Monday, January 31, 2011

Thomas Merton's birthday

Thomas Merton with Daniel Berrigan photo by Jim Forest.
Some rights reserved by Jim Forest. Original here.

On this day in 1915, in southern France, Thomas Merton was born. He is most known as the American Trappist monk and spiritual writer, but his writings and his life embraced the world and offer a profound critique of violence, oppression, and racism.

Here are four quotes from his proliferate writings. They don’t really need any comment from me.

On June 2, 1949, he wrote a letter to Sister Marialein’s class:
“I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.”
The Road to Joy, p. 317
In his introduction to his collection of sayings from the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert, he wrote:
“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.

“Proof: the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds, they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.
Thomas Merton had a love for Latin America. In “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” in Emblems of a Season of Fury, he wrote
"The tourist never meets anyone, never encounters anyone, never finds the brother in the stranger. This is his tragedy, . . .

"If only North Americans had realized . . . that Latin Americans really existed. That they were really people. That they spoke a different language. That they had a culture. That they had more than something to sell! Money has totally corrupted the brotherhood that should have united all the peoples of America. It has destroyed the sense of relationship, the spiritual community that had already begun to flourish in the years of Bolivar. But no! Most North Americans still don’t know, and don’t care, that Brazil speaks a language other than Spanish, that all Latin Americans do not live for the siesta, that all do not spend their days and nights playing the guitar and making love. They have never awakened to the fact that Latin America is by and large culturally superior to the united States, not only on the level of the wealthy minority which has absorbed more of the sophistication of Europe, but also among the desperately poor indigenous cultures, some of which are rooted in a past that has never yet been surpassed on this continent.

"So the tourist drinks tequila, and thinks it is no good, and waits for the fiesta he has been told to wait for. How should he realize that the Indian who walks down the street with half a house on his head and a hole in his pants, is Christ? All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesús."
I don’t have the source of the last quotation, but it’s very pertinent:
“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jtatic Samuel, rest in peace

Monday morning, January 24, a saint in our midst went to his heavenly reward. Jtatic Samuel, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, retired bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, died.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom, he shared these words at a Mass at Romero’s tomb:
"This is not the tomb of a dead man -- an assassinated man, to be more precise -- from which we look out, but a luminous lighthouse that has guided us over the last three decades in seeking and building the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim..."
(Rebel Girl’s translation)
Jtatic Samuel, as he was loving called by the indigenous people he defended, was a true light in the darkness. His presence will be missed – but his light must be passed on to illumine the darkness of our world, beset with poverty, oppression, violence, and racism.

In November 2000 the Des Moines Catholic Peace Ministry Newsletter published this section of an interview with Don Samuel. It is a challenge to all of us and a fitting reminder of his prophetic voice:
If someone offers you a fish...

It’s a very well known saying that if someone offers you a fish, you don’t take it. You ask him to teach you how to fish.

So, Pedro learns how to fish. He goes to the store and he says, “I want to buy a net and I want to buy a hook,” And the owner of the store says, “Uh, what’s going on here, Pedro? You learned how to fish?”

He says, “Yeah, I learned how to fish.” Then the owner says to him, “OK, but what you didn’t know is you have to sell me a portion of your fish.” And Pedro says, “OK,” and he goes out and starts fishing.

He’s on the edge of the lake and soon he feels somebody tapping on his shoulder and somebody is standing there, telling him, “What’s going on here? You can’t be fishing here. This is private land.” And so they push him off.

Pedro has been given a skill, but that’s not enough. You can work on the “development” of the individual person, but the other half of that is working on the structural injustices.

The only question at the end of our lives is about entering the Reign of God: the reign prepared for those who visited the least of their sisters and brothers in jail and who fed them when they were hungry, the reign which those who reject the poor will not enter.

So the ultimate question is not a question of orthodoxy [right belief] but of orthopraxy [right practice]. The final question is not was I right or wrong but did I love my sisters and brothers or not. Whether I was loving my brothers or sisters or not — that is the only question.

