened but people are afraid to report crimes if they see them or to intervene in any way, since the justice system really doesn’t do much and people are afraid of reprisals from the criminals. This combination of the lack of a responsible judicial system and of a sense of responsibility to report crime is a major problem here.

I also heard that one of the motorcycles being used by the health promoters in the Caritas maternal and infant health program was stolen. The promoter was on the motorcycle when it was intercepted by a car who forced him off the vehicle and took it. Who did it? It’s hard to say. It’s in a zone where there is drug-trafficking but someone who had worked in that area with another aid agency knows of a case where the police were responsible for stealing a motorcycle nearby.

Which brings up another problem that plagues Honduras – drug-trafficking. Honduras is a transit point between Colombia and the US and a road in the department of Copán is one of the conduits for drugs to Guatemala and Mexico and eventually to the US. I’ve heard of involvement of political leaders and the presence of drug lords in some of the towns and villages there. But I have also heard recently that drug traffickers are moving into areas like Santa Rosa, buying some businesses as a way to launder drug money.
This could get very serious.

But in other parts of the country it’s worse. Thursday night eight people were killed in a brutal murder in Choloma, near San Pedro Sula. And there have been killings of at least six journalists here this year as well as threats and killing of some people involved in the Resistance to the coup and to the current government. International human rights groups are deeply concerned about these acts.


But in the midst of this several groups from the diocese went on Saturday to El Progreso, Yoro, east of San Pedro Sula in the north of Honduras. ERIC-SJ, a research, reflection, and communication project founded by the Jesuits was celebrating its thirtieth year.

The celebration started with a Mass, with the local bishop concelebrating with about twelve other priests. It was a moving Mass, not least of all because almost all the Mass parts were from the Salvadoran Campesino Mass, a Mass with extraordinary lyrics written in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is a real example of liberation theology and spirituality.

I was especially moved receiving Communion as we sang:

Hoy, Señor, tenemos hambre
de trabajo, techo y pan.
Danos ya tu cuerpo y sangre,
danos combatividad.

Today, Lord, we are hungry
for work, for a roof over our heads, for bread.
Give us now your Body and Blood,
Give us combativeness!

During the offertory of the Mass, many symbolic gifts were brought up with the bread and wine for the Eucharist. To remember those who have been killed since the coup, a group of women presented a banner of a young woman with the Resistance who had been killed.

After Mass, the celebration began – with six music groups. But before they started one of the MCs noted that Father Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the Salvadoran Jesuit university who was killed in 1989, said that while, we suffer, we must celebrate. Suffering should not define people as victims but, in the midst of this, they must (and they do) celebrate life and hope.

And this was a celebration of hope.

Father Melo Moreno, the Jesuit director of ERIC-SJ and Radio Progreso, who has been the target of death threats, spoke. He talked about the importance now of a continuing peaceful struggle.

The first group was Café Guancasco, a group of young Tegucigalpa guys, who played quite loud and rhythmic music, combing jazz and rock and who knows what else. The crowd responded spiritedly – wildly and rhythmically jumping up and down as they joined in the chorus of a song called “El club de los idiotas.” I couldn’t get the words, but I’m sure it was very critical of the coup and the current government! (I later found the words of this song: it's a biting critique of bourgeois society and the "high life style" of the rich and powerful!)

Between the acts the MCs talked about ERIC’s work and also warmed up the crowd by doing types of “call and response”interchanges with the crowd that is common here (and in other parts of the world). The most common one is “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencida” – the people united will never be defeated.

But the one I found fascinating was, in my translation, “When we listen with the ears of the poor, we become a people – el pueblo.” The word used is not “la gente” which seems to me to mean something like a group of individuals, but “el pueblo,” a people with an identity (and therefore a common purpose and a mission.) Listening from the standpoint of the poor can give us deep insights into the reality of the world and lead us to solidarity, becoming a real people who care for each other and work together for a world of love, freedom, and justice.

I ran into all sorts of people there - a Spanish Passionist priest from the department of Santa Barbara and a young man I'd met at a Caritas workshop, the brother of my neighbor across the road, a teacher at the school next to the kindergarten where I go, a worker with Caritas in Yoro, and Adrienne Pine whose blog Quotha has lots of great information on Honduras. Her most recent blog entry tells a little more about the celebration in El Progreso.

I left about 11:45 pm with Padre Efraín and Padre Julio; we got back to Santa Rosa about 2:30. Though I was exhausted it was for me an energizing experience.

