Thursday, October 30, 2014

Update to the St. Thomas Aquinas parish

I'm in Ames, Iowa for twelve days to connect with the parish and friends, sharing a bit of what the parish of Dulce Nombre de María is doing and a bit of my developing ministry. I'll have about two minutes at the end of each Mass this coming weekend, but here is a more detailed report of what is going on.

First of all, I bring you greetings and thanks for your solidarity from the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. Padre German is extremely grateful and continually reminds the people of the generosity of St. Thomas, our sister parish.

Our parish in Honduras is a struggling parish, as all parishes should be.

The parish embraces 50 towns, villages, and hamlets where Padre German celebrates Mass at least once every two months – often traveling long distances in the parish truck.

In almost every town and village, there are catechists and delegates, those who lead Sunday celebrations of the Word. There are 16 Communion ministers who bring the Eucharist to several communities each week.

The work of  the catechists is long but with results. Since August 2013 there have been more than 2200 baptisms. This year the bishop came out and confirmed more than 500.

There are also base communities in almost every village where people meet every week. One of our challenges is to make these communities more participative.

But there are other challenges. Honduras is the second poorest country in this hemisphere. Our parish is one of the poorest in our diocese. Honduras also lacks an adequate police and judicial system.

There have been major challenges this year. A fungus affected many small coffee farmers who cut down the infected plants and planted a different variety. But they have to wait at least three years for a decent harvest.

A drought has severely affected this years bean crop – and beans are a staple of the Honduran diet.

Recently torrential rains affected several villages in the parish, leaving people  without decent housing.

But in the face of this we continue.

The people evangelize others. In October, many villages had teams of people visiting all the houses to invite people to participate in the life of the church.

The parish received the gift of one manzana (about 1.68 acres) of recently planted coffee. Through a gift from St. Thomas the parish was able to purchase a second manzana next to the donation. Parish volunteers go out about once a month to weed and fertilize the plants. Within two or three years, the coffee harvest from these two manzanas will help make the parish somewhat sustainable. Thanks to St. Thomas.

The alternative education program, Maestro en Casa, offers young people the chance of a middle school education. St. Thomas partial scholarships enable more than 150 to participate in this program and study until the 9th grade. This is important since there are only four regular middle schools and one high school in the confines of the parish.

There are other projects in process.

The parish plans to form base communities of young people (an alternative to youth groups) so that we can help them grow in their faith and continue the faith formation that they received preparing for confirmation.

The parish will continue to train catechists four times a year. We are trying to help these catechists develop programs that help the children and youth grow in faith and also encourage their imaginations.

The parish will also be training new Communion Ministers and will continue formation programs with base communities and with delegates of the Word.

A group in one of the villages is forming a coffee cooperative. Their hope – and mine – is to develop a way for them to directly market coffee to the US, thus getting a better price and avoiding middlemen. They are organized; what is needed is organization from the US side.

A young woman dentist is beginning to work on setting up a small clinic for the parish in the parish to supplement the work of the public health system. This is still a work in the dream and planning stage, but offers another way to directly assist the lives of the people in the parish.

By the end of this year, I hope to be living in a village in the parish to better enable me to work with the people. In this way I will cut my travel costs and have easier access to even the remotest villages of the parish. For this I have built, with my retirement funds, a house which will belong to the church but which I will use to live and also as a place to receive some visitors. This will be a place for some church workers I know to come for a day or more of rest and retreat.

I want to thank the parish for its support of the Dulce Nombre parish and to ask you to continue to be in solidarity with us – in your prayers and in other ways to support our ministries.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A short trip back to Iowa

Leaving Honduras, even for a short visit, is becoming harder every year.

I guess this means I feel at home here.

It does help that I am building a house in the village of Plan Grande, Concepción, Copán. That will enable me to minister much more easily with the people in the parish of Dulce Nombre.

Front of the house - unpainted

Unfinished kitchen area
Upper open area, looking southeast
southwest view from the oratory/study
The house is larger than I thought it would be but I will keep the house open for visitors, as well as a place for friends in Honduras to come for a few days of rest and retreat. I already have one room claimed by a Spanish Franciscan sister and another claimed by a Dubuque Franciscan sister. I will have to keep a calendar for bookings!

I see this as a new opportunity to serve – being more present with the people.

I’m leaving today for Ames, Iowa, to visit with folks at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, the church that sponsored me for several years and that is now a sister parish with Dulce Nombre de María.  

It’s a short visit, squeezed in between various workshops that were planned. But I hope to see a number of folks – both for fun and for generating support for the parish and for projects.

But my heart is really in Honduras, in the parish.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The campesino and "The Joy of the Gospel"

Recently it was reported that an Italian bishop had disparagingly said that Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, could have been written by a campesino.

I can think of no greater way to actually praise this work.

This merits a longer analysis but here are a few remarks remarks followed by a few quotes on the poor from that document which has over 60 references to the poor.

Concern for the poor is central to our faith in part because the Son of God came among us as a poor man and lived among the poor.
186. Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members.
Therefore, we are called to become instruments of God’s liberating love with the poor:
187. Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid. A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how our gracious Father wants to hear the cry of the poor…
But the poor also can teach us:
198. For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness”. in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness”. This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty”. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.
That means that our sense of mission must include the poor as a priority, for they are “the privileged recipients of the Gospel.”
48. If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel”, and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that “there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor”. May we never abandon them.
Our selfish individualism closes us to God and to the poor:
2. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too.
But when we open ourselves to the poor and accompany them, we can experience their joys and their sufferings.
7. I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.
 193. We incarnate the duty of hearing the cry of the poor when we are deeply moved by the suffering of others.
Yes, a campesino could have written it – or a follower of the Word made Flesh among campesinos, twenty centuries ago in Bethlehem.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The faces of an emergency

This morning it’s raining lightly in Santa Rosa.

