Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A small victory - for now

Tuesday, May 29, more than 600 people closed the international highway between Santa Rosa de Copán and Ocotepeque in the town of La Labor, Ocotepeque. At the same time, a delegation from the area, including the mayor of La Labor, was in Tegucigalpa meeting with members of congress.

This is not the first time that people in the area have taken the highway. A number of years ago the people fought successfully against a threatened mining operation in the area.

The issue is related.

Near the town of La Labor is a National Biological Reserve called Guisayote. It is a major source of water for the region.

A local congressman has proposed changing the status of the area to a National Park. That sounds innocent, especially when advocates are claiming that this will help the area by allowing for ecological tourism or will help them buy more land to protect.

But many local people fear that the change will allow parts of the area to be opened for mining concessions.

And so the people are struggling for their lands and their natural resources.

The highway blockade (toma de carretera, in Spanish) began at 3 am with about 75 people. More arrived as the day progressed; I have heard between 300 and 600 came. All seems to have been peaceful. 

A reporter challenged the 300 or so police who arrived not to use violence against the people, since there were old people and students among the demonstrators. He noted that the wife and children of one of the policemen were among the many who were blocking the highway.

Two diocesan priests accompanied the action.

The blockade was ended when the news came that Congress will not proceed with the law to change the status of Guisayote.

A small victory for the people. Hopefully the politicians will be true to their word, but that is to be seen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

When the Spirit stirs

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the outpouring of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus who were gathered, anxious and perhaps fearful.

The last two days I have been moved by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the parish of Dulce Nombre.

Friday: communion ministers and social ministry

Friday the parish had scheduled two events – a meeting of the representatives of the Social Ministry from the villages of the parish and a meeting of the extraordinary ministers of Communion.

I went to Dulce Nombre, planning to help where needed.

At first I went to the Social Ministry Assembly and was amazed at the number of new young participants in the ministry, especially from Zone 3 of the parish, which has some of the remotest villages. 

Social Ministry lunch break included a game of "futbol" (aka soccer)
I spoke with a young man from San Marcos Pavas, who left home about 4:30 am to walk to the village of Delicias to catch a bus to Dulce Nombre. We talked about his village that has had some real problems – a pastoral worker left because of threats due to inter-family quarrels. But they have reorganized the ministry in the village and he is the representative of the social ministry.

Padre Efraín worked with the Social Ministry representatives and, since the other priest hadn’t shown up, I went with the Communion ministers to meet.

Since I hadn’t known I’d be working with them, I had to improvise. We reflected on the Pentecost reading from the Acts of the Apostles and then I had them share their experiences in their ministry.

In many of the villages, but not all,  the presence of the Eucharist has actually renewed the life of the church. People come out, usually on Thursdays, for a Holy Hour.  In their visits to the sick, the ministers have seen some people recover their  spirits – if not, at least in some cases, their health.

We talked about what they might need for their ministry. A retreat was a top priority, though a visit to the Aguas Termales – the hot springs – in Gracias was also mentioned.

But they also talked of needing good written materials to help with planning Holy Hours and to help their visits to the sick.

We had to cut off the discussion for lunch, but they and I were glad that they had a chance to share, something they had not yet done as a group.

After lunch I gave a short introduction to the methodology of the Social Teaching booklet they are using in the base communities, emphasizing the participative nature that the booklet hopes to nurture.

I was about to end when Fernando spoke up. It’s time to let us go home, he said, since there’s a storm coming. We ended with a prayer and they went on their way, though I’m sure that some of them got soaked.

Saturday – to three corners of the parish - and five sacraments

Saturday, in El Zapote de Santa Rosa, one sector of the parish was having a gathering for the children and youth in religious education. More than 100 young people – with some catechists and parents squeezed into the meeting hall for songs, talks, and skits – one for each of the four villages on the zone.

Several of the skits were quite entertaining. Sadly, I missed what some of them were about since they went so fast and the amplification was poor. One was a marriage skit. 

Marriage skit in El Zapote

But the wildest skit featured a religious ed meeting that encountered six young people into “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Well, not exactly that, but it was drugs (marijuana and cocaine), alcohol, smoking, rap music, and dancing hip to hip. The young people played their parts well and, in the skit,  the religious ed class ended up converting the druggies. It was, of course, a little too facile, but entertaining. The real surprise was that the religious ed teachers – actually one of their real teachers, was a guy dressed up in a skirt with  a bra under the blouse.I never expected to see this here - especially since it was not done in a mocking way.

