Monday, November 29, 2010

Busy weeks

Tomorrow I head to El Salvador for a meeting on one of Caritas’ projects. I will take advantage of the trip to visit friends in Suchitoto, El Salvador, for a day or two.

This past week I was in Pinalejo, Santa Bárbara, for two Catholic Social Teaching workshops – the third diocesan workshop and the second for the two deaneries in the department of Santa Bárbara.

The diocesan workshop went well – even though it was planned the Friday before and I was basically the person in charge of the whole workshop. I only gave one presentation, but I had to arrange and re-arrange the schedule when presenters didn’t show up at the time we’d planned.

I felt a little sad as the workshop ended since I’ve been with many of these folks for the three workshops as well as the workshops in their deaneries. I will get to the workshops in some of the deaneries and so will have a chance to see them again. But I really liked working with these people. I found them very attentive, very faith-filled, and very devoted to their ministries. And, as I’ve noted before, I have found them very capable of sharing the material in their deaneries.

The way back from the workshop went faster than before since they are doing some repair work on the major highway here – mostly filling in the potholes.

The next day I headed out with those who had been working with the infant and maternal health program in Caritas for an excursion in Guatemala. It was the most spectacular waterpark I’ve seen (since I’ve only been to one before here in Central America and never gone to one in the US).

On the way back vehicles were being stopped by the police and all identification cards checked. It was late – about 9:30 pm – but I was somewhat surprised. The police official in charge came in and then gave a speech saying that this was to provide security for the people and that, as the person in charge of the region, he would see that there was security here.

I found this quite strange. There is a lot of drug-trafficking through this area, but all the people on a bus had to get out of the bus to have their IDs checked and they checked all our IDs on the bus. But the police did what looked like a perfunctory check on the natural gas tanker in front of us.

Such is the state of security here. This is especially so in the context of a major conflict in the coastal department of Colón where there is a major conflict between campesino communities seeking land and one of the richest men in the country, Miguel Facussé. The conflict has left six campesinos dead – at the hands of Facussé’s security forces. The story is that there was a confrontation, but that is contested.

The minister of security is claiming that the campesinos are armed and that some people are being trained in Nicaragua to overthrow the Honduran government with arms.

All this seems absurd to me – a repeat of the charges of “communist” infiltration that has beset this region for more than fifty years. (I’m reading Dan Koeppel’s Banana which documents how similar charges were used to overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala in the 1950.)

What are we facing? At the very least – ungovernability. At the worst, signs of more repression to come.

But in the midst of these we must preserve hope.

My hope is not in the government, but rather my hope is nurtured by the people I work with in the rural villages and in the diocesan and deanery workshops. People of faith – very poor bur committed and willing to give their time and their lives to preach and live the Good News.

They give me hope.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beans at $1.58 a pound

In July beans were between 8 and 12 lempiras a pound – between 42 and 62 cents. Monday in Pinalejo, Santa Bárbara, the stores were selling beans at 30 lempiras, $1.58. But generally this past month the prices have been about 22 to 25 lempiras.

At dinner during a diocesan workshop on Catholic Social Teaching being held here in Pinalejo, someone remarked that meat is cheaper per pound than beans – and beans are a staple of life here, a major source of protein when combined with corn tortillas.

People here plant beans, mostly red beans – sometimes more than they can store and so they sell them at a low price to the intermediaries (sometimes called “coyotes”). And so, as one person at the workshop lamented, campesinos – people of the countryside – are buying beans, instead of eating what they produce and producing what they can eat.

What are the poor to do? That’s another post – and perhaps a project for the next five years. Since, if all goes as Padre Efraín, the pastor of the Dulce Nombre parish, and I are thinking, I’ll be working with three of the poorest villages in the parish – not just in faith formation, but also trying to work with them for the total and integral well-being of the villages. I’m looking forward to this opportunity.

But I also want to share some interesting stories I’ve heard during this workshop.

The mayor of one municipality, an evangelical pastor, regularly consults with the Catholic priest. He once asked him what he should do with some money that had come in, whether he should give each family 1000 lempiras (about $52). The priest suggested that the money should be put into the infrastructure of the 30 some villages in the municipality. Now these villages have electricity and water.