The torrential rains on Tuesday night wreaked havoc on Honduras. As I noted in a previous post, Padre German and I experienced some of it in the village of Las Caleras, a village in the parish of Dulce Nombre. (The village is almost completely evangelical.)

Wednesday, before I left for Santa Rosa, I checked back in Las Caleras and visited the devastation near the turn off to Dolores.

At the side of the road I talked with a man who was standing there, watching some of the work being done to restore the road. He motioned to the coffee field behind him. The landslide had destroyed 1,000 coffee bushes which were full of berries which would have been picked in a few months.

Yesterday I went out to check on the house in Plan Grande. I got a call from Caritas asking me to investigate the needs of people, since the national office of Caritas has some mattresses and kitchen kits in a warehouse in Tegucigalpa.

So I stopped in Candelaria on my way back. I ended up visiting four sites where there was damage from the landslides caused by the torrential rain on Tuesday night.

The hill behind one house had fallen and a house at the bottom of the hill, though standing, had been evacuated. The family had relocated to the house of a friend. But they had only been able to retrieve four mattresses for the eleven family members.

I also visited the house at the side of the road that we had seen on Tuesday night where the wall had fallen in. A group was working on the hill, hoping to prevent future problems.

As I was about to leave I encountered Luis, a 79 year old man who lived with his 11 year old son. Yes. That’s what he told me. He also told me that he was partly blind and deaf. I did have to speak loudly and slowly to be heard, but he got around fairly well.

He had lost his house to a landslide. I went there and found a stick and mud house (called bahareque).

He had no place to go and was camping out in a house which is being repaired.

Then I went to Las Caleras, the site of our Tuesday night “adventure.”

The river was back to its original course but there was still a large puddle of mud in the road.

With the help of three young girls as guides, I visited several houses that had sustained serious damage. Clothes and mattresses were wet and mud-covered. A wall had fallen down in one house.

The last house I visited was a tin shack. I first talked with a few of the children there but finally the fifty-seven year old mother came by. Berta told me that 12 people lived there. I managed to get the names and ages of nine of the children (who were probably both children and grandchildren). What struck me was that all of them slept on the floor. They had no mattresses.

It was hard to see all this. But it was important for me to be reminded of the faces of the suffering.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rain, rain, go away

The dry season here was very long. It usually ends in May or June, but this year the rains didn’t begin in earnest until September. And it’s been raining incredibly hard on and off since then.

Yesterday I went with Padre German to two distant communities – Agua Buena  Concepción and Cerro Negro. We got a late start since there was a deanery  meeting in the morning. Mass at Agua Buena began at about 4:30 pm, but I did a presentation to the people starting at 4:00 pm on base communities and the triple ministry. During our time there, it rained so hard that I could hardly hear myself. 

When Mass was over we went to Cerro Negro and arrived there late; Mass began at 7:00 pm. Padre had me do a presentation after the Gospel. As I was finishing, the torrents came and we could do nothing for about 15 minutes. The noise was that loud. Padre sat in silence.

Finally Mass went on; we had dinner at a house nearby and left for Dulce Nombre – usually about 45 minutes from Cerro Negro.

Leaving Candelaria we saw a landslide on the right side of the road and some men standing there. We got out of the truck and went to see if we could pass. We could, but there had been a landslide on the left side of the road that took out the wall of a house.

We continued on. In Caleras we saw another landslide on the right side of the road, near a house.

Caleras is one of the poorest villages in the parish; it is also the village that is almost completely evangelical.

At the bottom of the hill in Caleras, near the evangelical church. where there is a crossroads, the road and small bridge were covered with water. Some guys told us we could pass and guided us – but we got stuck in the sand and the river that replaced the small stream.

Guys came out of the nearby houses and tried to push us out. We finally gave up. The twelve to fifteen young guys, with lots of testosterone, left.

Padre called and asked Marcia to see if there was some way to get a truck to pull us out. We sat back and waited.

However, the water was rising. We abandoned a car and went up to the porch of a poor house nearby – to seek some shelter with the pig and two dogs there.

The people in the house invited us in. They even offered us their only bed! Evangelical Hondurans offering a Guatemalan priest and a US missionary their beds. The generosity of the poor is amazing. 

After about half an hour we saw the lights of a car coming down the hill. It was the mayor with several policemen and a local reporter.

The mayor went and looked around the village, one of the poorest in the area. The water was almost knee deep in some places. We passed a house where the front wall had fallen.

But there was a lot of hidden damage. A young guy told me that about 6:30 pm the waters began rising rapidly and by 7:30 pm were inside many houses and the small evangelical church – which lost its instruments.

The water in one house had reached about two feet high – and that house was about 6 inches above the level of the road.

Note the water line.
The mayor’s truck finally pulled Padre’s car, which – thanks be to God – started.

We followed the mayor’s truck.

The police had told us that they had to cut some trees that had fallen in the road and blocked passage. We barely passed through one passage and saw some serious landslides.

The situation is still pretty precarious and I’m probably stuck in Dulce Nombre for another say. Padre lent me a pair of pants since my jeans were soaked (especially after I fell in the water!)

But the lives of the people are seriously affected. Some communities are incommunicado. Others have suffered major flooding. It will take some time for recovery.

This comes just a day after a major earthquake hit the region. I didn’t feel anything here but there was major damage to the road that goes to the Salvadoran border, near the village of El Portillo which sits on the continental divide.

Why has all this happened?

That’s another post but I’d suggest that some of the causes include climate change/global warming, poor practices of land management, cutting of coffee plants on hillsides, and cutting roads through hills and leaving cliffs without retention walls. This is not really a natural disaster - but one with human causes.

What’s the next step?