Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The 2013 coffee crisis in Copán, Honduras

Coffee is, in some ways, the life blood of the area of western Honduras where I live and minister.

The coffee harvest in our region of Honduras is almost over, though there may still be some areas at higher elevations still to be harvested.

It has not been a good year for coffee.

First of all the prices for coffee are almost half of what they were last year. Last year the prices were much higher than for the 2010-2011 harvest. But this year’s price is even lower than two years ago. 

Catuai coffee leaves affected by roya

But the other problem is that a disease – roya – has infected many of the coffee plants, leaves have fallen off and many of the coffee berries have not matured. Yesterday I saw a pile of green coffee berries that had been harvested. They will probably be used for coffee for the family - but they will not bring in needed cash.

Catuai coffee plant affected by roya

Roya has infected the most common variety of coffee grown by the people with little resources – catuaí. It has had a good yield and produces a good-tasting coffee. However, it is not as resilient as other varieties which, though they produce less than catuaí are more resistant.

A few people had planted a variety of coffees and so have not been as affected by roya, but it is still hard for all of them.

Lempira and 90 coffee - not affected by roya

The low prices and the poor harvests will seriously affect the small coffee farmers. Another consideration is that after last year’s good harvest and good prices, some small coffee farmers may have planted coffee in some of the fields they had been using for corn and beans, the staples of the Honduran family budget.

Also, since the harvest will be poor, the small coffee farmers may find it difficult – if not impossible – to pay off the loans they took out earlier for fertilizers or for planting new coffee plants.

Since the harvest is poor this will also probably affect the coffee pickers, those who have been out on the fields since late November, in all sorts of weather (including the cold and rainy spell of the last two weeks). Some of these may have small coffee fields of their own (less than quarter an acre) but many are the poor who live by manual labor throughout the year. This is one of the few times when the people can earn cash for their expenses for the year.

I have seen large cattle trucks and small pickups packed with people going to pick. 

Off to pick coffee

What will all this mean for the people here?

May through August are the lean months, partly because the corn and beans harvested the previous year have been used up and the harvest is still months away. There is almost always hunger during these months. Even if people want to buy corn and beans, the prices are high (sometimes up to twice as high as the price farmers receive at harvest time.)

My guess is that the situation mid-year will be critical. We may find a real hunger crisis in the region.

What can be done?

There are long range solutions that need to be considered, including finding ways to get the small and medium coffee farmers better returns for their investment. A group visiting from Shelby County, Iowa, at the beginning of this month, is looking into ways to facilitate direct trade between the farmers here and markets in Iowa and the Mid-West. This is what I call “direct trade” which can be much better for small farmers than “fair trade.” (That’s another discussion.)

Juan Ramon and healthy coffee plants

But in the short term, what can be done?

This year, because of the changes in the parish of Dulce Nombre, we will probably not have the Manos Unidas–funded agricultural project which helped a good number of families. (Right now we have a priest as pastoral administrator; if he or another priest is appointed pastor, it will be easier to execute an agricultural project.)

The mayor of one of the municipalities in the parish has begun thinking about a family garden project with the 15 women’s groups in the rural villages of the municipality. This will need some technical assistance, though it appears that the mayor would use government funds for providing the seeds.

There may be a need for more direct assistance and I’ll try to work with the pastoral administrator and the pastoral workers in the villages to monitor the hunger situation.

Such is the life of the people here – people who live on the edge and who, even though they work hard, have major problems providing a decent livelihood for their families.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Search for the Historical St. Francis of Assisi

Placard at an anti-mining demonstration
Next month I’m going on a personal pilgrimage/retreat/vacation to Italy and plan to spend five days in Assisi. Because of my Franciscan roots, my association with the Dubuque Franciscans, and the Franciscan aspects of my spirituality, I’m trying to read a number of books about Francis.

A few days ago I finished Augustine Thompson, O.P.’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.  I found the book intriguing, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who just wants an introduction to Francis and his spirituality.

Thompson is trying to separate Francis from the many legends that grew up around him after his death. Examining the early sources and their historical contexts, he edits out many of the stories that I have come to love, including the story of the Wolf of Gubbio.

But he does not do it haphazardly. In fact, more than half the book is filled with his notes.

His methodology, I think, has some drawbacks, which I will comment on later. Yet several aspects of Francis’ life and spirituality come to the fore.

The centrality of the Eucharist for Francis becomes very clear in the author’s commentary on Francis writings. Francis was disturbed at the poor state of churches, with the lack of care for altar linens, and for the disregard that some had for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Living as I do in Honduras where there is a deep respect for the Eucharist, I really treasure this aspect of Francis’ witness.

