Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More workshops

Workshops are a major part of life here when you are working with groups. Some are good, others...

This past weekend I participated in two different workshops which I found helpful.

From Friday evening to Sunday morning I participated in an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop in Gracias, Lempira, which Sister Nancy had arranged with Val Liveoak who works for the Project. There were two other facilitators of this process that helps develop skills for transforming situations of conflict and potential violence. The project started in prisons in New York State after the Attica riots when prisoners asked for training in conflict resolution. It’s now in about fifty countries and has been in El Salvador and Guatemala for several years.

The workshop closed with a ceremony in which we joined our hands together to show the importance of solidarity and working together for real alternatives to violence.

It was a good experience and I hope I can help arrange workshops here in Santa Rosa. All of us need to learn skills to deal with conflict. And in Honduras there is a great need, not only interpersonally but also in the society which has been torn apart by the coup. But, as this project and other projects note, this peacemaking must be based in justice – for, I believe, you cannot make peace if injustice and inequality are accepted as normal.

I left the workshop about 11 am and rushed (by bus) to Santa Rosa where I helped a workshop being held by the Social Ministry of the cathedral parish of Santa Rosa de Lima. Three of us who had received training from World Vision in January had planned the workshop but I was only able to help with the last part, talking about community and parish responses to HIV and AIDS.

There were 23 participants in this workshop, most members of the cathedral parish – an interesting mix of youth and adults, mostly women but with a good representation of males. I was pleased to see the enthusiasm and their desire to do something.

These “Channels of Hope” workshops always close with a ceremony of light which is quite moving. This time, though, I thought a lot about a former Iowa State University student whom I had known in campus ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas. After several years working in the corporate world she spent one year with Catholic Relief Services in Africa and is now working in Kenya as a Maryknoll lay missioner, working in the AIDS orphan project in Mombasa. Check out her blog here.

I shared with the people here the commitment of the Catholic Church in Africa with people infected with or affected by HIV and AIDS. I challenged them to be a church that responds to these people who have been marginalized.

I have recently heard several stories of the marginalization of people infected with HIV and their families locally. People are shunned and even shut up into rooms. Recently no one attended the wake of one person who died who was HIV+. What a shame and a sin.

Violence and HIV are just two of the many problems here, exacerbated by the injustice and poverty. These workshops are small efforts to begin the process of rebuilding Honduras, or – as people in the Resistance say – refounding the country.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Should I have asked the question?

Today I spent about 45 minutes with the staff of a Caritas program on infant and maternal health in the department of Copán.

The program is financed by the World Bank and Catholic Relief Services is the intermediary with Caritas Santa Rosa and does provide monitoring, training, and some extra funding. It's purpose is to reduce infant mortality. The program works with the government’s Ministry of Health and, luckily, works very well with that government agency in Copán. The program has its limitation since it’s mostly concerned with training volunteers in poor villages to monitor the weight, height, and general health of pregnant women and infants under two.

There are two coordinators who work in the field with 14 promoters who work with the monitors and so are potentially serving hundreds of children.

I wanted to talk with them briefly, reminding them how important their work is and recognizing the difficulties they face working in remote villages.

To help them reflect on their work, I asked them, “Can you tell me a person or an event that has touched you deeply?”

As I listened I wondered whether I should have asked the question.

One young man told me how he walks four hours to get to one of the villages he serves, walking through rivers. He then has to return back the same day! He invited me to join him the next time he goes.

Another young man told me about an infant in one village who was vomiting and had diarrhea. He had referred the mother to the local health clinic but she didn’t have the money to pay for transportation. People put together their funds and managed to collect enough so she could go to the clinic.

In one village one of the volunteer monitors has two children who are underweight. She has no food to give them.

Another monitor told the Caritas worker that a small stipend given him had been enough to him to buy a fifty pound bag of beans for his family.

The workers would have gone on but I had to go to another meeting. I ended by reminding them that when they weigh an infant they should recall that in some real way they are weighing Christ.

I’m not sure I could have handled many more of these stories. I am near tears as I write this. But as I recounted some of these stories to Padre Efraín, the director of Caritas, we recalled that we are trying to get support for programs of food security for these communities, but he reminded me this is, above all, a structural problem.

