Monday, January 30, 2017

What to do? A rambling reflection inspired by Gandhi

 “The best preparation for and even the expression of nonviolence," wrote Gandhi, "lies in the determined pursuit of the constructive program. …He who has no belief in the constructive program has, in my opinion, no concrete feeling for the starved millions. He who is devoid of that feeling cannot fight non-violently. In actual practice the expansion of my non-violence has kept exact pace with that of my identification with starved humanity.”
Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 by a Hindu fanatic. It seems a good day to pass on some random thoughts in the face of what is going on in the world, especially in the United States.

There have been a series of large, often decentralized, protests in the US. I find myself agreeing – in part – with each of them: the Women’s March, the March for Life, and the spontaneous demonstrations at airports and other places against a restrictive immigration policy. I also find myself on the outskirts of each of them – not only because I don’t live in the US, but mostly because I see them as incomplete, not just in their goals, but also in their vision of resistance.

In the face of a president who claims to be pro-life but who is in favor of torture, who wants to find security in a wall and seems willing to ostracize members of a religion, who wants to increase the size of the US military, whose policies have kept real refugees and people with visas from entering the US, and more – what does one do?
Get together and care for the little ones!
Yes, I am amazed at the demonstrations at the airports and the efforts of lawyers and others to reverse what I see as a poorly thought-through executive order. I sort of miss not being there to participate.

I was involved in protests against the Viet Nam war in college and after. I’ve demonstrated against nuclear weapons and against the imprisonment of dissidents in the Soviet Union. I’ve spoken and written for the rights of refugees from Central America and against US military policies in favor of oppressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala – and other countries. I’ve demonstrated against the war against Iraq. I’ve attended pro-life demonstrations and organized a series of vigils after the killing of the Jesuits and two women in El Salvador.

I’ve accompanied a parish in San Salvador for two months in 1987 during the war. I worked for several months after the cease fire in El Salvador in the parish of Suchitoto, a region devastated by the war. I live and work in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Many years ago, reflecting on my anti-Vietnam war work with a friend, I said that I thought we failed because we did not follow Gandhi’s advice. We had no constructive program.

The genius of Gandhi was not just his bringing people together in nonviolent civil disobedience in South Africa and India. His genius was recognizing that nonviolence is not a tactic, nor is it just a personal life-style. His genius, for me, is recognizing that the constructive program is central.

As Norman Finkelstein explains in What Gandhi Says:
In any exposition of satyagraha, it must also be remembered that Gandhi did not conceive nonviolent resistance as the heart of his doctrine. He situated satyagraha in a matrix of daily activities, what he called the “constructive program,” that formed the “foundation for civil disobedience.” Its planks included expunging from Hinduism the “blot” of untouchability, fostering Hindu-Muslim unity, and promoting use on a mass scale of the spinning wheel (tcharka) and handspun cloth (khadi).
Satyagraha, a term that Gandhi often used in place of nonviolence, means “holding on to truth,” or “the power of truth.” It think it is related to what Peter Maruin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker once proposed: “Building a new society in the shell of the old.”

This means going beyond political parties – most of which collaborate with evil to one degree or another. I am not against politics and political campaigns and I applaud people of integrity in politics, but all too often people look on politics as salvific. It isn’t and it can’t be – partly because it’s often based on power and domination and partly because it’s often given to unholy compromises. Compromise is good – but there are compromises in which one risks one’s soul, Recall the example of Saint Thomas More -  politician who was willing to compromise – up to a point.

What the constructive program means in the US I don’t know – but it has to start with being with the poor and the marginalized, sharing their lives. It’s what Pope Francis calls the culture of encounter.

For me, the constructive program means continuing to live here in Honduras, to work with catechists and young people, to encourage an association of small coffee farmers, to promote a culture of solidarity, and more. It means learning to love and share with others.

Today, we were going to work on the parish’s coffee land, harvesting the last of the coffee – an act of solidarity of the parishioners who work without recompense so that we can provide for some of the parish’s needs. But rain and strong winds moved the pastor to postpone the harvesting until Wednesday. I look forward to being at the side of others, harvesting coffee – that’s a start of the constructive program.


The initial Gandhi quote can be found in Thomas Merton's Gandhi on Nonviolence.

