Saturday, July 30, 2011

A year of jubilee

In this year of jubilee, then,
every one of you shall return to his own property.
Leviticus 24: 13

Today’s lectionary reading from Leviticus hits close to home, here in Honduras, where land is so badly distributed.

Leviticus 24 is a call to a release from slavery and a restoration of lands to those who have lost them, mostly through having to sell them to pay debts. It presumes that the first partition of the promised land was equitable, so that there was enough for everyone.

Whether the actual practice of Israel may have been, the jubilee presents an important challenge for social justice in a society.

When most of the wealth is in few hands – as well as most of the land – and most of the people have little or no land for even subsistence agriculture, something is wrong and people suffer.

That’s what’s happening here and in some places, like the Bajo Aguan, it’s led to violence and the death of over 40 poor farmers in the last 18 months.

This is a tragedy that a little biblical wisdom might change.

There are many and some of them have suffered.

A few weeks ago, Nery Jeremías Orellana, a young journalist, owner of a community radio station in the municipality of Candelaria, Lempira, was killed. The police called it a simple criminal act, but it looks very different.

Nery was a member of the Resistance to the coup and the current government, a movement calling for structural change in Honduras. He was also a devout member of the Catholic Church. I have been told that when he was studying in Gracias, he was a lector int he parish.

In Candelaria Padre Amilcar Lara, the parish priest, also sympathetic to the Resistance, has recently denounced some cases of corruption by organizations in the area. He has received death threats and one night, about 3 am, someone drove around the church grounds shooting a gun into the area in a vehicle owned by one of the organizations that is thought to be involved in corruption.

Shortly thereafter Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, the bishop of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán celebrated a Mass in Candelaria and spoke out forcefully in support of Padre Amilcar and against corruption. As they say here, Monseñor Santo "no tiene pelos en la lengua" - there are not hairs on his tongue. He speaks what he thinks.

The Mass and homily was broadcast by the radio station, Radio Joconguera, which broadcast the homily many times after the Mass.

Nery also received death threats and then, on July 14 he was shot while riding to the station on his motorcycle.

Nery, Padre Amilcar, the mayor of Candelaria and others there had received death threats for their denunciations of injustice and corruption. But will there be a real investigation of Nery's death? I doubt it, if the recent history of deaths is any precedent.

And so I live in a country where the lives of the poor are not only precarious because of the injustice of the economic and social systems here but those who seek to take up the cause of the poor are threatened and even killed.

Interestingly, the Gospel reading for today is Matthew 14: 1-12, the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist by Herod,  another tyrant and puppet of an empire.

Pray for us - and work with us for justice and jubilee!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Incarnating the Word

Mural in the Hospital Divina Providencia
Today I ran across this quote from the martyred Salvadoran archbishop, Oscar Romero, in a blog entry of Brother Daniel Horan, OFM, on his blog, Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century. I often hear homilies from parish priests and our bishop, which some might consider to be highly political. Here are some examples: Padre Efraín, Padre Fausto, and our bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos. For the most part they are only trying to do what Romero was talking about in his November 11, 1979 homily, just four and a half months before he was martyred at the altar.
We not only read the Bible, we analyze it, we celebrate it, we incarnate it in our reality, we want to make it our life. This is the meaning of the homily: to incarnate the Word of God in our people. This is not politics. When we point out the political, social, and economic sins in the homily, this is the Word of God incarnate in our reality, a reality that often does not reflect the reign of God but rather sin. We proclaim the Gospel to point out to people the paths of redemption.
Here's the Spanish original:
No sólo … leemos  [la Biblia] sino que la analizamos, la celebramos, la encarnamos, la queremos hacer nuestra vida. Ese es el sentido de la homilía: encarnar en el pueblo la palabra de Dios. No es político cuando en la homilía se señalan los pecados políticos, sociales, económicos, sino que es palabra de Dios encarnándose en nuestra realidad que muchas veces no refleja el reino de Dios, sino el pecado; para decirle a los hombres cuáles son los caminos de la redención.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A music festival to save the planet

The earth groans, as if with labor pains
There is a lot of talent among the people I work with in the parish of Dulce Nombre. That became very clear the past Saturday when the parish had an ecological festival, inviting groups from the parish to come and sing songs they've written. 

