Thursday, January 30, 2014

Out to Delicias - the delights of ministry

Yesterday, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I went with Padre German to the village of Delicias, Dolores – a village up a very bad road which is nearly impassible in rainy weather. Fortunately, it was sunny.

It’s the first time I had been to Mass in Delicias Dolores and it was good to meet another community, though I knew a number of people already.

The town has about 50 houses, in the midst of coffee fields, though this year the crop is poor due to a fungus that has devastated one coffee variety and the prices are very low. But I saw a good number of people picking or returning from picking. There were lots of young people, but also families with little kids and grandparents.

The church in Delicias Dolores
In Delicias, Padre German asked me to speak of St. Thomas Aquinas at Mass. Seven young people were baptized at the Mass and so I tried to speak more directly to them, combining the Gospel, the life of St. Thomas, and their baptism. I had no notes; so I can’t tell you all that I said. But I’m getting accustomed to being asked to reflect and so spend more time than usual thinking, usually as I’m driving out to Dulce Nombre.

I had spent the morning working on materials for religious education in the parish. I’m writing materials for confirmation preparation, preparation of parents and god-parents for the baptism of infants and children under 7, material for baptismal preparation for children between 7 and 14 (the catechumenate of children), and material for the catechumenal for those 14 and above who are seeking baptism.

It’s fun, but not easy since it’s a lot of work and it’s in Spanish. But the challenge is to make the material understandable for people with little formal education, participative for kids who are too accustomed to classes where people speak for hours, and helpful for the students in their faith formation. Recently, Padre asked me to prepare some first communion material.

But we are hoping to form teams for formation and spirituality who will help in the formation of catechists and other pastoral workers.

Another day out in the countryside. A real delight

Tomorrow is a meeting of all the parish’s catechist. Next week I start a series of workshops for catechists in the four zones of the parish. Then I’ll be helping Padre German in meetings for base communities.

There is work – but that’s what I’m here for  and what I love.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Light in the darkness

I'm reposting here, slightly  edited, a post I wrote on Sunday, January 26, 2014, on my blog of reflection on the life of the Spirit, Walk the Way.
As part of my morning prayer, I read today’s reading from Isaiah (8:23-9:3) with a heavy heart.
People here in Honduras are suffering. The economy is poor; the coffee harvest is poor and the prices are low; taxes have been raised; the cost of the basic food basket is rising; violence continues and the new president thinks that a military police is the solution; there are fears of a devaluation of the currency; and more.
The people are walking in darkness.
But Isaiah promises that
The yoke that was weighing them down,
the heavy bar across their shoulders,the rod of the oppressor –
these you have broken…
The yoke of poverty, the bar of inequality, the rod of repressive economic and political policies burden our people here.
And it’s worse than I thought.
This week I was talking with the pastor of the parish of Dulce Nombre where I work. Many people, he said, many be losing their homes or their lands because of their debts.
People take out loans at the beginning of the year in the hope that the harvests – especially the coffee harvest – will yield enough to pay them back, But this year with many fields of the poor devastated by the roya fungus and with prices lower than they have been in several years, cash is hard to come by, even if one hires oneself out for the coffee harvest of the large landowners.
But the promise if Isaiah is that these burdens have been broken.
The words of Gustavo Gutiérrez speak to me:
“I do theology as one who comes from a context of deep poverty, and thus for me, the first question of theology is how do we say to the poor: God loves you?"
How do we tell them of the Good News of God’s love?
Jesus, after the darkness of the imprisonment of John the Baptist, goes out “proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom [of Heaven], and curing all kinds of sickness and disease among the people.” (Matthew 4: 23)
How can we be signs of the Kingdom, bringing healing and hope?
That is my challenge for the year.
The quote from Gustavo Gutiérrez is taken from In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a book I strongly recommend.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bribing: the tip of the iceberg

Wednesday I went out to several villages in the parish of Dulce Nombre to check on several applicants for scholarships for the alternative education project Maestro en Casa.

