Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gift of Christmas

The site of the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem
And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans — and all that lives and moves upon them. 
He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit – and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused – and to save us from our own foolishness, for all our sins, He has come down to earth and gave us Himself.
Sigrid Undset

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Seeds of hope

What are all these people doing gathered outside the door of the church in El Limon?

They are members of the church council for the San Miguel zone of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.

They are getting vegetable seeds, which Adán is distributing.

The past few years the parish has had an agricultural project to help villages throughout the parish. The first year the three field workers did a lot of work helping small farmers improve their practices in the production of basic grains – corn and beans. There was also a component of vegetable production in groups which has continued. Another component has been the promotion of small family gardens not only in the 18 villages where they worked but also with the pastoral workers of the parish.

One of the most popular aspects of the project was providing seeds for family gardens. People are diversifying their diets and are also selling the surplus for a little needed cash.

The funding for the project ends this month. A proposal was sent to the Spanish Catholic organization, Manos Unidas, which funded the project up to now, but there has not been any response.

I hope we can find a way to continue this project.

Any suggestions for funding or other help are most welcome.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rest in God's love, Aunt Mary

Aunt Mary with extended family, 2008

Last night, my Aunt Mary Barrar died at 5:01 pm Eastern Time. She was my last living aunt. A generation has passed away.

Aunt Mary with cousin Mary, December 2005

I have many memories of Aunt Mary. Her husband, Uncle George, was my godfather. Her daughter, Mary, is only 30 days younger than I am. Her son, George, is younger than us.

Aunt Mary with cousin George, October 2010

I remember many visits to their home in Norwood, outside Philadelphia. It was always a welcoming place. Often my parents and I would spend an evening after Christmas with them – dinner, with Aunt Mary’s famous delicious rolls. When the grandsons were old enough, we usually played board games for hours. It was always a delight to be there.

I vaguely remember that she and my uncle George (who was my godfather) were foster parents at times, taking in children in need.

After Dad moved to Iowa in 1993 we would often stay with Aunt Mary. After Dad’s death, I would stay there until a few years ago.

I stayed with her the night we buried my father. Aunt Mary, cousin Mary, and I were looking over photos of Dad that I had put together. I ended up mentioning how my Dad would go on Friday nights to turn off the lights of the observant Jewish family that lived across the street.

That story opened up a series of stories. She told how she would go with the cantor to turn the lights off in the synagogue

She then talked about the neighborhood – the Meadows – in west Philadelphia. She remembered the black families who lived there. She talked about them as the holy rollers; the black Pentecostals with their tent meetings were a little startling for her. But she accepted the people.

She mentioned the basketball games in the gym at the Catholic Church, St. Raphael’s, where in the 1920s and 1930s people of various faiths and races would play basketball together.

This was a very different neighborhood – with real mixing of races and religions.

That night Aunt Mary gave me an idea of why my parents were the way they were.

Aunt Mary with cousin Judy

The last few years (except for this year) I’ve had a chance to see Aunt Mary when I visited the US, about once a year. I would often arrive around the date of her birthday, which she shared with her first great-granddaughter. It was a delight to share with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Celebrating her birthday, October 2009

I’ll miss her. She was a woman of faith who was so welcoming.

Celebrating her birthday, October 2010

May the angels welcome her into Paradise and may she rest gently in the arms of God.

A good woman has gone to her Maker.

Aunt Mary with extended family, February 2008

Monday, December 17, 2012

COFFEE in Camalote

Because my car is finally fixed I set out for the village of Camalote on Sunday, to bring the Eucharist for their Celebration of the Word.

This is something I am always glad to do. But this time there was an added bonus.

Over lunch the two pastoral workers began talking about coffee. It is the coffee harvest season, after all. We talked a little about the effects of roya, a disease that is affecting some varieties of coffee, the varieties which most of the small poor farmers plant.  Two varieties (noventa and lempira) seem to be resistant, but they give a smaller yield than the other varieties.

That probably means that these farmers and the hundreds of coffee pickers will not get as much money as previous years and we can expect some serious social consequences – probably down the line in May and June.

But we talked more about the coffee process and the prices they get.

A medium sized coffee de-pulping machine

Ripe coffee is a berry – with the seed inside a pulpy mass. After it is picked the pulp has to be removed. Many people have a small machine to do this. The coffee bean then has to be washed and dried. This is called coffee in “pergamino.”

