Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wisdom and generosity

It’s been more than a week since I last wrote because it’s been quite a busy time. And so this post is a little in the stream of consciousness style.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was out in Erandique, in the department of Lempira, for another Catholic Social Teaching workshop in the new deanery of San Sebastián.Erandique is in the mountains of center of the department of Lempira. The area has a high concentration of indigenous people, Lenca, and is quite remote. The place where the indigenous leader Lempira was killed is within the parish boundaries. For information on the killing of Lempira, check out this blog.

Again it was great to spend time with committed people in the countryside.

The two men who led the workshop did a fine job, yet I noticed here that several of these leaders have a hard time reading aloud. I mentioned this to the local pastor, Padre Diomis, and he discussed how the very low educational level of people in this region makes pastoral work hard.

To help the workshop Padre Diomis and I led a few sessions.

He led the discussion about the current reality of Honduras. One thing he said impressed me, “It’s not important that Zelaya returns but that Honduras is re-founded and that we change the history of the country. Until the people wakes up, the people will continue being deceived.”

I really enjoyed sharing with these people. As I look back I realized that I was using a lot of stories to help illustrate concepts, even at times hamming it up. Almost everyone loves a story and stories help people understand.

One activity I had the people do, in order to understand the concept of integral development was to have the participants work in three groups and provide a list of three things they’d like to see in their community in 2015. The lists are interesting since they cover the whole range of human life:
  • Free of alcoholism
  • A better infrastructure
  • A church committed to human social development
  • Food for everyone and all living in community
  • Schools and electricity
  • More people trained for pastoral work
  • Everyone conscious of integral development - based on the common good and the Gospel
  • All of us seeking social justice
  • All in solidarity – helping neighbors in their needs
After this I proceeded to talk about the need for social ministry to embrace works of charity, works of justice, and integral human development in community.

In the US Catholic social justice community we’ve long been speaking about the two feet of social ministry – charity and justice. (A Davenport, Iowa, diocesan priest who worked with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development developed the concept.) But working here I’ve begun to think that a better image would be a three-legged stool.

I’ve seen a few of these round seat and three legged stools. I was explaining this to the Caritas staff on Monday morning during a short session we have each week on Catholic Social Thought. Fernando mentioned that three-legged stools, etc., have more stability than four-legged chairs. Misael mentioned that many campesinos would prefer a three-legged stool since you can put it anywhere and it is stable; you don’t need a flat surface. (I‘ve got to investigate this a bit more.)

But what is fascinating is the name for these stools. In the Intibucá workshop they told me they are called “zancudos” – mosquitoes!

That’s an even better image – social ministry is a mosquito that can bite you and infect you – not with dengue, but with the desire for justice and the common good.

But I would have never come to this understanding without the people here. They might not have much formal education and may have trouble reading in public, but many of the leaders in the church are quite insightful.
And they are very generous people – not only church leaders.

Thursday I set out for San Marcos Ocotepeque and Nuevo Ocotepeque. I first stopped at Tecno Diesel since there was a problem with the pickup. Elmer, the young mechanic, fixed it quickly – it was only a false contact. I had feared that it was a major problem. And there was no charge.

I started out on the road south from Santa Rosa. To call it a road is an overstatement. For large sections, it’s more potholes than paved road. I hit one deep pothole very hard and guess what? Yes, a flat tire.

I found decent place to stop and got out and looked for the jack. Though the previous owner told me there was one, there wasn’t. What was I to do. I asked a man nearby; he looked but his car’s jack had been stolen. What to do. Finally a relative of the first guy came by. Denis offered to go get a jack from his father about five minutes away. He got it and proceeded to change the tire, while three of his nephews (sons of the first man I met) looked on. He did almost all the work. As I left I tried to give him a little money but he refused. What generosity!

The day sent fairly well after that but I left Ocotepeque late, partly because I was waiting to see if a young man who worked with the Caritas project there needed to go to the hospital in Santa Rosa for possible appendicitis. He didn’t need to go and so I left at about 4:45 pm. It was a good two and half hours back – up the long mountain road from Ocotepeque (crossing the continental divide) and then up and down several mountains. Darkness came as well as dense fog in places and lots of driving rain. All this and the obstacle course of potholes made it a tense trip. I was glad to get back and treated myself to a pizza.

