Sunday, September 30, 2012

Many stories to tell

These past few days have been somewhat busy and there’s a lot I’d like to write. So this will be a somewhat unfocused entry.

Wednesday I went to La Labor to see the work of Caritas there. I met briefly wit the two workers there and we went to see a little of the countryside. We passed over a widened bridge that was part of the project's effort to mitigate natural disasters, but we passed on to another bridge where three people had drowned a few days before when a flash flood passed over the bridge and pushed their car into the riverbed. The Caritas workers told me that this often happens this time of the year and the municipality will build a double bridge so that the water can pass under the highway and thus avoid other preventable tragedies.

The bridge where three people in a vehicle were swept into the river

Thursday, the director of Caritas asked me to go to San José Quelacasque to pick up a worker who was doing a study there. It's a long ride to this remote community but it is good to see what they have done. They are almost finished with a major water and sanitation project which has brought lots of good, clean, drinkable water to the people living there who now also have sufficient good latrines. It's great to see a community that has come together to improve their lives.

Friday, there was a workshop for new preachers. Sadly, only one of those who had been there last month returned. I don't know why. Also it was a small group but we worked together from 9:15 to 2:30. Next year we hope to have a more systematic training for them and some continuing formation for all those now preaching at the Sunday celebrations of the Word in the villages. All were men except for one woman who just moved to the area from Choluteca. Brenda was most impressive and I hope we can continue to encourage her participation and leadership.

Sunday morning I went to Mass at the San Martín de Porres church up the hill where Padre Fausto Milla presided. His homily was long, but it held my attention since he connected the readings with the reality of life here and also invited the participation of the congregation.

For the third time in three weeks he mentioned a friend of his, a 105 year old man, who died. He has written an article which may be published in El Tiempo,  which I’ll translate. What impressed me was the way Padre Fausto revered this man as a just and generous man, full of wisdom. He was, in the eyes of the world, an insignificant farmer, a campesino who devoted his life to planting corn, beans, radishes, and other vegetables. He told Padre Fausto that he had not done any harm ever with his hands. He was ready for death – in more ways than one.

Padre Fausto also talked about an Australian Marxist who came to his office some forty years ago and ended up devoting himself to the poor, especially during the aftermath of Hurricane Fifi. He was an example of some one, not of the church, who really did God’s caring love. But he was expelled from the country for being a Marxist. (Padre Fausto related this to today’s Gospel, Mark 9: 38-48.)

As the offertory began he mentioned the death of a woman whom he knew, the wife of Salatiel. All of a sudden I was struck because I know Salatiel – an 89 year old-gentleman – and his son Olvidio.

With Don Salatiel

I met his wife once about 4 years ago, when I went with Olvidio to meet them. His father, Salatiel, greeted me as he was coming in from the fields carrying a load of firewood. He dropped the wood, hugged me, and then proceeded to ask me questions. When I told him I was born in Pennsylvania, he asked me if Harrisburg was the capital of Pennsylvania. Astonished, I said yes. Every time I meet him I feel like meeting an  old friend who welcomes me with great love. The death of his wife of many years will be hard. Keep his family in your prayers.

Yesterday, Saturday  I spent time with a group of five persons from Manos Unidas, a Spanish Catholic aid agency, which has been aiding an agricultural project in the parish of Dulce Nombre.

We went to three villages (of the eighteen working with the program.) It was great to hear the people speaking of their work together in an organized group, of their gains in improving the health of their families, and their efforts to decrease or eliminate use of chemical fertilizers.

The first group, in El Ocote, Vera Cruz, was composed of ten women and two men. We found them working on a hillside where they had planted their second crop of yucca.

Women in the El Ocote group, weeding the yucca field.

We talked and you could hear the pride these people had – but also some frustration. We met in what was meant to be a coffee beneficio – a small processing plant which had begun but never finished. A group came in with funding for the project, had the people sign, and then left the work unfinished. (So goes one type of corruption here.) Padre Efraín, the pastor, urged them to get together and ask the mayor what had happened, trying to expose the corruption and perhaps get the project up and starting. (This might be a good project to start a coffee project in the Dulce Nombre parish.)

