Monday, April 29, 2013

Corn festival in Vega Redonda

Sunday was the final day of a week-long Festival of Elote in the village of Vega Redonda.

Elotes are ears of corn that are recently harvested and eaten in several different ways.

We eat them as people in the US would eat sweet corn – but this is more like field corn than sweet corn.

They make sweet tamales (tamalitos dulces):

tamales with meat (montucas):

a hot sweet drink (atol dulce):

a hot drink with spices and beans (atol chuco [dirty drink] or atol agrio [bitter drink]):

frittas (fried corn fritters):

and riguas (corn dough cooked on a grill between two banana leaves):

I went out with Padre German and two people from Dulce Nombre for a Mass to end the celebration. Of course, we ate before Mass.

After Mass, there were some cultural events, including singing and a series of dances performed by students from the Maestro en Casa (a distance learning by radio program).

This was the fifth year they’ve had the festival, a good way for them to try to come together as a community as well as to remember their cultural values and traditions.

And the riguas and frittas were great.


More photos can be found in my flickr set

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Blogging as bridge-building

About 9:30 last night this blog, Hermano Juancito, received its 50,000th hit since June 2008. (I think I had about 12,000 before that.)

I began blogging in June 2006,  a year before coming here to Honduras as a way to share my experience here as a lay missionary in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. I thought it important to share my life, especially with those who were supporting me – especially the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames.

The blog received a sudden influx of hits in June 2009 after the coup here in Honduras as I began to share my experience living under a coup and sharing here and in another blog what church people were saying in translation.

Last month, I began to reflect on Pope Francis. At one point I decided to translate an article of Jon Sobrino on Pope Francis. It attracted a lot of hits. What a surprise for me. (And also a warning: don't write so that you get more hits than other people. Write because it moves you in the depths of your being.)

In Hermano Juancito, I try to share what I experience and my reflections. I do some analysis and criticism, but I have tried to keep it grounded in daily life here. I have tried not to pontificate nor to bring in too much ideological analysis – though my positions should be fairly clear to those who read me. It is important that I start from my experience and the experience of the people I serve with.

In February 2011, after a friend asked me where to find a blog for daily devotionals, I began a different type of blog: “Walk the Way: Reflections on events and witnesses of faith and justice.”   For years I have been keeping a calendar with dates of important justice events as well as the birth and death anniversaries of saints and heroes, together with quotes from them. I had also edited a Lenten prayer and reflection booklet for St. Thomas for several years while I was a campus minister there. I decided that it would be good to share these to a wider audience.  I have also included in this blog some reflections on the daily lectionary readings.

Writing a blog is not easy, but it has been an important discipline for me, a way I reflect on my life as well as share my thoughts and prayers with others.

I also see it as part of my mission. I am here not only to serve the people here, but also I see my ministry as a work of bridging – providing access to the world here to people in other parts of the world, sharing the lives of my heroes and my reflections on scripture with people who may or may not know me.

A few years ago a spiritual director noted that in many ways my ministry in campus ministry and social ministry in Ames, Iowa was bridge-building, trying to make connections and help people meet each other and share their thoughts.

I think that now, more than ever, a part of my ministry is building bridges and writing blogs is one way I can do this.

I pray that I can continue to do this and do it with integrity.

I also pray that I may know when I should refrain from writing about someone or something.

I also pray that I continue to have the courage to speak boldly, but lovingly, when I see something differently. At times I was reluctant to write something publicly, like my Prayer for Osama Bin Laden or my reflection of the killings at the Boston Marathon.

And so today I offer this prayer for bloggers

Lord Jesus,
as I blog today,
may my heart be compassionate,
my vision clear,
my words true,
my thoughts without anger.
May I help others see not me,
but the reality of the world,
especially the reality of the poor and marginalized.
May my thoughts lead people to see You,
a merciful, all-embracing God;
you have bridged the gap
between ourselves and God.
Let my blogs build bridges – not walls,
reconcile people and not alienate them.
And let my words bring light into the darkness
of a world beset by war, violence, hunger, injustice.
May they be words of hope
so that all of us may begin to experience life
as a gift to be lived in love.
May You shine through my blog
and may my words share love
and inspire hope.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Education alternatives and more

In many ways, the public education system here is a mess. Though there are primary schools and kindergartens in most rural villages, the teachers are often paid late – if at all. School supplies are inadequate. Some teachers’ positions are politicized; you need to belong to the correct political party in order to get a steady job.