The economic, social, and political structure here in Honduras keeps these people in poverty. That’s why some people I know support the Resistance. They see the need for a real change in their country that will address these needs.

This afternoon I asked one question which affected me deeply.

But there is another question, which all of us who are privileged as I am, need to ask and respond to with critical decisions, "Why does this continue? Why don't these people have the land, the food, the houses, the work they need and deserve to live a decent life?"

When these people suffer, Christ suffers.

As the martyred Jesuit Padre Ignacio Ellacuría asked, "What am I doing for the crucified peoples of this world, taking them down from their crosses?"

And when will we work to change this system that crucifies so many innocents?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Coup – almost a year later

One year ago next Monday Honduras entered a new and distinctive phase of its history. Before 6 am, Mel Zelaya, the president of Honduras, was whisked out of the country by military forces and, after a number of maneuvers by congress Roberto Micheletti was declared president.

Micheletti left power – with a record of human rights violations including closing news media. A number of people were killed by police or military forces during his time as de facto president. After an election in November, Pepe Lobo was sworn in as president in January of this year. Since that time there have been deaths of nine journalists, a dispute over land in the Bajo Aguan that has left several people dead, more widespread presence of drug traffickers, and other events that have, in my opinion, made Honduras less secure than before the coup.

A big surprise for many was the rise of the Resistance. Some try to reduce the Resistance to the followers of Mel Zelaya, but the issue is much more complicated than one person. It has to do, I believe, with a history of control of political and economic power in this country by elites, enhanced by the presence of the two major political parties in control.

What has this year meant for the poor?

That’s hard to tell because the global economic downturn has also affected people here.
Just today I talked with a woman whose two nephews had returned from working in the United States for some time. They had saved their money and so hope to set up small businesses here to eke out a living. But they returned because the job market was poor and they were getting lower wages.

The other day I also heard the report of a teacher in a rural village who laments the fact that the children come to school hungry and there’s no nutritious snack to give them. She also noted that there also used to be two teachers in the school where she teaches.

The continuing politicization of public service jobs continues. In a meeting today a woman related how she recently lost her job in the women’s office of her municipality because she didn’t belong to the new party in power.

In the midst of this the country has suffered serious weather problems. During the week I was in the US earlier this month, it rained almost every day in our area. Bridges have fallen, landslides have blocked roads (including for some hours the road into Copán Ruinas, a major tourist attraction – the Mayan ruins), loss of water systems, and – tragically – crop loss. The loss of corn and bean crops is disastrous since most of these plots are for the sustenance of poor families, many of which have rented the land and bought (often on credit) the seeds and fertilizers for that plot. It is probably too late for them to replant for this season and so they may have to rely on assistance from outside sources. (I’ll check this with some folks tomorrow to see if my evaluation is accurate.)

But then there’s futbol, the World Cup. Honduras has lost its first two games and there’s one more tomorrow. Tomorrow’s game is at 12:30 and I expect most of the country will be shut down while all watch with bated breath. And so the President and many government leaders are in South Africa watching the events. ("Fiddling while Rome burns" is probably a too harsh way of putting it."

But I do have to admit that I am beginning to find futbol interesting and I’ll try to find a way to follow tomorrow’s game for at least a few minutes.

But what will happen next?

I don’t expect much change for the poor to come from the government, though I would gladly be surprised. Pepe Lobo has said many surprising things.

As for the Resistance, that’s an open book. A friend attended a recent forum here in Santa Rosa with representatives from the Resistance talking about their plans and strategies, etc. He walked up to a campesina woman there and asked her what she was thinking about. “En comer” – “About eating” was her response. Reflecting on her remark, my friend suggested, basic needs are not being met and if the Resistance and other groups opposed to the coup want to make a difference they need to address this basic need.

Making change?

There’s also a need to help people take charge of their lives. Today I went with a representative of Caritas Norway to one aspect of the project they are sponsoring with Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. We visited with a group of 19 women from several areas who are organized to address women’s rights in their municipalities. It was inspiring to hear several of the women speak of their struggles and to know that they and others are trying to form spaces of local political participation, not limited to the traditional political parties.