The Mass was a highlight for me which was extended into the evening by the music. I was particularly moved when Carlos Mejia Godoy led the group in singing a song from the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass, “Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres” – You are the God of the Poor. (The Mass was written by his brother.) It is a song that emphasizes the identification of Jesus with the poorest, with the folks who sweat in the streets, sell lottery tickets, or work changing tires. Jesus identifies with the worker!

As I looked around I saw men and women, young and old, singing the song which they knew by heart.

I was especially impressed by the presence of young people – late teens and early twenties – who were obviously part of the resistance. In our area the Resistance is a lot less militant than in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and other places and I have not seen many young people here connecting with it. And so it was inspiring to see them there – many of them quite involved in the first song, but also some of them singing with gusto “Vos Sos el Dios de los Pobres.”

What signs of hope!

Incidentally, as the concert began the rain stopped. The rains resumed about 15 minutes before the concert ended. It rained all the way home to Santa Rosa and throughout the night. Today it's only been raining lightly on and off.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's real here in Honduras, part 2

I had tried to upload and format the previous post with photos but slow modem dial up and lack of computer savvy led to a blog entry with only a video, which does happen to be a first for me. But here are some photos from the immersion. The four participants are members of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa.

Bernardo playing with some kids in the kindergarten in Colonia Divina Providencia in Santa Rosa de Copán.

Kevin and Allyson moving rocks for the retaining wall for a futbol field on the parish ground in Dulce Nombre.

A music group in Las Delicias serenading us while we ate, with Bernardo joining in.

Padre Julio Galdámez encouraging the congregation at the Pentecost Vigil Mass in Dulce Nombre.

Children going up to greet Padre Efraín Romero during the Greeting of Peace in the town of Dolores on Pentecost.

Volunteer monitors in San Antonio, Dolores, Copán, weighing children as part of a program coordinated by Caritas of Santa Rosa de Copán and Catholic Relief Services.

Suyapa, a single mother of four, is a volunteer monitor in the AIN-C program coordinated by Caritas of Santa Rosa de Copán and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Note the CRS logo on her hat.

House made out of bajareque (mud and sticks) in San Antonio, Dolores, Copán

Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, bishop of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, gives a lesson on agricultural practices to the group visiting from St. Thomas.

What's real here in Honduras

The past 8 days I have been hosting a group from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames. During that time we’ve spent four days in the parish of Dulce Nombre.

One day we did some work on a retaining wall the parish is building for a small cancha, a futbol [soccer] field on the parish grounds as well for a wall of a kitchen and dining room the parish will be building to serve the parishioners who come in from the countryside for retreats and training sessions.

On Monday some of us helped in the distribution of fertilizer for the parish’s program for promoting family gardens and increasing production of basic grains.

My theology (I originally wrote philosophy) for visiting groups is that they come not so much to do something as to be here with the people. It is good that people have a chance to do something but I believe it should be doing something with Hondurans in one of their projects. I have some strong opinions on this which I’ll share in a later post.

This group spent Saturday morning visiting the rural village of Las Delicias, high up in the mountains of the parish, for a Mass with the villages of that sector of the parish. Padre Julio César Gáldamez took us out in the parish pickup and celebrated the Mass. After Mass, one of the families of Las Delicias gave us lunch. While we ate a conjunto, a music group, from town played. The hospitality of these people was,as customary, wonderful.


In the evening the group joined the people in Dulce Nombre for the celebration of the Vigil of Pentecost. People came in from several other towns and villages – 40 people from Vera Cruz in two cars (at least that’s what they told me), 60 from Dolores in a bus, and others from Candelaria and Plan Grande. We gathered at about 7:00 pm at a water tank up from the church and after prayer around a fire we walked in procession to the church.

The Mass, which lasted until almost 11 pm, was extremely spirited – with much singing led by a musical group from Dolores (which is influenced by the charismatic movement) and La Gran Familia, an extraordinary group of brothers and cousins from Plan Grande.

Here, especially in the countryside, the people often clap while singing. So the Mass was very spirited, especially since many of the hymns sang of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Father Julio was particularly animated as he led the people in song (and motivated the people listening to the Mass over the diocesan radio station.)

The Mass proved to be for many in the group a highlight, since it showed the deep faith and profound religiosity of the people, expressed in a very enthusiastic way.