It was good to be there, but I had to leave before Mass started (an hour late) since I had to do a presentation on the Social Teaching booklet for the sector meeting in Dolores.

After that I went to Dulce Nombre to meet Padre Efraín to go with him to San Agustín.

I had not been there for some time and was surprised, first of all, at the good state of the dirt road. Later I found out that the mayor has also been doing a lot to try to improve the lot of the people, including taking over the costs of the Maestro en Casa, an alternative education program.

We met with Agüeda, an older woman who with her husband Horacio had moved to San Agustín a few ears ago after living in San Pedro Sula. These two Communion ministers have been active in preparing couples for matrimony, as well as encouraging couples living together to get married in the church. They also have an extensive ministry of bringing Communion to he sick – about 19 houses in San Agustín.

We met Agüeda near her house and visited five houses. The first three had women confined to their beds. The first was very poor. As we entered a granddaughter was mopping the floor because of the rain that had entered the house. Padre Efraín heard the woman’s confession and then, with us present, he anointed the old woman. Agüeda will later bring her communion.

The second house was even poorer – with an unconscious older woman, confined to bed. When we arrived there were at least six people gathered and several more joined us as the woman was anointed. As we prayed I noted that even the small children knew their prayers.

Seeing the poverty, I was near tears.

At the fourth house we expected to find a couple in their eighties confined to their beds. But they were up, even though very frail. Padre Efraín learned that they had not been married in the church! What to do? He asked them if they wanted to be married. It took quite a while for him to get through to them, but finally they agreed. Padre Efraín heard their confessions and then married them in a very simple ceremony, before anointing them with the anointing of the sick.

The marriage ceremony was touching. The old man sort of made up his own version of the marriage vows. “Yeah, I want to marry you.” Padre proceeded with the official marriage vows. A grandson present looked on, with a big smile.

Padre Efráin with the newly weds, with Agüeda looking on.

These signs of God’s love and grace touched my heart.

I was also moved by Agüeda’s ministry. As we drove and walked to the various houses, she mentioned how she had ministered in San Pedro Sula,  even going to ministering to a dying gang member, going where a priest was reluctant to go, out of fear.

After our visits, we had dinner with Horacio and Agüeda and the family of one of their sons who had come from San Pedro Sula for the Vigil. We ate in the fairly nice home of a coffee farmer whose three sons would be baptized that night.

The vigil was supposed to start at 7:00 pm and we started just a little bit late, mostly because the people were slow in arriving at the church, perhaps due to the rain.

The Mass was good – though the singing could have been better. The two women leading the songs at times started the songs without waiting for the musicians and so they sang in one key and the musicians played in another.

For me, the highlight was the baptismal ceremony, especially the reaction of the youngest boy, probably no more than five years old. He was so full of joy. It was a delight to see his enthusiasm at the prospect of being baptized. After he was baptized he was beaming. It’s amazing what the sacraments can do with people, including children, who are open to the Spirit. 

What joy - after being baptized.

After Mass ended about 9:15 pm, Padre Efraín and I returned to Dulce Nombre in rain and fog.

I tried to sleep but there were lots of mosquitoes and bugs. So, when I woke up about 5:30 I decided to head back to Santa Rosa early.

The Spirit stirred among these people and touched even me. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An amazing event

Amid the turmoil and violence in Honduras, amid the continuing controversy over the role of the US military and Drug Enforcement Agency in the "drug war" in Honduras, amid the continuing killings in the Bajo Aguán, here's a story that shows what Hondurans can do.

The church of San Marcos Ocotepeque, Honduras

This week people in the parish of San Marcos Ocotepeque worked to put in a water line for the parish’s formation center. Over 800 people showed up to dig the four kilometer long trenches and finished that work in one day. They had only expected 350 and so ran short of food for lunch.  

Another day was needed for the more complicated work. The center now was water.

What an amazing act of solidarity and cooperation.

José Romero, the director of Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, played a central role in the project since he has had years of experience in water projects, mostly with the Honduran office of Catholic Relief Services.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is the US doing in Honduras?

Today I’m venturing into a topic that I perhaps should treat more cautiously, but recent events – specifically the killing of at least four civilians (including 2 pregnant women) by Honduran drug agents who were accompanied by US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) persons – lead me to offer a few thoughts.

I offer these musings knowing that I am not writing from personal experiences, but my life here for almost five years in the poorest diocese in Honduras does give me a distinct perspective.