On the road to Dulce Nombre, at the turn off to Gracias, there is usually a police checkpoint. In the last few weeks there have been about 4-6 police and 6-8 soldiers.

Occasionally I am pulled over and a few questions asked. Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you doing? At times they ask to see my license and car registration. Occasionally they pull me over and, when they see my gringo face, they wave me on.

Yesterday was different.

The policeman asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to Delicias, Concepción. I showed him my documents. Then he asked me for a contribution – for un fresco [soda/pop], he said. I ignored his request.

He asked me what I do. I told him I worked for the church. He asked me again and I repeated it. He then again asked for a contribution. I again ignored him. He asked again about working for the Catholic Church.

Finally he waved me on.

I guess my delaying and ignoring his request for a bribe worked – for the time being.

Some might be indignant about such a request. But it is just a small part of the corruption here.

The corruption often takes the form of skimming off the top of funding for projects.

But it also takes the form of giving projects to those whom one knows – cronyism. In a relational-based culture, that might be expected. One rewards those whom one knows; it doesn’t matter on one’s qualifications.

There are also cases in which aid is distributed depending on one’s political party and one’s involvement with promotion of that party.

In addition, employment may be given depending on one’s affiliation or one’s family ties. This happens not just in governmental institutions but also in the private sector – and even invades the non-profit sector.

There are any number of other instances of corruption which I won’t detail here.

But I wonder whether corruption flourishes here in Honduras partly because of the massive poverty where people are left without means to survive and so look to someone outside to help and rescue them. It might also flourish because of the way that government officials and organizations – including some charities and some international aid agencies – come in with the “solutions” and give them to people, thereby “earning” (or paying for) their support.

It’s complicated, but I believe the way to diminish corruption is to help the people develop a sense that they don’t need to be indebted to others for charity or development. They can organize, form groups that work in terms of solidarity.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Franciscan evangelization

Today I stood in a corner of a small bedroom, at times holding a little child, witnessing the wedding of an ill 80 year old woman and her 75 year old companion of many years. The house was small and way back in the woods. We crossed a river, drove on a muddy road, and then walked through muddy woods to get there.

I knew some of the people - and at least half of them knew me.

What has this to do with mission work, with evangelization?

Evangelization, spreading the Good News of the Gospel, is central to a calling to be a disciple of Jesus. This is something that I have heard almost incessantly in the six and a half years I’ve lived here in Honduras. It is also central to the message of Pope Francis. I also recently found an interesting discussion in a book about Saint Francis.

A few nights ago, I finished Eloi Leclerc’s The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi. In this book, the author tries to present both the light and the shadows of a dark period of Francis life, imagining how Francis may have felt and thought.

It is a small intriguing portrait of Francis of Assisi during the time when he felt abandoned and betrayed. The original vision, with its ecstatic evangelical joy, no longer satisfied some of his followers, who wanted a more stable existence.

At the end of the book, when Francis has come to terms with the whirlwind around him and within himself, these are the words that come from his heart, in a conversation with a Brother Tancred.
“The Lord has sent us to evangelize the world. But have you already thought about what it means to evangelize people?
 “Can't you see, Brother, that to evangelize a person is to say to that one: ‘Youyes, you too are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.’”
When I read this, I recalled the message of Pope Francis in his pastoral exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, ¶164:
On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”
But how, we ask?  

In the words of Leclerc’s Francis:
“And you must not only tell that person so, but you must really believe it, and not only believe it, but conduct yourself with this person in such a way that this person can feel and discover there is something within that is being redeemed, something more majestic and noble than had ever been dreamed.”
Believing in the person before me is not always easy. Here, where the poor are marginalized, ignored, and looked down upon, friendship with them, accompanying them is critical. 

When we interact with others in this way, believing in their goodness, their dignity, and their abilities, something happens. At times, I have seen the “spark of God” with others blaze up and create a change.