In one rural village someone planted a few hundred coffee plants in the land set aside as a reserve to protect the water source. The water committee of the village found out and investigated the matter. They consulted with a nearby village, also dependent on the water source. They met and decided what to do. The situation was rather tense for while – with some threats being made. But the water committee met with the person violating the reserve. He agreed to respect the reserve. A few days ago the two communities and the person affected met and reached an accord. This is a clear account of the people organizing and acting very responsibly, avoiding the violence that such a conflict could generate.

Another young farmer told me of the water situation in his community. There is a source several communities use for their basic needs, but a very wealth cattle rancher (who also owns a major newspaper and lots of land) is taking advantage of their source to water his cattle. There was some talk with his reps but they still have a hose siphoning off water.

A wide variety of experiences, but a little of what life is like here for the poor – yet very competent – campesinos in western Honduras.


In the afternoon the groups listed various examples of corruption which they knew of. Here's their list:

Examples of corruption
  • Political fanaticism – political parties have their members who defend the leaders and receive favors, jobs, etc., for being active members of the party
  • Falsification of projects – a projects that cost 50,000 lempiras get paid 200,000 for the work; works that are only on the books, but are not ever finished; fictitious valuation of projects.
  • Mayors who have robbed funds for the Eradication of Poverty
  • Police ask for money from criminals and let them loose.
  • Teachers who do work but are paid.
  • Local authorities selling timber – or looking the other way when it’s being taken out of their municipality.
  • Authorities who ask people to sign receipts so they can get money even though no services were rendered.
  • Judges who take bribes and don’t promote justice.
  • People being paid off to keep silent in the face of crimes or corruption.
  • Giving out the “bono 10,000” – a gift from the government of 10,000 lempiras for poor families – as a political tool – at times only to members of the parties in power in the municipality.
  • Teachers being fired for political reasons.
  • Large businesses having their debts forgiven.


Finally, another interesting story:

A project called Lempira Sur offered a priest a monthly stipend, which he refused.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King – life and death

The solemnity of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the Catholic church year – seems to be a big celebration here in Honduras. I think it has a lot to do with celebrating Christ as King and Ruler – the one in charge – but also with showing one’s identity as a Catholic. (Some might find this a little triumphalistic, but it’s more than that.) It’s also the day the church here celebrates Delegates of the Word, those who lead the celebrations of the Word in their villages.

Some parishes here have one big Mass where all the villages are invited. I’ve been to three such celebrations of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María where I help – all in the rural village of Candelaria.

For me it is always a chance to see people I haven’t seen for a while. This year is was especially so because I haven’t been out to the villages of the parish for almost six weeks, due to visits to the US and some work. So there were many hugs and conversations.

But this year the celebration had a somber note. Late Saturday, Modesto Melgar, a delegate of the Word in Agua Buena who has worked with the church for about seventeen years was assasinated. He was killed, it appears, by a hired assassin, who also seriously wounded two girls. The motive is unknown, but people have identified the vehicle and the license plate.

The coffin was brought onto the field in front of the altar and various times during the Mass it was incensed, sprinkled with holy water, and prayed over.

In his homily the pastor, Padre Efraín Romero, described this as an example of the ungovernability found here in Honduras. Sure, there are laws on the books, but there is little hope that justice will be done. He castigated the system, as well as ineffective or corrupt officials who fail to bring criminals to justice. Padre Efraín also spoke of the need to pardon – and the need for assassins to repent and seek forgiveness.

But he also presented a message of hope – “This blood [shed by Modesto] will provide new shoots of more convinced Christians,” he said, echoing the saying that “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

But the message was also one of hope in the resurrection.

After the prayers over the coffin, Padre Efraín led the congregation in a spirited medley of songs about resurrection and hope. Two particularly touched me:

The first has a very straightforward message of faith and hope”
“Yo tengo fe que todo cambiará, que triunfará por siempre el amor…”
"I have faith that all will change, that love will always triumph..”

The second is a little more pointed. The title is “Nadia hay tan grande como tu” – No one is as great as you are.” But the verses speak boldly:
“No con la fuerza, ni la violence es como el mundo cambiará.
Sólo el amor lo cambiará; solo lo salvará.
“No con las armas, ni con la Guerra es como el mundo cambiará…”
“Not by force nor by violence will the world be changed,
Only love will change it, will save it.
“No with weapons nor by war will the world be changed…”

This Sunday evening Modesto Melgar was laid to rest in the cemetery in the town of Dulce Nombre de Copán. I know that I’ve met him and talked with him several times, in parish council meetings and in parish formation sessions. But when I looked at his bandaged face in the casket window, I could not recognize him.