They also spoke of their groups fund, which they have put together, that can help make small loans to members. The fund has 3,500 lempiras – about $180. But it can help for small loans when people need to pay for transportatrion to take someone to the hospital or other small needs.

The last community, Colonia San José, Dulce Nombre,  had eleven members in the group, in a community which had eleven houses. It seems that all the families were participating. The people had been able to take advantage in 1975 of a new land reform law that enabled campesinos to obtain land with a land title. (Since then the law has been changed and now favors the concentration of land, rather than the redistribution.)

One field of the Colonia San José community

Their work was impressive with a large plot of about 3.5 manzanas which they are planting in crops that they try to sell to various markets. There is also a small school garden of vegetables.

The school vegetable garden.

This community also has a fund – but it is much larger.

It was great to listen to these stories, to see their pride in what they had been able to do; yet  there are needs. The one community needs a pump to activate their irrigation system. The pump would cost about $750.

The team from Manos Unidas was impressed and encouraged the parish to seek aid for the future. The importance of an agriculture that responds to the needs of the  campesinos  for the production of food for a healthy diet is an important goal of such programs. But what is also important is the organization of the people to work together for a better future for their communities. This program encourages joint efforts, combating the individualism that is often at the core of some programs. It also is a way to help the people promote ways to protect nature – cutting back use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, teaching the people the use of natural barriers when they plant on hillsides, promoting local production of food stuffs.

The goal is that the people can live a good life – in all senses of the word “good,” not just the material.

I think it is also one of the ways to start working toward the revitalization of rural villages to stem the flight to big cities or the US. But this is a larger challenge, that I’d like to explore: how do we make rural life a “good” life so that people don’t feel compelled to leave to support their families and so that people don’t feel tempted to the “good life” on the cities and so that the villages are really places where the young feel at home and where they want to stay.

That’s a big challenge, but one that I think is essential for the future of rural Hondurans. But there are many people who have leadership skills or potential.

May God give us the wisdom to work together for the truly "good" life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Making a difference

For at least two years, the Spanish Catholic organization Manos Unidas has supported an agricultural project in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.

The project initially worked in 22 villages to help improve agricultural practices in producing basic grains (corn and beans) as well as to promote family gardens. More recently it has been working in 18 villages mostly in terms of family gardens and reforestation, with both fruit and hardwood trees. They are also working with forming  cajas rurales, a sort of community institution that makes small loans to members. A documentary for television in Spanish can be found here.

The current funding ends in December and it is not yet clear whether Manos Unidas will continue its assistance. We may have a better idea after they do a monitoring visit to several of the communities in the parish.

I spent Monday morning with Mauro, Adán, and Elder (the three técnicos, whom I’ll call fieldworkers), Padre Efraín (the pastor of Dulce Nombre), and the parish secretary (who does a lot of the administrative work for the project).

I had a lot of questions, mostly about where the work had been going well and where there was still need.

The fieldworkers agreed that there were about 12 villages where the groups worked well and where there was still need. One idea would be to continue working with them to strengthen their work.

I also asked them to think of other communities that might profit from the project , that had great needs, but also had people willing to work together in groups to improve their lives, especially through better agricultural production that promotes a more diversified diet. We came up with 15 villages.

One of the fieldworkers remarked that some communities are very hard to work with. They don’t want to take the time to prepare gardens, mostly because they receive a monthly basket from a child-sponsorship group that works in many communities in the parish. He saw this group as promoting dependency.

And so the team would like to work with up to 27 villages in the parish. A big dream, but they are working on a proposal to present to Manos Unidas.

Mauro, Adán, and Gladys working on a new project proposal

I am also thinking about the possibilities of help from  St. Thomas in Ames and the parishes in Shelby County, Iowa, that area in a relationship with the Dulce Nombre parish. It would be good if they could finance another fieldworker so that they can add about 6 more villages. My guess is that this might cost between $17,000 and $20,000 a year – including salary, seeds, transportation, costs for training sessions, and administrative support. I’ll be talking with people about this when I visit Iowa in mid-October.

This is a small effort  that has made some differences.

And it has raised interest. A number of women have told me how much they liked the vegetable seed distribution which helped them diversify their family’s diet as also generate some cash by selling the surplus vegetables.

