Monday, November 30, 2015

The last day of November

Today we ended November in Plan Grande with the novenario of José Arnaldo Sánchez. There was a Mass in the afternoon and this evening many gathered in the house of his widow and children for the rosary.

I had gone to the velorio on the night after his death and the funeral Mass the next day. I had a visitor and so it was good for him to see part of the daily life of people here.

Arnaldo died as the result of an accident. I think he was examining a car when it tolled over on him.  After several days in the regional hospital he died.

I most remember him for the day he helped me to start my car when the battery was low. But I know his wife who is one of the village’s catechist and he was the brother of several of the men I know here, including the grandfather of my confirmation godson.

Funerals are times for prayer, but they are also social events, times for people to get together. People gather to pray in the house during the velorio, the wake. and for nine days until the novenario, the ninth day.

Padre German dropped by for the prayer during the velorio and for the funeral Mass. At the novenario, the people prayed the rosary and asked me to say a few words. I ended my short words with the Canticle of Simeon and the closing prayers of Night Prayer.

Then coffee, tamales, and chop suey were served to all – included the groups (mostly men) who were standing outside and nearby in the road. People will probably stay several hours to comfort the family.

At the novenario, as at the velorio, a five year old kid – Elmer Noé – attached himself to me. His father lives in a nearby town and he is the nephew of the widow. He also teaches in a nearby school.

Elmer Noé is a very affectionate kid who held my hand and sat on my lap for a while. He also held the hand of his great-grandmother who was seated in front of me.

He also is a sharp kid, knowing the prayers and songs. He even led the first decade of the rosary during the novenario.

He is not the only sharp kid I met today. After Mass, I heard someone playing the drums. I looked over and saw it was the 18 month old son of one of the musicians. What surprised me was how good he was and how much he enjoyed playing the drums – especially the cymbal. I encouraged his father to keep up the good work with him so that the child can develop his musical talents.

Between Mass and the novenario I had some time to work and eat dinner. My neighbor Gloria came by to ask a few questions about the coming meeting of communion ministers and to invite me to say a few words at the novenario.

As she left I noticed the sky in the west – a beautiful rose color, between the clouds and the mountains as the sun was setting.

It was a blessing to see the beauty, a sign of God’s presence here.

I recalled the sunset in my words at the wake, noting that God worked and shone in the life of Arnaldo – and this can be seen in his family.

All this is a reminder to me of the importance of being aware, with eyes open, to the many mysterious ways God shows his presence among us.

Sunday morning I shared another sign of God's loving presence among us as twenty-nine entered the catechumenate at morning Mass in Dulce Nombre. If they persevere, they will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.

The rite is simple - a welcome at the church door, a signing of the catechumens with a cross by their sponsors, and the handing of a bible to them. What always moves me is when the sponsors kneel before the catechumens to sign their feet with the Cross.

I spent some time with the catechumens that morning; I asked them to share what touched them during the rite. I then encouraged them to recall the significance of their sponsors kneeling before them. They are children of God; they are made in the image of God. The sponsors are kneeling before a sign of the presence of God, just as they might kneel before Christ present in the Eucharist in a tabernacle.

This message is important for so many of the people who are treated like dirt, as if they were worth nothing. They need to hear that they are children of God, of infinite worth. To have a sponsor kneel before them can be a moment of revelation - of God's infinite love for them.

As I write these words I think of Thomas Merton's famous revelation at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, which can be found in his journals as well as in  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
   In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream....   There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.... There are no strangers! ... If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other....
Would that we would open ourselves to worship the God present within all of us - made in God's image.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Long live Christ the King!

Sunday we celebrated the feast of Christ the King with an all-parish Mass in San Agustín.  We started at nine o’clock with a procession. The Mass ended about 1:00 pm.

Over a thousand people came from almost all the towns and villages of the parish – arriving packed in busses or, more likely, in the back of pick ups. There were a good number of young people which, for me, is a good sign of the health of the church in our parish.

