Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stirring the spark into flame

July 31 is the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

I have been blest to have studied in two Jesuit universities (the University of Scranton for my undergraduate degree and Boston College for my doctorate). 

I have also been privileged to have met some good Jesuits, one of my favorites was Father Dean Brackley, S.J. After the 1989 martyrdom of the six Jesuits at the San Salvador University of Central America (UCA), he joined their faculty. He died in October 2011 of pancreatic cancer.

One of Dean’s books, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, has been extremely significant for my life, particularly helpful as I discerned whether God was rally calling me to Honduras. (I heartily recommend the book, now available in Spanish translation from the UCA.)

In this book Dean wrote:

“The spirituality we associate with [St. Ignatius] is all about tending the flame in us, as it is purified, flourishes, or even flags, and stirring the fire in others.”

In 2003 I went to Peru with a group sponsored by Maryknoll and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. In Cusco we met with some university students and I sad a few words to them. After the meeting ended, I approached a group of students and one asked me, “You have such chispa. How do you keep it up?” (Chispa  is Spanish for “spark.”)

My immediate answer – without even thinking – was: My contact with students and my direct contact with the poor, especially in El Salvador. As I reflected later, I would have to add that I also need daily time for quiet prayer in the morning

About a year later I was experiencing some conflicts in my ministry. I had sought out a spiritual director and told her that I felt that the spark in me was growing faint. In many ways I was asking the Lord to breathe on it and make it burn more strongly.

This brought to mind for me a passage from Isaiah 42: 3:

“A bruised reed he will not crush, nor will he snuff out a smoldering wick.”

My spiritual director and a counselor helped God restore the spark in me.

Now in Honduras I feel that God is keeping this spark alive, stirring it into flame, as I work with the poor.

I also see that God is working through me to help stir the fire in others. The last few weeks I have seen some marvelous advances in the lives and ministries of so many people in the Dulce Nombre parish. God is truly stirring the sparks into flame and I’ve been privileged to be part of this process.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Alternatives to Violence Workshop

Violence plagues Honduras. 

The Catholic Bishops of the country have declared a campaign against violence

For the past few years Caritas Honduras has trained people from the Caritas diocesan offices in a process of Constructing Peace, Transforming Conflict. These workshops have been facilitated by Caritas Colombia staff, using materials from Caritas International, largely developed with the help of John Paul Lederach. (The manual in English, Peacebuilding: A Caritas Training, can be read or dowloaded here. Amazon has a page of the books of Lederach here.)

Thursday and Friday fifteen people – 13 from the parish and two from Santa Rosa’s Prison Ministry – participated in an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop in the parish of Dulce Nombre. 

I had attended a training in Gracias, Lempira, more than a year ago and had arranged another session in Santa Rosa.  I found the workshop very helpful, especially in terms of practices of nonviolence, since the workshop is very participatory.

The Alternatives to Violence Project started in the US when prisoners asked Quakers to help them develop ways to deal with the violence in prison as well as with youth beginning to come into conflict with the law.

What distinguishes AVP is its participative methodology, its commitment to nonviolence, and its ways of working on personal nonviolent responses to conflicts.
There is an emphasis on discovering and fostering the transformative power that each person has. I see this as based in the Quaker belief that “there is that of God in every person,” which the Catholics here in Honduras would probably better understand as based in our nature, “made in the image and likeness of God.”

A few months ago, thinking about the conflict in the parish and the violence in Honduras as a whole, I began to think about the possibility of a parish workshop. I asked Padre Efraín, the pastor, and he was enthusiastic.

There was some funding for workshops, provided for the workshops by the Dubuque Franciscans  to Sister Nancy in Gracias, Lempira. She agreed that this would be a good use of the funds.

Padre Efraín and I made a list of people who would be good for the workshop and to begin to have a team of parishioners who would help us develop a climate of nonviolent responses to conflict in the parish.

Though we had invited about 17 people I had no idea how many would come. I was hoping for at least ten, including the two women from the prison ministry. I was so glad when fifteen showed up.

The facilitators were women from San Pedro Sula and worked with a program of the Hermanas de la Misericordia there.

Though I was working on many details during the workshop, I was able to attend most of the sessions and I found this to be the best of the three workshops I had been in contact with.

What especially impressed me was the way the facilitators connected with the real life experiences of the people and also made connections to the national reality – the injustices, the structural violence, the poverty. 