Some more information on Bishop Samuel can be found here at Iglesia Descalza.
After this was originally posted, Iglesia Descalza placed a new tribute to Jtatic Samuel here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Founding a New Honduras

One of my professors in graduate school in the early seventies was Hannah Arendt, a brilliant political philosopher who fled Nazi Germany and taught for years in the US. She often brought new perspectives to help view life, politics, thinking, and the human condition in a new light.

Among her insights is that by acting we humans can make a new beginning, can – in a sense – rebirth the world. We humans have this capacity, to act anew, not totally dependent on the past, but opening up into new horizons.

Reflecting on Saint Augustine she noted, in The Human Condition, page 177, that “With the creation of man [sic], the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man [sic] was created but not before.”

I thought of this last Saturday after attending a meeting at Caritas of coordinators of the schools for governability and participation that Caritas Santa Rosa is promoting throughout the diocese.

Caritas’ program for political participation has been facilitating these “schools” in nine areas in the deaneries of the diocese with participants from almost all the parishes. In each locale, up to twenty people have been meeting for two or three days in four sessions treating themes of the dignity of the person, democracy, governability, and political analysis in a style that encourages the development of a critical consciousness. A fifth session will begin soon, helping the participants move into action at the local level. It is, I believe, a real effort to promote grassroots democracy, but not only at the deanery level. Several parishes are setting up their own schools to reach more people at the grassroots.

The meeting was held to get the input of several coordinators at the deanery level for the final session. At a meeting last month about a hundred participants had gathered and shared their ideas. These coordinators had also asked people in their deaneries for their ideas.

But this was not just an exercise for the schools. The Caritas Santa Rosa schools have been asked to send two official representatives to the late February meeting of the People’s National Resistance Front where proposals for the re-founding of Honduras will be discussed.

At the meeting a Caritas staff person shared a synthesis of several proposals that had come out of the December meeting and the experience of the various sessions in the deaneries. The coordinators also brought their proposals.

Two people were elected as the representatives – a woman and a man. They will go to the meeting, with a letter of recognition from Santa Rosa’s bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, and with the proposals from the region.

The presentation by the Caritas staff seemed a bit stiff to me but a sociologist from Tegucigalpa who will work with the staff for a few months shared a bit with the group, some of whom he already knew from his previous work in Intibucá and Lempira.

He impressed me first of all by his remark that here there are no “sabios” – sages, “wise guys.” He had come to learn with them.

He also shared the importance of moving from “consciencia ingenua” – naïve consciousness – to “consciencia crítica”- critical consciousness, a move that Paulo Freire has emphasized. But he added that there must be a move to another level, “consciencia organizativa” – organizing consciousness. The first move is essential for the second but the change must not remain in the mind, but be translated into organization. We talked a little about this after the meeting and he’ll share some background information on this with me.

But what impressed me, as so often happens here, were some remarks of the coordinators, people who live and work in aldeas (villages) and towns throughout the diocese, people who may not have a lot of formal education but have a lot of wisdom.

Toward the end of the meeting one of them – the young man who will go to the national meeting – shared his reflection on the whole process, referring to Micah 3’s condemnation of wicked rulers and Ezekiel 33:6’s warning of the necessity to speak out against injustice:
But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet so that the people are not warned, and the sword come and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.
I was impressed by his ability to bring the wisdom of the scriptures to this task and by his deep faith-based commitment. He later remarked that it is important that if changes are made they have a basis in faith.

The woman who will go to the national meeting was also outspoken. She was insistent on the necessity to get rid of the two party monopoly on politics – bipartidismo – and that the Resistance mustn’t be a political party.

She also noted that they would be going to the meeting with proposals from the grassroots – la base, in Spanish. She seemed to be concerned that some parts of the Resistance did not have the base, the grassroots support.