Sunday the group went with the pastor, Father Efraín Romero, to Mass in Vega Redonda, a poor village in the midst of extensive grazing lands held mostly by five landowners. The group was welcomed warmly and, again, given a fine lunch by one of the families in the village.

In the evening we went to the nearby town of Dolores for a most spirited Mass, celebrated by Padre Efraín. This community has been influenced by the charismatic movement and has very spirited singing. But what surprised me was that as the sharing of the Peace of Christ began more than 40 kids ran – yes, ran – up the center aisle to greet the priest.


Monday two of the group stayed in Dulce Nombre for the morning since Carl Bern, a professor of agricultural engineering at Iowa State, wanted to spend time with Marcos who has been making silos and teaching others how to do it.

The three others of us went out to distribute fertilizer for corn production to various rural villages that are taking part in the parish’s agricultural program.

We delivered about 23 sacks of fertilizer to the town of San Antonio, Dolores, and the two students with me waited for the pick up to go back and get 17 sacks for a town up the hill.


For a while we sat on the steps of the church and I talked with Jaime, who is working with the project there. WE talked of many things, including coffee production. He has about a manzana and a half (about two acres) but only part of it is in production this year since he pruned some trees recently. This past year he got about 32 cargas (a carga is 200 pounds) from that manzana – but in good years he can get about 49. He proudly noted that he uses very little chemical fertilizer; he mentioned that those who use chemical fertilizer can get a little more than 50 cargas but the effects on the soil are disastrous.

Jaime sells his coffee to an intermediary for about $180 for a carga; the intermediary transports it to a nearby collection point in Dolores where the intermediary is paid about $185 to $195 per carga.

In August or July he can get $9 per carga from IHCAFE, the Honduran government coffee institute. if he presents the invoices. He called it a retención, a sort of retainer, possibly given after the coffee has been sold internationally.

What struck me is that he sells his coffee in the form of “café oro” – which means he has removed the pulp, he has dried the beans in the sun, and has removed the thin film around the coffee bean. If he had not taken the time and effort to do this he would have gotten a lower price.

After the Dolores plant receives the coffee, it is taken to a regional beneficio and then prepared to distribution.

As often in agriculture, even in the US, so many intermediaries get their share of the profits and little makes it back to the producer. Small niche coffee markets – such a s fair trade – make it possible for the small producers to get a good price, but that’s quite a long-term process.

After a while we walked around town with Belsi, one of the workers in the parish’s agriculture project.

We walked down to the school and spoke with one of the two teachers in the two classroom school, as the kids were having a mid-morning meal of soy milk, rice, and ticucos (a local corn and bean variant on tamales), provided with the aid of the World Food Program. Here there are two teachers for six grades with 83 students. But I was impressed that the classes are for about five and a half hours a day – in both the morning and the evening.

I asked about students going beyond sixth grade. Eight students walk about 40 minutes each way to the Centro Básico in Dolores for the equivalent of middle school. If they can go beyond that they have to go to Dulce Nombre or Santa Rosa.

This is the situation throughout much of the country, especially in the countryside. Usually no more than one-third of those who could go past sixth grade actually do so. The reasons are varied, including some failure to place value on education in some families. But access is also a real issue.

After leaving the school we walked down toward the cancha, the futbol field. On the way we met Suyapa. I noticed that she wore a shirt of one of the volunteer monitors for the maternal and infant health program Caritas is running. I talked to her about that and found that she was also involved in the parish’s agriculture project and teaches in the pre-kindergarten, as a volunteer. The municipal authorities, though, have recently been giving her a small stipend for this.) She’s a single mother with four kids but is involved in her community. I found out later that her husband was killed four months ago, as a result of one of the squabbles that often leads to violence here.

But she still struggles along – and supports her community.

When we got to the cancha we saw two other monitors of the program weighing babies in the porch of a house across the road. I dropped by and found that the three monitors in the village were attending 38 children! I took a few pictures of kids being weighed who were crying like made. (I don’t know if we three gringos scared them or what.)

I noticed that the monitors were wearing shirts of the program and noted that the shirts had the logo of Caritas as well as CRS (Catholic Relief Services, the US bishops’ international aid agency) which is supporting the program with its own funds and funds of the World Monetary Fund.

It’s good to see this work in progress in the rural communities, a small way to assist people in need.

In the afternoon we went out to two other places to distribute more fertilizer.


The group heads out to San Pedro Sula to leave early Wednesday morning to return to Iowa – to continue and deepen the solidarity between the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, with the Dulce Nombre Parish.