Education beyond sixth grade is difficult to get. A study of a few years ago noted that only 33% of those who could go past sixth grade continue studying – and some don’t even go that far. In the parish of Dulce Nombre – 4 municipalities, more than 40 villages, and about 40,000 inhabitants – there are only four what we’d call middle schools; one of them has no budget to hire teachers and so the mayor’s office is paying. And in the whole parish there is only one high school.

To provide opportunities for young people a distance-learning, education by radio program has operated in the parish for years. The sisters in Dulce Nombre have run the Maestro en Casa for years and there have been a few other centers for the program. This year there are now eight centers which serve several hundred students.

At the suggestion of the previous pastor of Dulce Nombre, St. Thomas Aquinas raised money for partial scholarships for students this year. 105 students are being helped. Some of them would not have signed up to syudy if there had not been this financial support.

Today, Saturday, I decided to visit a few centers to see how things were going.

I first stopped in Dulce Nombre at the center run by the Oblates of Divine Love. Sunday there are classes for about 75 students in what we’d call middle school and high school. Saturday is for primary school classes, where the students can do two years study in one year.

Grades 5-6, Dulce Nombre Maestro en Casa class

Then I went to the new program in San Juan.

I didn’t know where the classes were being held and so I stopped by the primary school which was open. I was surprised to see two classrooms full of kids on a Saturday morning. They often have classes there on Saturday, in addition to the five weekdays, one teacher told me. That surprised and delighted me. Here were teachers willing to work more than mandated to help their students. 

Fourth to sixth grades in San Juan's primary school - with one teacher.

I finally found the Maestro en Casa program, which is small. There are classes for seventh and eighth grades. I watched as the seventh graders (which included a man in his thirties!) read about astronomy and astrology. With the teacher’s direction, they had an interesting discussion which include sharing about when one should plant certain crops. I shared the tradition to plant potatoes on Good Friday and the adult man shared how he plants beans on June 12 or 13, around the feast of St. Anthony of Padua.

Seventh grade Maestro en Casa class in San Juan

Even though the class meets only once a week in San Juan, there seems to be a lot of attention to the students, something I don’t always see here.

Afterwards I went to El Prado de la Cruz, about half an hour from San Juan. There I met the teacher in charge, who is also the village’s primary school teacher. He is – rightly – proud of the program. He has recruited eight other persons to give classes. I met three of them – one is a teacher in a nearby village, another is studying at the Teachers’ College in Santa Rosa, and the woman teaching when I arrived has a university degree in computers. His initiative in seeking others to teach really impressed me. 

Class in El Prado

After the visits, I went back to Dulce Nombre to discuss some details with the secretary. I arrived just at two couples emerged from their wedding Mass. I knew one couple, José, a catechist from El Zapote and his wife (whose name I cannot remember). I took pictures and will make copies for both couples, since there was no one there to take their wedding photos. (I'll print out copies to give them.)

José, his wife, and their padrinos

After I spoke a little with Padre German. He asked whether we can find some funding for a project to set up three small greenhouses on the parish grounds to grow tomatoes, green peppers, and some other crops. He wants to get people from the local area to take responsibility for the project which will benefit them as well as the parish. We’ll work on costs and I’ll contact  friend who has three or four large greenhouses in Intibucá where he raises a lot of tomatoes and strawberries.

I also mentioned to him my concern for the health needs of two people involved in the pastoral work of the parish. Fernando’s seventeen year old son has a spur on his foot that local doctors don’t seem to be able to treat. He walks with a cane but really wants to be able to work in the fields (as well as finish his education). Olvidio’s daughter has a displaced kneecap. Surgery to correct this would cost about $4,000, something well beyond his means.

And so as I rejoice in the great work being done in some of the Maestro en Casa centers and in the marriages, the difficulties of life – especially in terms of health – persist.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In prison

Today I went to prison with Padre German and about 45 people from the Dulce Nombre de María parish. We got to go home afterward, though.

The local prison has more than 600 prisoners – some who have gone to trial, some who haven’t.

I won’t go into the problems of the justice system and the prison system here in Honduras – which are shameful, full of corruption, and totally unjust. That’s another blog entry.

Santa Rosa de Copán’s Granja Penal is overcrowded, but not as badly as other prisons in Honduras, some of which have experienced severe fires and violent uprisings in the past few years.