Another life has been lost here in Honduras – through violence. One of many.

But many more die each day, from hunger and the system that keeps the poor down.

Remembering Modesto, I pray that our church here in the diocese may be life-giving – preaching the Word, without faltering, without fear of risking ourselves; organizing the people to be active for the common good with a special effort for the poor and marginalized; and celebrating the Eucharist, the feast of Christ the King, a King who risked His life, but rose to save us and give us hope.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The weather and more

Some people think that because I live in Latin America it's always warm here.


I'm in La Esperanza, Intibucá - one of the highest municipalities in Honduras - for a four day assembly of the diocese. Last night, someone told me, it was 4 degress centrigrade - that's about 40 fahrenheit. And there's no heat in the buildings.

I had on a red ISU sweatshirt and a red cap - and so they called me "Santa Claus."

Also someone suggested I'd put on weight. True - three weeks in the US probably meant between 10 and 15 pounds. Now to eat more simply (and walk a lot more).


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Returning home - after nearly a month away

I left Honduras on October 11 for three weeks in the United States. I first spent some time in Pennsylvania with relatives and giving a talk at the University of Scranton, my alma mater.

It was especially good to see my aunt Mary who turned 93 a few days before my arrival as well as my cousin Mary, a Sister of St. Joseph. My cousin invited me to their congregation’s founder’s day Mass, a beautiful liturgy in their Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, motherhouse. The only males present were the priest and I! After Mass I joined Mary and the sisters she lives with for dinner. A delightful time. It looks as if I’ll get a chance to do some speaking at their parish when I get back to the US next year.

Mary and Aunt Mary

I also took time to visit two Iowa State University people who now live in the Philadelphia area.

The visit to Scranton was very important for me. I got to see Rosellen Garrett, the widow of my favorite undergraduate professor, Tom Garrett, who was a mentor and a friend. The world was blessed by his presence.

I was asked to give a public lecture at the university. I offered several possible topics but they chose “From Scranton to Iowa to Honduras, via New Orleans.” It was the story of my journey of faith and commitment to the poor. I have thought much about this and shared it with friends, but it was the first time I’d publicly shared it. I should probably write it out.

This helped me to put my Honduras ministry in perspective and decide to make some changes in where and how I serve those in need there.

After Pennsylvania, I spent two weeks in Iowa. This time I stayed around Ames, with just a short trip to Des Moines. Most of my time was visiting with small groups of friends and St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners, as well as talking to religious education classes and some young people from the youth group.

It was good to be there, to catch up on relationships with friends. I ate out so much that I think I gained about ten pounds!

Liturgy is always a blessing at St. Thomas. But the last Saturday night I felt very blessed. The presider was a priest from Ghana who is a grad student at Iowa State. The first reading was read by an undergraduate student from Ecuador. The psalm was sung by a woman who was Asian. We truly are an international church.

There were many fruitful meetings in Ames, but amid all my meetings and meals I did have some time for reflection on Honduras from a distance. During the coming year I hope that I can get out to the rural areas of the parish of Dulce Nombre more often and help in some faith formation. The pastor had briefly spoken about the possibility of going out to the three rural zone meetings each month to provide a short period of faith formation. I’m definitely going to take him up on this.

After Ames, I was supposed to go to Colombia through San Pedro Sula, Honduras, spending a night there. Well, delays of the flight from Des Moines changed that and provided a challenge – how to leave my bags with a friend who owns Hotel Maya Copan in San Pedro and make the flight to Colombia in two hours. And then the flight arrived about thirty minutes late in Honduras. But customs went smoothly and the taxi driver was there to take my bags.

Monseñor Artemio Flores, from Mexico, presiding at one of the liturgies in Bogotá.

In Bogotá, Colombia, I was part of the team which was mostly World Vision employees giving a short workshop on World Vision’s program for awareness of HIV and AIDS in the churches. All went well, except that I flubbed my first presentation. There were so many medical personnel and people with experience in this area that I felt intimidated and was really nervous.

The workshop was held under the auspices of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops Conference. There were 30 participants from about 15 countries, including two bishops, six priests, two deacons, at least five men and women members of religious orders, and a number of lay people (at least five doctors). What surprised me was the openness to the topic and the methodology which is very participative. The bishops especially impressed me by their willingness to participate – even in some skits.