Recently St. Thomas sent the parish of Dulce Nombre an invitation to establish a relationship of partnership in solidarity. At the May 15 Dulce Nombre parish council meeting the approved the following statement to send to St. Thomas Aquinas.


Letter agreeing to form a partnership in solidarity

Brothers and sisters in Christ our Lord in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas,

We, the faithful of the parish “Dulce Nombre de Maria” [“Sweet Name of Mary”], in response to your letter of invitation, are pleased to form part of a partnership in solidarity, whose purpose is to strengthen the bonds of unity, partnership and the mission to extend the Kingdom of God, walking together as brothers and sisters to encounter the Lord through the interchange of culture and faith in the two sister/partner parishes, without borders that might separate us.

In our parish, we are organized in groups of brothers and sisters called church base communities led by coordinators, village council, pastoral workers trained to preach the Word of God, catechists for the religious education and sacramental instruction of children and adults.

We are organized in the Three-fold Ministry
  • a) liturgical: this includes celebration of Mass, celebrations of the Word, religious education, retreats, gatherings, sacraments , etc. [This also includes music.]
  • b) prophetic: planning of pastoral work. [This actually includes religious education.]
  • c) social: visiting the sick, helping those in need, attending to the material needs of the church, community projects, construction and repair of houses of prayer (churches). [This also includes a major agricultural project to improve production of basic grains – corn and beans – as well as to promote small family gardens.]
The territory of the church is very large. The work of evangelization is entrusted to men and women volunteers who, as committed lay persons, help our pastor [Padre Efraín Romero] and associate pastor [Padre Julio César Galdámez].

We thank St. Thomas parish for their material, economic, and human assistance, and the presence of a missionary, brother John [Donaghy] who carries out a full time work in our parish.

[We thank] the Catholic students of the university of Ames, Iowa, USA [Iowa State University] some of whom when visiting us have come to know about the work of our parish, our culture, and the religious life [of our people]. Joining us in our social work in their recent visits and their travel in the village of our parish. Thanks for their contribution.

We reaffirm our ongoing commitment to pray from our villages just as you pray for us in order that we may find strength around the Lord.

We share your thought that together we will achieve great things to strengthen our Catholic Church - a universal church without borders- and [to strengthen[ our cultures.

Our fervent desire is that it might become a reality what the apostle Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans 1: 8-15:
First, I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is heralded throughout the world. God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in proclaiming the gospel of his Son, that I remember you constantly, always asking in my prayers that somehow by God's will I may at last find my way clear to come to you.

For I long to see you, that I may share with you some spiritual gift so that you may be strengthened, that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by one another's faith, yours and mine.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I often planned to come to you, though I was prevented until now, that I might harvest some fruit among you, too, as among the rest of the Gentiles.

To Greeks and non-Greeks alike, to the wise and the ignorant, I am under obligation; that is why I am eager to preach the gospel also to you in Rome.
Greetings to your parish, thanks and greetings to the young students of the University of Ames, Iowa [Iowa State University] for having St. Thomas Aquinas as patron of students. He was the composer [author] of hymns and praise songs that we sing during the exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament and which show that “To have Jesus is to have everything.”

Separated by distance, united in faith and prayer, we will make real the partnership of solidarity in the Communion of Saints.

Let it be so.

Parish of Dulce Nombre de Maria


Photos from the May 2010 immersion can be found in a Flickr set of mine.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What are you looking for?

Yesterday, visiting the incredible farm of Moises in Mejocote, outside Gracias, Lempira, I saw again this incredible flower. I asked Carmela, Moises' wife, what it was called.

"Busca novio" or "Busca novia" - Looking for a fiancé(e).


PS - I'm NOT looking for a novia!

PPS - I need to do a post on Moises' farm which is a marvel; I'll try to write one and include photos before the end of May.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Understanding Honduras?

A small group from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames is visiting here for about about ten days. It’s different from some other groups since it includes two undergraduates, a graduate student in agricultural and bio-systems engineering who is from Uruguay, and a professor of agricultural engineering from Iowa State University.

Last night we sat down over a dinner of bread, cheese, and fruit to talk about the day and our experiences. I invited a young Honduran just finishing his industrial engineering degree at the Catholic University who is also very involved in his parish here in Santa Rosa de Copán.