Coffee (yellow) with the pulp (red) removed - in pergamino

After this it needs to be dried thoroughly so that the husk (the parchment-like covering) can be removed. Then you have the coffee bean in “oro” – gold.

Those who pick the coffee generally get 30 lempiras ($1.50) for a five-gallon container of the coffee berries. This container is called either una lata or un galón (even though it’s actually five gallons).

But what are the prices for the small farmers who sell their crop to intermediaries, sometimes called coyotes in Spanish.

I was told that a cargo – 200 pounds of coffee beans– will get 3,500 lempiras (about $175) – that’s about 88 cents per pound of coffee. Not too bad. But that’s not what most small farmers get.

If the beans are still wet, the intermediary will calculate the 100 pounds brought in by the farmer as 48 pounds. If the beans are dry, 100 pounds are counted as 55 pounds. If the beans are dried and have the husk removed, 100 pounds are counted as 88 pounds.

So it would be profitable to have dried beans and even better to have dried coffee beans with the husk removed.
The men figured that selling wet coffee to the intermediaries (taking the full price as17.5 lempiras a pound) would give them 8.4 lempiras a pound, whereas selling the coffee dried and with the husk removed would bring 15.4 lempiras. That would mean, for a 200 pound bag of beans, a difference of 1400 lempiras ($70).

But to be able to sell dried and husked beans means having a place to dry them. In the sun, it can take more than five days. And each afternoon you have to take them in, and if it’s raining you have to get them in as soon as possible.

In addition a 10 meter by 3 meter concrete drying area could cost 50,000 lempiras - $2,500.

A traditional cement area for drying coffee

And so people are dependent on the intermediaries who buy the beans and then dry and husk them and finally sell them.

A commercial drier – my friends suggested – was about 1.5 million lempiras. (Salvador knew about this since a coffee cooperative in Dolores is trying to find a way to buy a drier.) The coop was not functioning for a few years because their de-pulping machine was broken, but they restarted their work about two or three years ago.

Then they told me about solar driers.

A man in the community has one and we stopped to see José Antonio Pérez. His solar drier is 10 meters by three meters, though the inner meter is a passageway.

Inside there are trays with mesh so that the beans can dry all the way through.

Inside Antonio's solar coffee drier

There is also a second layer of trays – which on sunny days can be pulled out to take advantage of the sun.

Maynor (Antonio's son) demonstrates the pull-out tray to use when it's sunny.

Antonio made his drier with the help of a US AID field staffer – to the tune of 10,000 lempiras (about $500).

With this drier, it takes about 4 days to dry the beans. Last year he dried about 75 quintales – 7,500 pounds.

This year Antonio will only prepare the best coffee for selling directly to Bon Café, a Honduran coffee exporter. To do this well he will pay his pickers 35 lempiras a lata, but they have to pick only the mature berries.

Antonio and his sons and sons-in law have about 7 manzanas of coffee, though 1.5 this year were seriously affected by roya. He suggested that a manzana might yield 20 quintales (2000 pounds) of well-dried coffee, though with better production methods one might be able to get yields of 30 or 40 quintales.

I asked about the altitude of the fields, a serious question for coffee production. His are between 1,050 and 1,100 kilometers above sea level. He also told me that they prune the coffee plants so that they are not much higher than 2 meters, which will make it easier to harvest.

Antonio also showed me a biodigestor that he made, with the help of a Honduran agency to provide gas for his family. It cost between 800 to 1200 lempiras ($400 -$600).

The biodigester (under the plastic)

Some friends of mine, Iowa State grads, have a great project in Nicaragua, with biodigesters and other technologies for the poor. Check out their website here. I think they can make it available at a cheaper rate.

The biodigester (with a vine on top)
Antonio's  is the only solar drier in this part of the parish, though he knows of one not too far away (as the crow flies). I have heard that there is at least one other person I know who has a biodigester.

José Antonio with his sons, Maynor and Denys, by their solar coffee drier

I find this very interesting and it’s stirring me to think more about how we can find a way to get small coffee farmers a better price for their crops.

Fair trade is a long and hard process, but there are some examples of direct trade coffee, where groups in the US help farmers by buying their coffee to be sold in the US. I know of three examples of this and it seems to work.

This may be one project I’ll have to do some more research on, with the hope of helping people here start something so that they get just prices and their families can have a better life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Education by the poor and for the poor

With the people in Newton, Connecticut, I mourn the deaths of the children and others killed in a school there yesterday.