It was refreshing to see that the workshop was reflective of a deep critique of the society and politics of Honduras.  This is not a way to avoid dealing with issues of justice, but a way of finding real alternatives to violence as steps on the way to build a society where all people can live a life of dignity.

At the end of the workshop, the facilitators asked if people might be interested in follow-up sessions. Almost all agreed and we set a date.

The facilitators also mentioned that there might be possibilities for advanced training for future facilitators. There were a number of people who were enthused about this option.

I am pleased that we will be able to advance in this process in the parish. I will probably also try to work with some of the people using some of the Caritas tools which are more oriented to analysis of conflict in order to transform situations that are prone to violence. Caritas methodology is participative but it is a little more “heady” than AVP’s approach. Both, I believe are needed, but the workshop we had today is an important first step.

Drawing their dreams for the future

May God use our efforts to help bring a bit more of peace with justice to Honduras, starting in the parish of Dulce Nombre.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Young martyrs of Suchitoto, El Salvador, 1980

On July 25, 1980, the Salvadoran seminarian, José Othmaro Cáceres was killed in the caserio of Los Leones, in the canton of Platanares, in the municipality of Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Photo of Othmaro

He had recently returned from seminary studies in Mexico and was visiting his home before he would be ordained in the diocese of San Vicente.

He was meeting with twelve other young men in the chapel they were constructing in the village. The chapel is still unfinished. Some report that they were planning for Othmaro’s first Mass in the village a few weeks later.

The unfinished chapel where Othmaro and the other young men were martyred

About 11:00 am,  troops from the Salvadoran National Guard and members of a death squad/civil defense force organized by the local landowner Fabián Ventura barged in on the young men.

The young people were taking a break in their meeting and were in the church, sharing candy. Othmaro was outside.
He had just left the group in the chapel when Fabian Ventura’s troops arrived, coming from two sides – the road and the fields. He heard shots and hid in the grass. When he thought the troops were gone, he entered a house nearby. But they had not yet gone and they caught him there.

“You’re the one we’re looking for,” they said and accused him of being a guerrilla leader.

He asked them to wait a bit, and went down on his knees. He asked God for forgiveness and was then shot. They then attacked his body with machetes. He died of several shots in the chest; afterwards his head was destroyed by blows of a machete.

Othmaro Cáceres

Some have thought that Othmaro was killed only because he was a seminarian. But Higinio Alas, who had been a priest in the Suchitoto parish, told me that he had been involved in the missions in the parish, missions with a decidedly liberation theology twist. He also helped in the parish when he came home for vacations and spent time discussing pastoral work with Higinio.

From reports in the Catholic pres and from a discussion with a younger brother, Othmaro comes across as a delightful young man, a good soccer player. When he came home from the seminary on vacation he would get up early and milk the cows and then go out and help in the fields with a cuma [machete] in his hands.

He had been warned not to go visit his family in Platanares but went anyway.

His death and the death of the twelve others are just a few of the deaths by the military and death squads in El Salvador who had a deep hatred of the church leaders who had taken the side of the poor.

Procession for a July 15, 2001 Mass in the unfinished chapel

Theirs is a legacy that should be remembered even as parts of the Catholic Church in Latin America have turned to a more conservative theological practice, more tied to the powerful and rich. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Contrasts in Honduras

The past few days have been full of contrasts.

Last Friday and Saturday I went out to meetings of two zones of the parish.

The one zone has had a lot of problems and a few months ago seemed to be stuck in a rut. There was bickering in the meetings; there was not much participation in parish meetings; it seemed as if the same few people were the leaders and some of them were rather rigid; there were not a lot of catechists.

When I went to the meetings I kept encouraging them to seek out new leadership and, especially, to encourage the youth. I tried to give them a vision that was a little less rigid.

At the most recent catechist meeting, there were a good number of people from this zone, including some young people. There was a different spirit at the meeting, less conflict and complaining. Something had happened that was good to see.

On Sunday I went to Tegucigalpa since I had to begin the process of seeking five more years of residency. It was a long 8 hour trip, luckily on an air-conditioned that was rather comfortable (and cost more than the other busses.)

Riding on a bus provides a different view of the countryside we pass through. As I’ve noted some other times, the poverty is sometimes very blatant. There are shacks made of mud and sticks – bahareque, they call it here; I think they call it sticks and wattle in other places. Many of the people in these shacks are probably squatting on the land, since they have no other place to call home. It was for me a poignant reminder of the poverty.

I stayed at an inexpensive hotel in Comayagüela , where I was advised not to go out alone at night. But I remembered that a Honduran Iowa State University graduate was in Honduras and I called him.