There is great hope among these people, as well as a deep wisdom, formed by suffering and by working with their communities and rooted in their faith.

What will come of this? As the woman told me, citing scripture, with faith like a grain of mustard we can move mountains. And so we can move this monster.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Respect for the land and campesinos

I usually read about two or three books at the same time. And so I often find myself in the middle of several books and sometimes put off finishing one or two books. And so it has happened that I have finished four books in the last two weeks – only one of which I began this month, all of which help me deepen my understanding of my own ministry. They all help me deepen my love for the land and for those who work it, the campesinos, and deepen my commitment to be with them in their struggles, respecting their wisdom and listening to them.

The first book I finished was Paolo Freire’s ¿Extensión o comunicación? La concientización en el medio rural. I read it in a Spanish translation (from the Portuguese) but an English translation is available in Education for Critical Consciousness. Freire is suspicious of most Latin American agricultural extension programs since they often come with ready-made solutions.

In one passage, in my meager translation, Freire reflects Socrates:

…to educate and be educated in the practice of liberty is the task of those who know that they know little – therefore, they know that they know a little and so can get to know more – in dialogue with those who almost always think that they know nothing in order that these people, transforming their thinking that they know nothing into knowing that they know a little, can equally, know more.

In my workshops I usually begin by noting that our study is a joint effort and that we learn together. I also mention that they can be my teachers, especially in regard to their language. There are many cases where I have learned a lot from my discussions with them.

The second book I finished was Father Francis Sullivan’s Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1984-1566). Dominican bishop Bartolomé de las Casas was a defender of the indigenous people in the Americas, not only while living in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America, but advocating for them in the court of Spain. He was a prolific writer, mixing vivid accounts of the massacres and human rights violations against the indigenous, with philosophical and theological arguments citing Aristotle, the Church Fathers, and Thomas Aquinas, especially in his devastating article on greed.

He is an early advocate of freedom. In a tract on royal power he wrote, “The power, jurisdiction of rulers exist only to procure the common good of their people, and this power, jurisdictions implies no interferences with liberty, nor any suspension of it.”

But what comes across most in this collection of his writings is his deep love and appreciation of the native peoples. He finds them – “pagan” though they be – as in many ways superior to the Spanish so-called “Christians” whose real god is gold and whose treatment of the native peoples is devastatingly cruel. The native peoples are human – while the Spaniards are a scandal to Christianity.

So too today much of what passes for Christianity is a scandal for the poor. Many people here are scandalized by the support that Cardinal Rodriguez seemed to give to the coup. I too am scandalized by those “missionaries” and “brigades” that come here supposedly to help, but really come with their own agendas and seldom listen to the poor or respect their wisdom and struggles.

The third book I finished was Megan McKenna’s This Will be Remembered of Her: Stories of Women Reshaping the World. Megan, a friend of mine, is a great story-teller and biblical interpreter. Here she combines stories or women, scripture, and tales from many cultures.

She recalls women, living and dead, from well known Dorothy Day and Aung Suu Kyi to others who deserve to be known, like Marguerite Barankitse of Burundi to Shirin Ebadi of Iran.

This is a book to meditate, to use as an examination of conscience. At the end of chapter 1, p. 15, Megan asks

And you — if you were to be remembered for just one gesture, one act of solidarity, one touch of kindness, one prophetic stance, one bit of human hope, one moment of mercy —what would you want to be remembered for?

The book I just finished was Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Davis reads the Jewish scriptures with an eye on their agrarian orientation. Agrarianism is a movement, represented by people like Wendell Berry and even E.F. Schumacher, who see agriculture as essential to human livelihood – but not just any agriculture. Agriculture must respect people (especially the least in society), the land, and nature and seek ways to nurture these as lived in the culture of a people who live in a specific place.

