Saturday, June 30, 2012

Workshops, a youth assembly, and more

I haven't really written much about the parish in the last two weeks and so I want to share a few thoughts on events here.
Friday, June 22, the parish of Dulce Nombre had a dinner with a guest speaker, a priest who is also a singer from Choluteca. They raised money for the parish’s kitchen/dining room and meeting hall, which is rapidly being constructed – despite financial restraints.

Walls of the second floor are almost finished

The priest was  a good singer and an animated speaker. I didn’t quite like his style and found his message a little simplistic. But the people enjoyed it and the meal was good.

The mornings of June 22 and 23, I spent with leaders of the base community’s going over the new Catholic Social Teaching booklet they are using (and that I wrote); I used the meetings to help them improve their meetings, making them more participative. The leaders were receptive and, in fact, some mentioned that their style is to promote as much participation as possible. How encouraging in a culture where people in authority are accustomed to speak AT people for long periods of time. It was good to be with them.

At the meetings I also spent time doing a little reflection with them on the parable of the mustard seed, trying to help them relate it to their lives as campesinos. Perhaps I was reading more into the parable than is there but I asked them about seeds and how much time is needed for them to sprout – four days for a mustard seed, five for corn, four for beans, months for coffee, about a year for noni, and quite some time for trees. We talked about the need for patience and how people grow in their faith at different rates. This may help them in dealing with people who don’t seem to respond to their efforts to evangelize the people.

Sunday I went to Joyas Galanas. The road there was terrible and I thought I’d get stuck a few times – but new tires and four wheel drive low got me through. (I returned by a different route – with a much better road.) The crowd at the Celebration of the Word was small, but many came to Communion. 

The Joyas Galanas valley

Friday and Saturday of this week was the training session for new catechists. Forty-eight showed up – most of them young and most from a zone of the parish that needs a lot more youth in their ministries. Since it was a young crowd they were a lot less participative than I’d hope. We treated the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.

Catechists during a small group session

On Friday I did a session on examination of conscience. I went through a few ideas but we then spent about half an hour using the Jesuit examen. It was absolutely amazing the silence in the hall while we went through five steps. I was very glad to see even the young people taking advantage of silence.

Saturday morning I did a session on the parts of the Mass, using a sort of jigsaw puzzle approach that I’ve used before. In groups, they had to arrange the parts of the Mass in order.

I’ve done this before, but this time it was harder for the groups to do it. I ended up running between the four groups, helping them in the process. (And so, no pictures.)

Afterwards we reflected on how hard it was for them. They actually did very well with the Introductory Rites and the Liturgy of the Word but the Liturgy of the Eucharist was really hard for them. I think this was partly because I included the official Greek terms (epiklesis, anamnesis). But I think it was so hard because most of them don’t experience Mass in their villages very often. They might get to a Mass in their sector or a special parish Mass but many had Mass in their village only once a year! They are very familiar with the weekly Sunday Celebrations of the Word and so could identify the parts of the Introductory Rites and Liturgy of the Word. But lack of access to Mass made the other parts of the exercise difficult.

I left the catechists with a little booklet with the parts of the Mass. They were glad to have it and some talked about sharing it with other ministries in their villages. I urged them to study it with the village church council, especially before a Mass in their village.

Sor Pedrina at the Youth Assembly

After my presentation I hurried back to Santa Rosa with Sor Pedrina and six young people for the diocesan Youth Encounter. Over a thousand young people (and some older folks) showed up for the walk from the Catholic University to the City Gymnasium where Mass was celebrated, followed by a concert that ended with Benediction. We got there in time for Mass.

Bishop Romulo Emiliani preaching

Three bishops and about 8 priests concelebrated. Bishop Romulo Emiliani, the auxiliary bishop of SanPedro Sula, preached on the problem of violence and the need to turn to Christ. He’s quite the orator and the message was quite good – talking about the roots of violence in consumption, materialism, and more. He did speak a bit about corruption and other social problems of the country, including the 42% of infants with chronic malnutrition. I wish he had been more specific in his homily about the social and political roots of the violence here, since this was a Mass for Peace in the face of violence. But it was good.