The theme was 'Let us save our planet."

Two of the best music groups in the parish didn't participate (those from Plan Grande and Yaruconte), but there were seven presentations in the competition and three others, including one of the judges and one of the two seminarians who are visiting here from  the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

There were a few participants who could use a bit of help in terms of pitch and composition, but overall it was a good day and people were reminded of our need to care for the earth.

A few photos and two videos follow.

First Prize group - Voces de Cristo - from Quebrada  Gande

Second prize group from Cerro Negro

A video of Luis:

Kevin Earleywine & Jarrett Wendt (Dubuque, Iowa, Archdiocesan seminarians) got into the act.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Blogging about Honduras

How does one blog about a poor country where one lives?

A temptation is to concentrate on the horror stories – either about oneself (getting ripped off or experiencing bureaucratic nightmares) or about others (all the violence or shacks).

Another temptation is to highlight the exotic – geckos (little lizards that sound like birds), fruit, or torrential rains.

Another temptation is to present the people as either totally decadent and lazy or as incredible individuals who overcome overwhelming difficulties.

Another is to share all the good that I have done – or all the frustrations I’ve experienced.

But what do I try to do?

I generally try to speak from my experience, what I see and hear, the people I talk or work with.

But I also try to put my experiences in context. Thus I often try to connect the story with the wider issues of the political, economic, and social unjust structures here.

I also often connect my experience with my faith, especially with the social teachings of the Catholic Church and the option for the poor at the basis of liberation theology. 

I do occasionally write about events that I have not experienced but I try to make sure that I am being as accurate and fair as I can, which is very hard here where good information sources are hard to find. But I am reluctant to do this often and there are several US bloggers who do an extraordinary job of sharing stories or analysis of events here.

Of course, I write with a bias.

What are my biases?

The poor have a dignity as sons and daughters of God. They have as much worth as people with money and education.

The poor should be protagonists of their lives and their future. They don’t need gringos coming in and telling them what to do. They are capable and do a lot with what little they have.

The vast majority of the people in Honduras are impoverished, which is, I believe, a better term than calling them poor.

Honduras is beset not only with instances of corruption and lack of services for the poor. Honduras is best with major economic, social, and political structures that are unjust and keep people poor.

God loves the poor and looks on them with compassion.

God takes the side of the poor as he did throughout the Bible. God also has very severe words for the rich, especially those who hoard land and money.

Honduras needs radical change – that is, etymologically speaking, changes from the roots.

That change should come from the base of society – the poor. And they are capable, no matter how little formal education they may have received.

Where do these biases come from?

They come from my faith in a God who became a poor man, Jesus, in a country beset by an imperial power, but who preached a Kingdom of Justice, Love and Peace. He was killed for this but was raised up and therefore life and hope are real.

My biases come from my parents who had incredibly large hearts and who also were blue collar workers who never graduated from high school but were very intelligent. They nurtured in me a love of learning and a love of the poor.

They come from teachers, friends, associates, who’ve taught me or accompanied me for many years.

And they come from walking among the poor – laughing with them, crying with them, hearing their fears and discouragement, asking them to share their faith and the way that has helped them live.

The first lines of the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,  Gaudium et Spes, sum this up well:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people 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, July 15, 2011

Transforming Conflict Workshop

It may seem like using a thimble to put out a forest fire, but this week I facilitated a workshop on conflict transformation in the aldea of Cementera in the municipality of Lepaera in the department of Lempira.

Honduras is a country of conflicts, a society divided, where a 2009 coup d’état revealed a deep rift in a society where political and economic elites thrive while the poor continue to suffer.

But I went because the Caritas staff working there had noted the presence of several serious internal conflicts that have hampered the community’s ability to work together.

Cementera and two other aldeas are part of a project Community-Based Management of the Reduction of Natural Disasters, which helps communities develop their own plans and projects to deal with a wide range of disasters.

What I like about the project is that the paid workers are facilitators of a process in which the community analyzes its situation, plans what can be done, and holds government and other organizations responsible for what they fail to do. It holds the potential to empower communities. The style of education is thus very participative.