The image of Gandhi, by Ben Shahn, comes from a War Resisters League poster.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Looking forward in the Dulce Nombre parish

Last Saturday night, during Mass in Dolores, Padre German Navarro, pastor of the Dulce Nombre de María parish offered special prayers for our sister parish, St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa. He also spoke strongly and gratefully of the solidarity that St. Thomas has offered our parish. 

Recalling that today, I thought it might be good to provide a look at where our parish is going this year. 

At the end of December, we had our parish assembly, to evaluate and plan for a busy year.

We have been somewhat busy in the parish in this first month of the year, though we have curtailed our formation activities because of the coffee harvest. 

Padre German has continued to celebrate the Eucharist at least twice a day in different towns and villages in the parish. He did, however, take a much needed week away.

As a deacon I often accompanied Padre German. He often asked me to preach as well as to baptize. Although he presides at the Mass, my preaching and baptizing give him a chance to sit down and rest.

I have presided at two Sunday Celebrations of the Word with Communion. On the Epiphany the celebration was in a community with very muddy streets.

I have also presided at one funeral and two anniversaries of deaths. Consoling those who mourn is becoming an important part of my diaconal ministry. At one I noted this beautiful drawing on the church wall by a child in religious education, a drawing based on a line drawing of an icon I had distributed to the catechists.

January is one of the busiest times of the coffee harvest – which lasts, in most places, from late November to mid-February. Parishioners from different parts of the parish worked on the parish’s coffee fields (nearly 3 acres) more than five days in January, mostly harvesting. The pastor and I helped in the harvesting as well as in transporting people to and from the field and in transporting the coffee to the sites for de-pulping and washing the beans.

January is also the time to prepare for the school year. For five years St. Thomas Aquinas has provided partial scholarships for students in the alternative middle school and high school program, Maestro en Casa. I reviewed the applications and am arranging the transfer of funds which will pay for some of the costs for this program which provides access to education to mostly poor young people living in remote villages.

There were also two major events outside the parish that I participated in. On Saturday January 7, the deanery had a celebration of the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Two weeks later, the diocese celebrated the end of the year of celebrating the centenary of its founding. I attended both Masses and served as one of the deacons at both of them.

This year we are hoping to increase our work with the youth in the parish. I have been meeting with youth groups in several locations but we want to do more this year, including more participation in the National Youth Encounter which will be held in our diocese in June.

As part of our work with youth, I invited three Dubuque Franciscan sisters who work in La Entrada, Copan, to do a workshop with our leaders. We had fewer than I had hoped, but there was great spirit and great enthusiasm.

As a follow-up and as a way to plan for some up-coming events, we had a meeting on Sunday morning in Dulce Nombre. We planned a parish-wide youth encounter for Sunday, February 12 – with participation from six groups, Mass, and some futbol (what you call “soccer” in the US).

February we begin our work of formation.

I will be having a parish-wide assembly of catechists. We have more or less than 150 catechists in the fifty towns, villages, and hamlets. In such a de-centralized system, we need several parish-wide gatherings to share information, as well as regular training sessions in the four zones of the parish several times a year.

This year, we also hope to reinvigorate the Social Ministry of the parish. Each base community – as well as the sectoral, zonal, and parish councils is supposed to be organized around the triple dimension of ministry: prophetic, liturgical, and social. We plan to have a parish wide assembly in February of the coordinators of social ministry in every village and ongoing training sessions in the zones of the parish. I envision helping set up a solidarity fund to help people in times of need.

In order to strengthen and re-invigorate the base communities and the community councils, we’ll be having training sessions for the triple ministry in every zone of the parish, several times a year, beginning in February. I’ll be helping Padre German with these meetings.

I am also working with the extraordinary ministers of communion in the parish. There are fourteen active ministers and twenty in training. What is unique about extraordinary ministers in Honduras is their ministry to the sick and the elderly. They are expected to regularly visit them as well as distribute Communion at Masses and Celebrations of the Word with Communion.

Last October we had over seventy parishioners spend a week in mission in all the villages in the parish. In groups of two or three, they visited homes and planned special activities at the sites, ranging from collecting food for a poor family to meeting with youth and base communities. It was amazing since they went without cell-phone and without money.