A few weeks ago a priest whom I trust asked me about US AID, the US Agency for International Development, and its work here in Honduras. US AID does some good working in agriculture, and health. But US aid is conditioned on the policy behind it.

If the agriculture policy is supporting use of chemical fertilizers and genetically manipulated seed, is this really helpful for the small farmers who are seeking to eke out a subsistence on the little land they own or have to rent? If the emphasis is on export agriculture, will this really help José and Cruz feed their family in a remote village?

But also US aid should be seen in the context of US policy in the region which is, I believe, very questionable, at the very least. The roots of this policy go back more than a hundred years when US supported the US banana companies that controlled agriculture in the northern coast.

The continuing presence of more than 500 US military personnel in the Soto Cano Air Force base near Comayagua is a thorn in the side of many Hondurans. The base was established in the 1980s, when repression was severe here. It served, together with a training base in northern Honduras, to support the Contra war against the Nicaraguan government and the US-backed repressive Salvadoran government in the civil war against the FMLN.

But the US military presence has increased in the few years. More bases have been built throughout the country, especially on the northern coast; the reason given is to control the transit of drugs, especially cocaine, through Honduras.

The US is providing the Honduran government with radar installations in the Moskitia, a very unpopulated region in the northeast which is said to be a major transit point for drugs from South America.

There are also more civic operations which include US troops (often National Guard) with Honduran military and Honduran government agencies. These go out into remote areas and provide one-time medical care. Why there are troops from both the US and Honduras there seems strange. In at least some cases my guess is that they are there as part of intelligence operations, supposedly looking for drug trafficking.

But these remind me of the Salvadoran military practice, endorsed by the US, to provide civilian services by the military in contested areas as a way to, supposedly, “win the hearts and minds” of the people who had many reasons to be suspicious of the repressive policies of the government and the brutality of the military.

Excuse my cynicism, but these “Medical Readiness Training Exercises” make me nervous, remembering the history of like programs in El Salvador and Guatemala – and Vietnam.

But the presence of DEA in collaboration with Honduran drug enforcement personnel is especially problematic as I see it.

Not only does it mean a militarization of what should be police work, but it ignores some very real deficiencies in Honduras. Specifically I refer to the massive corruption of police and government personnel – sometimes at high levels of authority. The drug lords can easily pay off police, mayors and others to ignore what they are doing. There are stories of a mayor who is tied to drug trafficking paying off the police in the region with $100 a month.

The human costs of the DEA presence can be seeing in recent events.

An event in the Moskitia last week reveals part of the problem. At least four people, including two pregnant women, were killed when a Honduras drug enforcement helicopter fired on them. According to some reports, in the pre-dawn hours, the helicopter was following some boats which were believed to be transporting cocaine. Some sources claim that there was a firefight, initiated by the drug-trafficking boats.

But why were the civilians attacked? Their boat had a light while the other boat didn’t.

But some reports from unnamed sources make it look as if the civilians were killed during a firefight. The way some reports are phrased make it appear that initial fire came from the civilian boat, which is highly unlikely.

But what is the word out of the US Embassy and the Honduran government?

I may not be finding the right sources but it looks as if they have not yet apologized or lamented the loss of life.

This is in stark contrast to the reaction to the brutal killing of a HRN radio journalist who was kidnapped and then killed. HRN is a mainstream – some would say conservative – news source in Honduras.

President Lobo is offering 3 million lempira (about $150,000) for information about the journalist’s abduction and killing. The US Embassy and the ambassador have expressed outrage at the killing – which is fitting.

But what outrage has been shown by the US Embassy about the other 20 some journalists killed since early 2010 or the more than 50 killed in Bajo Aguan (many at the hands of security forces of large landowners)?

This killing grieves me – as do the many other deaths throughout the country that are never investigated.

But the US usually seeks to put this all in the framework of a drug war, or blames "gangs". 

The drug trafficking situation has worsened here in the last three years. But I believe that it is closely connected with the continuing breakdown of law, in part due to widespread corruption and bribing of police and officials by drug lords and the ongoing failure of the government to respond to the needs of the poor. At times it appears that the government doesn’t really care about the poor but serves the interests of the elites.

What is also disturbing is the failure of the Honduran government to investigate human rights abuses, even abuses by police and military, and the failure of the US government, esepcially the State Department,  to pressure Honduras in this respect. There are efforts in the US Congress to place human rights condition on police and military aid to Honduras, but what chance is there of this really happening?