After a lunch break there were warm up acts for the main event “Son by 4,” a Puerto Rican music group. Their singing was quite good, but I was left hungering for something more.

Son by 4 in concert; note all the cellphone cameras
The music was spirited. But at one point I felt that I was at a rock concert, with phone cameras going wild and people clapping and singing.

The lyrics, as far as I could understand, were very individualistic. They shared stories of their group and of a conversion they’d witnessed.

The lack of a social context left me wondering. The event cost 100 lempiras - $5.00, which is a lot for people from the countryside. About a third of  the group were Catholic University students, who are mostly middle class and upwardly mobile.

But I didn’t hear anything in the group’s songs about the poor. Love of God, yes – but love of the neighbor and a commitment to the poor didn’t come through to me. (Maybe I missed it, since sung lyrics are often hard to understand.)

I know some of the young people from other parishes were poor and others, including a group of five friends, do have a sense of care for the poor. 

Bishop Andino carrying the Eucharist in procession

I left at the end of Benediction. Bishop Darwin came back and carried the monstrance with the consecrated Host through the crowd and placed it in front of a statue of Mary. 

Monstrance with consecrated host before statue of Mary

The group sang several of its songs but what struck me was the image of the monstrance in front of Mary. It was, as a friend noted of the photo, “iconic.” The monstrance was placed in front  of the statue in such a way that it appeared to be just in front of Mary’s womb – where some icons place Jesus.

I was struck by this image as we knelt in adoration of Christ in the Eucharist.

I left and went  home – to a noisy neighbor playing music at an incredible volume. I went and asked them to turn it down and they did!

Reflecting back on the last week, I find again that I feel myself most at home with the poor – even at their celebrations with poor music. Their wisdom and piety nurture my soul.

The hype of the concert and its individualistic message left me cold – though the piety of young people kneeling in prayer continues to inspire me (as it inspired me during my 24 years in campus ministry at St. Thomas in Ames.)

There is hope – though it is a long struggle to lessen violence here.  I don’t think it will come through concerts or a lot of large meetings. It may come with the work of people in their communities, with small groups working and praying together.

Also, work on alternatives is important. And the parish of Dulce Nombre de María is planning to host a workshop in late July.


More photos of the Diocesan Youth Encounter can be found here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Three years after the coup: injustice still reigns

On June 28, 2009, I woke up and started showering. The hot water felt good until the electricity went off. I thought: here we go again, another cut in power. Maybe it will come on in a few minutes – or at least after a few hours.  This wasn’t the programmed all day power cut we have here every so often.

But I was wrong. The electricity was off almost all day. Because I have a laptop and an internet modem (like a dial-up via cell phone), I was able to follow what was happening.

June 28 had been scheduled for a poll promoted by President Mel Zelaya, asking if the people wanted to have a fourth voting box in November to decide if they were in favor of having a constitutional convention  to rewrite the country’s constitution -  long and, in the eyes of many, a flawed document.

The weeks before the scheduled pool had been filled with invective – including claims that Zelaya was planning to turn Honduras into a “dictatorship” like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, that Zelaya was seeking a second term (which was technically impossible in terms of the poll.) The environment was not conducive for dialogue.

Well, the Supreme Court had decided to arrest Zelaya and remove him from the presidency. Military troops arrived at his house in the early morning hours, picked him up, stopped at the Soto Cano/Palermo airforce base (nominally a Honduras base, but there are more than 500 US military there also), and then left him in Costa Rica.

The congress met, followed up on the removal of the president, and named as president Roberto Micheletti, the president of Congress.

Democracy had been undermined and continued to be undermined in the next few months. We experienced curfews, including one lasting two full days. In some places demonstrations were violently put down. I did not see them, since the situation here in the West of Honduras has been fairly calm.

People went to the streets, especially in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, where they were met with repression by the police and military.

A number of deaths followed, starting on July 5, with a young man killed when the crowd waited at the Tegucigalpa airport for Zelaya aborted effort to return.

Almost all the world condemned the coup, especially the Organization of American States and many European countries. Many international funding organizations that worked with and through the government suspended their aid.