It’s been raining a lot here and there is serious flooding in the north of Honduras and other places. In a few places people have lost their homes due to the floods. In one place nearby a woman and her child were swept away, presumably while crossing a creek.

These intense rains will affect the later harvest of beans in some places – another problem for people seeking to feed their families.

In the midst of this I feel even more the call to be here – to be a witness, to accompany the people in their struggles, and to be amazed at the wisdom and the generosity of these people.

And so today’s first lectionary reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians touched me deeply:
“God has chosen what the world considers foolish to shame the wise; he has chosen what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God has chosen common and unimportant people, making use of what is nothing, to nullify the tings that are.”
1 Corinthians 1: 27-28

That is my experience here in Honduras, a country with a strong sense of class. The poor are stigmatized as lazy, stupid, brutal, shameless, dirty, and more. Sure, there are lazy, stupid, brutal and shameless people among the poor – as well as among the rich. But the poor are stigmatized.

The Caritas diocesan "schools" of governability and democracy which are being held in nine places in the diocese start dealing with the demeaning of the poor and the stigmatization in the society to help the people realize their own dignity, their worth, and their value.

That is an essential starting point for a new Honduras.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Disparate realities

The life of the poor in Honduras is in serious danger this time of the year.

Last week I talked with a number of people working in the maternal and infant health project at Caritas. The Copán group had just been monitored but the only area where they failed was in terms of the development of the children. Many people don’t have enough food to feed their family – since their stored grain from the last harvest has run out and the harvest is still a few months away. One of the volunteers in one village started crying and told one of the Caritas workers that she had nothing to eat in the house.

Last week in Lepaera one pastoral worker from an aldea [village] of the Gracias parish asked me about how he could get vegetable seeds since there were nine severely malnourished children in his village.

Monday one of the coordinators of the maternal and infant health project shared that severe malnutrition in Honduras is at about 38%, which is one of the highest in Latin America.

That’s one side of what’s happening here.

I saw another side this week when I went out to two remote areas of the diocese to accompany workshops in two deaneries on Catholic Social Teaching, one of the ways we are trying to help people respond to the reality – helping them discover ways to respond as responsible Christians and citizens.

In the heart of the Lenca

The Lenca is one of the indigenous groups in Honduras – but a group that has lost its language (or, rather, had its language taken away from them). There are some customs that have been preserved and a particular style of speaking Spanish that distinguishes some of the Lenca. In some parts of the departments of Lempira and Intibucá, many women wear colorful hand-woven headscarves and pleated colorful dresses, often with prints of flowers. (See some of my photos from San Francisco Opalaca.) There are also groups seeking to preserve the people’s identity.

I spent two days in the village of El Tablón in the municipality of Yamaranguila in the department of Intibucá with eleven pastoral workers from the department for a workshop on Catholic Social Teaching.
The village of about 60 families and 450 people has no electricity though it has a school that offers classes from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. The parish of Nuestra Señora de Esperanza holds many of its trainings here and offered the site for our workshop.

The workshop went well with lots of participation.

Before and during the workshop I had the chance to listen to what people think about the situation here. The opinion was unanimously against the coup and for a national constituent assembly.

What struck me was their reasonableness and level-headedness – unlike a few heavy-handed ideologues I’ve met.

When one of the facilitators shared the analysis that was shared at the diocesan meeting (based on the article “The Original Sin of Honduras,” talking in part of the situation of a country with about ten families with most of the power while the majority have little share of the resources. One participant noted that this is what people are afraid to talk about, because they are afraid of war.

But the participants are people committed to change their country based in their faith commitment to a liberating God.

In the south of Lempira, near the border with El Salvador

Thursday I went to the workshop in the south of the department of Lempira, near the border with El Salvador

I left early in the morning for the workshop in the town of Tomalá in the south of the department of Lempira. I got lost and also had to stop to put air into a nearly flat tire in San Marcos Ocotepeque.

But that was only the beginning of the adventure.

The road was paved for a bit after San Marcos – and then the fun began. They are preparing to pave the road but in places there was deep mud; I had to cross three streams, and then it was a trick trying to stay on the road and find a place amid the ruts and potholes, and in places the side of the hill. Though I didn’t use four wheel drive, I made it through.