In addition groups in several communities have asked them if they could participate in an expanded program.

There are problems – but I think this is an area where we can really make a difference in the health and livelihood of the people of the parish of Dulce Nombre. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Of gods and men - the Trappist martyrs of Algeria

Last night I finished watching the movie “Of gods and men”  - “Des hommes et des dieux,” – on the Trappist monks killed in Algeria in 1996.

Ten years ago I read the book of John Kizer, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria, which affected me deeply. But though I had gotten the DVD about a year ago, I had only watched the first forty or so minutes. For some reason – fear, perhaps – I hadn’t stopped to finish watching the film.

What can I say?

I was deeply moved, at times to tears.

Here is a story of conflict – within the community when the prior, Frère Christian, seems to take a position without consulting the entire community (which the Rule of St. Benedict urges). It is a story also of inner conflict as Frère Christophe struggles over the decision of whether to stay or leave. It is also the story of the conflict with a form of fanatic Islam.

But it is also a story of courage, as the monks decide finally to stay despite the danger. It is a story of the courage of the monks to peacefully confront the armed rebels who invade the monastery on Christmas Eve. He even reminds the armed leader that that night was special – the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

It is also a story of love for the poor. Frère Luc, an elderly physician, attend the people who come to his dispensary for aid – sometimes more than 100 per day.

I noted above all the tenderness and fraternal love of the monks.

Frère Amédée massages the shoulders of Frère Christophe after the armed men leave the monastery on Christmas Eve.

When a government helicopter passes over the monastery grounds, the brothers, joined at that moment in prayer, embrace each others as they sing.

But the scene that most struck me was the “last supper,” a meal which comes just before they are taken hostage.

Frère Luc enters with two bottles of wine and puts on a tape of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. As the brothers sit and drink the wine,  you can see the joy and peace on their faces. It is replaced a bit later by seriousness, but a joy – mixed with tears (of joy or of tenderness) replaces the seriousness.

At one point when the community is discerning whether to stay or to leave monk says, “I am not afraid of death. I am a free man.”

I think that’s what the writer of the letter of the Hebrews (2:15) referred to when he says that Christ came to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.”

These monks passed through the fear of death and lived, even though they were killed.

They lived and died, as one monk says when confronted with the option of leaving, as ‘frères de tous” – brothers of everyone.

The film ends with the monks in captivity with a voice over from Frère Christian’s letter, a letter that reveals a deep love even for the ones who would killed him. I believe he wrote it soon after the Christmas Eve visited of the armed rebels. It is a letter that should be read in light of the current events in Libya and the Muslim world.A translation can be found here.

I hope that many will take the time to watch the movie and read the book on the monks. Their witness may help us to live more fully – with others – as children of God.

Insha’ AllahOjalá – God willing.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The radio - for truth and evangelization

This morning I was one of the participants on the Radio Santa Rosa program Dando en el clavo [hitting the nail on the head].

The theme was government and Catholic Social Thought.

18 people from throughout the diocese, involved in radios and communications are in Santa Rosa de Copán for  a workshop. (There is a diocesan radio station, here in Santa Rosa, and there are other radios  - often related to a parish – in several areas of the diocese as well as persons who send information to Radio Santa Rosa.)

Four of the participants in the workshop joined me – Victor from Atima, Santa Bárbara; Andrés de San Nicolás, Santa Bárbara; Alcídes from La Labor, Ocoteque; Margarita from San José Quelacasque, Gracias, Lempira.

The idea was to speak about the theme using the booklet I had designed for base communities of the diocese, Hacia La Liberación.
Front cover of the booklet on Catholic Social Thought

We began with the initial question in meeting 28 of the booklet: “What do you think about politics?”  We shared our ideas – noting the difference between the vision of politics related to the common good and the corrupt and dirty politics often encountered here.

It was a good hour – with participation of all involved including several phone calls. The first call was from our bishop emeritus,  Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos.

The participation of the four was, as expected, exceptional. They really did not need my presence since they knew the material and could relate it much better with the reality of the country.

Afterwards I spent a short time with the workshop they had with Padre Elias, a diocesan priest, who is studying  communications in Rome.