In his analysis of Francis’ ideas on poverty, Thompson emphasizes not material poverty per se, but the poverty of being at the bottom, of being one of the minores, the little ones. Though the author doesn’t refer to it directly, it seems that Francis took this position in the light of his understanding of Jesus as found in Philippians 2, a God who emptied himself to become a slave, a servant.

In addition, though Francis urged the friars to beg, Francis first recommended that they work with their hands to obtain what they need. Francis, though from the nouveau rich class, came to know the worth and the importance of manual work.  He saw the dignity of the manual laborer. In a world where manual labor is often looked down upon, it is important to recover the dignity of all work, even the “humblest” and often the most necessary.

The author's description of Francis' last years, where he suffered greatly, reveal a real person, who got upset with his caregivers, not a plaster saint who suffered everything with ultimate patience and a smile. Francis comes across as a real person, with his idiosyncrasies and occasional ill temper.

These are important aspects of Francis that Thompson’s book brings to the forefront.

Yet, I think the author has taken a too narrow approach to what constitutes a “true” or “factual” story about Francis. He rightly looks closely at Francis’ writings as well as at the earlier writings of his followers. But he seems to reject many stories because they seem to him to be fashioned in the style of the hagiographies of the thirteenth century. He also rejects some stories because they seem to be too related to the late thirteenth century controversies among the Franciscans, especially between the Conventuals and the Spirituals, over the question of poverty. In my mind, he seems to take this principle of interpretation of the texts too narrowly.

I am glad I read this work. It is part of the Franciscan equivalent of the search for the historical Jesus, with all the advantages and dangers of such an approach.

A different approach to finding the truth about Francis in the midst of different accounts is Paul Moses’s The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, a book I recommend.

I am now reading André Vauchez’ Francis of Assisi: The life and aftermath of a medieval saint. Though it is also a search for the real Francis, it seems to have a different tone, as can be noted in this quote (page 32):

Francis does not flee the world. On the contrary, he rushes to plunge himself into it in order, like his Lord, to conquer it and to reintegrate back into society the poor and all those whom power and money have excluded from it.

I’ll be reading more books as I prepare for my visit to Assisi, including Nikos Kazantsakis’ novel Saint Francis, which I read many years ago.

When I’m in Assisi I will try to re-read one of my favorite books on Francis, a retelling of his life from the 20th century perspective of a Little Brother of the Gospel, Carlo Carretto’s I,Francis. It’s not a biography per se, but a series of meditations on Francis for today.

In all this, I’m hoping that God will open my heart to hear what Francis is saying to me today about following the crucified Jesus, God becoming flesh and giving himself in the Eucharist as our daily food.


Several other interesting books related to Francis that I've read in the past year or so are:
  • Ian Morgan Cron,  Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale.
  • Jamie Arpin-Ricci, C.J., The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, and Life in the Kingdom 
  • Linda Bird Francke,  On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond. 
  • Ilia Delio, O.S.F.,  Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis.  
  • Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M.,  Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis. 
  • Dominic Monti, Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars.

Some books I found good are
  • G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi
  • Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. 
  • Lawrence S. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life. 

Two other books I hope to read soon are
  • Leonardo Boff,  Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation
  • Daniel Horan, OFM, Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cold and rainy

It’s a cold and rainy Saturday in Santa Rosa de Copán. A mist covers the town at 11 am, with a 54o temperature that feels worse since the dampness goes right through me. And just a few minutes a go the electricity went off.

11:30 am on my street in Santa Rosa de Copán

Electricity going off is common here, at least two times a month, sometime for an hour or so, sometimes for the whole day.

And it does get cold here – not below freezing, but often in the low fifties, usually between October and early February.

Though this is a subtropical region, we are in the mountains. And when it’s rainy or misty, it feels all the worse. Santa Rosa de Copán is cooler than many places, but earlier this week I was in Esperanza, Intibucá, which is the highest city in the country and where it is even colder.

But today as I walked to the market, I remembered that it is coffee harvest season. Many families are out in the cold, wet coffee fields picking, hoping to get some cash to help pay for expenses for the year. If they don’t get enough, they may suffer serious hunger later this year.

I also saw a partially crippled beggar walking on his crutches – in bare feet.

And so I wait in my cold house for the electricity to return so that I can make some soup in the crockpot I have.

But I need to remember those who are even more affected by the rain, the mist, and the cold, like the kids going down the street with their donkeys.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Honduras and migration to the US

The US Catholic Church’s National Migration Week comes to an end today. It coincides with the feast of the Epiphany, recalling that after the Magi left, the Holy Family became refugees, migrants, fleeing from the murderous advances of King Herod. 