The poster reads "I am woman and I learned to be a citizen when I got to know and demand my rights."

Tomorrow the Caritas Norway representative will go to one of the nine “Schools of Governability and Participation” being run by Caritas. These schools, with about 20 persons attending each site, are composed of five sessions on themes like human dignity, human rights, democracy, participation, public advocacy, and more. They offer hope for small efforts that may make a difference in people’s live.

One other piece of good news. Next month the diocese will begin a program of training leaders in Catholic Social Teaching. There will be three diocesan workshops for deanery lay leaders and they and others will offer three workshops in six other sites in the diocese. The project is partially supported by the US Bishops’ Latin America Collection. (Catholics, thanks for donating to that collection!)

I have been doing a lot of reading in Catholic social thought for the past few months, since I’ll be a part of this effort. What I find reassuring is that, at least on paper, there’s a real commitment to the poor and to major social change in these documents. I also have been surprised at the relevance of the writings of the early church fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine) on issues of private property and social inequality. (Charles Avila's Ownership: Early Christian Teaching is an eye-opener.) Their positions are, in my mind, closer to liberation theology (and the position of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán) than to the proponents of neoliberalism and advocates of an absolute right to private property. But more on that later.

One last item of interest. Pepe Lobo's government has proposed a "Truth Commission" supposedly to look into the events of last year. The Resistance has named its own commission which has two priests and two Nobel laureates. My friend, Padre Fausto Milla, is the Honduran priest on this alternative commission. For a look at the members of both commissions, look at the Honduras Culture and Politics blog entry on the two commissions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A week away - grace abounds

Last Thursday I picked up and left Honduras for seven days – purportedly to go to the fortieth anniversary of my graduation from the University of Scranton.

The reunion was fascinating. The University of Scranton has changed from about 1800 male undergraduates to 4000 plus undergraduates of both sexes. There are lots of new buildings and two new buildings in the works. The new student center is huge and, for me, over the top in terms of luxury.
About 22 alums of the class of 1970 showed up. We were the class that was somewhat transitional - the war, the draft, the changes and challenges of the late 1960s affected us.
A number of classmates I knew have died and others didn’t show up for various reasons. But there were some I remembered well, others I vaguely remembered, and others I remembered when I saw the 1970 yearbook pictures. Some are doctors, lawyers, professors, and other professionals; some are retired.

Joe Cimini (left) and Joe Castine (center) were two classmates I remembered well. (Joe was one of the activists then.)

Dinner was at "the estate," a home built by the Scranton family but which was the Jesuit residence when I was at Scranton. Now it's the admissions office.

Here’s the photo of the larger before dinner on Saturday night. Note that I’m the only one without a sport coat.

But there were other joys of my visit – meeting several University of Scranton professors interested in Latin America, meeting retiring professors Steve and Ellen Casey, and having dinner with some old friends who had been active with the Scranton Fellowship of Reconciliation. I'm hoping to get back to Scranton in October when I make my visit to family near Philadelphia and to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa.

Monday was a real highlight for me. I decided to visit Brother Joe Trunk, OFM, a brother who worked at the farm in Callicoon, NY, during my high school and two years of college in the seminary there.

He’s 90 years old and is only slowing down a little bit. Until two years ago he was the vicar of the community at the retirement home and infirmary of the Holy Name Province Franciscans in Ringwood, NJ. Now he is in a wheel chair but is on the internet with a sprightly mind and a great spirit. We talked of many things, including reminiscing about John Hickey, a seminary classmate of mine who died last year. Brother Joe has been a real blessing to so many people. It was a blessing to talk with him.

I also saw two of my high school teachers there but didn’t have a chance to talk with them.

After that I spent time with a good friend of mine whom I met at Don Bosco camp in the summer after fifth grade, I think. Msgr. Tim Shugrue is in a parish in Cranford, NJ, and so he treated me to a great Italian meal and was an incredible host, getting up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am yesterday to take me to the Newark airport.

But on Tuesday I took a quick trip into New York City, a place I love (but I don’t think I could live there again,)

I visited another seminary classmate, now a lawyer. I also visited Sebastian Yacklin, a former Iowa State University student, whom I got to know at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa, where he was involved in the Service team.