In the midst of all this I am still convinced that this is where God wants me to be. There is much to be done, mostly accompanying the people in their faith lives and in their struggles for a decent life.

There are signs of hope here, but they mostly come from the people at the base, not from institutions, especially not from government institutions, whether Honduran or US.

And so, today I pray for the people here – a people who are suffering but with the hope of resurrection.

Jesuit father Ignacio Ellacuría, martyred by Salvadoran government forces in 1989, talked about the “crucified peoples of the world.” I run across them almost every day but I see some of them trying to live the hope of resurrection. These are the persons I hope I can support and accompany as we work and pray together for the Reign of God.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Musings and controversies in Honduras

San Isidro Labrador in Oromilaca

Tuesday was the feast of St. Isidore, the patron of farmers and farmworkers.  The sector San Isidro of the parish of Dulce Nombre had a celebration which included Mass and blessing of seeds.

The celebration also included blessing a new ambo and tabernacle for the church. The village, which has two extraordinary ministers of communion, will now have the Eucharist reserved in their church. Interestingly the tabernacle is shaped like a house with white walls and red roof tiles.

Alfredo and Efraín distributing Communion

Padre Efraín gave a spirited homily, speaking first about the devotion of San Isidro who went to Mass every morning before going to work in the landlord’s field. 

Then he went to talk about the importance of using better agricultural practices, in particular, avoiding the use of chemicals.

The parish has a program to help farmers and though part of the program is buying chemical fertilizers in bulk, the program does try to promote other practices, including teaching people how to make organic fertilizers.

It’s an uphill struggle. There have been some advances in some parts of the country. Though here in Copán some still prepare the land by burning, in the south of Lempira the municipal governments, with the support of the church, have effectively banned burning.

May San Isidro help us find better ways to feed the people. 

Blessing of seeds

If you want some more information on San Isidro/Saint Isidore, I wrote a little about him yesterday here.

There are more pictures of the event on my Flickr set here.

Deaths in the country

This past week two more reporters were killed – one from a gay alliance supporting the Resistance, the other from a mainstream radio station. Whether there will be any investigation remains to be seen. These are just two of the more than 20 journalists killed since the June 2009 coup.

I also just read that another person has been killed in the Bajo Aguan region in northeast Honduras. That makes more than fifty killed in relation to land controversies there.

A major problem is the lack of police and judicial follow up of crimes. To the people involved it appears that the government just doesn’t care – or, at the very least, is incapable of responding to the problems. This is especially so when the poor and involved as victims or the perpetrators are members of the elites or police or governmental authorities.

Addendum: President Lobo is offering 3 million lempiras (about $150,000) for information about the death of the journalist from the mainstream radio station. As far as I know, nothing has been offered about the other 20 journalists.

US involvement in Honduras

In the last year there has been much talk of US support of Honduran anti-drug-trafficking measures. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has sent five US “commando style squads” to Central America and the Caribbean, including Honduras.

The results here – the recent killing of four to six civilians (plus the two unborn children of the two pregnant women) who were travelling in a boat on a river in the Moskitia, in the northeast of the country.

According to a report in  El Tiempo,  a Honduran daily, they were “being pursued by helicopter by agents of the National Police and the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States (DEA).” (A translation can be found in the Quota blog, here. )

This is not the way to deal with drug-trafficking.

Any effort to deal with this needs to deal with the involvement of politicians of both major parties in drug trafficking, as well as with the corruption and involvement of the police and the military.  There are reports of a drug lord in western Honduras giving 100 dollars a month to police – but only four refused the “gift”.

The militarization of a country where the authorities do not investigate crimes and human rights abuses and where authorities are involved in serious human rights abuses will only put more power in the hands of those who refuse to deal with underlying causes of injustice and corruption.

I don’t know the way to deal with this. But the efforts of people at the local level need to be encouraged and supported. That will help begin to solve the problem, if is accompanied by some structural changes that take power away from those who profit from drug-trafficking.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Constructing peace and Mothers Day

This past week I spent with 27 other staff members of Caritas throughout Honduras in a construction of peace workshop, led by a facilitator from Caritas Colombia, Rosa Inés.

Rosa Inés

This approach is not merely conflict resolution but is basically a process of transformation of conflicts. Resolving a conflict may still leave behind the conditions that may generate other conflicts. How to respond to conflicts so that the way is open to a peaceful and just society.