Friday I had a flat tire but a local tire repairman fixed it. Roberto got a chance to practice his English on me since he had spent three years in the states – legally. He was the third young man I met who had spent time in the US. All had returned to Honduras willingly – pulled by family concerns.

The trip back to Santa Rosa was another adventure. The road is mostly a disaster. And the car overheated.

But it was worth the trouble. Though the road was terrible, the view was awe-inspiring. And the workshop went well.

Beside Padre Ildefonzo Mejía, pastor of Guarita, one of the parishes in the deanery, there were fifteen participants from the three parishes with a real mix of people, including five women and three young people.

They are pastoral workers and have a very strong social conscience and have been very participative.

The methodology of Catholic Social Thought is “see, judge, and act.” So, after a general introduction, the participants broke into groups to do their analysis of the reality. They are very aware of the huge breach between the few rich and the poor majority as well as the corruption.

They broke for lunch but, before we ate, Ester shared with me a song she had written years before, as a result she said of having only tortilla and salt to eat. (I may translate it later.)

The afternoon, during discussions of aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, I heard also some interesting analysis. Several spoke of injustices not just in the political sphere but also in the family. The critical perspective these pastoral workers have is not restricted to the political sphere, probably because it comes from a deeper source – their faith.

What is clear is that many leaders in the church in this diocese are opposed to the current situation and are in favor of a constitutional assembly. But it gives me hope to see real thoughtfulness and a desire to participate in the process.

They see it as an ongoing struggle – always in the light of the Gospel.


Side note: Thursday evening in Tomalá they watched “¿Quién Dijo Miedo?” – a pro-Resistance documentary. The appearance of one of the workshop’s participants on the screen in a Santa Rosa demonstration was duly noted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sources of hope and strength

Obviously my faith gives me strength and hope but sometimes – many times – I need much more. “O you of little faith,” Jesus complained to his disciples.

It may also be that I am a little thick and easily forget the way God gives me strength and hope.

But the past few days I have been blessed.

It’s not been easy for me in the past few weeks and a confrontation with two people on Thursday made it all the worse.

But God kicked me in the butt - again.

A Social Teaching Workshop

Thursday and Friday we had the first of our deanery workshops on Catholic Social Teaching in Lepaera, Lempira.

Three lay persons, campesinos whose main work is agriculture, had gone to the diocesan workshop and were responsible for the diocesan workshop. They had studied the booklet I had put together to help plan the deanery workshops.

They did a marvelous job – with some pretty difficult content. It was obvious that they understood most of the material and were taking their role seriously. They didn’t just use the material; in several cases they added their own commentary and one even found a scriptural quotation to explain commutative justice. I didn’t write it down but it’s from one of the Wisdom books and speaks of the problem of unjust scales –using one that gives the sinner the advantage when buying and a different one when selling. Brilliant – and a sign that Wilmer knew what he was talking about.

I also spent time listening to some of the people's concerns and complaints, several times on the patio of the parish center overlooking the 17th century church with Puca mountain in the distance.

Some schools have one professor for 8 to 12 students – but not here. They spoke of teachers with 50, 80, or even 120 students.

A public health nurse has responsibility for six communities with about 2000 people in all.

One man approached me to see if there was a way to get vegetable seeds for his community, because there are 9 severely malnourished children there.

But the clincher for me was this story.

An poor electrician in a major city was contracted by a rich family to do some electrical work. He brought his lunch with him, not expecting to be fed. But the family’s dog ate his lunch. The wife was distraught and called her husband. “What am I doing to do? The dog ate the electrician’s lunch. The dog will be poisoned.”

What fear! What disrespect, discrimination, and classism! How different from my experience. They poor have shared so much – food, faith, and wisdom among other gifts.

The coming week I am off to two remote areas of the diocese for workshops in other deaneries. I need to keep my mind and heart open to listen to other wisdom that comes from the poor.

Dulce Nombre on Saturday

Saturday morning I decided to go out to the parish of Dulce Nombre. There was no activity planned but I wanted to go out and try to see some folks and catch up on what’s happening.

I first went to the Maestro en Casa program which is a type of distance learning education program promoted by the church and which the sisters in Dulce Nombre are facilitating there.