Leclerc’s Francis continues:
“Thus will this person be aroused to a new awareness of self. Thus will you have proclaimed to that one ‘the good tidings of great joy.’ This will be possible only if you offer that person your friendship, a true friendship, unbiased and without condescension, a friendship rooted in profound confidence and esteem."
The essential is to be friends with the poor. As Paul wrote to the Romans (12:16);
…do not be haughty but associate with the lowly…
Finally, as LeClerc’s Francis advises Tancred to accompany the people, to be with them in their struggles, as a companion:
“We must go unto all people, but that is not easy. The world of people is a huge battlefield for wealth and power, and too much suffering and atrocity can eclipse the face of God. In going to everyone we must above all never appear to them as a new species of competitor. We must stand in the midst of them as the peaceful witnesses for the All Powerful, as those who covet nothing and scorn no one, people capable of truly becoming their friends. It is our friendship that they are waiting for, a friendship that should make them feel they are loved by God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.” 
This seems close to what Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, ¶ 268:
To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people.
Being with people, accompanying them in their joys and sorrows and struggles, is central for evangelization.

That for me is an essential part of who I am and what I do here in Honduras. That's what I was privileged to do today.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Let them eat cake, if they pay the tax

In December the Honduran Congress passed a tax package to try to deal with the fiscal crisis the country and the government face.

It was passed by the outgoing Congress which had a majority of members from the National Party – the party that “won” the presidential election. In the incoming congress the National Party has a plurality but that is not enough to pass legislation without votes from other parties.

In a December 2013 news story, a Reuters correspondent suggested that:
 “The National Party, which holds the presidency and dominates Congress, pushed the law through before it loses control of the legislative body next month.
“The party's president-elect Juan Hernandez, who takes office on January 27, will then be able to keep a campaign promise not to raise taxes during his administration.”
I was surprised to see such a cynical (though truthful) analysis of the situation in a news source that I consider a bit conservative.

But worse is that the tax package will affect the poor and the tiny middle class more than the wealthy political and economic elites.

There will be tax increases on some items.

The most notable is that IVA, the Value-Added-Tax will go from 12 to 15%. IVA is a hidden sales tax. It is usually included in the price of items and only listed on the receipt. In the US the sales tax is not included in the listed price.

This tax is also now extended to some items that used to be on the list of items in the basic food basket, as well as other items.  The cost of electricity and fuel will also rise.

What is the reaction of people here?

I have mostly heard some indignation.

The opposition political parties will try to overthrow the tax package in the new congress.

But the Cardinal archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez, is quoted as saying that  “it was sadly necessary that the Honduran Parliament approve, a the request of the Government, a packet of fiscal measures to avoid that the Central American country enter into a greater economic crisis.” He added that “now what we have to do is [assure] that these are the least hard precisely for the poorest people.”

I disagree with the Cardinal, mostly because the tax package hurts the poorest.

Sure bread is not taxed – but not many of the poor eat bread. Tortillas are central to the Honduran diet.

But birthday cakes are taxed.

Sure, one might say, these cakes are a luxury.

But celebrating a birthday with a simple cake is a way the poor try to show the worth of each person. They might have saved up the money for a child’s birthday. celebration. But not it will be 15% more.

It’s just not fair.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why is Honduras so poor?

Why, despite all the aid to Honduras, are there still so many people who are poor?

This is the question plaguing so many of us who live here. On Christmas day I was sitting around with two US friends talking about this. Reflecting on what I said, I pulled together this long, unscientific, unorganized, rambling tirade.

Honduras is a country with great resources: water, minerals, fertile land, bananas, coffee cacao, people.

Why so poor?

There are people, even young kids, who work harder - with fewer resources - than people in pother parts of the world world.

Youngsters working on sugar cane production
Why so poor?

Hondurans abroad send a lot of money to their families. In 2012, the remittances totaled $2.761 billion.

Why so poor?

Honduras is a country which has been the recipient of massive international aid for many years.

Why so poor?

Tens of thousands of people, mostly evangelicals, come on mission trips to Honduras.