We did a lot of group work, analyzing five different types of conflicts – family, community, worker-boss, youth, women’s place.

Marcial presenting the mapping of the community of a family conflict

Central to this approach is not merely dealing with the conflict but working on the relations between people, seeking to create a culture, a society, where there is real peace, with justice and equity. It means breaking accustomed ways of looking at  events and of dealing with conflict.

What I like most is that this approach goes beyond the black and white, either/or way of looking at situations. It demands “moral imagination”, as John Paul Lederach, who has inspired and led much of this work, has written.

A tree of commitments during morning prayer

The workshop has inspired me to try to begin something, not only in Caritas, but also in the parish of Dulce Nombre. I talked with Padre Efraín of Dulce Nombre about this on Saturday afternoon. More on this later.

I was moved by the work, just beginning, of one Caritas worker with youth in the north of Honduras. With a killing shortly beforehand, with the entrance of armed youth from other barrios to buy drugs. The worker lives in the community and has been working with the church for years. I marvel at his courage.

In a very different way I was moved by the story the facilitator told of a child who was recruited by paramilitaries and made to kill someone as a rite of initiation. By killing a person in cold blood the paramilitaries planned to make him more open to mass killing. The man to be killed was kneeling before the child who was somewhat reluctant to kill. But the child remembered a song that he had learned in religious education – “Kill the devil” which included stomping on the “devil” like you might stomp on an ant. And so he saw the victim as a devil and went ahead and killed him, hearing this song in his head. What a sad commentary on what unconscious messages we sometimes send in our teaching and raising of children.

During the workshop, listening to people I became aware of another way to look at the violence here in Honduras.

What happens when a family member is killed? In some cases the family says we’ll take the law in our own hands since the law does nothing, neither the police nor the public prosecutors will follow up. This is one cause for the violence. The breakdown of the juridical and police systems are really part of the reasons why there is so much violence between families. The structures do not work and in may ways work against peace – especially considering violence done by police or permitted by police. (In this, I am thinking of the complicity of the police in killings of civilians in Bajo Aguan and the failure of the police to respond to drug violence, because they are often receiving monthly gifts from the drug forces.)

A lot needs to be done, especially in terms of structural changes. There is a lot that can be done at the grassroots but often something more needs to be done.

When the legal framework doesn’t work, what way is there to deal with the problems, especially when there is inequality of the actors involved. Our facilitator share the case of women fasting to get a law to compensate victims in Mexico. Their actions arise from the moral reserve of the people, as Rosa Inés called it.

The workshop gave me much to reflect on and to try to implement in Caritas, the parish, and in my personal life.

Mothers Day
This Sunday Honduras, as most of the world, celebrates Mothers’ Day.

On the way back I picked up some people looking for a ride. One was a teacher in a PROHECO school, teaching all six primary grades. PROHECO schools do not always get the best teachers and are sometimes politicized, dependent on party affiliations. But they are often the only school a community might have.

We talked a bit about mother’s day, since she had arranged a celebration in her school. She’ll be celebrating with here two daughters and with her grandmother who is ninety-seven and still active, making tortillas every day. The grandmother has over 400 nietos, she told me, meaning grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I think. Many will arrive to celebrate with her.

I let her off a few kilometers before San Juan Intibucá, marveling at this woman and her family.

During the Caritas Honduras workshop we had a celebration of the mothers present on Wednesday night. There were prayers and the choosing of a Caritas Mother, and the singing of a special song for mothers. Neither I nor the Colombian facilitator knew the words, but everyone else sang heartily. I was quite surprised.

Mothers at the Caritas workshop

Saturday, while in El Zapote de Santa Rosa for a church zone meeting, I dropped in on the Mothers Day celebration by the Maestro en Casa program. The room was decorated and the students had prepared songs, dances, and skits.

Mothers and children in El Zapote de Santa Rosa

The role of mothers is important here, even though it is a society where women’s equality is a struggle. At times it seems to be just a sentimental feast. But it could be a way for people to begin to work together for women’s equality.


More photos of the workshop can be found at

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Accompanying Caritas workshops

Friday, the Participation Project of Caritas had a workshop for people from various parts of the diocese to help them learn how to prepare projects to seek funding. It was largely concentrated on seeking funding for church buildings – either repair of churches or construction of church centers for training sessions and retreats. It was not very well-attended. I am not sure why.

I have been preparing a list of groups, largely Catholic, that do funding in places like Honduras. I passed it on to the organizer of the event who edited it and passed it on to the people. He also asked me to speak a bit about the list.