This week the issue of migration surfaced personally for me, as I hosted a group here from Shelby County in western Iowa.

As we were watching some friends process sugar cane in a rural village, a fifteen-year old young man from another family began to talk about his idea of going to the US.

As is my custom, I began to try to talk to him about the dangers of the passage to the US, especially through Mexico. (This was even more present to me since I had just watched the movie Sin Nombre.) I talked about the deaths, the robberies, and worse.

I also told him about the difficulty of getting work, and the costs of living in the US. I mentioned some Hondurans I’ve met who left the US because they couldn’t find work. I told him of a young man from a neighboring village who got to the US, was arrested within a short time of entering the country, was imprisoned, and deported back to Honduras on a plane. I’m not sure this got through.

He comes from a deeply religious family and said that God would protect him. I tried to tell him that that’s a presumptuous way to look at God’s care for us.

I later found out that a member of the group had also tried to talk him out of trying to go to the US.

I later sat down with his father who told me of his great concern about his son’s desire to leave for the US. He then told me that the previous Saturday three young men from the village had left for the US.  One had gotten to the US a few months ago but was deported after only a month.

Later that week a friend of mine who works with youth in another town told of a young man who had gotten his teaching degree from the teachers’ high school and then got a job teaching. After two years he had not been paid. His reaction? To leave for the US.

I think young people leave here for a number of reasons – mostly economic. They think they can earn a great amount of money in the US and some go to try to find a way to support their families. Others, especially young men, may have a little of an adventurous spirit and so will set out on the perilous journey, almost as a challenge.

All this underlines what I consider to be a crucial issue, something that affects the way I see my ministry.

How can we help this country, especially the young, get a good education, live a decent, full and holy life in the countryside.  Then they may not feel the pull of the US “paradise” where money grows on trees.

I fully support the first principle which the US and Mexican bishops noted ten years ago in their joint pastoral letter “Stranger No Longeron the Journey of Hope,” paragraph 34:

Persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland.
All persons have the right to find in their own countries the economic, political, and social opportunities to live in dignity and achieve a full life through the use of their God-given gifts. In this context, work that provides a just, living wage is a basic human need.

This is critical for the people here in Honduras and most of the world.

 Unless this problem is faced, migration will continue and perhaps increase.

In addition, the US needs to change its policies and find ways to offer some opportunities for hard-working poor Hondurans and others to have access to some jobs in the US. Canada does this. In fact, we ran into one person in the village where we stayed who had just gotten back from working in Quebec. Jesus was glad to be back (probably in part to escape the cold), but he and several others from his village had that opportunity.

In addition, people of faith and the churches need to provide a welcome and support to migrants, even those without legal papers, and to advocate for changed policies.

The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger. Hebrews 13:2 puts it bluntly:

Do not neglect to offer hospitality; you know that some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Yet I still believe that the best way to deal with the issue in the long term is to transform places like Honduras.

Thus I have had to ask people who visit to be careful in how they respond to the hospitality of the people here. Telling people that they are welcome to their homes in the US needs to be stated carefully for an open invitation might spur an innocent young person to undertake the dangerous trip to US through Guatemala, Mexico, and the deserts of the US South West.

It would be better to say something like this:

We are awed by your openness and hospitality. We would love to be able to welcome you into our homes but the policies of the US make this almost impossible. The immigration laws are much too strict and discriminating against the poor. In addition, it is nearly impossible for a poor Honduran to get a visa to the US, even if not for work. So I want to help you try to find a way to live a decent life here. If the laws change and if the economic situation improves so that you can come legally, I’d love to welcome you in my home. In the meantime, make the best of your life here. I will work for real social change, even as I advocate for undocumented migrants in the US.

I think that’s what US people of faith should be saying and doing.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Connecting at the end of the year

The last Sunday of Advent I went to Debijiado. It is a village that used to belong to another parish but is now part of the Dulce Nombre parish. In October the church was reopened after being closed for two years.

It is a remote village. It took more than an hour in pickup from Dulce Nombre to get to the turn-off, and then it was a 35 minute walk down hill on a muddy “road.” I, though, got to ride a donkey – named Macho.

On the road to Debijiado

I now have more sympathy with Mary who walked or rode to her cousin Elizabeth’s house (about 150 kilometers from Nazareth) and then walked or rode with Joseph to Bethlehem (even farther away) and then to Egypt (even farther.)

The village was very poor. They have water, thanks to a project with the municipality of San Agustín, but no electricity and a terrible road. But the newly opened church seems to have given new life to the faith there.