Davis does an amazing re-reading many texts that highlight the importance of the preservation of farming practices and livelihoods that respect the land. Her hermeneutic is, as she mentions on page 3: “How do these texts view the relationship between humans (or Israelites in particular) and the material sources of life as an essential aspect of living in the presence of God?”

Her interpretations are challenging. On page 102 she writes:

Here we shall explore the theological premises and economic intentions of the system of tenure of arable land endorsed by the Bible, which differs from the one that prevails in the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Brazil…. It is the contrast between, on the one hand, a system whose chief aim is the subsistence of local farming communities and, on the other hand, a corporate system of land management and food production that has resulted in the steady and far-advanced impoverishment and dissolution of rural communities. The ideal shared by most biblical writers, in Torah, historical books, and the Prophets, is that arable land is covenanted by God to the people Israel…

As she later mentions, on page 107,

…The [biblical] notion that land possession is conditional upon care is itself profoundly challenging to all modern states, just as the biblical writers intended it to challenge the states they knew, including their own.

So too it challenges the grossly unequal distribution of the land here in Honduras and the efforts of political and economic elites to control land for their own benefit, as in Bajo Aguán.

It is a book that I will have to study a little more thoroughly since it is so rich in insights.

These books are not very easy reading — though Megan's is the easiest to read, but full of hard challenges — but they are helping me redefine how I live here, how I support the people here in their struggles, and how I seek to serve God’s Kingdom here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eighty-two years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., was born.

I was reminded of a great sermon of Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Drum Major Instinct," by a post on Mercury Rising which included the text of the sermon and a link to the audio. Check it out here.

But one of my favorite quotes is a variation on a quote I heard King say in a North Philadelphia church about 1965. He used it in several other places, including a 1956 sermon.

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well.

A man should do his job so well

that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper,

sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,

like Shakespeare wrote poetry,

like Beethoven composed music;

sweep streets so well

that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say,

“Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

It's such an important quote on the dignity of all work that I have translated it into Spanish and hope to incorporate it into a booklet on Catholic Social Teaching that I'm working on for the base communities in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. My feeble attempt at translation can be found here.

In a country where a prominent high-ranking politician calls the people I work with and love "gente de la monte" - hillbillies - this message of King's, which echoes the teachings of Jesus and Catholic Social Thought, needs to be proclaimed throughout Honduras.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Among the people

Late on Monday, January 3, a group arrived – late and without baggage – to work with the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters “Sister Water” project.

The Sisters have made a commitment to support water programs in poor countries and have sent funding and three work teams. This year they are working with a water project in the municipality of San Juan, Intibucá, Honduras.

I joined them for a few days, helping a bit with the orientation and working a few days. Since we were delayed I only worked on Thursday since I had to go to a Catholic Social Teaching deanery workshop in Erandique, Lempira, which was – gratefully – nearby.

In Cosire, Sister Pat Farrell on the far left and Johnny from COCEPRADII on the far right.

A local non-profit organization, COCEPRADII, is overseeing the project. Catholic Relief Services helped form the organization and has helped them find funding. I was very impressed by the workers, especially the coordinator of the project we worked in. One thing that most impressed me was the organization’s policy that the workers had to live in the communities where they were working.

This project is quite large covering seven villages when it is finished, including the two villages we worked in – Cosire and Cataulaca. It is an ambitious project. For example the water source is on a mountain about 30 kilometers away, way up on a mountain. They finished digging the trenches (in a few places 4 or 5 meters deep) and laying the pipe in about a year.

The people have to work on the project. Last year a tragedy struck when three people from Cataulaca were killed in transit. But this did not discourage the people, but brought them closed together to work on the project. Johnny, the coordinator of the project, helps them preserve their memory and even wrote a song in their memory.

Each family has to work on a determined number of digging project – each about 10 meters. The villages are divided into different teams so that they don’t have to work every day. It’s hard work, as we learned the first day we worked with members of the communities.

I am impressed with the hard work and the commitment of the people. Three people especially struck me.