I met his wife and two daughters and we ate in a Chinese restaurant. We also met on Monday and had lunch at Subways and dinner at a Honduran restaurant. The Subways was in an area full of franchises – Wendy’s, Kentucky Fired Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and more. Was I really in Honduras? Yes, I was in Tegucigalpa -  a different world than Santa Rosa and the villages I work in.

My friend, a professional, remarked that the franchises of US chains have a twenty-year freedom from paying taxes! But the local chains have to pay taxes. So who has the economic advantage? He and his wife also talked with me a bit about politics. I don’t feel free to share what they said except for their horror at the continuing corruption they see around them

Monday, I spent several hours in migration, trying to get the paper work done to obtain five more years of residency. It was full of surprises. The letter I had from the bishop had an error in it and I’d need to get a new one. Luckily, a friend had told me that she had gone to the archdiocesan offices and they had provided a letter. That was a long taxi ride. I also found out that I’d have to rescind my current residency in order to ask for five more years. And so I am now here as a tourist – even though they have all my documents. Then I had to pay $100 for every year of permanency here that I asked for - $500. I had the money in dollars, but the bank wouldn’t accept dollars and wouldn’t cash more than $200. Luckily my friend helped me get the dollars cashed.

I had a little time after all the stuff in migration and so went downtown. I visited a few bookstores and then dropped into the cathedral.

San Miguel cathedral altar

I wasn’t ready for what I saw – a huge altar piece in gold with a large shiny gold pulpit. I kept thinking about where this gold probably came from – the hard labor of the indigenous – as well as the poverty of the country.

San Miguel cathedral pulpit

I left after a few prayers.

I took an early morning bus from Tegucigalpa. We passed the Soto Cano air force base near Comayagua. It is called a Honduran base but it was built by the US in the 1980s to support the militaries in Central America and still has almost 600 US military personnel there. 

The Soto Cano/Palmerola air base from the bus.

Some see their presence here – and in other parts of Honduras as a continuation of a long history of imperialism – economic (e.g., the banana companies), political, and military. It doesn’t help that in the past few weeks US Drug Enforcement Agency personnel have been involved in three shooting which have left five Hondurans dead. (If you haven’t heard of this, check out this article.)

I arrived back in Santa Rosa de Copán about 1:30 and went to Caritas to do some work.

Today, Wednesday, July 18, I went out with some visitors from one of the donors of a Caritas project. We went to San José Quelacasque where a Dutch aid agency is financing a major water and sanitation project. The two visitors, Salvadorans, let the community in an evaluation of the project.

Gathered in San José Quelacasque

It was a delight to be there. I know some of the people and was warmly greeted – “Ola, Juancito!” The evaluation, attend by over 110 residents of the community, showed how much they had learned, how they had organized themselves, and how much their lives have improved with several projects. It’s always a delight to visit a community that is working together to provide for a better life for all the people.

There was good participation from the women present.

It’s still a poor community, but it is taking major steps. It’s threatened by poor roads, areas susceptible to landslides, and the possibility of a dam that would flood some of their farmlands. But they are going forward.

And so I’ve seen a bit of everything – the ostentatious gold of the cathedral, the demeaning poverty of the dirt shacks, the US franchise invasion of Honduras, the efforts of people in small villages to live their faith, and a community planning its own future.

Where will Honduras go? US imports or self-development, continuation of the massive inequality or efforts to help people have decent and sustainable livelihoods? Part depends on the Honduran people, much depends on the rich here. But a lot also depends on the US.

I hope and pray – and will continue to work – for a Honduras where people can live worthy of their calling as children of God, made in God’s image and likeness.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Children at play

Children touch my heart in many different ways.

Last Friday I was at a meeting in El Limón, a village in the parish of Dulce Nombre. While their fathers attended the meeting, two boys played "marbles" at the door of the church with stones.

Some kids can be really inventive and do so much with so little.

Some kids, like Beto, really concentrate when they play.

Thank God for children.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The evangelizing potential of the poor

In the final document of the meeting of the Latin American bishops in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, they wrote in paragraph 1147:

Commitment to the poor and oppressed and the rise of Base Communities have helped the Church discover the evangelizing potential of the poor. For the poor challenge the Church constantly, summoning it to conversion; and many of the poor incarnate in their lives the evangelical values of solidarity, service, simplicity, and openness to accepting the gift of God.

I have experienced this in my life with the poor here in Honduras – and in other places.