I will not comment - but only offer my prayers. 
However, I just finished an interesting book on education and had finished the review below before I heard of the killings. Though the review has no real relation to the killings, I decided that I wanted to publish it as soon as I could.

The Beautiful Tree: A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves by James Tooley is an intriguing book that I find very hard to review.

I recognize some of my biases toward the obligations of society, often managed through government agencies, to provide good education for all, especially the poor.

But I also recognize that all of my education was in private educational institutions – four different Catholic institutions and one private grad school.

This book is, generally, a compelling read, full of great stories of people who provide education with the poorest.

Against all odds and against the incredulity of many government and aid agencies, James Tooley found hundreds of private schools for the poor in the center of slums and in remote villages in India, Africa, and China. These were often small makeshift schools which one person had started to educate local children, sometimes because of the poor quality of the local public schools, sometimes because there were no schools that were nearby. Sometimes a person, often a woman, had started a kindergarten and then the parents asked her to offer first grade, and subsequent grades.

These efforts are admirable, most often with good results, despite the lack of decent facilities. In studies the author oversaw, these schools generally did better academically than most public schools that were also meant for the poor.

I was appalled, as was the author, at the attitudes of development specialists and public officials to the schools, who denied their presence or degraded the quality of their education, claiming that the owners were only in education for the money.

These private schools have some major advantages: smaller classes, dedicated teachers who show up every day, mostly local teachers, and a proprietor who is interested in the education of the children.

There is also a system of accountability: the parents can always take their kids out of the schools if the teaching is poor; then the school suffers. So the proprietor of the school has to see that the educational experience for the children is as good as possible.

There are problems: poor facilities, teachers who are not always highly trained, and in some places the schools are highly vulnerable to the demands of officials for bribes to be recognized or to avoid fines or closure.

These schools are, to a great extent, a response to a terrible public education system with incompetent teachers, some of whom don’t show up for classes or only do minimal teaching. The children suffer because many of these public school teachers cannot be fired or even held accountable for their failure to work. The teachers in public schools are often fairly well paid and have strong unions, but they do not always have the spirit of working for the common good that the founders of the small private school often manifest.

Supposedly there are parent-teacher associations in the public schools but these often have no power and are at times bought out by the teachers

 Tooley proposes small private schools as the way to deal with the education of the poor. He even cites Gandhi to support his position.

But I fear that he has a one-dimensional approach to the problem of the education of the poor. He appears to see the “profit motive in education” and these small privately-owned schools as “the silver bullet” for the problem, as the “Holy Grail.”

He briefly mentions non-profit schools but does no in-depth study of them. He only notes that in some cases their test scores are lower than ether the privately-owned or government schools.

I believe that Tooley’s analysis does not take into sufficient consideration that there is more than the free market at work in the schools he visited. From his descriptions of the owners and even from part of his analysis, these owners often come across as persons who are really interested in the betterment of the poorest children in their area. Many even provide free or subsidized education for the very poor. These people are motivated not merely by the desire for gain but, perhaps more so, by their concern for the common good. They cannot be reduced to entrepreneurs.

In the last chapter the author makes some suggestions, including vouchers for poor children. I’m not sure that is not a good idea. Yet he goes on to talk about the possibility of chains of private for-profit schools with their own “brand,” as ways to advance this type of schooling. He even talks about “franchises.”

I fear that this reveals a blindness to the problems of bigness, of the power of big money.  Could this be just another example of an ideological approach that unthinkingly advocates the free-market model, without moral constraints?

He also writes approvingly of Milton Friedman’s proposal of “privatization of education."

I believe that Tooley’s suggestions and analysis are clouded by a negative vision of the role of the state, as opposed to the Catholic viewpoint that society, including governments, have  a duty to promote the common good.

It seems appropriate, then, that the book is published by published in 2009 by the Cato Institute, a Washington DC–based think thank, that promotes, in their own words, “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.”
I fear that this reveals a blindness to the problems of bigness, of the power of big money.  Could this be just another example of an ideological approach that unthinking advocates the free-market model, without moral constraints?

I hope not, but I have my concerns. I don’t think either big governments nor big financial enterprises can give enough voice to the poor. I guess I’m just too influenced by E. F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and some of Gandhi’s writings on swaraj.

For Gandhi’s vision was different. His goal was swaraj, self-rule, in which people participate in the lives of their community and take responsibility for the community as well as their won families. Gandhi realized that the good of one and the good of the community are intertwined.