Why so poor?

It’s complicated. Yet I find that there are many people who want to reduce the causes of poverty to a few.

Corruption is the cause, some say.

Yes, Honduras is, according to Transparency International, the most corrupt country in Central America.

But corruption is not unrelated to any number of issues – including a history of paternalism and of economic imperialism. It was a US banana corporation executive who got the Honduran president to change a law that would adversely affect its profits – in the 1950s.

Radical inequality causes poverty, others say. This year’s Human Development Report shows the top 20 per cent of the Honduran population have average incomes 29.7 times greater than the bottom 20 per cent. The only countries with more inequality, based on that measure, are Angola and Micronesia.  Even the failed states of Africa don’t reach that level.

But radical inequality here is the result of economic, political, and social structures that favor those who have money. Just a few days ago the Honduran National Congress raised the Value-Added-Tax from 12% to 15%. Who pays that? Mostly the poor and the few middle class people.

Poor and inadequate education is the cause of poverty, many say. The way out is to promote education. Yes, the educational system is a mess. Teachers are at times not paid for months and have inadequate supplies. In addition, the education system promotes memorization as the way to learn. How many children will learn the skills of critical thinking? If they did, they’d probably revolt.

The lack of health care is more a symptom of poverty, though the poor health system generally doesn’t help cure people so that they can have the strength and the health needed. The public hospitals sometimes run out of medicine. Operations have been delayed for lack of supplies. One hospital had no money for food in late 2012. Nurses and other workers are sometimes not paid for months.

Violence is a cause, some might say. No, violence is a symptom of something else wrong. People without money want to be able to survive and some resort to crime (or seek to get the benefits of crimes and corruption). People who are not respected and are systematically shamed by the political, social and economic powers-that-be as well as by family members, teachers, or the educated might seek the power and respect that they might get from being a gang member.

I think there are several contributing factors that are seldom discussed.

I find among most people a lack of critical consciousness. An education based on memorizing – from kindergarten to college – promotes the idea that those in authority have the answers. Criticizing orthodoxies (of right or left) is not found as much as I would hope.

In addition there is a lack of solidarity among the poor.

In the face of scarcity of resources some of the poor feel that they must fend for themselves. It’s the survival of the fittest. Thus, solidarity and mutual aid are not encouraged or find little resonance in the lives of some of the poor. This does not mean that the poor are stingy. They are very generous to beggars and are often very kind to strangers, especially in the countryside. But, in the light of the structures, it is often hard to build a long-term commitment to solidarity.
Some still look on partisan politics as the solution. Hondurans have been closely tied in to a two party system for over a hundred years. Often people were either Nationalists or Liberals, depending on the party that their parents belonged to. Even though there was fraud and manipulation, the recent elections changed that a bit, since the Resistance-related LIBRE party and an Anti-Corruption Party had significant support. (LIBRE received more electoral support than the Liberal Party.)

But I think that the partisan solution is inadequate. I would even suggest that the Resistance may have weakened itself by forming LIBRE as a political party. Much effort was put into winning votes. What had impressed me about the Resistance before the formation of a poltiical party was the effort being put into organizing and raising the consciousness of people. That part of the long process of social change is continued by some groups (Caritas and ERIC-SJ, among them). As I see it, partisan politics with its deals and compromises may demand more energy from the Resistance and the process of consciousness-raising and organization might be neglected.

I think this is related to a tendency I’ve seen here of looking to governments or outside organizations to do everything. They look for a "sugar daddy"and get "screwed" as a result. (Sorry, if this language offends; but it's part of the reality.)

I am not a libertarian. I believe government has a role in promoting the common good and the lives of the poorest. Government also has a role in dealing with the social structures that promote poverty and providing a counteragent to the ever-present temptation to a savage capitalism.

But all too often I see people not doing something they could do and waiting until the government provides funding. They lack a sense of their own capabilities.