Today, Monday, happens to be the feast of Blessed Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit, whose final words before the firing squad killed him were “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” I find his story amazing - especially because he seems to have been somewhat of a prankster - as he tried to hide from the Mexican anti-clerical authorities. But for him, Christ was King - not any secular authority.

There were shouts of “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” yesterday in San Agustín, but our pastor, Padre German, was insistent that this was not a call of triumphalism (though he didn’t use these words.) He insisted on a crucified king. 

The image that was carried in the procession was Christ, crowned with thorns.

Padre German gave a long homily and I forgot to take notes. But one point was that this is a king who sees the face of the marginalized, of the poor, of those who are outside – and welcomes them. He also noted how Christ's reign is in contrast to the corruption and violence around us in Honduras.

He reiterated the call of Pope Frances for a church that is called to be open to all – not closing doors.

This is what I find really refreshing in the parish of Dulce Nombre – the call for all of us to be real missionaries, moving out beyond the easy and the comfortable. The people I find are especially appreciative of the openness to the sacraments that Padre German has brought.

A great challenge – and thus a great place to be.

Padre German receiving the offering - fruits of the earth and the work of the people
- dulce, home made sugar -

Keeping up

I have been a bit remiss in keeping up with the blog this month.

The month began with two catechists workshops. They are almost always a delightful challenge and this time we began the sessions with praying Psalm 23 by having the catechists draw an image from the psalm that touched them.

Then I spent a day with Sister Pat preparing the Alternatives to Violence workshop which we facilitated in the Gracias prison. Another of the Dubuque Franciscan Sister, Sister Mary Beth, joined her here at my house in Plan Grande.

Then I went to the diocesan pastoral assembly where I had the role of secretary. The bishop was there with all the priests who are pastors as well as the parish coordinators (sort of like parish council presidents).

Immediately after the assembly, the bishop came here to the Dulce Nombre parish for three confirmation Masses.

Then it was off to Gracias for the Alternative to Violence workshop. It went well, though there were a few times when we had rather spirited conversations. (Machismo runs deep.)

Last Thursday, Phil Barutha from Saint Thomas Aquinas in Ames arrived and we’ve been rather busy.

The big event, though, was Sunday’s feast of Christ the King.

Over one thousand people came to the town of San Agustín for a procession and Mass.

When we arrived at the starting point of the procession I started to walk through the crowd with Phil so that he could meet a few of the people.

This is one of the things I most enjoy in my ministry here – the chance to just go through a crowd and greet people – shaking hands and greeting babies.

No, I’m not a politician, but the importance of greeting people personally is very important. I learned this at St. Thomas where I found great joy in greeting people in the parish’s gathering space before and after Sunday Masses. It’s there that I met a lot of folks, especially students, who would never attend an event but were faithful to Sunday Mass.

Here I find greeting people important. Honduras is a society that looks down on the poor, that considers them not worth much. Thus is important to greet them, to listen to them, to let their voices be heard.

This week I’ll be taking Phil around to a few places so that he can see more of the parish and report back to the St. Thomas Honduras Ministry Committee.

Then a day free until next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, when we will accept about 40 young people as catechumens who, if they persevere, will be baptized at the 2016 Easter Vigil.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Catching up

I have not written for over a week for a number of reasons.

First of all, I took part in the diocesan pastoral assembly from Monday to Thursday as secretary. Trying to keep on top of all that was happening and being said was a challenge – and I did lose my cool a couple of times. But I think the meeting opened the way for the diocese to move forward and be less hindered by the past. I was particularly struck by one of the bishop’s talks where his openness and sharing of his story may have opened up a way.

I returned home on Thursday afternoon but Friday we had confirmations in two places in the Dulce Nombre parish – and there is another Mass of confirmations today. Since I have been working with the catechists and helped them and others prepare the liturgies I have been trying to get there ninety minutes before the Mass to help them make sure that most everything is ready.

Confirmation site in Delicias, Concepción
There were many moving moments in the liturgies, especially in El Zapote de Santa Rosa.