The US government spoke out against the coup and revoked the visas to the US of some coup supporters and organizers. However, the US never ended its aid. As I see it, the US response was weak and may have given aid and comfort to the coup leaders. This can be seen especially in the reactions of the US State Department as the schedule November 2009 presidential and congressional elections approached. 

What are the effects of the coup?

A even more divided society resulted.

I believe that the coup opened the space for even more influence in the country by the drug cartels. They were tied to politicians, the rich, and the police. I think the drug cartels gained.

There have been many deaths – of journalists as well as opponents of the coup. Recently the deaths of Resistance members seems to be increasing.

The conflict over land in the Bajo Aguán intensified with over 50 deaths; the pro-coup Miguel Facusée found himself facing campesinos occupying land that he claimed. He has used his security guards to take over land and elicited support from government forces. A provisional settlement has been reached, but will it rally transform the situation.

A climate of violence grew. When the government responds to protest by violence, violence looks justified. When the government spends it time and money on putting down or controlling street protests, normal police functions suffer.

A judicial and police system that was completely broken was shown to be the sham it has been.

There were some signs of possible change. Resistance began in many parts of the country – not only among the traditional leftists, the organized teachers and others,  and the Liberal Party members sympathetic to Zelaya, but among the poor. A Resistance movement began to form which rejected the status quo of the two major parties that shared power, influence, and the profits of a corrupt client system between them.

And there was the witness of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán which spoke out bravely. The bishop and most of the priests made it clear that they were opposed to the coup and sought other solutions to the crisis.

There were also efforts made to empower people to respond to social injustices – by the Jesuit supported ERIC/Radio Progreso and by the participation and governability programs of the Caritas of SRC and other dioceses.

Yet the situation looks bleak. One of the most disheartening developments is the US’s increasing militarized involvement in Honduras – in militarized fashion, including building and improving military bases, providing military and police aid, and the presence of Drug Enforcement Agency personnel.

Militarization is not the solution. It was a militarized coup that made things worse.

There is much more that I could write about – including some discouragement at the antics of some opponents of the coup, anger at the way the US State Department is ignoring the human rights situation here and providing aid and comfort to an unjust system. But that merits a book.

Yet in the midst of this I do see some continuing signs of hope, most of all with people at the grassroots. I have seen at least two mayors who are really working to change the lives of their constituents and are not merely trying to get re-elected. I see people standing up and claiming their rights and demanding that the structures of local government respond to their needs.

But, most of all, I see the people I work with in the countryside struggling to survive and to make a better society for their families and villages.

Structural change must come to Honduras. Some of that depends on what Hondurans do, especially those who have political and economic power. Part depends on US policy which is why I strongly support efforts to cut military aid to Honduras and to put strict human rights conditions on other non-humanitarian aid.

Is there a way out? Yes, but it is not easy. 

I will continue to pray and to work with the poor - seeking ways to help them see their dignity and become protagonists of their lives. That's what being a child of God is.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

On the receiving end of missionaries

Each year more than 50,000  people from the US visit Honduras on "Mission Trips." Most often these have a humanitarian dimension - bringing health care, building homes and schools, and more. I have some questions about them but that is for another post. 

Some of these humanitarian groups have a very strong mission  dimension, bringing Christianity to Honduras (where there are already many Catholics). There are also some groups that come exclusively to, as they might say it, "to spread the Gospel" or "save souls.

This afternoon in a grocery store in Santa Rosa de Copán there were three athletic looking young men. One was obviously from the US. We talked very briefly in the checkout line. He was in town for an evangelistic rally, with other athletes, as he said. We shared where we were from.

He asked me briefly what I do and I mentioned I was a lay volunteer with the local Catholic Church and did some formation work with people in the countryside.

Then he asked me if I knew I was going to heaven. My response, I hope so.

He didn’t say much more.

I felt offended. He does not know me. He does not know the people here and I’m almost sure he doesn’t speak Spanish.

But he had the presumption to ask me a question framed in his view of salvation.

What are he and his counterparts going to say and do with the Hondurans they encounter in their crusade?