In a country where the major communications media are almost always allied with specific political parties and with the economic and political elites, there is a real need of alternative means of communication that can help people develop a critical consciousness and provide them with alternative information and commentaries on the reality.

The radios are a great help for the church and for the future of the country but they are expensive and often struggle to pay their bills. (If anyone wants to help them, let me know.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

¿Independence? Day, Honduras, 2012

Today Honduras, with the other Central American republics, celebrates Independence. Fire crackers went off at 5:15 am here in Santa Rosa and parades marked the day in many cities throughout Central America.

I was supposed to participate in a call-in, social analysis program, Dando en el Clavo. on the diocesan Catholic Radio Station on Politics and Catholic Social Thought. But about an hour before the start I got a Facebook message from the radio staff member that he’d like to reschedule the event since he had a cold and could hardly talk. And so we’ll do the program next week.

So I have a day off.

I decided to go see the parade here.

Walking there I encountered a neighbor who teaches in a local high school. As we talked he said that Honduras is not really independent since it is religiously, politically, and economically dependent.  Religiously, he said it’s dependent on the Vatican – or, with the evangelicals, on their leaders. Politically it’s dependent on the United States. Economically it’s dependent on the great powers, especially the US and the European Economic Union. I proceeded to mention the power of the large multinational corporations who often have more economic power than countries like the US.

As I left him I recalled the short conversation I had with another neighbor, who is a candidate for congress in the November primary elections. Somehow he mentioned that he had a visa when the coup happened but hadn’t used it. But he didn’t call it a coup and referred to the events of June 2007. Interesting, but understandable. He belongs to the branch of the Liberal Party whose presidential candidate held a role in the coup government.

The parade was mostly local schools with their marching bands [often called bandas de guerra – war bands], kids dressed in traditional dresses or as indios [Indians], floats, and classes walking down the main street in town.

The band of Instituto Poligono

At one point on the parade route members of the Resistance were there with their signs – mostly notably one that said “No to Model Cities,” a proposal that would hand over large sections of Honduran territory for cities to be run by an administration independent of the Honduran government.

No to the Model Cities

Even here the divisions in the country can be seen.

I walked past them and ran into the group of more than 300 students from the Instituto Poligono, founded by a Belgian and retired bishop, Monseñor Luis Alfonse Santos, which provides education to young people from several poor communities. The young people listen to radio programs and study their books and then come to the Institute for a four hour session every weekend to review the material – and to take the necessary exams.

Monseñor Santos

Bishop Santos was there, helping some young women arrange their costumes.

Among the schools, Poligono is the only one that I know that makes a serious commitment to the poor. There is one public  high school, a private Catholic high school, one private Evangelical school, another private school, and two private bilingual schools.

As I stopped on the street to talk to a friend, I heard one of the Resistance members talking about the school that had stopped in front of their banner. He talked about the privatization of education and, even more pointedly, at the “mercantilización” – the  commercialization – of education. Though he may be overstating the situation, he does refer to the fact that good education is at a price here, and the poor usually do not profit from it.

And so the economic divisions in the society continue.

That is how Honduras faces “independence Day” this year – with inequality, violence, and repression.

But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cannot see this. She sent greetings to Honduras, “for the enormous progress” of its people “in the construction of a democratic future,” and assure the country that the United States is “on the side of Honduras while they work to attain a more prosperous and secure future for Honduras.”

Forgive my cynicism but I fear that US economic and political policies are not really helping Honduras, especially as it often turns its eyes away from the human rights violations and as it supports the militarization of security – including sending US Drug Enforcement  (DEA) agents, and insists on the economic policies of CAFTA.

In some ways, then, I have to agree with the high school teacher and the sign of the Resistance members, “What democracy?”

ADDENDUM: More photos of the event can be found here in a Flickr set.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Glimpses of beauty

On September 8, in Dulce Nombre de Copán, I woke up early for the five am serenata for the Virgin on the parish feast day. After the serenade and a group recitation of the rosary I went back to the room where I stay and saw this beautiful dawning of the day - about 6:10 am.

I already posted this on my Facebook page but I wanted to share it more widely.