How many times have I marveled at the deep love many people in the countryside have for the Bible and for the Eucharist.

Many people I believe have learned to read by reading the Bible. Many cite scripture chapter and verse and occasionally I have heard an enlightening reading of the text.

They don’t have Eucharist often, but now that some towns have the Blessed Sacrament in their churches people come for visits as well as for a weekly Holy Hour.

I have been showered often by their generosity and seldom leave a village hungry. In fact today I left Buena Vista Concepción with two huge bunches of datiles, tiny bananas. I ended up sharing one with the sisters down the street and part of the second with some neighbors.

un racimo de datiles

 I have also been amazed at the commitment of many pastoral workers who will get up at 4 am for a 9 am meeting, walk an hour and a half to catch a bus. Others will devote hours to the work of evangelization in their villages.

Today’s lectionary readings, though, have opened up a new way of thinking about all this.

Today I took the Eucharist out to the community of Buena Vista Concepción, way up in the mountains, to share at their Sunday Celebration of the Word.

When I go to a community I’m often asked to do the reflection on the scriptures and so I prepared. But this time Carlos who led the celebration led the reflection and did a nice job.

Carlos preaching

The readings are about being a prophet, called by God.

Carlos noted that we are called to be prophets, missionaries, announcing and denouncing, as Ezekiel was called (Ezekiel 2: 2-5). God told Ezekiel that he was facing a rebellious people with hardened hearts. But he still had the mission – as we all do.

The Gospel (Mark 6: 1-6) tells of Jesus’ rejection in his home town. “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” When Carlos asked for other reflections, Ángel noted that sometimes people aren’t accepted for roles in the church because the person is “the son of a drunk or a womanizer.” Well said.

I though would add that it’s more complicated. I like what Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote on this Gospel in Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year:

To the evangelical testimony of the poor of our country, the spiritual children of those who did not believe in Jesus will now say, “Are not these peasants who barely know how to speak Spanish? What can people who spend their lives complaining, not working, tell us?”

I’ve written about this before. There was the former president of the Honduran Congress who called the people the Spanish equivalent of “hillbillies.” And just this week I found myself in conflict with a professional at a workshop who was insisting that the group we were analyzing were full of fear when the two people who work with them painted an image of a very organized and active community.

People come with their prejudices, especially when meeting the poor – at time idealizing them, but most often treating them like people who have no initiative.

That’s what happened to Jesus in his home town.

And so the poor face obstacles from outside – people who don’t want to change their lives and people who don’t want to listen to someone who they know with all their faults or who doesn’t have enough “education.”

But the second reading (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10) reveals what I think is another important message for the work of evangelization. Paul speaks of the thorn he has, his weakness, his sinfulness.  How often we think of our unworthiness, our inadequacy? And so we don’t respond or give excuses – I’m not good enough.

But Paul’s message is that “when I am weak, then I am strong.” God works through people who are not perfect.

Carlos in Buena Vista referred to this, but I think it deserves a lot more reflection. How often might people who are poor think that they are incapable of doing something – whether in the church or in a community project?  We’re not educated enough, they might say. But often this feeling is rooted in the dominating culture and reinforces a low self-esteem.

And so, what I consider extremely important in my ministry is to help the people I work with – mostly poor and poorly educated – discover the gifts they have been given by God.  

I think this is what the Lord tells Paul – and us:

My grace is enough for you; my strength is made perfect in your weakness.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Gifts for Honduras

Happy Fourth of July!

Now for some fireworks. 

I expect that this entry will be controversial because what I say may seem to be attacking sacred cows.

But I am concerned about what some people want to give to people here and I am not sure how to respond well.

Many people are generous and, face to face with poverty, want to help.

A number of people ask me what they can bring or send to help people here in Honduras?

The obvious answer is money. But many people want to send something tangible.

So people think of collecting stuff to send. And so the poor in Honduras are offered clothes, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products and much more. God knows how much material comes here, especially with more than 50,000 coming here on “mission” trips.

But is there something wrong with this? Does this really help? Or is it just a band-aid or worse, something that has unforeseen negative consequences? Does this type of giving really keep the cycle of poverty going?

What do you think?

This is not a rhetorical question? I’d like to start a conversation on this. I have more questions than answers, as you’ll see below. But I think it’s essential that we ask the questions.

I’ll start by offering my ideas – based on my experience of five years here in Honduras and years of working with service projects in the US as well as immersion trips to places in the US and in Central America.

There are a number of issues to consider.

First of all, what kinds of gifts?