Does he know that many of these people in our diocese put us US Christians to shame with their knowledge of scripture? I’m talking of Catholics who can cite the Bible, chapter and verse!

Does he know that these poor Catholics devote hours to their faith in Sunday Celebrations of the Word, in weekly meetings of their church base communities, and often also in Thursday Holy Hours before the Eucharist?

Does he know that they will walk hours for a special Mass or celebration or for a training session to help spread the faith?

Does he know that many have a strong sense of mission, visiting and inviting their neighbors to participate in their base community meetings?

Does he know that these very poor people give time and money to their church and to their communities?

Perhaps I am responding so strongly because I just got back from two meetings with coordinators of base communities to help them improve their meetings. Padre Efraín wanted me to help them understand the methodology of the booklet on Catholic Social Teaching they are using. But I used it more to help them improve their skills with facilitating the meetings.

It was much better than I expected, partly because some have been leading these groups for years and have a sense of the importance of letting all members of the meeting have a chance to share.

Again, these campesinos gave me courage and deepened my faith – by their witness of the Reign of God.

Of course, they are not perfect. But they are really signs of God’s love .

With them I think I get glimpses of what heaven is. And so my answer to the young man should have been:

“I am blessed by God to already see signs of heaven here – especially among the poor.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

My baptism

Fr. Vandergaast and me, 15 June 1947

Sixty-five years ago today I was baptized in St. Raphael’s parish in Philadelphia, in the area called “The Meadows.” 

Dad and Mom - John S. and Eleanor Donaghy

A few years ago I unexpectedly came across several photos from the day of my baptism. It gives me great joy to share them. 

Godparents: Aunt Sis Rechner and Uncle George Barrar

It gives me a sense of the community of faith of which I am a part – especially since it includes my paternal grandmother, Nana, who was not a Catholic but gave me a sense of the importance of the Bible.

Mom-Mom Barrar and Nana Donaghy

Our baptism is a welcoming into a community, into the Body of Christ. After we are baptized in the Catholic rite, we are anointed with chrism, reminding us that we share in Christ who is prophet, priest, and king.

We receive a call to be prophets, those who speak in the name of God, showing forth God’s reign in this world, announcing the Good News of Christ and denouncing all that prevents us from living as the children of God.

We receive a call to be priests, making holy the world around us, offering it all to God – returning to God the gifts given us in God’s loving providential care for us.

We receive a call to be kings – but not in the way of this world. We are called to be servants, giving ourselves in love for others.

Recalling my baptism, may I renew my commitment to live as a child of God, with the mission of being prophet, priest, and servant-king.

Enrique Dussel, Latin American church historian and philosopher, has an interesting remark about Baptism in  A History of the Latin American Church, page 248, which merits pondering on my baptism day:
No spiritual gift is received privately. Baptism, truthfully, is not received; rather, it is by baptism that we are received into the Church, in order to fulfill the prophetic mission of saving the world.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

San Antonio - agriculture and baptisms

This week I went out twice to the village of San Antonio, Dolores, Copán.
On Tuesday I accompanied Mauro who is one of the workers in the Dulce Nombre agricultural project. The project, in its last year of financing by Manos Unidas. is working in 18 villages in promoting better agricultural practices in growing basic grains (corn and beans) as well as promoting family gardens and reforestation.

Mauro distributing vegetable seeds.

In the first two years the project made fertilizer available on credit, but because of the cut backs in funding, the time schedule for this last year of the project, and the failure of some to repay the loans, they decided not to do that this year.

In one community, most of the men withdrew from the project because of this. However, in the same community, ten women are enthused about the garden projects.


In San Antonio, 18 families are working in the project. For two years they have worked on a joint project growing yucca.

I visited a few houses with Mauro. In one the woman told Mauro how proud she was of the mustard greens she was growing. She lamented that the rains had washed away another crop. As we sat and talked Mauro began to recite the numbers 1 to 10 in English to the three year old who echoed them back – for the most part – with an unexpected precision.

Precocious three year old.

Later, before the meeting of the group on Tuesday, Mauro showed them how to use small planting trays for growing sweet pepper seedlings. 

