Friday, November 23, 2012

Dreams into deeds in Dulce Nombre

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

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

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

Part of Montaña Adentro

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

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

With the community church council, in the school

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

Digging the foundations for the sacristy

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

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

Freddy picking oranges for us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They saw a taste of the New Jerusalem. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Elections in Honduras

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

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

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

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

But that is probably the most blatant form of corruption.

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

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

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

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

But the problem is not merely the party in power.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alternatives to Violence Workshop 2

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

Nelly, one of the facilitators

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

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

participants with Aida, one of the facilitators

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Those poor miserable people

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

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

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

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

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

They were a great group to work with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What's wrong with elections

Yesterday the US held elections and Barack Obama was re-elected as president. On Sunday, November 18, Honduran political parties will hold their primary elections. Then we’ll have to wait another year until November 2013 when Hondurans will elect a new president, as well as members of congress and municipal authorities.

Reflecting on what I read about the US elections and what I see here in Honduras, I’d like to suggest that there are serious flaws in the way that democracy is being practiced.

First, there is often a temptation to demonize the opposition.

Reading what some people were writing on Facebook was demoralizing. Not only were there outright lies, but the tone was downright ugly. Civility was absent as proponents of one candidate raged against another candidate, most often, but not exclusively, against President Obama.

Some of the ravings reminded me of the commentaries here in Honduras in the months before the June 2009 coup overthrew the elected president, Mel Zelaya.

Why is it that some people think that their opponent is demonic?

Secondly, there is a temptation to present one’s candidates as saviors.

I didn’t see this much in what I read about this happening in the US, though some supporters of President Obama approached his campaign.

But here is Honduras it’s more blatant. There’s even a political candidate whose theme is “Salvemos Honduras – Let us save Honduras.”

Thirdly, there is a tendency to see politics in terms of political leaders who will rescue us.

Politics is what the politicians do for us or against us, some think. Therefore, their roles are exaggerated as if everything political depends on them. Thus they can be viewed as either demons or saviors.

Fourthly, these temptations are based in a tendency to see elections as the ultimate act of democracy.

If democracy is reduced to elections, those elected are not considered accountable for their actions during their terms, but only when they seek re-election. What is important is who wins the elections, not how they serve.

In a different context, Monseñor Ricardo Urioste, who served under Archbishop Oscar Romero, said that “elections are a note in the symphony of democracy.” They are essential but not sufficient.

These temptations indicate a failure to take responsibility.

To ensure real democracy, people should vote but they should also participate in other ways of seeking to transform society. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US in 1831, he noted the importance of intermediary organizations, the civil society for the health of the republic. Involvement in civic organizations, unions, study and action groups, and pressure groups offer an alternative to the dyad of elected officials and those who elect them. They offer a place to influence policy from the perspective of the people. Recall the importance of the civil rights movement to make changes in our society. Pressure by the people is often more important than mere elections.

Furthermore, I believe that these temptations are rooted in placing trust in might, rather than the power of God.

The scriptures are clear:

“Not by power or by might, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord.

Or as the psalms note in several places, as in psalm 33: 16-17

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

The might of the US empire is limited, not matter what we may think. A little humility would help all elected officials in the US and throughout the world. They are not the saviors and the “god complex” can lead to all sorts of evil.

In the face of this we need to work together in a different manner for the common good, and especially for the good of the poorest and marginalized.

But also we should pray.

Here is a prayer by noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann in his Prayers for a Privileged People,  that I found on the Facebook page of Tammy Walhoff:

Post-Election Day Prayer
            by Walter Brueggemann
You creator God
   who has ordered us
      in families and communities,
      in clans and tribes,
      in states and nations.

You creator God
   who enacts your governance
      in ways overt and
      in ways hidden.
You exercise your will for
   peace and for justice and for freedom.

We give you thanks for the peaceable order of
   our nation and for the chance of choosing—
      all the manipulative money notwithstanding.

We pray now for new governance
   that your will and purpose may prevail,
   that our leaders may have a sense
      of justice and goodness,
   that we as citizens may care about the
      public face of your purpose.

We pray in the name of Jesus who was executed
   by the authorities.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Of various things

Accompanying Caritas

Friday I was in Intibucá for most of the day with the director of Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán meeting with representatives of COCEPRADII, an Intibucá department-based non-governmental organization and representatives of Catholic Relief Services Honduras to work on budgets and job profiles for a three-year project to help local schools, especially in terms of school meals, financed by the US Department of Agriculture.

On the way back I was speaking with a Caritas fieldworker who told me of something that happened at a meeting she was at in Erandique. A young man was feeling ill and so they took him to the local clinic. He was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to be taken to the hospital in Gracias, more than an hour away. But in Gracias there was no surgeon available and so he had to be sent to Santa Rosa. Luckily there was an ambulance and the people involved put together the $26 needed to pay for the trip. Later they found out that there was no surgeon available in Santa Rosa de Copán. Luckily the ambulance was from San Pedro Sula and so he was taken there – a ride of between 2 and 3 hours - where the appendectomy was performed. It took a while for his family to locate him and to connect with him in San Pedro Sula. It was 36 hours since he first got ill and the surgery. He could have died for the lack of surgeons in two major public hospitals. Such is the state of medicine here.

Dulce Nombre youth cultural night

 Late Saturday afternoon I went to Dulce Nombre for a cultural program arranged by the youth group of Dulce Nombre – Alma Misionera [Missionary Soul] – with the assistance of Caritas.