It’s a relatively half-decent place to serve a term – or wait for a trial. But the prisoners – or, as people say here, those deprived of liberty – do not have an easy life. They have to find ways to buy basic necessities like toothpaste.

There is no state-sponsored work program here, that I know of. I see people weaving fish nets and hammocks and there are a few small crafts – earrings and necklaces; but the people have to seek an outside market. There is a carpentry shop, set up with Spanish aid and attended to by a Spanish Franciscan sister who lives down the street from me in Santa Rosa.

The diocese has a prison ministry, headed by a woman in Santa Rosa – unpaid, of course. But there is also a prison ministry within the prison. They have a choir and did all the readings for the Mass. I think they even are forming a base community there.

Each month a parish visits the prison – Matthew 25: 36 in action. A priest from the parish says Mass and the parish provides a meal for all those in prison!

Today was Dulce Nombre’s turn. Padre German came and celebrated Mass with those in prison and the visitors from the parish. A music group, Mensajeros de Amor – Messengers of Love -  came from the village of Oromilaca – a group that sings Christian ranchero music. They are quite good.

The parish brought tortillas, rice with chicken, a drink, and a banana for every one in the prison. Some women worked since last night to prepare the food. People from all the villages contributed about $25 per village for the costs. The poor provided for the poor.

Padre German gave a rousing, 17 minute homily – really speaking to everyone and encouraging those in prison to use the time as one for renewing their lives. (I had jokingly told him, before entering the prison that he shouldn’t speak more than 15 minutes. He told me that Guatemalans say that people are attentive to a 10 minute homily but with a 15 minute sermon the butt goes to sleep.)

After Mass and a few rollicking songs from Mensajeros de Amor, Padre German and others went to the smaller women’s section of the jail. The women had not been allowed to go to the Mass in the men’s section. Padre spoke, the Mensajeros de Amor sang, and they prayed. Padre German promised to come back for a prayer with the women and possibly a Mass.

He was a bit upset that the women had not had a chance to go to Mass. Another case of marginalization, he quietly said to me.

It was a moving experience, particularly during Mass when I looked at the mural on the wall of Jesus with men behind bars. The men, muscled and tattooed, were there beside Jesus.

During Mass, Padre German asked is this image looking in or looking out. He assured the men that Jesus was there with them. He talked about their situation but urged them to be really free – undeterred by the situation of imprisonment, free in their hearts.

He urged them to solidarity, to living good lives.

I left before everything was over, moved again by the suffering of the people here, but even more by the solidarity of the people from the parish who came to visit the imprisoned.

On a wall in the women’s section of the prison I saw a poster which read – deprived of liberty, but not of dignity.

I saw some of that today.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

So-called roads

A few days ago I read an interesting blog entry of a Canadian working in Copán Ruinas. She proposed that a major way to improve Honduras would be to work on the roads.

A week ago I was driving in Guatemala, a country almost as poor as Honduras and it was a decent experience. I didn’t have to dodge potholes that would take out your tire if you went through them too fast. There were a few places where the road was only dirt – but they were clearly marked as "faults" and not all that bad.

But a few miles into Honduras the major road from the tourist attraction of Copán Ruinas was a mess. Even part of the dirt and gravel road from Santa Isabel to Dulce Nombre was better – in many places – than this and several of the major paved roads here.

I remember seven years ago visiting Honduras after a visit to El Salvador. As I crossed the border I felt something was different. It was the infrastructure.

Why can El Salvador and Guatemala have fairly decent roads but major highways here in western Honduras are disastrous?

And the back roads here? In the rainy season some are nearly impassable, even with four wheel drive vehicles. Last December I had to ride a mule to get to one village.

When I was in El Salvador in 1992, I had to walk four hours on a dirt road to get to some communities. Within a few years the road was well-paved and buses regularly run.

Why are the roads so bad here? 

Corruption and inefficiency are two obvious causes. But there may be more.

The roads are terrible despite the fact that Honduras’ fuel taxes, the highest in Central America, brought in about 6 billion lempiras last year (according to industry spokesmen) – that’s more than 300 million dollars. But its budget last year was 3.5 billion lempiras and this year’s is 2.623 billion lempiras.

As far as I can tell, the fuel taxes don’t go into a designated fund but are put into a single account. The National Congress then decides how much goes for each area, a process that is open for corruption and favoritism.

An obvious example of both corruption and inefficiency is the seven kilometer stretch between the main highway and Dulce Nombre. In March 2008 – five years ago – a project was “inaugurated” to pave that stretch of dirt road. It was widened and flattened. But today it is still a dirt road.