Seed trays

At the end of the meeting he distributed small packets of cucumber, cilantro, and radish seeds. (I'm going to talk with Padre Efraín to see if there might be some way to continue providing the seeds for vegetable gardens after the project funding runs out.)

The project has enabled several communities to build up a small amount of capital to use for loans to those involved in the project. In San Antonio is about $250.

Mauro was particularly happy to share how some groups have not only built up capital but are changing their ways of thinking – especially in terms of raising their own vegetables for consumption and sale.

Wednesday was the feast of St. Anthony, the village patron.

A Mass was scheduled for 9 am (but started at 10:30) with 43 baptisms and 5 first communions.

Early Wednesday I received a text message from Scott Satterlee, who is with La Finca del Niño in La Ceiba. I met him last September at the retreat I led for the Finca del Niño volunteers. He was in Santa Rosa for a few days. I invited him to come with me to the Mass in San Antonio.

We got there -  a little late due to getting the car stuck in a driveway where people had told me to park.  But we had time to talk with the people who had come from San Antonio and nearby villages for the Mass. There must have been more than 500 people there.

The music was very good at the Mass but, of course, the baptisms were the highlight. Father Henry, the associate pastor, is not a minimalist in terms of sacramental signs and so the baptized were well-soaked, especially the last young man, Pedro, who was baptized with loads of water.

Pedro's baptism

It was great to see the baptisms and all the people there. Several faces were particularly striking including , an old woman, an little boy about to be baptized, and the above-mentioned Pedro.

To be baptized

Doña Maria

Pedro in the front row, pastoral worker Efraín in the second row

After the 180 minute Mass there was food for everyone. Scott and I, though, left and ate Pizza in Santa Rosa at Weekend’s Pizza. (I claim it has the best pizza in Central America.)

Accompanying the people is really what my life is about here. I do help in formation of catechists and other pastoral workers and I hope to be able to help develop some programs for agricultural and community transformation in the future. But the heart of the work is being with the people.

In one sense, that’s what Jesus did – accompanying the people in their joys and sorrows. Jesus is a God who does not look on the people from afar but involved himself in the nitty-gritty of people’s lives.

Can missionaries do less?


More photos can be found here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Eucharistic piety among the poor

Catholics in western Honduras have a deep devotion to the Eucharist. Despite the fact that most villages may not have Mass more than a few times a year, the people in the countryside maintain their love of the Eucharist.

In December sixteen extraordinary ministers of Communion were commissioned in the parish of Dulce Nombre and this has enabled people in remote villages to be able to received Communion at some Sunday Celebrations of the Word.

Last Thursday was the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, though many countries celebrate it on Sunday. There were celebrations in several communities last Thursday as well as Saturday, the Vigil. But on Sunday, a big celebration was held in Dolores with the four other villages that make up a sector of the parish.

I arrived about 9 and walked out of town toward the other villages. Father Efrain and people from the parish had started the procession about 9 am in Yaruconte, halfway up a hill opposite Dolores.

Yaruconte is just below the cloud

I watched as they approached the turn off to Camalote and went down to join them. 

Procession approaching the Camalote turn off

My first sight was of more than 25 young people in white, who had been baptized last Sunday and who would receive their first Communion today at Mass in Dolores.

I was moved as I saw the Eucharist carried on a platform by four men under a  canopy carried by four others. 

Children from Camalote who would receive First Communion at today's Mass

The people were praying and singing. Some of the hymns were traditional, but just before the people from Camalote joined us, the people were singing “Encenderemos la llama” [“Let us light the flame], with these incendiary lyrics:
Let’s light the flame; let’s go,
the burning flame of liberation.
Let us transform the world courageously;
together we will make history; let’s go.

Oppressed people, go forward, liberation.
Campesino, go forward, liberation;
together we will make history; let’s go.

Human, wake; it’s the hour of light;
everything around you breathers slavery;
get rid of your chains; set yourself free from them;
return to the Father’s house with love.