It was a very good experience and I think the Catholic Church in Latin America will be working more on this area.

The workshop ended early on Friday and most went out into the city. I wrote about this is the previous blog,

Saturday morning as a group of the participants sat around a table for breakfast, an evangelical pastor who works for World Vision shared his reflections on the situation in Columbia and the suffering the people have suffered and the wounds that will take decades to heal. Participants from El Salvador and Perú shared a little of their experience and the need fro healing. I was filled with a deep sadness – not a sadness of depression, but of solidarity. What a blessing to be able to share in the sufferings – as well as in the joys.

Two nights we sat around the rec room of the center where we were staying and Brazilian Franciscans prepared drinks from the Brazilian sugar cane liquor Cachaça. Laughter and jokes abounded. But we could also share a bit of the suffering of Latin America during the workshop and at the last breakfast.

What a way to live the first lines of Vatican Council II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Saturday - back in Honduras

Saturday, November 7, I'll be back in Honduras after nearly four weeks away. I'm anxious to get home.

A lot happened during the three weeks in the US - in Pennsylvania and then in Iowa.

The last four days I've been in Bogotá, Colombia, as part of the team for a workshop on HIV and AIDS that World Vision gave for CELAM, the Latin American bishops conference. There were people from 15 Latin American countries and Puerto Rico, including two bishops. I'll write more on this later and will post some photos on my Flickr site.

Today, Friday, the workshop ended in mid-afternoon and I went to downtown Bogotá with five of the participants. It was a very sobering experience, to put it mildly. The city is congested and there's lots of begging. There are people on the streets selling time on cell phones for 11 cents.

I was also a bit put off by the people with me spending so much time in stores.

But there was one event that made the visit worth it.

About two hundred people marched in the main street in downtown Bogotá. (The street is closed to traffic in that area.) They were marching for the disappeared and against impunity.

Here are some photos:

The sign reads: "A cry of dignity against impunity."

Impunity means that those who have committed crimes - in Latin America, usually disappearances, torture, or assassinations -
are not brought to justice and "get away with murder."

A row of people carried chairs with names on them - presumably the disappeared.

When they stopped in the street for about half an hour they put their chairs down.
Note the picture, presumably of a woman who had been disappeared.

Two banners were in support of the Peace Community of San José de Apartado,
a community that declared itself a peace zone and has been hassled by the government as well as by the guerrilla.
They are calling for the right to memory, life, truth, and justice.
Their struggle for justice has been sustained for many years despite government opposition and a nasty column in the Wall Street Journal last year by Mary Anastasia O'Grady that questioned their sincerity.
Their web page in Spanish is

I didn't take the opportunity to speak with any of those in march but I admire their courage and determination. May God bless their efforts.



I write this quote quickly, having forgotten that the marchers handed out a flier. I found it when I emptied my pants pockets. Here’s my translation.
25 years – a cry of dignity ? against impunity
Palace of Justice
25 years of injustice with the disappeared

The families of those disappeared in the Palace of Justice, [Court House] commemorating 25 years of the bloody retaking by the National Army and the forced disappearance of the employees and occasional visitors of the palace cafeteria, invite the organizations of the families of the victims of forced disappearance and other social organizations to accompany us in the act of commemorating that will take place next November 5 starting at 5:00 pm with a march between Santander Park and the Casa del Florero/Plaza Bolivar as well as in the cultural activities around the Casa de Florero/Plaza Bolivar.

We invite everyone to bring a white candle to light at 6:30 pm for our beloved who were disappeared in the Palace of Justice and for all the persons forcibly disappeared in Colombia.

We firmly believe in the need for persistence from the families in order to advance on the road toward truth and justice.

In those fateful days 0 November 6 and 7, 1985, not only were the lives of our dear loved ones and our families cut short, but the hopes and faith in justice were eaten away by a sea of flames destroyed by the bullets of the state’s armed forces.

We invite you to accompany us.

Relatives of Lucy Amparo Oviedo, Ana Rosa Castiblanco, Cristina del Pilar Guarin, Luz Mary Portela Leon, Gloria Anzola de Lanao, Gloria Stella Lizarazo, Norma Constanza Esguerra, Hestor Jaime Beltran Fuentes, Bernardo Beltran Hernandez, David Suspes Celis, and Carlos Augusto Rodriguez Vera.

Accompany us in commemorating our victims and all the victims!!...
Let us all light a white candle in their memory this November 5.