I was originally supposed to do the presentation in the afternoon but I ended up being the first presenter. So I began to ask a few questions.

In the process I helped them articulate the need for the projects to arise from the people, from the communities. Yes, help may be needed from without but there are lots of resources that the communities have.

One person was from the parish in Sula, Santa Bárbara, that built a center for training sessions and retreats out of adobe. Monseñor Santos, our previous bishop, had told me about it and marveled that they did it by themselves – out of adobe. I don’t know if they had any outside financing but what encouraged me is the initiative of this parish to use local materials – adobe.

I also reminded them to seek local support – from municipal governments for projects like water, roads, and agricultural development, from local non-governmental organizations where they exist – like a group in Intibucá which helps in water projects.

Later two people talked about how to develop project statements – one almost exclusively on construction projects, the other on what one specific German church agency requires for proposals.

I was a little disappointed – for the low turnout and for the limitations of the presentations.

I left before the session was over since I had some things I had to do before Saturday morning’s trip to San Marcos Ocotepeque.

Church of San Marcos Ocotepeque

I left Santa Rosa about 7:15 to get to San Marcos. It took about 90 minutes – much of it over the international highway which is full of potholes and patches where there is no asphalt. At one point where the highway was just dirt, I was stopped by a string across the road. A few kids were asking money since they were filling in the potholes. The government does virtually nothing and so some people have taken the initiative and patch the holes with dirt. Of course, it’s only a temporary measure, but it helps a little.

San Marcos Ocotepeque is in a valley, but it is in the heart of a major coffee region. The parish council was meeting and Lyly, a Caritas worker, was doing a presentation to the parish council to help them understand what the booklet on Catholic Social Teaching for base communities  was. We had earlier this week worked on an agenda, but she had encouraged me to come.

We waited until after the parish council had done most of its business. The room was full – about 40 people from all over the parish. Lyly explained things well and the people were attentive and participated in the discussions. I added a few things to help people deepen what Lyly had said.

At one point Lyly asked about the roots of Catholic Social Thought. The people mentioned church documents and the Bible.  At this point I intervened because for me the restriction of Catholic Social Thought to the bible and to documents misses the lived experience of the church.

I usually say that the sources of Catholic Social Thought are scripture, the teachings of the early church fathers and the doctors of the church, the documents from the pope, the Vatican, the bishops, and groups like the Latin American bishops conference. But I think it’s essential to add the lived experience of the church – starting from the stories in the Acts of the Apostles, the lives and works of the early church. the lives and teachings of witnesses to God’s love and justice throughout the ages. I mentioned the witness of Mother Teresa and Archbishop Romero, whom they knew.

Padre Beto's burial place in the church.

But I added Padre Beto as a witness. They may have been surprised that I knew a bit about him. Padre Beto, Father Earl Gallagher OFM Cap, was a Capuchin priest from Brooklyn, NY,  who worked 23 years in the southern parts of the diocese, in the departments of Lempira and Ocotepeque. He is buried in the church in San Marcos where he was pastor for several years.  The people called him Beto, a nickname based on his baptismal name “Robert.”

I first heard about him a few years ago. People from Ocotepeque and southern Lempira kept remarking that I looked like him. He was bald and had a white beard – though, I hear, he was taller than me.

I soon began to hear other stories: how he loved to swim with the kids in waterholes in southern Lempira, how he loved to joke with the people, and how he stood up for the people in the 1980s when the repression was severe. He was twice beaten by Honduran soldiers. For his commitment to the cause of the poor campesinos, the people loved him dearly.

But the story that hit me is what happened on a river on the Salvadoran border in the early 1980s. People were fleeing form the war and the advance of the Salvadoran government troops – mostly women, children, and the elderly. The Salvadoran army was in pursuit. As they tried to cross the river to Honduras, the Salvadoran army continued its pursuit and shooting at the refugees. The Honduran army also proceeded to fire at the fleeing women, children, and elderly.

About fifty people were killed or drowned. But Padre Beto was there swimming to rescue the children and others in the river. Among other efforts, he swam underwater with kids on his back.

I believe another person, a US volunteer, also helped carry many of the children to safety. Yvonne Dilling wrote about this and her other experiences with Salvadoran refugees in Honduras in her book In Search of Refuge. (I read the book long ago and so I'm a little unsure of the details - especially since there were two massacres on rivers between Honduras and El Salvador. In the other massacre about 500 were killed.)