So on Thursday morning I left with two Caritas workers, Ismael and Francisco, for the community. We started late; we picked up two bags of fertilizer for a leader form another community, and then met a leader of Cementera in Lepaera. So we were behind schedule – nothing new here.

But the most serious obstacle was in front of us.

The road up the mountain is not too bad, though four wheel drive is necessary. But a bridge below the community had washed out because of the recent torrential rains. The only way up was through a steep, rocky and gutted road. A few times I thought we wouldn’t make it even in first gear in low four wheel drive. But we made it. La Bestia [the beast], my pickup, is powerful, my companions noted.

We got there and started about two hours later than we had planned, but the day went well with the participation of 22 leaders of different organizations in Cementera.

I’ve recently been able to participate in a few training sessions on conflict transformation.

Most recently I attended a week-end workshop by the Alternatives to Violence Project here in Central America which started in the US as a Quaker-led program in New York state prisons. I especially appreciate their very dynamic and participative process that works very well with campesinos and workers. They speak of the transformative power of persons to deal with conflict.

Last year I attended two of the three week-long workshops that Caritas Honduras sponsored for Caritas workers in the country. It was led by Caritas Colombia and used the work of John Paul Lederach who has worked in Colombia and other conflict areas, often with Caritas. A Mennonite he has academic posts at both Notre Dame University and Eastern Mennonite University.

In both the emphasis is not on resolving conflicts as much as transforming the conflicts so that there is not just peace but justice and real reconciliation. I mixed material from both sources for the workshop.

I tried throughout the day to encourage participation – but for the most part the participants are leaders who eagerly entered the process.

We started out, as almost always here, with prayer. Then I led a few exercises to held us recognize our dignity and the worth of our input into the community.

Using a series of exercise we talked about conflict, stages of conflicts, roles people assume in conflict situations, and more. I began by asking them what they thought or felt about conflict. Not surprisingly all the inputs revealed a negative view. But when I asked them if conflicts were ever helpful, they admitted there was positive aspects and could give examples.

After lunch I began with several activities to encourage them to use their imaginations. In a society where much of the education is rote memorization, this is sorely needed.

Finally we did an analysis of a conflict. Ismael and I had thought that a recent conflict over the preservation of a reserve on a nearby mountain would work to help them analyze the people, the problem, and the process of a conflict. But we were wrong. Finally they came up with a conflict in the community from the late 1990s. 

The conflict – not unexpectedly about land ownership - did not turn out well for the community. Yet, using it and probing the memories of some of the participants helped them see the importance of careful analysis.

I offered to come back for a second workshop so that we might work on some of the conflicts in the community.

I closed my participation with a passage from one of Paul’s letters, Romans 12: 9-13, which seemed most appropriate:

Let love be sincere.
Hate what is evil and hold to whatever is good.
Love one another and be considerate.
Outdo one another in mutual respect.
Be zealous in fulfilling your duties.
Be fervent in the Spirit and serve God.
Have hope and be cheerful.
Be patient in trials and pray constantly.
Share with other Christians in need.
With those passing by, be ready to receive them.

I left as they cleaned up the church where we had met and went to find Ismael who was leaving with me. I had a deep sense of peace waiting in the truck, looking out at a incredible view of the nearby mountains and valleys.

I found myself grateful for the day, for the beauty of the countryside, and for the beauty of the people.

A side note. I talked with Josué, a kid in the community who took my picture when I came to the community for a video festival in May. It’s a picture that I love, because it captures me at my best – enjoying life and the people in communities like Cementera.

At my best

Josué, the photographer

A health update

For the third time in four weeks I came down with a serious case of diarrhea. I finally decided to go to a different doctor in a private hospital here in Santa Rosa de Copán.

I arrived at about 3 o’clock but had to wait to about 5:30 to see the doctor. After a through examination she told me I had amoebae. I have several different medicines to take and have to go back next week to see here after getting a series of laboratory tests.

I am still feeling out of it, but managed to facilitate a workshop on conflict transformation in the aldea of Cementera in Lepaera, in the department of Lempira. I’ll write more on this later.