After a bit of talking about everything – including soccer, of course, as well as his hopes to sometime study for a masters degree outside Honduras – he suggested we talk about politics. Great, I thought. Then he proceeded to ask the group about the recent British elections. Whoa! He revealed that he is very well read on international politics and recent news.

After a bit, I asked him to talk about Honduras. He expressed his concerns about corruption, the problems of the two main parties, his opposition to the coup, his analysis of former president Zelaya (He’s not very smart – but we don’t get smart people elected here. But at least he was trying to do something for the poor.)

But then he spoke of his concerns about the Lobo government, especially concerns that many have that the government will privatize Hondutel, the public phone company, and other publicly-owned enterprises.

That was, I think, a surprise to the professor and the grad student. The professor spoke of the commonly held belief in the US that competition will lower prices. The grad student, more knowledgeable of the state of “capitalism” in Latin American countries, mentioned that the private sphere is generally more efficient that the public sphere.

The discussion went in many directions at that point. I pointed out that in Honduras it’s not capitalism as in the US – it’s feudal capitalism, in a sense. The Honduran student spoke of the ten or fifteen families who own most of Honduras. I found an article by Leticia Salomon where she listed the coup supporters who own most of the private enterprises and communications media and read a few of the companies or franchises owned by the ruling elite.

But one thing the Honduran student said was critical and easily missed. One of his main concerns about the privatization of Hondutel as well the mining industry is that they take so much and give so little to Honduras. He expressed it in terms of not giving much to the Honduras government, but his concern was that these people and these companies do not contribute to the common good.

Whether they are efficient is another question, but questions of mere efficiency miss the critical point he was trying to make. Honduras is largely being used for personal and corporate profit – not for its good.

I need to return and reflect more on that conversation in the next few weeks, but the Honduran student’s remarks helped me analyze Honduras a little differently and how hard it sometimes is to see what is behind the anti-privatization thinking here.

The concern is that the common good – and the needs of the poorest – are being sacrificed for the enrichment of a few.

But as Pope John Paul II once said, “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Signs of resurrection

I spent Holy Week in the town of Vera Cruz, which is the main town in the municipality. It is a very poor municipal seat. The only businesses are pulperias (little mom and pop grocery stores) and two businesses that sell liquoir! There is a school up to the 9th grade but kids have to go to Santa Rosa or other towns for the Honduran equivalent of high school. Housing is poor and malnutrition is a real problem. It is a sad place and I felt the sadness during Holy Week – even in terms of the way people celebrated the liturgies. In some ways, I was shaken by the experience and it didn’t feel a lot like Easter.

This past weekend I was back, with Casey Young and Steve Nicoll from the West Des Moines Christian Church (Disciples of Cross) which is considering helping Vera Cruz rebuild its church, which is falling into ruins.

Casey knows the pastor of the Dulce Nombre parish, Padre Efraín Romero, from Casey’s time as a Peace Corps workers in San Luis, Santa Barbara, where Padre Efraín was before coming to Dulce Nombre.

What is unique, for Honduras, is that a Protestant church will be helping build a Catholic Church.

On Saturday, Padre EFraín, Casey and Steve, and I net with about 40 people from Vera Cruz in the church. The mayor and the vice mayor were there as well as many of the people who have roles in the church and the church community council. The people were quite attentive as the possibility of receiving help with the church was explained. A critical question was whether to repair the church or to tear it down and build a new church..

The mayor and others spoke of building a new church. Steve was very attentive and, as a sort of devil’s advocate, asked whether there might be feeling attached to the old church, which is sort of colonial in style. The people seemed in favor and the mayor asked for a vote. At that moment Doña Albertina rose and raised her hand to be recognized. I wondered whether she might have some real reservations since she does so much to clean the church and prepare it for services. But, no. She was the first to make known her rousing support for building a new church.

It was a sort of a resurrection experience. The people were animated at the chance of a new church and the fact that another church, a US Protestant church, was willing to help. Other hopes about development of the community were shared. It seemed like a new day.

Sunday morning I went back with Casey and Steve for the Celebration of the Word in Vera Cruz. There seemed to be a different spirit. The singing wasn’t all that good – but many joined in. Teodoso was back a one of the celebrators of the Word and Nelson came again from El Ocote to help in the celebration.

They asked me to read the Gospel before the celebration began. But as the second reading was being read, Nelson asked me to preach. Thanks be to God I had reflected on the readings during my morning prayer.