Padre Beto died as the result of an accident while visiting the US in 1999, but his body was returned and buried in the church he had pastored.

Padre Beto - a photo in the church office

I was glad I could use his example, known to most of the people present. It might help bring the liberating message of Catholic Social Thought alive for these people who can see that the Gospel of God’s liberating love is alive and they have seen it happening in their midst.

Sunday, I am off to the Caritas center in Siguatepeque – about four hours from Santa Rosa in car. It’s a follow-up of the workshops on the Transformation of Conflicts which Caritas Honduras sponsored about two years ago. Caritas Colombia staff led the workshops using the materials developed by John Paul Lederach, a US Mennonite who has worked in many parts of the world and teaches at Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Notre Dame.

It will be good to have some time away – and also to do some reflecting on how to promote transformational processes to deal with the violence around us here.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Day of the Cross and Honduran suffering

Today we celebrate the feast of the finding of the Cross - here in Honduras, as well in El Salvador and other Latin American countries. It used to be a feast on the Catholic liturgical calendar for the whole world but was suppressed since there is also the feast of the Holy Cross on September 14.

But here the feast is celebrated – and rightly so.

The Cross is for followers of Christ a sign of our salvation. But it is more. It is the sign of a God who does not look on suffering from afar, but shares in our sufferings.

In countries like Honduras this is a message that needs to be heard. Not only is Honduras the second poorest country in Latin America, but it is also perceived to be have the highest percentage of violent deaths per population in the world.

Lots of people are troubled by the high rate of violent deaths here, but we should be troubled at the slow death that many experience due to the massive poverty here.

And this poverty is preventable. But it will be costly since the structures here do not allow people to develop their capacities to live full human lives.

Education is one example. Schools are poorly equipped and education is only mandatory until sixth grade. After that, it is very difficult to get an education, especially if you live in the countryside. For example, in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María in four municipalities there are only five schools that offer classes for seventh through ninth grade, and there is only one high school.

If young people in the countryside want to study past sixth grade they have to travel each day or go live in a town where they can get the classes they need. Some parents make the effort so that they children can get an education, sending their children to live in towns like Santa Rosa where they either stay with relatives or find a boarding house. The young people may take day classes or night classes – and work during the day. Some may take weekend classes and so only have to stay one night in town.

That’s why programs like Maestro en Casa are so important in the parish of Dulce Nombre. Over 250 young people are taking classes by listening to the radio and studying work books during the week and coming into five centers in the parish to study on Saturday or Sunday. It’s one effort to make up for the deficiencies of the educational system here.

I could mention also questions of health and employment. But an issue that is critical these days is land. In northeast Honduras, in the Bajo Aguan region, there is much conflict over land. The causes are many, including a “Land Modernization” law in the 1990s that made it easier for large landholders to buy out the small landholders who had taken advantage of earlier land reform laws. Over 50 people have been killed in the Bajo Aguan region in the last few years. 

But land is a problem even here in southwest Honduras. I know many farmers who have to rent the land for their corn and bean crops. Some may have some land for coffee, a cash crop, but they have no land for the basics – corn and beans. Land is not cheap and many large landowners are reluctant to sell their land. And so I see large expanses of land used for cattle grazing while people lack land for subsistence crops.

This is another example of a structure of injustice.

Why write about his today, on the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross?

In a book of Latin American martyrs I read regularly, today is the anniversary of the killing of Pablo Luna in 1985 in El Cerrón, Santa Bárbara, Honduras. Pablo accompanied people who were being threatened by a large landowner.

Today is also the anniversary of the killing of Felipe Huete and four others were killed in El Astillero, Atlantida, where they were occupying land. I wrote about it last year and you can read more here.

The history of deaths of people seeking land to work is a sad history here in Honduras and Latin America.

I think of them today as I contemplate the suffering Lord on the Cross.

Christ, the crucified campesino

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A personal update

Today is Labor Day – the Day of the Worker – here in Honduras, as it is in most of the world. I’ve got the day off from Caritas and I didn’t get around to arranging a visit to a rural village; so, I’m reading, writing, cleaning at home in Santa Rosa de Copán.

My days have been fairly busy – though I always wish I had more to do.

Thursday and Friday was the diocesan assembly of the Social Ministry, in Intibucá – a three hour drive from Santa Rosa. The assembly was mostly devoted to the Third Pastoral Plan of the diocese which was completed last year. The plan is quite ambitious though it reaffirms the ministry of the diocese in base communities with a strong option for the poor. I ended up taking notes for the whole meeting as well as giving a presentation on how to use the booklet for base communities on Catholic Social Teachings which I put together last year.