Padre German proposed a follow-up to this by having missionaries go to villages on the first four days of Holy Week. We will be training them for this as well as for another week-long mission in October.

Holy Week is an important part of the life of faith here. This year, due to the distances, we are encouraging celebrations in the towns and villages. We will, of course, have a parish-wide Stations of the Cross on the Friday before Holy Week. There will also be a special Easter Vigil in Dulce Nombre, especially to celebrate the more than forty people who are scheduled to be baptized at the Vigil. But we will prepare materials for the villages for the whole week and have a day-long training session in late March.

In May we will have a training session for Delegates of the Word, those who lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word in their communities. Some have led celebrations for decades and can use some additional formation, but there are a good number of people who would like to serve as delegates – including a good number of young people – who need training.

This report just scratches the surface of what we expect to do this year.

It doesn’t include the continuing preparation for the sacraments, the Masses that Padre German celebrates in every village every two months, the catechumenate for those over 14 who want to be baptized, as well as the preparation of couples for the sacrament of matrimony. It doesn’t include new initiatives to develop materials for base communities as well as for religious formation at all levels. It doesn't include the work I am doing with a small association of small coffee growers that exported 3000 pounds of coffee last year and hopes to export the same or more this year.

There is much to be done and for this I am grateful. But this gives us the opportunity to spread the Joy of the Gospel in our little portion of the world.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A homily for tomorrow in the US

I didn’t know if I’d be preaching this weekend when I wrote this. Our pastor has been away and won’t return until later today. I just sent him a text message, letting him know that I’d be willing to preach tonight and early tomorrow morning. (I have a meeting with youth leaders at 9 am tomorrow to plan a youth encounter in February.) But I decided to prepare anyway – since the youth and I will have a shorted form of Celebration of the Word. He text messaged me and so I will be preaching tonight and tomorrow. The homily is different, though similar. It can be found here.

As I prayed over the readings, these words came to mind. I don't know that they would be the best homily for people here, but they are what I would like to preach to the assembled Church in the US tomorrow.

Today we have lectionary readings that could't be harder for us to hear.

I knew the Gospel was the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, but I was not prepared for all the readings.

One verse of the responsorial, Psalm 146, knocked me over:

            …the Lord protects strangers…

I want to stand in front of the people I work with and ask for their forgiveness and for God’s forgiveness for my country. We have sinned

…in [our] thoughts and in [our] words,
in what [we] have done and in what [we] have failed to do…

Demonizing those who are different in our minds and in our speech, we have blasphemed the image of God in the poor, the migrant, the refugee, the Muslim.

We have allowed the construction of walls and the militarization of foreign policy for many years and the president promises more of the same.

We have allowed them to die on the shores of the Mediterranean and in the deserts of the southwest. We have not welcomed the stranger.

There I beseech Blessed Mary the Virgin – who was a refugee with her Son -
and all the angels and saints, to pray for us.

I beseech God to teach us the lesson of the poor of the Lord, those who are poor in spirit, who have the spirit of the poor, those poor who seek the Lord, who “seek justice, seek humility,” as Zephaniah notes in the first reading.

I beseech God to teach us the lesson that Paul learned and tells us in the first chapter of his first letter to the Church in Corinth:

God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something…

The only way a nation that truly seeks God can be great is not through force of arms; it’s not through building seemingly impenetrable walls (since the walls of Jericho – and of Berlin – came tumbling down.

The way is to live the beatitudes, becoming a people who have the spirit of the poor – a spirit of recognizing our need of God and being grateful for all that God gives us.

We need to become a people who mourn with those who mourn – the victims of war, violence, poverty, racism, and discrimination.

We need to become a people who hunger and thirst for the justice, the righteousness of God – not putting our nation first, but seeking first the Reign, the Kingdom of God.

We need to become a people who are merciful, who open our hearts to those in need and welcome the stranger, the other.

We need to become peacemakers, those who seek real peace, reconciling strangers, working to change the hearts and structures of all – including ourselves – to be open to God.

This all follows from who we are. We are God’s people, first and foremost. Let us act as the People of God.

If we are persecuted, so be it. Then will the Kingdom of Heaven be ours.


The photo is one I took of the Berlin Wall in November 2006.