Today the Church here celebrates the Ascension, when Christ bodily ascends into heaven. I made a lot of points – which I can’t remember at this moment. But I recalled that Christ is no longer bodily with us. He had promised to send the Spirit to the community of disciples. Now the Church is the Body of Christ in history.

We are the Church, I reminded the people. We are called to renew the church. In Vera Cruz the challenge is to rebuild the church in two senses – the physical building, the templo, as they sometimes call it here, as well as the church, the Body of Christ. We are called to rebuild and renew both.

As I write this I recall the story of Saint Francis’ conversion experience in the church of San Damiano outside of Assisi. Francis, worn out from the experience of being a prisoner of war, is in some way trying to figure out what to do with his life.

As he prays before the Byzantine style crucifix he hears a voice: “Francis, rebuild my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruins.”

Francis proceeded to do just that. This dandy becomes a worker, hauling stones and rebuilding the church with his own hands. When I visited Assisi in 1973 I met a English-speaking Franciscan at the Church of San Damiano who said that Francis was doing exactly what he needed to do at that time. Francis was emotionally fragile and need physical work to pull him out of his depression and help him figure out where God was calling him. That seems such a good interpretation of the event.

A little bit later that day I went up to the grand basilica of Saint Francis and heard a Conventual Franciscan priest explained to a crowd of pilgrims that Francis got it wrong, at first. The call was to rebuild the church spiritually. At that moment – and even now – I think that priest got it wrong. Francis needed the physical labor at that time in his life.

And so, the work of rebuilding the church is two-fold – spiritual and material. We are body and soul. We are called to grow by loving God and loving our neighbor.

As Teodoso reminded us at that celebration, it’s two-fold – praying to God and working at it. The phrase used here is “a Dios rogando y con el mazo dando” – pray to God and work like mad – literally, hit it with a mallet.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The wisdom of the campesinos


Last Thursday I went to the village of Cementera where Caritas has a project on Community-based management of natural disasters. A team from El Salvador that is teaching the people how to make videos was having their second training day.

I’ve been to Cementera several times and know a few folks there, but this was different. Most of the twenty-some persons in the video production training are under twenty.

They had been divided into three teams to treat themes they chose – reforestation, the medicinal qualities of the orange tree, and preserving forest animals. It was amazing to watch them filming their community and trying to learn how to make short documentaries.

One thing that struck me was the enthusiasm of a number of the young people including Erlin who has one year left to finish high school, the two brothers Miguel and Denis, and eight year old Lenin.

But I also noticed how timid some of the young people are, especially the girls, as well as how hard it was for some of them to answer some basic questions on what had been explained to them the day before. I attribute the former to the low self-esteem that many people in the countryside suffer from since the poor are often looked down upon. The difficulty to answer basic questions is, I believe, due to the inadequacies of the Honduras educational system, where memorization is the preferred method of teaching and where many young people don’t go past the sixth grade.

But this community disaster management project can help with many things - not just how to deal with disasters. It's helping them take charge of their lives and value their dignity.

But it is also not just a project from institutions outside; it touches some of the wisdom that comes from within the community. Anselmo, the oldest person taking part the workshop, mentioned how his father who never had a training session but said that they had to leave a certain group of trees untouched, because “tree give life.” The wisdom of the ancients – at times, lost – need to be recovered. Projects like this may help that process.

Intellectual discussions

One thing I have missed here is the opportunity for many stimulating intellectual discussions. I don’t have many. Partly this may be due to the limitations of my Spanish, but I also have not met many people who really like these types of discussions. (I had one today over lunch with a young grad student from the U.S. doing research in Copán Ruinas.)

But during the Catholic Social Teaching workshop I facilitated for people from the rural sector of the cathedral parish I had one of the best intellectual discussions I’ve had for a long time. We spent over an hour trying to understand what social sin is. It was, fro me, a profound experience of real intellectual dialogue. But here’s the most important part. Of the twelve participants in the workshop there was only one professional, a retired teacher. My guess is that most of the others had less than six years formal education.

But it was a great discussion and I learned a lot from them and their wisdom.

The wisdom of the poor!

Monday, May 03, 2010


While Labor Day is celebrated in the US on the first Monday of September, most of the world celebrates May 1 as the Day of the Worker. What is ironic is that the celebration of international workers day has its origins in the Haymarket Square massacre in Chicago in 1886.

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I spent Labor Day with 12 campesinos in a workshop on Catholic Social Thought. One of the themes we treated was work.