Gandhi knew the tyrannical power of outside governments and institutions. I think he’d be as suspicious of large foreign investors in chains of private schools as he was of the British models of centralized, standardized education.

He would applaud small efforts, efforts that don’t overwhelm the role of the people in the poor communities who want decent education for their children and are willing to sacrifice to send them to private schools. He would encourage the proliferation of small efforts of parents and communities, together with leaders or small entrepreneurs, to work together to provide a liberating education.

And so, instead of looking to the market for solutions, I think we must look to the already present bonds of community as well as the good will and community spirit of small entrepreneurs.

I am not opposed to private schools, but I cannot approve Tooley’s free-market, anti-government ideological approach.

I do hope that he can continue to support and promote small scale private and community-based but I wonder if his proposal of chains and franchises will lead to the bureaucracy and power of big money.

My next question, of course, is whether something of this can happen here in Honduras?

There are, of course, some very good public school teachers who are devoted to their students and do wonders. I have seen them and you can see the difference in their students: they are eager to learn, they grasp the course material, they want to continue to study after the sixth grade.

These teachers need to be lauded, encouraged, and rewarded so that they can continue to serve the children here.

But overall, we have a terrible educational problem here: poorly equipped public schools, few and widely scattered middle and high schools, terrible teacher-student ratios, teachers who do not get paid on time, teachers who arrive late and leave early, teachers’ position dependent on the patronage of the two major parties, strong teachers unions that often go on strike (often for good reasons), and a teaching style dependent on repetition and memorization.

What can be done to change this? That’s another post altogether.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What's up, what's down, what's going around

The last two weeks I've been confined a bit to Santa Rosa, except for the parish evaluation meeting, a Caritas project in San José Quelacasque, and a day in rural Dulce Nombre for the final event of the parish’s agricultural project which I wrote about in the last post.

On Thursday night, December 6, November 29, my car gave out. The crankshaft was broken in two.

Don’t ask me how it happened, but if you had ridden with me in the car in the previous two weeks, over incredibly bad roads, you might have an idea of possible cause.

Well, today, I got the car back, fixed – for 16,000 lempiras, about $800. And the mechanic did not charge me for the trips he made to La Entrada and San Pedro Sula to get some parts and to have a part put into the motor. He’s incredible.

And so I’ve spent most of my time here in Santa Rosa, in Caritas. I’ve missed the chance to get out into the countryside and spend time with the people.

But what’s been happening in the real world?

The coffee harvest has begun and I see people picking coffee, as well as trucks full of people going out early in the morning.

The coffee gravest is almost the only time for some people to earn cash and so it’s an important time of the year.

In a friend's finca  in January 2009

There are some large coffee plantations here but many people have small plot – from half an acre to several acres. But this year a disease – roya – has hit most coffee plants and the production is down. And so I expect that this year people will not earn much from their coffee farms and so we can expect some hard times.

What this will mean in a few months is to be seen. I expect some hunger and some cutting back by the people on what they might see as expenses. We’ll see if this affects school attendance.

These past two weeks have also been crazy in Tegucigalpa. There are ongoing disputes about the November primary elections, some claiming fraud and demanding a recount. The president has said that there were reports of people planning a coup against him. He attacked the Supreme Court for declaring unconstitutional his plan to purify the police as well as his plan for “model cities. ” In an early morning session of Congress this week (between 1 am and 4 am) Congress basically sacked four of the Supreme Court justices and appointed four more. Some people ahve called it a "technical coup."

It’s truly a fight for power among the powers of government and Congress is trying to make itself the ultimate power n regard to the Supreme Court (as it tried to do in 2009 when it overthrew President Zelaya). Honduras may be the laughing stock of the world – or worse. The press now reports, though, that the president is getting representatives of all three government branches together to talk it over. We'll see.

I can’t follow all the ins and outs of this disaster, but if you want to follow this go to Honduras Culture and Politics blog, which has had a series of detailed and informative accounts of what’s going on. They sure save me a lot of time and help me to understand better what’s happening.

But life goes on here. People are shopping for Christmas, putting up Christmas displays, and more.

I’m still in an Advent move, waiting and hoping and trying to slow down.

But now that I have wheels, who knows?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

More signs of hope in Honduras

Friday the Dulce Nombre de María parish celebrated the closing of the agriculture project, financed by the Spanish Catholic organization Manos Unidas. I’ve written about this several times before. (Several of the posts can be accessed here.)

