Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas and the poor Christ

Yesterday after lunch with the bishop (after he had confirmed about 235 people in three locations), I mentioned to my pastor that I would be coming to the 11 pm “Midnight” Mass today in the town of Concepción. He asked me to preach.

I am going tomorrow for a 9:00 am Liturgy of the Word with Communion in the aldea of San Isidro La Cueva and will be preaching there, but this will be something quite different, but in both places I will be preaching of the birth of our Savior in the midst of the poor.

A few days ago, I read these words of Saint Clare in her first letter to Saint Agnes of Prague:
If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin’s womb, chose to appear despised, needy and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty, want and absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him, possessing the kingdom of heaven, be very joyful and glad. Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy! 
Saint Clare is, in part, reflecting the words of Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 8: 9):
For you know the grace of our Lord, Christ Jesus: he was rich, but for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
At Christmas we worship a God become poor.

Another insight came to me last night. Before going to bed last night, while reading a few chapters of Goodness and Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, published last year by Orbis Books, I came across a marvelous sermon of Hans Urs von Balthazar, “Into the Darkness with God.” (I highly recommend the book and the sermon.)

What struck me was this quote, which I didn’t expect from this theologian:
It is, therefore, in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed in the streets of the world, sent to the manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger, and thirst to all who are naked, sick, and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage, too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be the companions of those who are poor and in bondage.
As this poor Christ came to accompany us, so we too are called to accompany the poor.

All this brings me back to one of my favorite Christmas quotes, from the December 24, 1978, homily of Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero:
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need of God — for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

We are called to become poor, to be humble, to bow before the Lord made flesh, made poor, in our midst and to bow in loving service and accompaniment of those who are poor around us – not merely helping them, but befriending them, and walking with them in the light of the Kingdom of our God, made flesh.


This photo was taken on December 5, 2004, at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. To enter and reverence God become human, most of us must bow down. But it may have been constructed this way so that war horses couldn't enter the church. To enter and adore the Lord made flesh, we must leave behind all our weapons, all our weapons, entering disarmed and poor. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Prince of Peace, nuclear weapons, and the challenge of peace

I have read that President-elect Trump has advocated more nuclear weapons. A tweet from him stated:
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

To put this in context, according to a BBC report
Jason Miller, the communications manager for the Trump transition team, explained he "was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it - particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes".
Mr Miller also added that the president-elect "emphasised the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength".

I will save another post to write about nuclear deterrence but I wanted to offer a few thoughts

In the days before we come to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, who came as a vulnerable baby and died on a cross, bringing “peace through the blood of the Cross” (Colossians 1:20), I find myself grieving. I thought we were moving beyond this, although I recognize that President Obama had plans to invest about one trillion dollars in the nuclear arsenal.

In the face of this I think it is important to re-read the 1983 pastoral letter of the US Catholic Bishops.

One of the strongest statements can be found in the Summary:

In the words of the Holy Father [Pope Saint John Paul II], we need a "moral about-face." The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say no to nuclear conflict; no to weapons of mass destruction; no to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and no to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus. The content and context of our peacemaking is set not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by the teaching of his Church.

This is, at heart, a question of our spirituality. Are we willing to work beyond fear and threats? Are we willing to open our hearts to all peoples? Are we able to develop our minds to imagine and make real new and peaceful ways of responding to conflict and violence?

Or are we stuck in the old ways of fear, anxiety, recrimination, domination, power, and force?

We need a “moral-about-face.”

These days our bishop is confirming almost 300 young people in our parish. Yesterday afternoon the second reading was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5: 16-25) in which he contrasts the works of the flesh (the unredeemed world) with the fruits of the spirit.

It might be useful to use these lists from the first century to discern what a moral-about –face might mean for the United States, the world, and our very selves.

The works of the flesh are:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. (New American Bible translation)
or, in N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament translation:
fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, bursts of rage, selfish ambition, factiousness, divisions, moods of envy, drunkenness, wild partying, and similar things.
The fruits of the spirit are:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (New American Bible translation)
or, in N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament translation:
love, joy, peace, great-heartedness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
In two days we will celebrate the Son of God made flesh, welcomed with the song of angels, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to people of good will.”

Let us give glory to God in our lives; let us be people of "good will." And above all, let us welcome Jesus with open arms and not with nuclear arms - loving God and our neighbors, even our enemies.

A nativity scene in an exhibition in the Ravenna cathedral, 2013.
 More photos of nativity scenes from the exhibition can be found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

COFFEE - a tale with photos

We’re in the middle of the coffee harvest and so the parish of Dulce Nombre de María has cut back on workshops. The coffee harvest – from November to February – is one of the few times during the year when people in the countryside can earn cash.

Harvesting on the parish coffee field (finca)

The parish has two manzanas of coffee land (about 3.4 acres) and parishioners come and work on the land. This week three groups of parishioners have been harvesting the coffee.

Coffee harvesting is hard work. Bending over or reaching up can be very hard on the back and the knees. But there are people who are really adept at harvesting.