This looking for handouts is both a result and a cause of corruption. Politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use incentives to have people work with them. Giving out bags of concrete and tin roofing are part of the electoral campaigns. Paying for lunches and travel are common practices of most NGOs.

Corruption flourishes where the poor do not have resources, are unorganized, and lack power. They think they need someone to give them what they need. This person, the “patron,” provides for the person’s needs and then demands loyalty.

Unhealthy help also may not really provide the change needed to overcome poverty.

Probably close to 80,000 internationals come to Honduras on mission trips each year. They come with their medical brigades, building brigades, missionary brigades, educational brigades, and more.

Some groups do good work that really helps the people live better lives, but all too often these groups undercut efforts to have the Honduran people themselves develop alternatives to the broken system they live in. Also, many groups are politically naïve and have little sense of the unjust social structures. Some are also paternalistic, thinking they know more than the people who live here. Others come and give things, without asking for any financial contribution, thereby promoting a "give-me" approach.

There is also the unhealthy help of some non-governmental organizations.

I know cases where several NGOs compete for people for their programs. The people are often enticed by NGOs that offer better perquisites than others – better lunches, more money for travel to the meetings. There are some areas that are saturated with NGOs that may offer over-lapping or duplicate programs. Some NGOs also come in with their program and their ideological bent – and the people have little say in the programs, projects, and processes.

I think a critical cause of poverty is that the poor are “kept in their place.”

To change that means a change of structures as well as a change in mentality.

That’s much more difficult than another project, another give-away, another brigade coming into the community, another outside expert.

But I think it’s what we need to start working on (or, in some cases, continue working on).

A part of it will be dealing with the sense that many of the poor have of diminishment and worthlessness.

A few years ago the president of the National Congress, who later became the de fact president of the country after the 2009 coup, is reported to have called people “gente del monte” – which literally means “people of the weeds.” For him, they are hay-seeds, hicks, hillbillies.

Classism is strong and the poor often have a poor sense of their own worth and capabilities. Somehow this has to be undermined and replaced.

The poor are capable; the poor have worth; the poor can do things.

They don’t need people to do things for them. They need people to accompany them in the process of social and personal change.

That’s why I’m here - to accompany people in the process of beginning to live as real daughters and sons of God, people with a dignity that all should respect, people with capabilities that need to be encouraged and assisted.

Let us begin.

Friday, January 10, 2014


I haven’t written for quite some time since I had visitors – and I was often in places where internet access was limited.

Father Jon Seda, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, came with two young men – one is a graduate of Iowa State University who had visited about two years ago; the other is a senior at ISU, active at St. Thomas.

Tyler, Fr. Jon, and Joe (Chepito) with Adán and his family
For a few days we followed Padre German, Dulce Nombre de Maria’s priest, as he visited some of the distant villages. There Father Jon concelebrated and even helped in baptisms.

anointing with the oil of catechumens
In the villages, they also shared the banners that St. Thomas Aquinas had made for the churches of the Dulce Nombre parish.

Fr. Jon presenting a banner to the San Antonio church in the town of Dulce Nombre
 The town of Dolores and the village of Plan Grande Concepción had the experience of a Mass in English – with translation of the homily.

The group also stayed in Plan Grande for a night. The next morning they experienced the process of making dulce, raw sugar. They had hoped to do a little harvesting of coffee – but the weather was too wet and cold.

Isaías pouring the sugar into molds.
A few more photos follow.
Joe with some of the baptized in Aldea Nueva

Tyler and Joe in San Jose El Bosque

Tyler and Joe outside the Yaruconte Church

Father German and Father Jon - with Yaruconte in the distance

Moises, an incredibly good 13 year old lector in San Jose El Bosque
Delmar tying Joe's shoe
Delmar enjoying the sugar cane juice being cooked
Fr. Jon at the Greeting of Peace in Dulce Nombre

Fr. Jon and Padre German concelebrating

More photos of Fr. Jon's visit can be found here.   

More photos of the sugar cane process (including some photos from 2013) can be found here.