Before Mass I encountered a young woman who is disabled, who has difficulty speaking and cannot walk. I talked with her and her mother and noted that she was very happy to be here for the confirmation. During the Mass I noted, since she sat in the front row, how she sang with great gusto. I was touched by her desire for God.

One young man from Plan Grande who is disabled was unable to participate because his condition worsened and he couldn’t be transported safely to the confirmation site. Though disabled, possibly because of a blow to the head when he was a baby, he had attended all of the religious education for the sacrament.

But there was also the joy I experienced to be able to sponsor a young man here – one whose father, a policeman, was killed a few years ago and who is being raised by his grandparents. I was particularly touched when he came up to hug me at the Greeting of Peace.

Several of those confirmed from Plan Grande with Bishop Darwin Andino
Next week I’ll be in jail again for two days – helping in a workshop on Alternatives to Violence. I’m glad to be able to help out in this since we all need to develop the skills to respond creatively and patiently to conflict.

Then a visitor is coming from Ames.

Life is busy – but blessed.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Violence in Honduras

While in the US last month, many people asked me about violence in Honduras, in particular, where I live. As I tried to answer this question, I began to see that it helps to distinguish different types of violence. The trouble is that we fail to make distinctions and thus call Honduras the most violent country in the world, without distinguishing the types, where they are more likely to occur, and the risks involved in living or visiting here.

I started with five types of violence then added two more, and just this week I decided that there was one more type of violence to add. This is, of course, a completely biased list, based not on research but on my reading and my experiences. Beware, This is a long and biased analysis - but I invite comments so that we can understand what is happening here and change the situation.

In addition, this analysis should not be used to deter people from coming to visit. It sure doesn't deter me from staying here. But looking at the types of violence can help us respond to the injustice as well as to avoid the risk of personal violence.

Types of Violence

Organized crime

Organized crime, including drug dealers, drug smugglers, and smugglers of contraband and arms, are sources of violence, though I believe this violence is limited to certain areas and to targeted persons. There has been violence in certain areas of the north coast related to drug smuggling and conflicts between organized crime families. Close to hone, I remember that a few years ago a congressman was killed in Copán Ruinas, possibly related to organized crime. Most people I know – Hondurans and others – are not seriously threatened by organized crime violence.

Gangs are a problem in the major cities – especially Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula, as well as in the prisons.

Several of the gangs in part owe their current existence to the deportation of Hondurans who had fled to the US and joined gangs their. There are fights over territory, extortion, and recruitment of youth that are particularly troublesome and violence, but these are largely confined to a few cities and even certain neighborhoods. If one can avoid these neighborhoods and is careful in the cities, the risk of violence can be minimized. But if one is a poor Honduran living in a big city, trying to eke out an existence, violence and threat of violence can be a serious risk every day. But there has not been a major influx of the gangs in Santa Rosa de Copán or in the municipalities of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María where I serve.

Common crime

In a poor country there are people who are desperate and will rob and assault people. There are also people who seek to make a life through common crime.

These crimes may be accompanied by violence or threats of violence.

There has been at least one assault of an intercity bus recently near La Entrada, Copán. There have also been some robberies of people on isolated rural paths in the area. Santa Rosa has its crime.
But taking precautions about when and where one travels are normal. People warned me of pickpockets in Rome, Italy, as well as in Tegucigalpa.

Vendettas and vengeance

In a country where there is no really active justice system, a number of people will take the law into their own hands. If someone has been killed, there is less than a 9% chance that the killer will be brought to trial. And so, frustrated by the lack of justice, people have taken the law into their own hands.

This sometimes plays out as part of a long history of killings between families or groups of people – going on for generations. A new killing may provoke a series of killings. This has happened in at least two villages in the parish. In one case, it was probably a case of mistaken identity in which the grandfather of the family was killed when the killers sought one of the sons who had been involved in a killing.

In these cases the killings are normally targeted.

The risk for outsiders is minimal. In addition, visitors should avoid places where there is an ongoing inter-family feud where violence has been involved.