The project has been a success, but we are not sure if it will continue. Even though it been only about $2,500 a month, we are waiting to hear from Manos Unidas to hear if they will continue to help finance it.

In early stages the project helped people with tools, fertilizers, and training in improved methods of production of basic grains. It also has helped people learn how to make organic fertilizers and fumigants.

More recently it has included projects of family gardens, as well as the promotion of production of vegetables by organized groups in the community. This helps promote better diet but also generates some funds.

There have also been some efforts in planting trees, both hardwoods and fruit trees.

Agricultural project celebration

Eighteen communities participated in the most recent stage of the project and so it was good to see about 200 come out for the celebration.

It was held in Colonia San José, Dulce Nombre, a small community which was very hard to get to because of a water-soaked road with six inch deep mud at several place. But I got there in the parish truck. (My truck has been in the mechanic’s shop for over a week because of a cracked camshaft.)

There was, of course, a Mass with Padre Efraín, the Dulce Nomrbe pastor, followed by recognition of the communities, songs by the Primos de Occidente of Quebrada Grande and a few cultural events by the young people of the village of Yaruconte.

The two most memorable was a song that Los Primos de Occidente had written on the project, which they promptly named “Huertos familiares/Family gardens”. They sang about “tajadas of plantains and a good salad of fresh vegetables for breakfast.” You can see and listen to it here.

The young people of Yaruconte and several other youth groups had prepared cultural events for their villages. The Yaruconte youth presented an indigenous dance.

   There were also tables of vegetables and fruit that several communities had brought to sell. I bought a few turnips and was given a bag of oranges as I left. 

Looking over the vegetables, I talked with a number of young men who were involved in the project. One was eating a raw carrot, something I seldom see here. He told me he liked carrots. So it appears, at least in one case, the project is helping people diversify their diets.

One event, though, touched me. There is a young man, Toño, from a village who is mentally handicapped. He walked up to the altar and shook Padre Efraín’s hand and then several pastoral workers brought him a chair so that he could sit in front of the altar with them. Instead of marginalizing him because of his differences, he is accepted and welcomed.

The project is important for its results but also for the community organization it promotes. But all this needs to be based on a love of God and neighbor that embraces those who are different. At least in this case, it does.

A water project in San José Quelacasque

The day before I had gone with a group from Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán to San José Quelacasque for the inauguration of their water and sanitation project.

Caritas has worked in San José Quelacasque for four years, first with a Community Management of Reduction of Disasters, project and since January with a water and sanitation project.

It is in many ways, a model project, not just for the latrines, improved piping of water, a system of water meters for houses, but for an improved culture of health which the community has embraced. Thus they hope to conserve their distinction as being the one place in the whole municipality of Gracias where people can drink water from the faucet without worry.

The celebration began with Mass with Padre Loncho, the pastor of the parish of Gracias, Lempira, followed by the blessing of the new water tank. There were songs composed by village members Ester and Joel, as well as several skits from the students. One was particularly funny and appropriate, satirizing a boy sick with diarrhea going to a clinic. There were even pigs rooting around the “clinic” – a true health hazard.

Also, because it was December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, San Nicolás showed up and gave out candy. 

After lunch I talked briefly with a representative from the Salvadoran non-governmental organization that has been the conduit for funding. He was impressed with what the people had done and had they had worked together. He noted that the community was poor, relying mostly on the production of basic grains.

If the community continues to be vigilant in its protection and conservation of water and their efforts in maintaining a clean and healthy environment on the community, they will continue to be a model for other communities.

These are small efforts, mostly done with the help of outside agencies but with amazing contributions of the people involved.

These people are the hope for the future of Honduras.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Waiting in Hope

Advent – the season of hoping for the coming of Christ – began yesterday. But hope is what life is about here in Honduras.

People hope for food, for water, for good weather for their fields, for good prices for their coffee crops, for justice. But often they have to wait.

How we wait is important. Do we wait impatiently, always expecting that our needs will be satisfied immediately?  Or do we wait passively, hoping that maybe something will happen for us?

In the past week or so, I’ve had several experiences that hint of other ways of waiting.

On Sunday, November 25, the parish of Dulce Nombre de María celebrated the feast of Christ the King with a procession, Mass, and dedication of a new building. People came from all parts of the parish to celebrate.

The people of Dolores walking in procession with the Eucharist

People walked from Dolores with the monstrance with the Host on a truck. Others came, walking riding rented pick ups, or on the regular buses that serve the area. I am continually amazed at the commitment of these people who will walk hours for a church meeting or celebration.