We will announce Christ, our peace,
liberator of the poor with love.
We will implant your Kingdom courageously,
a Kingdom which demands justice and freedom.
 This is a hymn that the people often sing with great fervor. I don’t know the political implications of their singing, but the hymn does express the people’s desire for freedom from poverty.

Before continuing the people knelt in the dusty road to pray. And then the procession continued uphill, under a fierce sun.

Climbing the hill up to Dolores

Another hymn they sang struck me deeply, “Nadie hay tan grande como Tú.” The refrain come across fairly traditional: 
There is no one as great as You, Lord;
who will work marvels like You do?

But the three verses – a little bit of subversion:
Ni con la fuerza, ni la violencia,
es como el mundo cambiará;
Sólo el amor lo cambiará; solo el amor nos salvará.

Ni con las armas ni con la guerra,
es como el mundo cambiará;
Sólo el amor…

Ni con los pactos, ni los discursos,
es como el mundo cambiará;
Sólo el amor…

Not with force, nor with violence,
will the world be changed;
only love will change it; only love will save us.

Not with weapons nor with war
will the world be changed;
only love…

Not with pacts and talks
will the world be changed;
only love…
In the midst of the continuing violence and injustice it’s a hymn worth singing.

Praying on the road at the edge of Dolores

We stopped at the edge of Dolores and prayed again, kneeling in the dusty road, remembering in particular the migrants and the violence so many experience here in Honduras.

We arrived at the church about 10:30 and Mass began with a packed church.

The young people from Camalote receive their first communion. Padre Efraín announced that there would be baptisms on Wednesday in the village of San Antonio Dolores.

And the people left church to get in line for tamales.

The morning was a beautiful mix of the popular piety of the people, the liberating message of the church in this region, and a simple, tasteful liturgy.

Mass in Dolores

What a way to begin to  honor Christ in the Eucharist.

What more? As C. S. Lewis once wrote, 
“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
And, as Dorothy Day wrote,
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
 What a blessing this morning was.


More photos can be found in my Corpus Christi Dolores 2012 set on Flickr: here.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Small steps to push back hunger

May 31, two World Bank consultants came to Santa Rosa to see one of Caritas’s projects which works with mothers with infants under two in almost two hundred villages in the department of Copán. The program, administered through the Santa Rosa Caritas office is financed by the World Bank and Catholic Relief Services, cooperating with the national and regional Ministry of Health offices.

The program has hired workers, the promoters, who train and oversee volunteers in villages, called monitors, who work with mothers and pregnant women, to document the growth of infants and to help prevent malnutrition and infant deaths. Besides visits to houses, the monitors get together with the mothers each month for a talk by a promoter after which the monitors weigh the infants, check on their progress, and offer advice to the mothers on how to continue to help the child grow or, if the child is underweight, how to improve the health and weight of the child. If needed, the monitors arrange a visit to the mother’s house a few days later or even refer the mothers to a local health clinic.

There is also a local “Grupo de Apoyo,” the Helping Group, that also provides some assistance, in some cases preparing special foods for the mothers to show them how to provide more nutritional meals for the children able to eat solid or semi-solid food. (Breast-feeding is encouraged for the younger infants.)

The work here in Copán has gone well. Their recent evaluation gave them 97 out of 100 points. Much of this is due to the dedication of the coordinators of the program and the promoters who often live out in very poor communities during the week, away from their families. But the work at the base is very important.

The two consultants from the World Bank – one woman from Canada who works on nutrition and the other who works on technological collection of data – with the Honduran doctor in charge of Nutrition in the Honduran Ministry of Health as well as some other local and national officials to the site in El Carmen, in the municipality of San Nicolás here in Copán. 

Marie Chantal from the World Bank speaks with one of the volunteer monitors

 I’ve gone to other sites and this is by far the best site I’ve seen. It is also more easily accessible than many. See my blog entry on the project site almost on the Guatemalan border.

Usually the mothers in El Carmen meet the 10th day of each month but to accommodate the visitors, an extra meeting was added. Many of the mothers showed up but only one infant and mother were attended.

After weighing the child the data is registered in the infant’s card as well as in the site’s papers. The child was one-tenth of a pound under the expected growth – though still in the range of a healthy baby. The volunteer monitor noted this and explained that it was ten days short of a month since the last weighing and the child would surely attain the expected weight by then.