As a worker in the church, I find myself called to be careful but also to be present to the people. A few months ago I joined our pastor, Padre German, when he went to say the ninth-day Mass for someone who had been killed, probably as part of a cycle of vengeance.

Sexual jealousy

Occasionally there are feuds, usually between men, over a woman. However, I once saw a woman attack another woman over a man in a restaurant in Santa Rosa.

These again are cases of targeted violence that could happen anywhere and anytime – even in the US. Common sense and carefulness can mitigate any personal risk.

Domestic violence

Violence against women and rape are very serious problems in Honduras. The macho culture and the structures of society that emasculate men contribute to this violence. There are efforts being made by a number of groups to lessen the number of cases of domestic violence, including women’s groups that help to empower women. Santa Rosa de Copán also has a domestic abuse shelter for women and their families, which does have a police officer always present.

I have encountered one severe case of domestic violence. Leaving a village after a church meeting, someone raced after the pickup and asked me to take someone to the hospital. She had been macheteed by her companion. We got her to the hospital where her arm was saved; I learned that she later returned to her family’s village. The man was arrested and jailed, though I don’t know his current status. The police probably came because people called the police and reported it (at my insistence); one of those who called was the wife of one of the mayors in the parish.
I am not so sure that the police are also so willing to make arrests in these and other cases.

Saturday night” specials

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are serious problems in Honduras. Drugs can also be found in many places. Drinking or using drugs to excess can lead to fights, sometimes over the smallest things. If a machete or a fire arm is available, serious violence can result. Machetes are dangerous weapons, especially when they are sharpened. Fire arms are all too available. Every once in a while I’ll see someone with a pistol stuck in the waistband of their pants.

These cases of violence are more likely to occur on weekend evenings and in places where liquor is sold. So one should avoid bars and cantinas, especially in the countryside. I would also avoid pool halls, which are often places where lots of alcohol is consumed and sometimes places where prostitutes can be found.

The government passed a law supposedly to try to control this about two years ago that prohibited the sale of liquor, even in stores, between 6 pm Sunday night and about 6 am Monday morning. But I think that many of the problems that lead to violence happen Saturday night.

The violence of the powers that be

The training of the police and the military leads a lot to be desired here. That doesn’t mean that there are not some very good policemen and soldiers.

In addition, there is a military police – or better called a militarized police force – in addition to the regular police.

There are still cases of abuse and violence by the police. This can be seen especially in cases such as a recent dismantlement of a squatter settlement as well as some actions against street demonstrations.

In addition, I would mention the large number of private security personnel, which, I believe, have more persons than the police. In some cases, especially in the north coast where the security forces are “protecting” disputed lands that have been taken over by large landowners. These forces have used violence. I believe that over 100 deaths have occurred in the Aguan Valley in the northeast of the country, mostly of campesinos.

Another serious category of this violence would have to note the ongoing deaths of lawyers and journalists, as well as activists.

There are probably other cases and types of violence which I have overlooked.

Structural Violence

But there is the unseen violence, the structural violence, that keeps people in poverty, that makes real change extremely difficult.

In their 1968 document on poverty, the Conference of Latin American Bishops, gathered in Medellín, Colombia, wrote strongly against what they termed “institutional violence” in their document on peace, ¶16.

If Christianity believes in the productiveness [fecundity] of peace in order to achieve justice, it also believes that justice is an inescapable condition for peace. It doesn’t fail to see that in many parts Latin America finds itself in a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence, when, because of deficiency in  the structures of industry and agriculture, of national and international economy, of cultural and political life, "whole populations lack necessities, live in such dependence as hinders all initiative and responsibility as well as every possibility for cultural promotion and participation in social and political life," thus violating fundamental rights. This situation demands all-embracing, courageous, urgent and profoundly renovating transformations.
(Translation revised by author.)

This was the case in 1968 and it still continues here in Honduras. These structures need to be changed if there is to be any real peace and end to violence and poverty.