Transformation of conflicts workshop in Cementera
I am grateful that I got decent medical treatment but I realize that the cost of the prescriptions and the doctor’s appointment (about $80 in all – even with a senior citizen’s discount), was more than many Hondurans make in a month and is about a quarter of the minimum wage here.

This is a privilege of being North-American with access to half-way decent medical care. Many people have little or no access to decent health care, walking miles to a government clinic that is often under-staffed and does not always have the medicine that is needed for basic health needs.

All the more reason to be here, to help people here work for change, and to accompany them as they seek what is needed for healthy communities.

As I reflect on this I recall my visit last week to the village of Quebrada Grande in the parish of Dulce Nombre, accompanying one of the Caritas workers in  a project to promote maternal and infant health. (The project is partially funded by Catholic Relief Services; a video on the project can be found on the CRS Operation Rice Bowl website, here. Ignore the written commentary which is about a different CRS project.) Volunteer monitors in the villages are trained to do monthly weigh-ins of infants under two. 

Weighing an infant in Quebrada Grande
In Quebrada Grande a few months ago eleven out of the twenty-two infants were seriously underweight. Last week only nine were underweight, but that is still the worst percentage in the communities being served by this program. There are many causes, including poor water and insufficient food this time of the year. And so there are some efforts being made by Caritas and Catholic Relief Services to improve the diet and health of the people. The project helps the mothers improve the diet of their children, promoting breast-feeding and providing some training on healthful preparation of food.

I was recently able to get some fortified rice from a local evangelical group that is distributing packets prepared in the Mid-West by a group headquartered in Minnesota. One of the monitors prepared the rice and shared it with the kids and mothers. The mothers told me that the kids did like it - as opposed to some other enriched products that mothers and children dislike and reject.

Feeding her child Kids Against Hunger fortified rice
This village is fortunate to have good staff at the local health clinic (about 45 minutes away) and one of the nurses there came and spoke with the mothers with underweight children. Most of them were referred to the clinic later this month when a group of doctors will be there.

This is but a drop in the bucket of need here. As I have mentioned before there is need a major transformation here, what some people, mostly in the Resistance,  are calling the Refoundation of Honduras.

Perhaps one day, all will have access to the health care I have been able to have, with my US dollars.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


This week I finished Jim Forest's  All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day,  just published by Orbis Books. I highly recommend this inspiring and beautiful book, filled with photos and quotes of Dorothy Day, the founder of  The Catholic Worker.

One quote really struck me. About 1970 she visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta and spoke with the novices of her order, the Missionaries of Charity.
Christ remains with us not only through the Mass but in the 'distressing disguise' of the poor. To live with the poor is to live in the constant presence of Jesus.
Though I live, for now, in a fairly comfortable house in Santa Rosa de Copán, I often have the privilege of visiting rural villages, sitting in people's home, sharing a meal, and occasionally sleeping over.  For me, this has been a real gift of grace. They are moments of contemplation, of encounters with God.

All this fills me with joy and gratitude to God, to the poor, and to the people who help me be here. Another quote of Dorothy day, from her early book From Union Square to Rome well expresses how I feel tonight:
Gratitude brought me into the Church and that gratitude grows, and the first word my heart will utter when I face God is "Thanks."
Deo gratias!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dreams into deeds

The last two weeks have been quite busy – including a second bout of diarrhea and a good number of visits to the countryside. There is much I could write about but something very simple touched me today.

If you have been reading my blog, you may remember that I have been working with the village of Piedras Coloradas for the last few months to help them work together to be a real faith-based community.

At the first meeting in April I asked them to  identify their successes – they have a base community and a church; they have water (though it’s not enough); they pressured the mayor of the municipality to have two bridges built since they were isolated during parts of the rainy season when vehicles couldn’t cross the streams; they had provided money for a study for a project to bring electricity to the village and to provide their mandatory contribution to the project; they also had obtained land for a cancha, a soccer field.

I also have asked them in a meeting to dream about what they hope their village will be and, more recently, they have talked about priorities, which include electricity, housing, food security, and soccer.

Today, Sunday, returning from a visit to the Mayan Ruinas outside of Copán Ruinas with two visiting seminarians of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, I passed by the field and saw a game in progress. Seeing Julio Alonso Rivas and his father, Luís Alfonso Rivas there, I stopped. The cancha is fixed enough that the village team was playing a team from a nearby village and had blue jerseys! 