The church in Debijiado

While I was talking with a couple about a recent series of events there that I can’t go into here, a young man who is new to pastoral work in the village asked me an interesting question. “When we fast, whom should we tell?”  “No one,” I answered, referring him to the text in Matthew’s Gospel. I talked a bit about some communal fasts which would include letting people know. But I decided to ask him a serious question. “How many times a month do you eat meat?” He smiled and answered, “Maybe once.” You are on a perpetual fast, I noted. But respecting the poor’s desire to fast I noted that fasts should be accompanied with helping the poor.

I was humbled. Here are people whose lives are perpetual fasts, willing to fast to open themselves more to God’s grace.

The next day was Christmas Eve and so, as has been my custom, I headed to Gracias where I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I stayed with the Dubuque Franciscan sisters there and had great conversations and great meals – and two games of dominos. 

San Marcos church in Gracias, Lempira, Christmas Eve

As I went to leave after a great lunch, my car wouldn’t start. Nancy came to the rescue and gave me a ride home!

I had to get to Santa Rosa on Christmas afternoon since I was leaving the next morning to get to the funeral Mass and burial of my last living aunt, Mary Barrar. A tribute to her can be found in a previous post, here.

I got up and left the house a little before 6 am. I couldn’t find a taxi and so walked more than half the way until a stranger, taking someone else to the bus terminal, gave me a ride.

I left Santa Rosa on the 6:30 am bus and got to the airport in plenty of time. But because of bad weather the plane left late and I had to reschedule my second flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia. More delays meant that I arrived in Philadelphia about 2:30 am. My cousin George was there at the airport to pick me up.

We got up on Thursday for the 10:00 am wake and funeral Mass.

Aunt Mary was one of my favorite aunts and I’m glad I got to the funeral.

I saw a number of cousins I have not seen for ages. But even more important were the stories I heard of Aunt Mary.

She was a take-charge woman, as her grandsons noted in the tribute they read for her at the end of the Mass.

In the retirement village where she lived for almost two years, she took charge at some of the activities; even more impressive, though not unexpected, was the love the staff had for her, perhaps partly because she never complained, unlike some other people. She also took interest in the lives of the aides.

She became the favorite of one aide – who became like a daughter to Aunt Mary. This aide helped give new life to Aunt Mary and actually helped her begin walking again. Aunt Mary in turn provided some counseling to the aide who later said Aunt Mary saved her marriage. What an incredible example of mutuality – sharing one’s gifts in order to help another who has a need grow and live a fuller life.
We buried her on a cold afternoon, but the warmth of her love lives on in her children, her daughter-in-law, grandsons, grand-daughter-in-law, and great-granddaughters. It was a blessing to be there.

I ended up staying two more days, thanks to the hospitality of George, Aunt Mary’s son, and his wife Kathy. And so I had the chance on Friday to see my cousin Leslie Donaghy. She’s had some health problems and so I was glad we could talk over lunch. She and one other cousin are the only living cousins on my father’s side of the family.

Leslie and I met in a mall. I got there early and walked around. It was a smaller mall and there were not many people. My reaction was very unusual – the mall seem pervaded by a deep sadness – even with the bright lights of Christmas still up.

The next day I had the chance to visit with more cousins. First with Judy and her husband and then with Mary, Aunt Mary’s daughter who is 29 days younger than I am. Mary is a Sister of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill and we talked at length. 

Cousin Judy (left), her husband Richard, and cousin Mary

We ended the day with a dinner out with Mary, George and his wife Kathy.

But an extra delight of the day was a two-inch snowfall. This is the first snowfall I’ve experienced since January 2008. It doesn’t snow here in Honduras. 

This is not photo-shopped. This is NOT Honduras.

Sunday, December 30, I headed back home. It was a long trip back – a 4 am car ride to the airport with George, two planes, a taxi, and a bus brought me to Santa Rosa at about 6:00 pm.

All had gone well until Santa Rosa. There two taxi drivers tried to charge me 20 lempiras instead of the normal 16. That’s only 20¢, but it was the principle. So I got out of the first taxi, refused the second, and found a taxi that only charged me 16 (but I gave him a one lempira tip).

The last day of the year was mostly dealing with my car. In the morning I went in bus to Gracias where I had left my car. A mechanic couldn’t get it started and asked two friends to come and see. They looked at it and got it started, telling me that the problem was the ignition switch (which was my thought). They charged me nothing! What a difference from the taxi drivers.

I made it back to Santa Rosa and fortunately the workshop of my mechanic who does electrical work was still open. He changed a part of the ignition switch and I was on my way.

I went to bed early and managed to sleep despite all the firecrackers.

I woke up rested to begin a new year.