This is despite two blockades of the highway by people in the area, including four mayors and the support of at least one major coffee producer. The parish, though, was probably most responsible for bringing out the people

After the last blockade in December 2010, the Minister of Roads came out to Dulce Nombre and promised that work would begin by the next February. The road was scraped to make it more level, but nothing more. Somehow the money for the project had disappeared.

Since then the road is occasionally leveled – but this is paid for by the local municipalities!

It’s not that work on roads is impossible. A major stretch of the road that goes to the municipality of San Augustín is good – several bridges have been built or rebuilt, gravel has been put down. Why? The mayor decided to do something, most probably because this is a coffee region and good access roads are necessary.

And so, what can be done?

I don’t know, but I think it is part of the structural injustice that is endemic here, noted especially in the governmental and economic sectors.

Change is desperately needed.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A starry night, the Black Christ, and a friend

Thursday night the lights went out at about 6:00 pm. They came back on at about 6:45 and then went out again until about 9:30.

This is not uncommon here.

Since I had virtually nothing in the house to eat I decided to go out to Weekend’s Pizza, in the hope that they would be serving. And they were, with the help of a generator.

But I walked home in the dark – to a beautiful starry sky. The heavens subtly proclaimed the glory of God.

I got up Friday to go to Esquipulas, Guatemala, the shrine of the Black Christ, and to meet a friend I hadn’t seen for twenty three years.

The trip went well, except for hassles at Guatemala migration office. That’s another issue, best left untold.

I parked my truck in Esquipulas and as I was approaching the basilica I got a call from Gustavo.

We finally found each other and hugged each other. He introduced me to his wife and youngest daughter and we went off to eat lunch.

After lunch we found a place to stay and then headed for the basilica and the image of the Black Christ. The black crucified Christ is part of four statues of the crucifixion scene.

I had been in Esquipulas once before with a group of employees of Caritas but there were a lot more people here this time.

This time, there were many pilgrims, some advancing to the statues on their knees and most backing away, walking with their faces toward the statues. I was touched by several indigenous family groups who were praying as they advanced on their knees – men, women, young and old, even a few kids. Their deep faith puts me to shame.

A real highlight of the visit was the chance to talk with Gustavo. He had fled to the US from Guatemala after escaping from a prison in a military base. He had told me the story when he was staying with me in Ames, waiting to be accepted into Canada as a refugee. (At that time the US was giving political asylum to a miniscule number of applicants from Guatemala and El Salvador, despite the terror people were suffering from the right-wing governments there, that in Guatemala should have been called terrorist.)

But Gustavo told me that there have been recent excavations of that military base and over 200 skeletons of victims have been found in mass graves. He escaped or he probably would have been one of those skeletons. A report of the excavation site can be found here.

We didn’t talk more about that or about the history of his life that I tell him he should write.

We talked as old friends (even though he’s only 53). And he and his wife told me about his four children and seven grandchildren.

It was a blessed afternoon and evening.

We got up early and I left for Honduras, taking a different route so that I could stop in Dulce Nombre. It was longer, but the roads in Guatemala are incredibly better than those in Honduras. It was a little calmer, not having to maneuver the car to avoid the hundreds of potholes we find here.

I got to Dulce Nombre, but not before passing through and stopping in Quebraditas where I greeted the people meeting in a church sector meeting and talked to some of the young people in the Maestro en Casa classes being held there.

In Dulce Nombre I met briefly with folks in a zone meeting.

I did, though, have one interesting discussion with Hector, from one of the villages. He asked if there were funds for personal projects. After a few questions I discovered that he was concerned about some elderly people whose homes are mere shacks and who have many needs. I gave him a few suggestions, urging him to bring the concerns to the local church council so that they can prioritize the needs and see what they can do by themselves – without outside help. I volunteered to go out and meet with them after they themselves had talked about the five families. I’m trying to help the people find ways to do things without depending on outside sources – whether local governments or other groups – unless it’s really needed. This is probably new for them – but I think it’s worth the effort to help them think this through.

And so now, Saturday night, I’m sitting writing at my home in Santa Rosa about the past 48 hours, grateful for almost everything (except for the Guatemala migration office!)

But what’s to complain about. Complaining only closes us to possibilities and turns us in on ourselves, as Pope Francis suggested in a homily this week on the Gospel of the Road to Emmaus.