During the Mass about ten young people from a village were baptized.  Another sign of hope as more young people make the commitment to live out their faith.

Baptisms in the Christ the King Mass

As Communion began, Padre Efraín, the pastor, motioned for me to come and helped distribute the Eucharist. As I placed the host on the tongues of many people I knew, I was filled with a deep sense of faith and of unity with Christ and the People of God there present.

After Mass we blessed the new building with a kitchen, dining room, and a meeting hall which will help the parish’s efforts of evangelization, bringing the Good News to the people, by providing a decent place for training sessions for people from many villages.

Blessing the new building

 Then there was food for everyone since people had brought ticucos, empañadas (pupusas), and even tamales to share.

Sharing ticucos

We used the meeting hall for the first time this past Friday and Saturday for the parish’s annual evaluation and planning meeting. Twenty-five people came in from the parish. Two seminarians who are helping in the parish for a month, as well as René who is discerning his vocation before entering the seminary in January, were also present.

René, with Ignacio and Gustavo, at the Dulce Nombre parish meeting

The evaluation was at times intense as we looked at what had been planned for this year in each of the three ministries of the parish: liturgical, prophetic, and social. We also shared evaluations that several of the sectors of the parish had made.

In all, I think the parish is doing fairly well, with a few areas where we need to improve. But the parish has developed a plan, a calendar, and a series of objectives for the coming year.

This planning, I think, is a sign of a people who are waiting – but expectantly, ready to move forward and respond to God’s call.

Many of the events are training sessions, helping people to become better catechists, lay preachers, retreat leaders for base communities, or leaders of Celebrations of the Word in their villages.

There are other events where they will celebrate their faith – with Masses and Baptisms  and first Communions in the villages, with two youth get-togethers for Mass and soccer, with Masses and blessings of seeds in April and May, and the regular Sunday celebrations and weekly meetings of base communities in the villages.

There are hopes that a Spanish Catholic aid organization will again help the parish by financing an agricultural project.

This is one way of waiting – getting ready to respond to God’s call and celebrating God’s work in daily life.

But I think there is another aspect of waiting, in a positive sense. We need to celebrate our successes (how God has done good with us) and share our dreams.

Last Wednesday I went with Mari who works with Cáritas to the town of Erandique, Lempira – over terrible roads – to lead a workshop for youth in the parish. Hipólito, who is from the parish and works with Cáritas, had invited us as international facilitators to share with the 36 youth who came. Interestingly, Mari is from Cuba and I’m from the US – a nice way to show the young people that we must go beyond national borders and controversies. 

Youth in Erandique working together, with Hipólito looking on

 I started with having the young people share in groups what they had achieved, personally ad as a youth group in the parish. Some found this hard to do and one young woman even said that she felt that she had not achieved much. After this, I asked them to work in groups on what their dreams were for young people in their community in two years.

After I finished Mari used what the young people had shared to help them think about their capacities, their dreams, their sense of leadership, and the need to organize. She helped the young people see the significance of a quote I had shared from Dom Helder Câmara, the late Brazilian archbishop:

When we dream alone, it’s only a dream; when we dream together, it’s the beginning of a new reality.


But then there are nightmares

I am without a car for about a week because on Thursday night, just before the parish meeting, my car began to emit a terrible noise and then wouldn't start. My mechanic moved the car to his shop and found out that the crankshaft had cracked - all the way through. He had never seen this type of damage before. And so I'm getting it repaired - for more than $500. But at least this didn't happen out in a rural village. 

Here's a photo of the cracked crankshaft:

And so I'm waiting for the motor to be repaired - something I don't wish for anyone.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dreams into deeds in Dulce Nombre

This past week I have been with six university students from St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Ames, Iowa.

For three days we stayed in Dulce Nombre de Copán on the grounds of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, where they took part in a parish council meeting, went to see one site of the parish’s agricultural project, participation in the Mass and soccer tournament for the parish youth, and went to Masses and a Celebration of the Word in various communities of the parish.

Monday through Wednesday we were in the rural village of Montaña Adentro, about 9 kilometers from Dulce Nombre, but in a very mountainous area. Montaña Adentro – “the mountain inside” – is on the side of the hill.

Part of Montaña Adentro

 There are about thirty families in the village, many of them involved in the three base communities in the parish. There is one schoolroom with a teacher and assistant for the 35 or so students in six grades.