Grupo juvenil Alma Misionera

The youth provided an incredible evening with presentations of music, traditional games, and food. They even got a group of kids from the local school (named after John F. Kennedy) to do a traditional dance.

Atol chuco (dirty drink) -  a local favorite

One of the most imaginative presentations was a rap song on Dulce Nombre. Kelvin and Carlos rapped it, to the applause of the more than 200 people gathered, many from other youth groups that also are doing cultural presentations in their villages.

Here’s the rap song.

Visiting Montaña Adentro

In two weeks a group of university students from St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames will be visiting the parish of Dulce Nombre, their sister parish.

I usually try to arrange a stay in a village where we do a project with the people there. This year, at the suggestion of Padre Efraín, the pastor, we’re going to Montaña Adentro, to help them with building there church.

Montaña Adentro is not too far from Dulce Nombre, but it is really “adentro,” inside the mountainous terrain of the parish. The site is beautiful, but it’s up and down several hills to get there – in the mountains. It is a zone of coffee and orange trees.

The town, of about 40 households, does not now have a church, but has its Sunday morning Celebrations of the Word in the village’s one room school house.

Sunday Celebration of the Word in the Montaña Adentro school.

I joined them in their Celebration and had brought the Eucharist to share with them. After the Celebration they were selling “arroz con leche,” rice with milk, a little like rice pudding, to raise funds for the village church’s project.

After the Celebration, I met with the village’s church community council to talk about the visit. They are very pleased with the chance to welcome the group, since they have never had a group come to be with them.

After lunch (see my reflection on eating with the poor here), we went to see the site of the future church.

The site of the church.

On the side of the hill there is an incredible view. I stood around and talked with the men involved. We talked about the possibility of finding a way to store rainwater as well as the usefulness of planting some trees to lessen the effect of the north wind. Antonio suggested grafted avocado trees. 

From the construction site, looking north (with my pickup)

I left about 2:00pm, very happy to have spent time with the people there and looking forward to our visit two weeks from now.

More photos from the Cultural Night in Dulce Nombre can be found here and more photos from Montaña Adentro here.
A few photos from the cultural event in Camalote are here. This event had to be cut short when the lights went out.
Another video from the Dulce Nombre cultural event - of traditional games - can be found here.

Friday, November 02, 2012

All saints and souls

The first two days in the November Catholic calendar are devoted to all the saints (the communion of holy ones who have gone before us and enjoy the presence of God) and all souls which is a remembrance of all those who have died.

To recall these days I offer two photos:

My icon corner

My icon corner has images of Monseñor Oscar Romero, St. Francis of Assisi, Mary - Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, and Saint Joseph, together with a statue of an angel (from Bolivia). The icon was a gift, written by Yaroslava Surmach Mills.

My parents, John S. & Eleanor Donaghy
My mother died in 1976 and my father in 1999. May they be enjoying the presence of God.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

More on being a missionary

Today I finished reading The Church, Change and Development, a 1970 collection of essays by Father Ivan Illich, who wrote many books criticizing the “modern” world from his perspective in Latin America as a person of faith committed to the poor.

I believe that central to his understanding is his conviction that “the mission of the church is the social continuation of the Incarnation…” (p. 85)

But he opens up a deep understanding of Incarnation, which is rooted in Philippians 2, though he doesn’t cite the passage.

Jesus is God, yet he exiles himself, he becomes human, fully human. A missioner can’t do this, since I can never become a Honduran, but part of the challenge is to empty myself of the security of being from the United States, immersing myself in the reality here. But I have Jesus as a model.

As Illich puts it:
The neo-missioner must learn to accept the feelings of insecurity and lostness consequent on his recurrent disorientation for what they are: his vocation….
      He will learn to realize not only that he does not understand as others do; he is not even understood as they are. He will accept/ that he will never preach the Gospel in the language of the people as it should be preached, that at best is pupils will be able to do that. That, in a way, he who came to announce the Gospel is condemned to silence or at best to stuttering. His growth in this realization, that his audience is in a way “beyond him,” will lead him to growing respect for the uniqueness of each people, the mysterious complexity and otherness of each community, and the transcendence of the Gospel which, according to his faith, can be understood everywhere fully, even though not equally. (pp.106-7)
This demands an emptying, an openness, a throwing myself on the mercy of God (and the willingness of people to suffer my inadequacies). It demands conversion, which, as Illich suggests,
… implies the discovery that revelation of the living God can be relevant to our universe and of concepts, if we are willing to blast this universe open in a new dimension. (p. 86)
 This book is rich – though not easy. But I believe that it will provide me with much to reflect on as I continue my mission here in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

In this I need to cultivate the missionary poverty and missionary silence that Illich proposes:
Many dangers threaten to hinder the missionary from seeking poverty at this intimate level and most often stem from the insecurity which breeds fear. If material things and friends and health are crutches against he threat of the unknown, how much more does the set of values and customs with which each one was brought up serve this protective purpose, and how much more, therefore, is each one anxious to defend his culture as inalienable, absolute, and worthy of being imposed on others. If we don’t want to let go of a thing we think we need we always find a reason for defending our right to keep it, and the more intimate the thing is to us, the more unknowingly we protect ourselves from the suspicion that we might have to give it up. (p. 118)
Ultimately, missionary silence is a gift, a gift of prayer, learned in prayer faced by the infinitely distant, infinitely foreign God and applied in love to men, much more distant and foreign than ever men at home. The missioner can come to forget that his silence is a gift, a gift in its deepest sense gratuitously given by God; a gift generously transmitted to us by those who are willing to teach us their language. (p. 123)

The book is available as a free downloadable e-book here