It was a fairly good experience though I found myself a little frustrated by the poor effort one person, a professional, made in leading a discussion on the current situation in Honduras. But some of the participants – coordinators of the social ministry in their parishes – were quite incisive in their responses to some of the issues we treated during the session, especially Rufino and Denys.

Saturday I went to Dulce Nombre to show my support for two events going on there. I had thought I wouldn’t be able to get there but the Social Ministry Assembly, which was supposed to end on Saturday, ended early on Friday afternoon.

Fr. Henry preaching at the Mass for youth.
The big event was a gathering of the youth in the parish. Young people from eight towns or villages came. They started out with a walk from outside Dulce Nombre to the church where Fr. Henry presided at a Mass. I arrived in time for Mass but missed the walk. After Mass there was a soccer tournament on the parish soccer field.

Futbol on the parish's futbol field.

Friday and Saturday morning a workshop had been scheduled for choirs. César, a seminarian in his pastoral year before ordination, led the workshop. Sadly only about eight people came. César gave the participants an understanding of the reason for the various songs in the liturgy and taught them a few new hymns and new melodies for the ordinary parts of the Mass. I was impressed by his competence as well as the interest of those involved.  I was also surprised that he was going to be ordained sometime in the next two years. He looks so young. (But then, I'll be 65 in one month!)

César (standing) at the music workshop

Sunday I went out with a commission of members of the parish council to a community where there have been problems. Only about 10 of the 16 base communities are functioning and some base communities have been reluctant to pay the monthly quota of 50 lempiras ($2.60) to the parish.

The commission included Sor Pedrina (one of the Oblates of the Love of God in the parish), Professor Arnaldo (a retired school teacher who is the parish council coordinator), Marcia (coordinator of the liturgical ministry), Efraín  Vásquez (an extraordinary minister of Communion) and me.

 There was concern from the people in the community that we were going to impose something on them.  But we had been sent by the Parish Council to listen and to appraise the situation.
It helped that Arnaldo started out by explaining why we were there. Then all were invited to introduce themselves and their ministry n their base communities.

Some problems emerged, including some people who were coordinating two or three communities.
After all had spoken several of the visiting team from the Parish Council spoke.

The most impressive was Efráin Vásquez, who is probably in his thirties. He revealed a profound analysis of the problems in the community and offered a reflection based on a scripture passage, Romans 12. He advised the people to find ways to involve in positions of responsibility even the most humble members of the community. I was overwhelmed by his wisdom and eloquence. My guess is that he does not have a lot of formal education, but he sure has wisdom. His measured speech undermined any fears of the people in the community, laid bare some of the problems, and opened the way for the community to find their own solutions to the problem. Amazing!

Fr. Jon Seda giving Efraín Vasquez a pyx in February 2012

I have been concerned recently by what I see as a lack of critical analytical skills among many – including some professionals. But the example of Efraín, Rufino, and Denys gives me hope.

Now, how to find ways to help others develop their capacities for critical analysis?

This week is mostly in Caritas, with a workshop Friday and Saturday for people from the parishes on writing grants. I’ll be attending part of it and perhaps talking about the different possible sources for funding.

Saturday I may go to the town of San Marcos Ocotepeque where Lyly who works in Caritas’ project on Participation will be leading a session for members of the social ministry in the villages of the parish on Catholic Social Teaching so that they can more easily use the booklet that I wrote.  We met briefly on Monday and I gave her some suggestions. But it might be good to go there – though I am not looking forward to the awful “international” highway (if you can call it that) south of Santa Rosa which is an absolute mess. Many dirt roads here are better than this major highway.

Cover of the booklet for base communities on Catholic Social Teaching

Next week I’ll be gone for a five day training session on Transformation of Conflicts, a follow up to the two sessions I attended last year. Caritas Honduras sponsored the training, led by facilitators from Caritas Colombia, using – for the most  part – the methodology of the US Mennonite John Paul Lederach, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. 

I’ll leave Saturday for the meeting in Siguatepeque – about four hours from Santa Rosa. I’ve arranged to stop on Sunday noon to visit with Sisters Nancy and Brenda, the Dubuque Franciscans who minister in Gracias.Visiting with them always refreshes my soul and my body. Nancy is a great cook!