The major purpose of our visit was to get to know the people as well as to help the local people work on their church. Until now they have been meeting on Sundays in the school room.

With the community church council, in the school

The work was simple – digging trenches and placing rocks and cement for part of the foundations as well as making the rebar for the churches columns. In addition, two of the women helped one morning with the school.

Digging the foundations for the sacristy

We ate simple meals in the home of Daniel and María Eva. I brought some vegetables they asked me to bring, as well as rice. But they provided the tortillas, beans, plantains, eggs, and more.

In addition, we had fresh oranges and mandarins which someone had climbed a tree to get for us.

Freddy picking oranges for us

I had told the people that the visitors would pay for the meals, but in the end the people refused to charge us for the meals. But the students left a donation behind.

Such generosity is not uncommon here and I’ve experienced it many times. But I think it caught the students off guard.

The students were also surprised at how all the church meetings begin not just with a prayer, but also with a reading of the Gospel of the day with a reflection.

We spent not a few hours meeting and playing with the people in the house where we ate. Many of the family’s children and grandchildren passed through, so that it was sometimes hard to figure who really lived there. There was a strong sense of extended family. Yet one of the sons had left a wife, two children, and some coffee land to go to the US for three years to earn some money for the family.

The last morning, after almost all of our work was done – though much of the work still lies ahead – I asked Daniel and Antonio, two of the leaders who would be the church’s patron. Saint Anthony of Padua, they answered.

But then they told me that the village was thinking of changing its name. Some people feel a little ashamed when someone in town asks them where they’re from and they respond Montaña Adentro – “the mountain way back there.”

What name? I asked. Nueva Jerusalén, they told me – the New Jerusalem.

I thought of the passages in Isaiah and Revelation where the scriptures speak of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven. It’s a place of healing where people live in peace and where there are no more tears. It’s a vision of life as God wills it.

I think the people want this new name because they want to try to live such a life. It won’t be easy – not only because of their poverty and because of the challenges of community, but because the structures here work against that vision.

But it is a vision that I think we experienced in part in our days there. They shared their homes and their food with us; they let us work with them; they gave us a warm welcome, even though most of the students don’t speak Spanish.

It was a little taste of what the New Jerusalem is and it was a blessing to be able to share that with them on the side of a mountain in rural Honduras.

Reflecting with the students last night I realized that their visit is probably very different from that of other groups.

They got a chance to live in a rural village and share people’s live. They got to see the capacities and the resiliency of the people here who are poor.

I don’t like the idea of some “poverty tours” that show people all the terrible things the poor suffer, emphasizing the poor as victims.

They got to see people who are intelligent even if they have little formal education, children who are very sharp even though they learn in a one-room schoolhouse, communities that work together even when they do not have many material goods. They saw people who are capable and are leaders, people of faith who live and love and work together and seem to have good, happy families.

They saw a taste of the New Jerusalem. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Elections in Honduras

Sunday, November 18, Honduras held primary elections in which the major parties choose their presidential, mayoral, and congressional candidates for next November’s election.

The two major parties have several candidates for the presidency, while there is already only one presidential candidate for the major opposition party, LIBRE, which was founded by parts of the Resistance to the 2009 coup.

The last few days have been quiet since Honduras forbids active campaigning for five days before the election. But that doesn’t mean that the propaganda doesn’t continue – though in other forms.  For example, earlier this week a newspaper revealed that several hundred identity cards were found in the office of a major supporter of the National Party candidate, Juan Orlando. The id cars are either a way to prevent opponents to vote or to use them to vote for one’s own candidate.

I have heard of this tactic several years ago and recently a priest who works in the south of the department of Lempira told me that it’s happening there again.

But that is probably the most blatant form of corruption.

There are more subtle ways that candidates seek to ingratiate them with the electorate. They may not “buy” the votes with money, but those with connections may use them to give people tin roofing and bags of cement or use their role as elected officials to provide needed services (e.g., leveling roads) right before the elections. There is a report that one candidate is giving out medicine as a part of his campaign; the medicine is part of the medicine that the government apportions to hospitals and health clinics! Yesterday I saw soccer teams from various villages wearing shirts with Juan Orlando’s name; his supporters had obviously given them to the team.

On Sunday I saw busses and pick-ups adorned with posters of the candidates and the parties’ flags.  People were out to vote and the politicians were helping them get to the polls.