I didn’t do anything but help them get thinking about what they could do – and they followed through. Having a team is very important for rural villages - and it's also a great way to keep the young interested in their community.

While I was standing there, Julio Alonso told me that the electric project is proceeding. They have to mark where the electric poles will be placed and will have to remove the trees in the way. Another step toward making a dream real.

A big concern will be housing. There are two woefully inadequate houses – one for a single mother with 6 kids, the other for an elderly couple who care for three grandchildren.  I challenged them when I met them on July 2 to think about what they could do – even though they are very poor and have no money to fix the houses. They formed a six person committee – 3 men and 3 women – to begin to think about what could be done to help both families. I reminded them I don’t have funds but I told that they should try to think imaginatively about ways to help -  including seeking help from the municipal government. This will be more challenging and I may end up trying to find funds for this and related projects. But I want them to have a sense that they are the protagonists and to remind them that they have done much and can do a lot more.

It’s a small village (14 houses) but I think it’s a good place to begin. And something has begun.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Details of the persecution of Padre Fausto

In recent years, especially since his exile in Mexico from his native Honduras in the 1980s, Padre Fausto has opened centers of attention where natural medicine practices are shared with the ill. He has centers in Corquin, San Juan de Opoa, and Santa Rosa, all in the department of Copán.

Padre Fausto has been active with the Resistance since June 28, 2009, the day of the coup. He has spoken at rallies in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and other places. He was appointed a member of the Comisión de Verdad – the True Commission – the Resistance’s alternative to the government’s Comisión de la Verdad (Truth Commission). 

Padre Fausto in the Resistance's march at the end of the independence day parade in Santa Rosa, September 15, 2009.
It was a surprise to me and many others that Padre Fausto is leaving Honduras. But reading the details from an e-mail of  COFADEH (El Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras) I can see the seriousness of his situation. Here is  my edited translation:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011, Denia Mejía, Padre Fausto’s assistant, found in the e-mail of INEHSCO, a mail message sent Saturday, June 25, 2011 at 5:29:46 with this message under subject: Warning!! Warning!! Warning!! The same message was sent from a Yahoo-Mexico address of  Asesinosxxxxxx. The messages contained threats  disguised as extortion in which they gave 48 hours to make a deposit of $35,000 or they would kill Padre Fausto, fulfilling a contract to execute him.

In the last two weeks there have been phone calls from unknown parties who demand to know the routines and times for Padre Fausto’s travels; there has also been an unusual presence of police near his centers of attention to the public.

Sunday, June 9, 2011, two unknown men showed up at the Hogar de Salud (House of Health) in Corquin, and entered opening the front door without authorization. They entered the rooms where the patients were. Immediately they approached the young woman who worked there, pressuring her and harassing her with a series of questions related to the routines of Padre Fausto, including his schedule and his plans to travel to different places in the country, his contacts and their telephone numbers. They asked the patients the same questions.

These men traveled in a white car with polarized windows, much like a car the on April 13, 2011, followed Denia Mejía when she was traveling from the Hospital del Occidente (in Santa Rosa) to her house. Because the car continued to follow her, she took a taxi. To her surprise, when she got to her house she saw the car at the corner near the house. Seeing her, the car was started and left at high speed.

On June 24, Padre Fausto visited the Hogar de Salud in Corquín. When he left the Hogar headed to Santa Rosa, a woman he knows called him on the telephone to tell him that the vehicle which was following her was parked a block from the Hogar and that when they saw that Padre Fausto had they followed him.

For more information on this case, see my previous blog entries on Padre Fausto, including here.

UPDATE: The original Spanish of the COFADEH urgent action can be found here.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Padre Fausto fleeing the country

Because of threats to his life which I wrote about earlier this week in a blog entry, Padre Fausto Milla announced at Mass today in the church of San Martín de Porres in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, that he is fleeing the country.

Padre Fausto has been a voice for the poor for decades, a voice which invites persecution from the powers that be.

Padre Fausto at Mass in San Martín church, November 2009