Five of the blue galón (5 gallons) fit into one sack.
Coffee harvesters are paid by galón (which is the size of a five-gallon plastic bucket). Though many just harvest two or three galones, there are some who can harvest up between five and ten. Currently the general price being paid is 35 lempiras per galón – that’s about $1.50. So most people are getting from three to seven dollars for a day of work.

Coffee beans mature in three to five different times during the harvest season and so harvesters go through the fields at least four times. The first time and the last time do not produce the best coffee.

Most coffee plants will produce for about fifteen years if well cared for. But coffee is a bush that does not give its first harvest until three years after it is planted. This has affected many small farmers here, since several years ago a fungus affected one variety of coffee and the bushes had to be uprooted. That meant three years without a harvest.

Here in Honduras there are a good number of small farmers who have plots of between a half a manzana to ten manzanas. (A manzana is 1.72 acres.) There are a small number of owners of large coffee haciendas and these employ large numbers of people to pick their coffee. It is not uncommon to see large cattle trucks packed with more than 60 people!

A burnt field, to be planted later in coffee.
Also, one landowner, from another part of the country, burned large expanses of land and chopped down trees to plant 300,000 or so coffee plants. (That's pure greed in my book.) Other large landowners have also devastated the countryside by their deforestation and burning. 

The best coffee is planted at a fairly high altitude and is carefully harvested and processed. But, because of the desire for a cash crop, many do not have the opportunity to buy good land. In addition, many people do not have the money to be able to process their own coffee harvest. They end up selling their coffee to middle men (commonly called coyotes) who in turn dry the coffee and sell it to a beneficio which processes the coffee and then sells it either locally or on the international market.

Fertilizing coffee plants.
Coffee, though, demands attention the year round and therefore there are times when the fields have to be fertilized and the land clear of underbrush. In addition, the bushes often need to be pruned. This is labor-intensive work, but not as many people are employed in this in contrast to the thousands who work on the coffee harvest. 

But the coffee plant is really beautiful - both when it flowers and when it gives forth its red fruit.

About May each year, the coffee plants begin to flower. The fields are beautiful with the delightful small flowers. But what is really a joy at that time of the year is the smell. The flowers give off a slightly sweet smell. The closest thing I can compare it to the smell of honeysuckle.

Coffee plant in flower on the parish finca.
After this the berries begin to develop.

When the first coffee berries are mature, the harvest begins.

The harvesters go out and harvest the mature berries in the melga (row) where they are working. They sometimes also harvest the yellow berries which might be overripe at the next harvest. There are some who pay no attention to quality and just pull all the berries off the branch - choyando, as they say. This does not result in good coffee.

But good quality coffee demands that only the mature berries are picked. The local association of small coffee farmers in El Zapote Santa Rosa which is exporting coffee to the US through St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames pays people to do this careful harvesting at about 45 lempiras ($2.00) a galón. So buying that coffee not only helps the farmers but also those who do the harvest.
row by row – preferably harvesting only the mature berries in the rows.

After the coffee is harvested, it is taken to be de-pulped. Many persona has small depulping machines near their homes. After the coffee is depulped it has to be washed. (There are some other processes that I’m still trying to learn about.)

Coffee berries in the tank to be de-pulped.
De-pulped coffee beans.
After it is washed, to take off the skin and the fruit, it is dried – often in the sun. Some producers sell the coffee wet – and so get a lower price. But others take the time to dry the coffee.

The coffee association has been able to get solar driers which is important for them sine they live at a high altitude which has much more rain and fog than other areas; this makes drying on the ground much more difficult.

When the coffee is dried – about 12% humidity is best – it need to have a thin skin removed. Most often this is done by large Beneficios which have the equipment to do this. When the skin is removed and defective beans separated out, the coffee is ready to export. AT this point the coffee is what we call here “café de oro” or “green coffee” as people say in the US.

The last two years the association of coffee farmers has worked with Beneficio Santa Rosa which has been very helpful and has been committed to processing and exporting good quality coffee from even small farmers.

Last year we were able to work with Aldea Development which works with farmers in La Unión, Lempira, to export coffee to Michigan. They have been very helpful in the shipment and importation details.

When the coffee gets to the US, those who have the coffee have to decide on how to market and sell. Some coffee is sold green, especially for coffee shops and specialty buyers. But most is roasted.

Roasting is an art and the roaster needs to determine how to roast it. One coffee export here complained about one major coffee seller in the US who, he opined, burns the coffee. The quality of the coffee you drink depends not only on the quality of the coffee, the details of the harvesting processing of the coffee, as well as the care for the coffee plants and lands. It depends on the right roast.

So, the cup of coffee you drink passes through many hands. What is important for me is good coffee and assuring that the small farmers and the harvesters get a good price for all their work. One of the ways we are working on here is what is called “direct trade” coffee where the coffee drinker is linked more directly to the coffee producer. Fair trade is fine, but I believe that small farmer to coffee cup arrangements can be even better, cutting costs for the buyer and giving decent prices.

EL Zapote coffee sold at St. Thomas Aquinas, Ames