Here's a photo of the church while the group, Los Liros del Occidente,  from the village of Plan del Naranjo, sang at 5 am:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Another young Salvadoran martyr, 1980

On September 10, 1980, Ana Julia Escobar, a 16 year old catechist, community leader, and worker with Caritas was killed in Tenango, along with two other young people: one of them worked with the church and the other was involved with the guerrillas. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were shot in the head and the chest and two of them were decapitated - the work of the death squads. Julio was not decapitated but was cut all over her arms and body. As her brother Damián, a friend of mine, told me the story, all I could think of were the stories of the martyrs of old, especially the martyrdom of the apostle St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive.

Years later, Doña Mirtala from Tenango wrote the following poem which was published in  Carta a las Iglesias:

I am going to sing this song of many woes.
What happened in Tenango took place all over.
Wednesday, September 10, 1980, it happened,
the death squad entered at 11 in the morning.
Forty of the squad of the National Guard they came, combined forces,
and so they killed seven of those whom they had denounced.
Of the seven who died I will tell you the names of three
of those who are massacred - Carmen, Julita, and José.
Carmen, Julita, and José, the light of heaven shine on them,
for being good companions they remain in the same tomb.
Their three mothers weep as if they were infants,
with tears in their eyes they moisten the tomb.
Válgame, holy child; válgame, holy God,
the Salvadoran fatherland has become a holy field.
So I leave you my song, I am going away.
We must not forget the blood of these companions.

Damian had shared the story  of her death with me in 1995. Here is a portion of his account:

   Wednesday September 10, 1980, at ten in the morning, twelve men in olive green uniforms with E-3 rifles arrived at my house. My sister Ana Julia was grinding corn for tortillas. She worked in the community directiva, the community council, as secretary, and she was also a catechist. She was 16 years old. She was an exemplary young woman in the community and in my family. Everyone was proud of her. In one room of the house there was a young man, José, who was about twenty and was also a member of the directiva comunal. He was the son of a good friend of my dad and was also a relative. His house had been burned and they had nowhere to live. My dad had given them shelter since there were only three of them in their family (mother, father, and son). And our house was big enough to fit the two families.
  José was on a bed, with a very high fever. He could not get up.
  The men who came to the house tied the thumbs of José and Julia and took them out, beating them. We didn’t know that, because my brothers and sisters weren’t in the house. We were playing in the patio of my grandmother’s house, about fifteen meters  away. I saw everything and heard all they were saying. They were insulting them with foul language. But I didn’t know why or where they were taking them away. I ran to tell my grandmother what I saw and she wanted to go see what was happening. When two of the individuals pointed their rifle at us, one of them said, “Don’t move unless you want to die; go inside and close the door.” We locked ourselves inside; my grandmother and all of us were crying. But the door had a little hole where you could see into the street. Through the hole I saw them take them away, beating and shoving them. The young man, extremely ill because of his fever, fell; they lifted him with a stick and they were kicking him. Fifteen minutes later we heard three shots but we didn’t know where they came from.
   At noon my mom arrived, crying, very frightened, holding onto to her arm which was fractured. I asked her what happened. “The soldiers came after me, shooting at me,” she said. “And I had to throw myself down a gully and go through the grass so they wouldn’t follow me. Maybe they thought I was killed when I threw myself down the gully and they stopped following me.”
  Without any explanation and without understanding anything still, I asked her, “Why did they follow you?” “Son,” she answered, “these days no one escapes; all the poor and all of us who live here are persecuted, because the soldiers think we’re guerrillas, even though we aren’t. But we live here and they don’t respect anybody — children, young people, and the old all pay the same.”  I then asked, “Who are the guerrillas?” “Those who defend the people,” she told me.
  Then my mother asked about Julia. I didn’t know what to say. The only thing I knew was that some men took her away. I had to say the truth. She got very quiet and then started crying and shouting like a mad woman: “They killed my daughter.” My grandmother came to comfort her and gave her something to calm her down.
In the late 1990s, the Salvadoran Catholic Church undertook a project of compiling a list of martyrs to submit to the Vatican. This list would be part of the year 2000 millennium celebrations in Rome. A representative of the church came to Suchitoto seeking information on martyrs. Julia Escobar was mentioned as one of the possible martyrs. However, her name was not included in the final list since, some alleged that she was involved in activities of one of the guerrilla groups. But she was not killed in combat but was taken from her home and brutally murdered.