I began the section on work with an activity. We stood in a circle and each person had to mime an activity from their daily labor. It was fascinating to see them mime planting, hoeing, sweeping, making tortillas, sawing, and more.

I then asked them what work they liked to do. One young woman told us she liked to sweep because she liked to have a clean house. Another told us she liked to make bread which she sells.

What I found refreshing was that they liked their work. They enjoyed basic manual labor, the daily tasks to sustain their lives.

When asked why they worked, the answers included:
  • If you don’t work, you don’t eat.
  • To entertain ourselves.
  • To relieve stress
  • To maintain the family
  • Because I like to be able to buy what I want, to have my own things
  • To serve
  • To earn some money
  • It’s an obligation.
In many ways their responses reflected what the US bishops had written in their 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All, about the significance of work (which comes also from Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens):
All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principal way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for oneself. It is for one's family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family.
Economic Justice for All, # 97, italics mine
We talked a bit about the ideal of work – how it is sharing in the creation of God. But we also discussed how work can be degrading. Here the list was long – and revealing.
  • Salaries are insufficient for a decent life.
  • There aren’t enough sources of work.
  • It’s hard to find stable, ongoing work.
  • Workers are looked down on.
  • Mistreatment
  • Violation of human rights, including the right to form unions.
  • Agricultural products don’t get a good price
  • There are not good markets for campesinos
  • The middle men buy products at a low price
  • Inputs (like fertilizer and seeds) are expensive
  • At times people are not paid on time
I asked about the maquilas, the clothing and other piece-work factories in places like San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. One person told me how the workers were either fired or docked pay if they didn’t participate in the marches last year of the “white shirts,” the marches for “peace and democracy,” which were really marches in support of the coup. And then he told how women in some factories of given birth control shots and how women were forced to have pregnancy tests in order to get a job. (The companies don’t want to pay for pregnancy leave, I was told.)

For me, the contrast between the satisfaction these people derived from their work and the grand injustices workers suffer is stunning – and, of course, unjust!

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Last Friday and Saturday I was busy with two workshops, where I was the major presenter – all in Spanish. (These people are really tolerant of my butchering of their language.)

The workshop for catechists began Friday morning in the Dulce Nombre parish. There were two locations for the workshop which lasted until noon Saturday. But I was only helping with the Friday morning session in Dulce Nombre.

On Monday Padre Julio César had suggested that I do something on the role of the catechist. I searched and searched and even asked help from Kathy White, the Director of Religious Education at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames. She sent me lots of good resources, but I found a prepared program from the US bishops in Spanish which I adapted.

As almost always I am overwhelmed by these people.

It was a small group – 22; they had expected 30. But many had come from distant villages, walking hours or finding a ride on the back of a pick up for an hour.

During the workshop some people shared how they became catechists. Dilia recounted how her older sister had been a catechist and so she wanted to do the same. After her first communion she started and has been a catechist for 14 years. She loves it and, she said, when she doesn’t teach a class on Sunday she feels a void in her life.

At the end of my presentation the catechists were invited to write a letter to Jesus expressing their commitment as catechists. Two women are illiterate and so I said they could draw or do whatever; God will read whatever is in your heart. But I was especially struck by an elderly catechist who I presume can read but can’t write very well. Her grandson, who was with her, wrote her letter as she dictated her thoughts to him. It was touching to see them working together.

I left about three o’clock to get to the other workshop that weekend. The priests at the cathedral parish in Santa Rosa had asked me to do a workshop on Catholic Social Teaching for the leaders of the social ministry in the rural sector of the parish. I gladly agreed.

But I worked my tail off. I know Catholic Social Teaching but choosing what to emphasize in two days and preparing it in a way that would be understandable were challenges. The day before the workshop I finally had the booklet prepared, but of course I didn’t use it exactly during the workshop.

They had expected 30 people but only 12 arrived. As a result we truncated the workshop to finish at 5:30 on Saturday instead of 1:00 on Sunday.

But what a group it was. What fun I had and I learned an awful lot from them.

The workshop was in progress when I arrived about 4. They were in middle of an intense discussion about the reality of Honduras with Ismael Garcia, a Caritas staff person. It was a heated discussion at times, especially when they talked about the role of the church. Some were concerned about the divisions in the church after the coup. Some were concerned that many of the lay people were not listening to the diocesan priests and the bishop, especially in regard to their opposition to the coup. That discussion could have gone on the whole weekend. But Father Henry, the associate pastor of the cathedral, suggested we move on.