Jesus helped them see the possibilities and the hope. The starry night, the black Christ, Gustavo and his family, and the people in the Dulce Nombre parish help me do this.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Good Friday and Easter

Celebrating the Triduum in villages in the parish of Dulce Nombre has been one of the highlights of my ministry here over the past five years.

When I looked at the communities that didn’t have a visit from a communion minister for the Triduum, I noted Debajiados, one of the poorest communities in the parish and is definitely one of the remotest. I had visited there in December and had to travel the last half hour on a mule. Friday I could drive all the way there, since it had not rained for a day and a half and the road had dried out. It was, though, 27 kilometers from Dulce Nombre.

Vitalino, a leader in a nearby community, had been there on Thursday helping them, since they had not had any pastoral presence for two years until the parish of Dulce Nombre began to visit the village last October.

We used the Good Friday liturgy – Liturgy of the Word, Veneration of the Cross, and Communion.

An adolescent woman helped with some readings and did very well, though an older man who was in charge of some of the pastoral work there struggled with the readings. (One of our real problems is the difficulty many pastoral workers have reading in public, since most have little or no formal education.)

The church has no crucifix and so we used a simple cross for the veneration. I invited them to come and touch or kiss the cross, recognizing how Jesus shares their pain and sorrow. It was touching to see them come up, at least one mother carrying her baby.

I must try to get back there, since there is a real need to help this community.

Saturday afternoon I headed out to Dulce Nombre for the Easter Vigil.

I got there early to practice the Exultet, the Easter Prayer at the Paschal Candle, with Ronal, a very accomplished musician.

We worked with the music and text, although Ronal cannot read music. He did, though, mention how he would like to learn.

Then about 6 pm I headed out to the field, about 3 kilometers from the Dulce Nombre church, where the lighting of the fire and the blessing of the Paschal Candle would start the vigil.

When I arrived, Padre German was already there and the Fire had been lighted. The people were singing. After a while the vigil began with the blessing of the fire, the lighting of the candle, and the procession.

We arrived at the church a little after 8.

After the Exultet, we listened to all the readings for the Vigil. The Easter water was blessed and Padre German sprinkled us generously with the water. The Eucharist followed.

After all ended about 11:15, a group from a distant community came up to Padre German and said they had someone to be baptized. A break-down of communications. It would have been better if she had been baptized within the liturgy.

I got to bed after midnight and rose about 6:30, awakened by a bright sun.

It was a beautiful Day of the Resurrection and I enjoyed the 17 kilometer drive out to Joyas Galanas (elegant jewels?).

As I entered the church I was surprised to see the image of Jesus in purple carrying the cross in front of the altar. I mentioned something to Teresa, one of the church leaders there, suggesting they move it. It was a case of putting my foot in the mouth, since this was the only image they have and usually have it in front of the altar. I apologized and merely suggested that they find a white cape to put over Jesus to celebrate the risen Lord.

Despite this, the Liturgy of the Word went well and I emphasized that Easter is the celebration of God’s working to show us that death and violence are not he final word: there is Life.  At communion, I nearly ran out of consecrated Hosts.

But I noticed that a bunch of guys was standing outside the church, looking in and listening. But I reached out the window and greeted them during the greeting of peace. I later asked Teresa why they were outside. I thought this was just another group of young males who are somewhat embarrassed about being though “religious.” They are the sons of families in the village who belong to the evangelical church, she told me. But they seem to be interested in what the Catholics are doing and had even come into the church for the Easter Vigil.

But one of the most touching moments was walking down from the church. I was talking with two women, Maria Francisca and Maria (perhaps her daughter), who were conservatively dressed in colorful dresses (looking very much like the indigenous Lenca in other parts of Honduras.) To her delight I told the older woman that she and the pope shared a name. As we parted the younger woman pressed two five lempira bills in my hand. I thought that I shouldn’t take them – and made a remark to that point – my third faux pas on the day. I finally realized that I needed to take them. I needed to let myself be served by these people.

After coffee I headed out to Gracias where the Dubuque Franciscan sisters there shared a great lunch. Seven of us sat around the table – three sisters from the US, a novice and a postulant from Honduras, and a US volunteer with the sisters, and me. I had time to talk after lunch with two of the sisters – they are really a significant support for me here.

Then I drove back to Santa Rosa.

I had been a great Triduum, chance to celebrate with some many.

Thanks be to God.


My reflection on Holy Thursday can be found here.