After this the mother talked with the monitor who counsels the women about how to improve the lives and health of their children.

I was not the only one amazed at the professionalism of these three campesina women, especially the woman who did the counseling. She did a splendid job.

The monitor advises a mother on how to improve the infant's weight gain.

Speaking with one of the women I found out that the women had been involved in the community health community before the program began more than two years ago and that they had been volunteering with this program since it began in 2010.

After this we went to a house where the Grupo de apoyo, the Helping Group, was preparing some fortified tortillas, tortillas with carrots and some greens. I have no idea how these will go over or whether the mothers will make them at home. 

Fortified tortillas

There was a man who had come to the meeting with his wife. It is not common to see a father involved in this process. He rents a bit of land – about one quarter of a manzana [0.42 acres] – for corn and beans and occasionally finds job as an  albañil, a trained construction worker. He is also involved in the Catholic church in the village. Would that there were more men like him who take so much interest in the health of their children!

Both the father and the mother of the little boy are involved in the program

All this was very impressive, but not all is well. One infant in the community has been consistently under weight. Why? The mother also in malnourished because the husband has a hard time finding work and so they do to have enough food.

After we left the village we went to the city hall to meet with the mayor who is in the third year of his third term in office.

The mayor, the vice-mayor, and Maria Fernanda from the World Bank.

He strikes me as a very different type of mayor. This might be because he was trained as a primary school teacher and taught for a few years. He has a commitment to the children and youth of the municipality.

He spoke of how his administration has helped the infant-mother’s project and other projects. He really is cooperating with this project and helping where needed. He has obtained scholarships for any volunteer monitor who wants to go to school for nursing. He has distributed special food baskets for mothers with children at risk.

It is good to see a mayor cooperating with this project and also promoting alternative education programs, latrines, ecological stoves, and improved floors and roofs for people’s homes.

It was for me – as well as for the visitors from the World Bank and the Ministry of Health – a very good visit. We left with a sense that something is being done to improve the lives of mothers and infants.

I believe the program is good, but there are some serious limitations.

There is, in my opinion, way too much bureaucratic paper work. Also, the evaluation process seems very picky and the monitors seem to take an adversarial role.

But the real serious limitations are connected with the nature of the project.

If you want to reduce malnutrition and infant mortality so that infants thrive, is it enough to monitor their growth and offer advice and refer people to the local health clinic?

First of all, the health clinic might be hours away and the people might not have enough money to pay for transportation, if there is any. Then, some of the health clinics do not have sufficient medicine.

But a very real problem, as many of us have noted, is that to reduce malnutrition you need to feed the children well. For this you need to improve production of basic grains as well as other food items.

There was at least one volunteer monitor who admitted to the Caritas promoter that she didn’t have enough food to feed her own children. This was remedied, but the answer is not just giving people food.

Serious efforts to improve farming are desperately needed. Caritas and CRS have worked to try to get other agencies to help in this and about 15 communities will be helped by a US AID (agency for International Development) project.

But this is not enough since many people don’t have land and have to rent land at high prices. The problem of inequity in land ownership is a serious impediment to any long-range solution to the problem of malnutrition.

There is another possible problem. Is this program sustainable? Now there are hired promoters who work with the monitors in the communities. When the grants run out, what will happen? Will the monitors continue and will they get the support they need from the government public health agencies?

That’s a real problem.

This was made real to me when talking with the general director of the Copán program. The program ended one phase in January but was not begun anew until March. In January the chronic malnutrition rate was about 15%; in March it was up to 29% but was reduced to 19% by May. This is not scientific evidence but only anecdotal. Did the absence of the promoters in the communities allow this to happen because there was not sustainability built into the program? This a serious question which I hope all parties involved are working on.

But at least the lives and health of many mothers and infants have been improved and the rate of infant mortality has been seriously cut.

Rosblin didn't want me to leave.

More is needed, not just programs like this but serious efforts to improve the unjust distribution of land and wealth that makes Honduras the second poorest country in the Americas.