And so I began my work, facilitating the sessions, using a popular education approach – lots of activities, questions and activities but not much lecturing.

There were a few things that struck me. One was the difficulty of understanding social sin and sinful social structures. I thought I knew what these are and could explain them. But they are not so easy to explain. We finally got around to using examples to help understand them. These helped me to distinguish between sins that have social consequences, sins that are social by nature (sins against justice and peace) , and structures of sin. I’m beginning to think that structures might also be discussed as cultures or customs of sin. They allow sin to take place, or encourage sins to take place, or make goodness difficult.

I had prepared a booklet – which I will be updating and working on – especially this section on Social sin. But the extended discussion we had really helped me clarify my thoughts. I couldn’t get to sleep right away after that discussion (partly due to dive-bombing insects where I was sleeping) and had time to work out a formulation which I shared with the participants the next morning. They had really helped me. (The poor are great teachers!)

We had morning prayer at 6:30 in the chapel where we were staying. Saturday was May 1, Labor Day, for almost all the world. (There were marches for labor rights and in support of the resistance throughout Honduras and there were marches in support of immigrant rights in the US!) The Catholic Church has taken advantage of this and made May 1 the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

And so we reflection on the gospel for the feast, Matthew 13: 54-58: Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth where his authority is questioned since his father was a carpenter among them.

I was deeply moved at the reflections – especially as I noted the image of Jesus the worker on the wall of the chapel: Jesus is there with his hoe and machete. I could not help recall the hymn from the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass: “Vos sos el Dios de los pobres.”

You are the God of the poor,
a God human and simple,
a God who sweats in the street,
with a tanned face;
that’s why I am talking with you
as I talk with my people,
because you are a worker God,
Christ the worker.

You walk hand in hand with my folk,
you struggle in the countryside and city,
you get into line in the camp
where they pay you your day’s wage.

I suggested we end our reflection with the hymn, which they sang heartily, though off-key.

That day, after we worked on the basic principles we treated two major themes, work and the land: work which was appropriate for the day and land, which was appropriate for these people, campesinos.

Talking about caring for creation I mentioned ecological agricultural practices. But I was challenged – a challenge I had partly anticipated - by Rigo, one of the participants ,who informed me that many campesinos work on rented land and therefore it makes no sense for them to initiate expensive practices which won’t benefit them in the future. I was partly ready for this since the next theme was the unjust distribution of the land, but I was surprised at the responses to the informal poll I took. Not a single one of the seven men who farmed worked on land they owned. Three had some land where they planted coffee but not one of them had their own land to plant the basic crops of corns and beans. They have to rent the land – for about $105 a manzana (1.68 acres). Thus there is no incentive for long-term improvements to the land.

After this dicussion, I changed a bit what I had planned to do in this section and shared the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21. The king wants Naboth’s land but Naboth doesn’t want to sell it because it’s been in his family for ages. So the queen arranges to have Naboth killed and the prophet Elijah comes in and chews them out in very strong terms. We reflected how this is related to the situation here. In most of the villages where these people live just a few families own most of the land; in addition, large land owners have come in and cut down forests so they can graze cattle. Land grabbing is the norm – not sharing the goods of the earth.

After this I shared with them the strong statements of the church for land reform, but I know that is a long-term struggle here in Honduras. And I'm not sure how many people in the church are willing to stake their lives struggling for this.

At the end of the workshop we came back to the theme of politics and the right and duty of all to participate in politics (in the broad sense) to promote the common good. We got back to the question of the church and political opinions. Rigo again impressed me as he spoke of the need for the laity to speak their mind. It was encouraging to hear someone with a critical consciousness.

The workshop ended with Mass and I left wishing we had had more time. They were so much fun to be with and I wish I could get to know them more. (But at Mass Father Henry encouraged them to invite me when they replicate the workshops in their sectors of the parish.)

They are probably not a representative group since they are involved in the social ministry in their rural villages, though one woman told me that before the workshop she had thought of social ministry almost exclusively in visiting the sick.

On a personal note, I was very pleased that during the evaluation they liked the methodology we used. I guess I managed to find a few good ways to get the message across. They also thought I was clearer than some presenters they’ve had – even though they suffered my grammatical errors. At one point we laughed when I spoke of the holy potato (la papa) instead of the pope (el papa), an error I quickly corrected!

I returned home exhausted but feeling very blessed.