He’s volunteering at Covenant House and had the day off. We ended up walking around, mostly in the East village area, as he endured me showing him some of my haunts when I was in the City between 1970and 1974.

I wanted to show him McSorley’s Old Ale House on Seventh Street. We entered had a beer and talked a bit. As we left I suddenly remembered a time I had come to McSorley’s after classes in the fall of 1972, I think. A new guy had begun classes and he and I sat and talked at length.

At that time I as a bit estranged from the Church, mostly because of the church’s failure to be forthright on the Vietnam War. Joe and I talked and sometime afterwards we talked more. He led me back to the practice of my faith – partly through attending Masses with the Little Brothers of the Gospel, then in the Lower East Side, and through a retreat at the Benedictine Monastery of Mount Saviour.

As we left I identified what I thought was the table we philosophers sat around that night and remembered the grace of God that brought me back.

And so, thanks be to God!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

And now for something completely different

Today I went with two Caritas staff members and a recently arrived “cooperante” from Progressio to Plan de Socorro.

Fernando, the cooperante, a Colombian who has worked for Progessio for several years with indigenous groups in Ecuador, will be with Caritas Santa Rosa de Copán for at least two years. His role is to help Caritas as a sort of in-house consultant. Progressio, a British based organization (which used to be called the Catholic Institute for International Relations) provides well-trained professionals to help organizations in many parts of the world.

But what was most interesting was a conversation in the pick up on the way from Plan de Socorro on, believe it or not, courting practices. The discussion started while noting the limited opportunities for young men and women in their rural home villages to find suitable mates.

Ismael, from Esperanza, Intibucá, told of one custom there. On Sunday many of the indigenous peoples come into Esperanza for the market. The fathers carefully watch over their daughters. But the young men have found a way around this to indicate they are interested in a young woman. As they pass through the market they furtively give a peach (durazno) – to the young woman they are interested in.

Ismael mentioned that he knew someone who once bought a dozen peaches and went through the market passing them out. ¡Que pícaro! What a rascal!

The other custom comes from Guarita, Lempira.

If a young man wants the hand of a young woman he will throw a handful of firewood at the house of the woman sought after. If the firewood is used within two weeks, that means that his offer is accepted.

Fernando and Ismael re talking about collecting these and other like stories of courtship customs in the western part of Honduras, publishing them and then having me translate them into English for publication. Sounds fun. But I told them I’d publish them in my blog tonight and they seemed to have no problem.

Watch for later installments.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

One hundred twenty one years ago today Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins died.

I’ve liked his poetry for many years, but I’ve not always understood it. What moves me is his celebration of creation where God shines through.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God” begins the poem “God’s grandeur.”

Another poem, “Though art indeed just, Lord,” written in a time of desolation, ends with the poignant phrase “send my roots rain.”

And, in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” he writes
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places.
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Hopkins seems to have been a bit melancholic but it is reported that on his death bed he commented, “I am so happy.”

Where is happiness?

For me, it's being with the poor, the marginalized, who are the salt of the earth!

Friday, June 04, 2010


Okay, not more about the weather.

It stopped raining and I was able to get most of my clothes washed and dried on Wednesday.

We’ve had some very hot days, though, and the typical later afternoon or evening torrential showers. Today, however, the rains started at 1:15 pm and I got soaked walking to Caritas. (I need a new umbrella!)

But what I really wanted to mention is what Ismael, a Caritas worker in Community-based management of natural disasters told me yesterday. This week he went with some of the government disaster management people in the department of Lempira to assess the damage.

There are bridges and storm drains damaged by the rains as well as some houses and crop damages. He mentioned that in some places the rivers had risen one meter higher than they had during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. But the people were better prepared and so the loss of life was relatively lower.

This points to the value of some programs that may not have shown immediate results. However, the people seem to have learned a bit about how to deal with natural disasters.

Ismael will be passing on to me the results of their assessment. Caritas will be working with the Honduras national Caritas office and perhaps with Catholic Relief Services if there are needs that should be addressed.

More later.