She is a witness, one of many people of faith who died in El Salvador before and during the civil war, seeking justice for the poor.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Principles for really helping

Today I sat in on part of a training on responding to emergencies for people from three villages where Caritas Santa Rosa has a project.

The two facilitators work on responses to disasters and emergency through a local coalition of non-governmental organizations, ASONOG.

As Carlos spoke, I was struck by five basic principles he noted for responding to emergencies and disasters:
            Don’t prolong conflicts or cause harm
            Respect the culture and customs
            Promote the local capacities
            Coordinate efforts to maximize the benefits
            Take into account gender differences

I have been very concerned in the last few years in the appropriateness of aid here as well as some “missions” that come here. Some of these principles speak directly to my concerns.

The first one, “don’t prolong conflicts or cause harm,” is basic. In our situation here, any aid that plays on political or religious differences has disastrous effects. Here many politicians try to utilize aid for partisan purposes, showing up when aid come or when the foreigners come to help. This doesn’t help build reconciliation in a very divided society.

The second, “Respect the culture and customs,” is critical. One of the problems as the world gets more globalized is the importation of US-style consumerism. When groups come with their first world props it’s important to be culturally sensitive and not set up expectation. Can we respect the people’s culture? Put more emphasis here on personal relations more than efficiency. That can be frustrating. (I know) Also, I wonder how many of the fundamentalist groups that come and hope to “save” Hondurans ever considered that they might already be disciples of Christ – Catholic Christians. (Excuse my peevishness.)

when he spoke of this principle the speaker talked about sending trash from the US (used clothes), or shoes sizes 12 and 13, or winter clothes for people who live in places like Choluteca which are extremely hot. I clapped in appreciation.

The third principle is central: “Promote the local capabilities.” Some people come and act as if these people and stupid. They are not. They often don’t have a lot of what come people consider necessary. But there is a lot of wisdom among illiterate campesinos as I have often experienced. In addition, there are great capabilities among the people. The three communities represented in the workshop have done some amazing projects – with help – but with their input. And the people participating in this workshop and in yesterday’s workshop on financial administration are capable. I spoke to one group that included a man in his early fifties who had 6 months of school but the others (including a high school graduate and a young guy in first year of high school) told me that he was a genius in math! I was moved, partly because my dad never went to high school but he got an office job because he was a math genius. I proudly shared that with them.

The fourth is easy to violate: Coordinate efforts to maximize the benefits. This is often the case with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who multiply projects in areas and compete for participants with other NGOs. But I read a while ago about a case where  about ten years ago several medical brigades went to an area and vaccinated kids – several times over. They probably did not think about coordinating with the local health clinics.

The fifth is probably not as relevant to the groups I’m thinking about but it is important not to neglect women.

One of the ways I saw this happen – without planning – was with the first immersion group from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames that came in March 2008. We went one morning to the rural village of Plan Grande which was building a new church. (Note: it was their project which they were financing; we were accompanying their work.)

Our group – four women, one guy, and myself – arrived with Padre Efraín. Men and boys were working digging the church foundations, bringing large rocks for the foundation, and mixing and pouring cement. Our group arrive and all except one woman who was sick started to help. Padre Efraín, Mitch, and three young women (Nora, Katie, and Marla) started carrying rocks for the foundation. Within thirty minutes the little girls of Plan Grande were grabbing rocks and carrying them for the foundations. The young women interacted with the women. .  Nora who spoke Spanish spent time talking with a few girls. The men were amazed at Marla’s strength; she grew up on a farm. I say that this was a small step for the little girls of Plan Grande which was above all respectful but which didn’t let macho attitude get in the way of respect for all. I return often to Plan Grande and they remember that day well.

Katie and some young girls carrying rocks

Nora talking with some older girls

Marla at work

There are other principles for bringing aid that could be added but I found these five very helpful. And so I’ll continue reflecting on how we outsiders can be here and accompany the people in their struggles for a more just world.