Some questionable gifts:
  • Used clothes: Are the clothes appropriate for the climate and the culture? Are they really good quality or just cast-offs? Do they undercut the local economy?
  • Copybooks for kids: They are just too heavy to bring and usually they are not the size or the type that are used in the schools here.
Some mixed gifts:
  • Shoes: Are they appropriate for the climate and the culture? Are they new? Do they undercut the local economy?
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste: Bringing toothbrushes, especially if connected with a country-based dental hygiene project and coordinated with community health leaders, can be helpful. Toothpaste is expensive and it is much better to insure that the people know how to make a use inexpensive alternatives (e.g., salt and bicarbonate of soda). Those who bring the gifts should make sure that people in the community show how to use the toothbrushes.
Some possibly better ideas:
  • Pencils, distributed by catechists or school teachers.
  • Tools or parts for agriculture, electrical work, or construction that are not readily available here. 
  • Stickers: A kindergarten teacher is always asking me for stickers for her kids. They are inexpensive in the US and are hard to find here.
  • Symbolic gifts to those who host a group are, I believe, appropriate. For example, an apron for the cook, a mug with the insignia of the church for a host family.

    • Buying things in country is often better than bringing them down. It also helps the local economy.
    • The gifts should most often be distributed by local leaders - a community health worker, a catechist or school teacher, but not by politicians nor by the visiting group. This shows respect for local leadership.
       What are other ideas about the types of gifts?

Secondly, the gifts should be in response to requests from the people.
  • Do the people really need something – or are the requests coming from leaders?
  • Is this in response to a real need or a need that people outside the community perceive to be a need?
Thirdly, what is the purpose of giving?
  • Is it to make the givers feel good, feel that they can do something in the face of poverty?
  • Is it to help the community go forward in its own, locally developed projects to transform their communities?
  • Is it a one-time giving or part of an ongoing process of promoting solidarity between the giving and receiving communities?
Fourthly, what does it do to or for the receiving community?
  • Does it create or promote dependency relationships in which the rich givers are seen as the ones who can solve the problems of the poor?
  • Does it undermine the self-esteem of the receiving community? They might feel that they cannot provide for themselves and their families and therefore are worth less than the rich outsiders.
  • Does it promote a “gimme” attitude among the receiving community? Do it create expectations that visitors will always give them something?
What does it do to the giving community?
  • Does it create or reinforce unhealthy power relations? We “have” what you need. We “know” what you need. You should listen to us.
  • Does it create the impression that the people who receive have minimal capabilities and resources?
  • Does it promote a "god complex" or a "savior" complex in the givers?
Some important points, in my opinion:           
  • Those who come into a poor community need to respect and value the wisdom and capabilities of the people.
  • Any giving should be in the spirit of sharing, not coming just to give. Those coming from outside need to be willing to receive from the people who are often extremely generous, offering a meal even when they are very poor or giving the visitors little gifts. Receive these gifts with real gratitude. Don't deny the people the opportunity to be generous.
  • Giving should promote doing things together. If you bring a soccer ball, play soccer.
  • Giving should be part of a process that promotes the people’s efforts at real transformation of their communities.
  • Giving should be part of building ongoing relationships, for example, between communities, between churches. Are the givers willing to be involved in the struggles of the poor communities, not just today but also for years to come?
Above all give yourselves, not just things.

Seek to establish real relationships of solidarity and friendship.

And don’t forget money.

What do you think?



One of the more interesting gifts from the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas (STA) in Ames, Iowa, where I served until I came to Honduras, was 20 pyxes.

Pyxes are small round containers for the consecrated hosts that are used to carry Communion, mostly to the sick. When a visitor from STA came and heard about the upcoming blessing of communion ministers, she suggested sending pyxes. She herself takes Communion to the sick in the local hospital.

The pastor of STA visited in February this year and distributed the pyxes to the Communion Ministers at the end of a Mass. The associate pastor of Dulce Nombre and he jointly blessed them but the STA pastor gave the pyxes to each communion minister individually.

Fr. Jon giving pyx to Doña Agüeda

This gift was a way of promoting solidarity between the parishes. It provided something the Communion Ministers would not have even thought of, but it is something that enhances their ministry in the parish here.

Several things strike me about this gift.

The gift connects the parish in a central aspect of faith - the Eucharist.

The gift is not to the persons as "individuals," but to them in terms of their service to the community.

The gift recalls the importance of bringing communion to the sick.

The gift is a sign of solidarity.

A deeper reflection on this might help us think about gift-giving.