Bus supporters of National Party candidate Juan Orlando
Yet many people have very little confidence in either of the two major parties because of their corruption and their continuing internecine quarreling. Some are placing their hopes in LIBRE or in some independent candidates.

The role of LIBRE will be very important because both the National Party and the Liberal Party candidates supported the 2009 coup.

But the problem is not merely the party in power.

The problem is the system that keeps the economic and political elite in power and keeps the impoverished majority disempowered.

There are some candidates from LIBRE and even from some of the traditional parties who do seek the common good and have worked for the poorest. I’ve met a few in this region.

But I think what is needed is continuing work for the empowerment of the people, the work that I’ve seen in Cáritas and ERIC-SJ (a Jesuit-supported program in EL Progeso). People are learning how to stand up for their rights, how to work together and form civil organizations that will not only have their own projects but will demand that government entities respond to the needs of the poor. They are using some of the structures that are already present – the transparency committees, for example, that are watchdogs in the municipalities.

It’s a long hard process, but I place my hopes not in elections, but in the good will and the work to transform politics and life here so that people may live decent lives.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alternatives to Violence Workshop 2

Monday and Tuesday we had a training session in Dulce Nombre facilitated by two women from San Pedro Sula who work with the Tejedoras de la Misericordia, Weavers of Mercy, Misericordia Tejedora de Sueños [Mercy, Weaver of Dreams], a project that, I believe, the Sisters of Mercy support.

Nelly, one of the facilitators

This was the second we had in Dulce Nombre. The first one in July had 15 participants. I wrote about it here. We had only eight this time but they were committed. It was also great that there were three young people there and that there was equal representation of women and men.

In this workshop we selected two themes to work on. We ended up working on themes of fear and power.

participants with Aida, one of the facilitators

What struck me was how some have already found ways to diminish violence in their communities. This was especially poignant for me since one person who was going to come called me on Sunday to tell me he couldn’t come because of the wake for two people killed in his village.

Several of us will probably go forward in the process to learn how to co-facilitate these workshops. This will probably be in April, 2013.

My hope is that we can begin to form teams of peacemakers in the parish.There is a great need and I think this program can help us work together for a culture of peace and nonviolence. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Those poor miserable people

 "No son pobrecitos, sino completos y constructores del futuro."   

It’s always great to be with people who are competent and committed.

On Friday I was in Gracias, Lempira, for a meeting with people involved in social organizations who were taking part in Caritas Santa Rosa’s program of Political Participation. They came from many parts of the diocese – some traveling as long as 6 hours. There were many young people and the group was almost equally divided between men and women.

It was a great cross-section of the people involved in social change here in western Honduras.

There were young people who were leaders in youth groups in their parishes. Some participants were involved in organizations dealing with environmental threats and other organizing efforts. There were also members of municipal transparency commissions, which are mandated by the Honduran law of Transparency, which offers a way for independent social organizations to work together to be watchdogs in regard to the governmental processes in their municipalities.

They were a great group to work with.

I spent about three hours with them on transformation of conflicts. I have had the opportunity to participate in the series of workshops with Caritas National of Transformation of conflicts and the construction of peace.

It was only an introduction to the themes. Since this was a group that was very participative, I could only do about half of what I intended to do.

At the end of my workshop I encouraged them to recover the stories of people and groups in Honduras who had made significant social changes nonviolently. I am convinced that recalling stories of nonviolent social change is one way to help people develop the powers of imagination needed for real peacemaking.

As I closed I recalled how often people in the US ask me about people. Some people, I think, expect me to talk about all those poor, needy people – the pobrecitos, as we might say in Spanish.

But I really want people to know people like the ones I worked with in Gracias. The best word to describe them is almost impossible to translate from Spanish. They are completos. My guess is that the best translation would be people who have their act together.

Sure, they’re not perfect (and some of them might drive me crazy if I spent a lot of time with them.) But they are capable people who are doing something to help construct a new Honduras. This new Honduras might only be happening in a youth group in a remote village in southern Intibucá or in a small group that is fighting to prevent handing over land or water resources to foreign companies who will use them for their own profit. Others might be trying to make sure that their municipal governments are not misusing public funds.

But these efforts are part of a wider effort that I see happening in various parts of Honduras. Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán and ERIC-SJ, the Jesuit-sponsored group in El Progreso, have been training people in schools of democracy and participation, so that they can work with others to promote social change in a democratic way.

When I see these efforts, I begin to have hope – not for overnight social change, but for serious efforts to change the oppressive system here in Honduras.