We’re working on a project to connect the young people there with the young people in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames thought the internet. I’m not sure if it will be through e-mails or, as someone suggested, through a joint blog.

I spoke with two groups – the 7th and 8th grade classes. The 8th graders were interested and asked a number of good questions. The 7th graders were a little rowdy and I had to gently ask one of the girls three times to listen. They were working on music and learning the scale. So I decided that before talking about the project we’d do some work. So I sang and had them sing the scales! For me it was a lot of fun.

I then went to the parish center and found Franklin, one of the young employees in a parish agriculture project. I noticed he had his elbow bandaged. He proceeded to tell me that his knee was also bandaged. On the motorcycle going out to the villages he ran into a cow!

We talked about the possibilities of getting an organization founded by some friends to help them with some drip irrigation projects. It was a very productive meeting and I hope I can help arrange the help of the group.

I also walked back to the area where the parish is preparing a soccer field for youth in town and is planning to build a kitchen and dining area for groups as well as some housing units for groups that come for workshops. I found Salvador, a member of the parish council, in the cistern for rain water being built. He was repellando - putting concrete over the bricks so that the cistern surface is impermeable.

While in the parish center, I found out that there was going to be a confirmation at 10 pm in the church. That struck me as strange, since most of the confirmations in the parish are near the date of the patronal feast, September 8, the Nativity of Mary. But it ended up that the bishop was coming to confirm students and personnel from the Catholic University campus in Santa Rosa.

I stayed to the Mass. At the end of the Mass, the bishop asked me and Dr. Francisco Castro, the director of the campus, to come forward. Monseñor Santos introduced me and mentioned that I had been out to an area in this parish with a university class several years ago, where I had slept on the ground with only a sheet. Then he asked me to say something. I was tongue-tied but stumbled through something – encouraging the newly confirmed to live out their commitment in their studies and in their work.

After I spoke the bishop said some very flattering words about me. Luckily I had left the front of the church and could blush without many people seeing me.

Dr. Francisco Castro, director of the Santa Rosa Catholic University of Honduras campus,
and Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, bishop of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

I came back to Santa Rosa after lunch at Dulce Nombre with the bishop, Padre Julio (the associate at Dulce Nombre), Padre Henry (the chaplain at the Catholic University), and Sor Pedrina (the sister who runs the Dulce Nombre Maestro en Casa program and does so much more in the parish).

As I drove up the street to my house, Sor Ines, a Spanish Franciscan who lives down the street, asked me to help transport some of the girls from their house to the cathedral for the confirmation. I gladly took them.

On returning I dropped by the sisters to borrow a hoe. Sor Ines and I spoke for about half an hour. A good chance to reflect on what I’ve been experiencing.

These are but a few of the things that have helped give me strength and hope. (I must also mention the continued support of Nancy Meyerhofer, a Dubuque Franciscan sister who works in nearby Gracias. Our meetings for pizza here in Santa Rosa, phone calls and e-mails help me put perspective on my life and faith here.)

But, as you can see, spending time with the poor is a priceless gift.


A final note, completely off the subject:

I think I have a name for my car – a 1993 Nissan diesel pickup: four wheel drive, and double cabined. I’m thinking of calling it, in Spanish, “la bestia” – a term which is used for horses or mules or other work animals. In English, it would be “the beast,” since it will probably cost a bit with repairs, etc.

Comments are welcome.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The car is running

Saturday morning July 31 I left my pickup with Martín’s Taller y Jounker (Shop and Junkyard) to have some work done. (Several priests had recommended Martín.) I left a list of what needed to be done with one of the mechanics.

I didn’t get back until last Saturday, August 7. When I arrived the mechanics told me that Martín was out testing the pickup. He soon arrived (with his two sons int he back of the pick up) and told me that there were a few more things to be done. And so he went with me to the Tecno Diesel Laboratorio to get the injectors recalibrated. Jorge, the owner, came out and looked at the car and then we went into his business to talk. He greeted me, “Juan.” He’s involved in the church and recognized me from there.

After about an hour, I returned to pick up the car - recalibrated, with a new battery and air filter. I had to get some lights replaced and so Martín went with me to a nearby car parts place. Getting out of the pickup I saw César, my landlord. His brother is the owner of the shop. We talked and Martín told César that they should take down the newspaper photos of scantily clad women on the walls of the shop.