Johnny from the organization is really competent (“completo,” as they say here) and committed. As we went from the town of San Juan to the villages, he spoke a little of his life. His family was very poor and he went to school, through high school, barefooted. But he has managed to study, just now finishing university studies, and to work in social promotion for more than 11 years.

We met another woman whom I’ll call “María” who was cleaning up one of the places where we were staying in Cosire. She is the mother of six children, but her husband left her and took the two oldest children – a boy of 15 years and a girl of 13 (most probably to help him work and to keep house for him). She volunteers with the kindergarten (since there is no kindergarten teacher) and gets about $15 a month. She also has been helping in the coffee harvest and has earned some cash that way. I couldn’t help think of the hunger and poverty that she and her children experience and how she tries to survive with so little. But she spent time cleaning for us.

Some women leaders in the water project.
Filomena is the second from the right.

Filomena and three other women leaders of the water project spoke with us. It was great to see the leadership of women. Someone mentioned this and she responded, “Nosostras podemos” – “ We women can!”

Such a combination of capability and poverty. How many people with great potential and a strong sense of commitment are stunted.

I’m now at the workshop for Catholic Social Teaching. I got here in two pick-ups. The first was in a pickup of Eva, a woman who owns a small coffee plantation of about 8 acres and is helping with the water project. She’s an impressive woman and one of her brothers, Edin, is one of the workers in the water project. Both are models of the extremely capable and committed Hondurans whom I have met.

The second ride was with some leaders of the parish of Erandique. Chepito told me about two of the parish’s goals for the year: each of the 134 base communities will plant twenty trees and each of the 36 village church councils will provide a poor child with what they need to go to school – uniforms, school supplies, and shoes.

What a great effort of the poor to help each other and what a message to us who have much. This is what real religion is about –
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1: 27

I’ll be here in Erandique until Saturday noon helping with the workshop which is being facilitated by local church workers who went to the diocesan training session. It has been, so far, a most interesting session as we treat two important problems which are priorities for the diocese: the destruction of the environment and generalized corruption.


More Sister Water 2011 photos can be found in my Sister Water Project set in Flickr.
The Dubuque, Iowa, Sisters of St. Francis website is here.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Water and the New Year

2011 began with firecrackers – but I slept through the midnight madness.

This week I’ll be joining a group from the Sister Water Project of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters to work with the community of El Pelon [Baldy], in the municipality of San Juan, Intibucá.

It will be some hard work – but I’ll get off a few days to get to a Catholic Social Teaching Workshop in Erandique, Lempira. I’ll probably get there late since my car may not be repaired by that time.

Water is a critical issue here, as in most of the world. Access to water for basic human needs is precarious in many rural communities. Another issue is the protection of water-sources (micro-cuencas), some of which are threatened by deforestation.

Another issue is the use of rivers for hydroelectric projects, supposedly green energy. One of the problems is that many of the concessions for use of the rivers are being given to the economic elite in Honduras and to foreign companies.

There are at least two of these projects being planned in the department of Intibucá, one of the poorest in the nation. One is being financed by a company owned by members of Honduras’ economic elite; the other by a Houston-based company. There may be more.

The issue, as I see it, is who will profit from these and other projects. Is this another case where the resources of the nation will be exploited for personal and corporate gain and where the needs of the poor will be disregarded.

In a 2006 statement ,"Water, an Essential Element for Life," the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace noted:
Pope John Paul II recalled that there exist important human needs which escape the market logic and water is precisely one of these. It cannot be used solely as a means for profit because it is essential to the survival of the human person and thus cannot be transformed into a good reserved to the exclusive advantage of only those who can afford to pay for it.
That’s an important issue and I am sure that it will be a major issue this year here in Honduras.

I am glad that I can begin this year in one small effort to bring water to people who need it.


The photo is of a stream on Celaque, the National Reserve on the highest mountain in Honduras, just south of Gracias, Lempira.