After all the work was done I went back to Martín’s shop and he prepared the bill. He also told me what I should also do as soon as I can – including replacing the radiator and fan - about $550.

As Martín was calculating the costs, I noticed a copy of the diocese’s second pastoral plan on Martin’s desk.

Reflecting on the morning, two things struck me.

First, how small Santa Rosa is – and how connected I am with so many people, many of whom recognize me even though I cannot place where I may have met them.

Secondly, how pervasive faith is. I don’t think there are many car mechanics I know who would have a copy of the diocesan pastoral plan on their desks or other signs of their involvement with the church. But I’m probably mistaken. My guess is that Tom Carney of Carney Auto Parts in Ames probably has some sign of the family’s faith in their shop (beside the ever-present shamrock!)

Faith really permeates the society here in a way that I have not regularly encountered in the US.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Transformation of Conflicts workshop

This week I took part in the third of a series of workshops on peace and reconciliation for the various offices of Caritas in Honduras.The workshop team is from Caritas Colombia which has worked for many years on issues of peace in a very conflictive situation with violence by government forces, drug traffickers, guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. One of the facilitators told me of the six years she spent in one of these regions, helping set up parish Caritas organizations (a sort of parish social action/justice and peace commission, I’d guess) which was one of the few ways the people were able to deal with the pressures from all sides.

The team is working with material in part developed by the Mennonite John Paul Lederach, a US Mennonite, some of which can be found in workbooks prepared by Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, as well as in some books he’s published.Both the two modules I attended have been helpful, though I am not sure exactly how to integrate this knowledge into practice.

A couple of things struck me. First of all, it’s not about resolution of conflicts. It’s about transformation of conflicts. Therefore, peace and reconciliation are not separated from the struggle for justice.

Secondly, in this last module, I began to see that dealing with conflict is not only dealing with issues but with relationships. Often there are important issues but in dealing with conflicts dealing with relationships between parties is essential, though, I believe, not the only issue. I tend to be an "ideas/concepts" person - and so our work on this is helping me to find ways to work through the relationships aspects of conflicts.

During the workshop the facilitators shared a video, “As it is in heaven,” a Swedish film, dubbed and subtitled in Spanish. It’s a unique film that touched me and many others in the workshop. But what hit me was a scene near the end where Daniel, a famous conductor who ended up moving back to his birthplace, meets his agent as he brings a group from his home town to a music competition. (I won’t write more so that I don’t give the plot away.) But his agent asks Daniel, “Why with these people?” Daniel’s response touched my heart, “They love me and I love them.” That’s why I stay here! As we related the film to our workshop, I shared this and stop the tears. I recommend the film.

An extra advantage of this workshop was the chance to get to know Caritas workers from other parts of the country and to hear of their work, as well as learn of what is happening throughout the country.

I really enjoyed time with Leonardo, a Garifuna, who grew up in the Mosquitia and speaks Mosquite, Garifuna, Spanish, and a little English. Ramon, Moncho, from Olancho loved to bug me with his continual jokes – some a bit ribald.

We also had two nights of just plain fun - including karaoke, jokes, and cultural sharing.

There was lots of time for serious discussion and group work about conflict and peacebuilding - using a wide varieties of pedagogical methods.

But I really enjoyed just talking with folks. What did I learn of what’s happening throughout the country.

In the Mosquitia, the people of one municipality rose up and threw out the mayor, because of his corruption. Probably about 90% of the people supported the effort and it seems that there was no outside support or advice. The power of the people.

We spent some time one day talking about conflicts that the various diocesan Caritas offices were dealing with. Of the 8 offices, 3 shared conflicts over water. Will this be a major issue in the coming years – whether it be groups seeking to erect dams for electrical projects, access to water, or control of water resources?

Several people talked about the continuing problem of land tenure in Bajo Aguan in Colón and in other parts of the country – and the concerns about the concentration of land in the hands of a few who often have the military (as well as paramilitaries) working with and for them.

Water and land – two serious concerns. Two concerns addressed strongly in Catholic Social Thought. But more important two issues that affect the lives of the poorest here.

More later. I'm back in Santa Rosa after traveling yesterday two hours in car and almost four hours in bus! But I have my car - ready and raring to go!