Monday, January 29, 2018

Life goes on

In the midst of the political upheaval here, with the swearing in of the president, whose election is highly contested nationally and questioned internationally, it was a fairly conventional week for me. It also rained a lot less.

Though there have been protests and blocking of highways in other parts of the country, it’s been quiet here in the mountains of Copán, in southwest Honduras.

There have been deaths and injuries in the country, associated with the use of tear gas (made in the US) and use of live ammunition by government forces. There are also serious concerns about human rights violations. I saw a photo of one of the tear gas shells – made in western Pennsylvania.

But in the midst of this I’ve visited the sick, helped with the parish coffee harvest, preached in a rural village, interviewed a couple who will be married soon, visited with a friend in Santa Rosa, and took my pick up to a mechanic because it was over-heating.

We had over two hundred people helping the coffee harvest for two full days, last Monday and Tuesday. The first day they picked over 500 five-gallon containers of coffee berries.

This is the third major harvest – and we’ll have at least one more harvest. (Each coffee bush produces ripe coffee berries continuously for about ten weeks and so the berries are harvested three or four or more times.) I picked about one five gallon container, but mostly I helped with transporting folks to and from the field, as well as transporting the food for lunch.

We have had a few days of warm, dry weather – though my pick up is still caked with mud. Yet today it’s raining again – and cool.

Last Friday I went to San Agustín, about 40 minutes away from home, to visit the sick and aged. There is only on Communion minister there and 20 to 30 people who are ill or aged. I’ve decided to visit there at least once a month to see four or five people.

Margarita, the Communion minister, took me around. But the last person we visited was the most heart-wrenching.

We walked down the steep embankment to his fairly good sixed bahareque house, mud and stick walls and a dirt floor. He got up from his stool in the galera when we arrived and he invited us to sit down. I found another chair to sit on joined him.

He is in his mid-forties, but suffered a stroke three years ago and has no feeling or strength on his right side. He has difficulty talking but Margarita understood some. I mostly watched him and got a sense of what he was trying to express. He even wrote in the dirt to try to communicate.

I think I sensed a deep sadness. He is alone. He was living with a woman who left but used to bring him food. Now she doesn’t come. She seems to have taken almost all of the furniture from the house and so he lives with almost nothing. Some people give him some food, but there is no place to heat it. I talked to Margarita and asked her to have the base communities bring him food – even just tortillas and beans or pupusas several times a week.

We talked and I gave him one of the small wooden crosses we have for the sick. I placed in his right hand. It stayed there and I hope it provides him a reminder of God’s presence with him.

As I listened to him and watched, I realized that, though his clothes were dusty and a bit dirty, he took care of himself. He even explained to us, with gestures, how he washed himself daily with one hand.

He had work before his stroke – working in house construction and carpentry. As he explained this I could sense the pride he had in his work.

I don’t know if I should have gotten him some food but I left a few lempiras with Margarita to buy some food for him. She mentioned about getting something to take him. Also, she will bring my suggestion to the community church council. When I go back next month I’ll visit him and bring some food (and a thermos with hot coffee) and share a meal with him. (By the way, one of the things I learned in Santiago Atitlan about Fr. Stanley Rother is that he would take food to poor parishioners and sit down and eat with them.)

All the way driving back home, I kept thinking of him. I wonder if he could have had some restoration of muscle control of his arm if he had had therapy three years ago – the fate of the poor in a country that has money for weapons but poor health care.

For much of that day, I thought of him being alone there and I realized that I found no bitterness in him. A stroke, abandoned, alone, dependent on others for food – but with a sense of God with him. It’s almost too much to comprehend.

What struck me later is that his name means “God-with-us.” I guess Friday I was visited by “God-with-us.”

Would that I and all of us would remember this. It would make life better for so many.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Honduras and Martin Luther King

Monday, on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I spent most of the morning reading, writing, checking the internet (too much), and translating an open letter of the Honduran bishops to the two candidates of late November’s election.

In the course of my reading, I came across several amazing quotations from Martin Luther King that made me realize his perennial wisdom that could help us here in Honduras. I’d like to share some quotes from Dr. King – as well as from a few others, to help us reflect on how we Christians who live here are called to live and respond.

Why the demonstrations?
      The current barrage of demonstrations throughout Honduras arose after the November 26 election, but there have been other demonstrations in the past few years, most notably the marches of los indignados, the indignant, in 2015, against corruption and impunity. The presence of the young among the demonstrators was and is notable. What is also interesting is the lack of leaders calling people to the streets, at least in the initial stages. There was a spontaneity in the
      Some people are upset with the disruption of traffic, the blocking of highways, the marches. A headline in a newspaper, supportive of the government, characterized as “chaos” the opposition’s notice that they will not recognize any public authority after the swearing in of Juan Orlando Hernández as president on January 27. I have some reservations about the way this was expressed, but I think the statement and whatever happens must be seen in context.
      The marches are not the problem. I think Martin Luther King was right when he defended the demonstrations in Birmingham:
"Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."
      Is the non-recognition of public authority just lancing the boil and bringing it to light so that some healing might happen? I don’t know. But I do feel as if Honduras is already in a situation of chaos and tension – much of it under the surface.
 In that same letter from the Birmingham City Jail Dr. King wrote:
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.”
      Is what is happening in Honduras the surfacing of a long-standing system of governments – under different parties – where the law is used to uphold the authority of those in power and to keep the political and social elites in control?

Why not negotiate? Why not dialogue?
      Many people are calling for dialogue. President Hernández whom the Electoral Tribunal declared the winner of the presidential elections, is among the most vocal. The Honduran Catholic Bishops have also called for a dialogue which is ““sincere, effective, creative, without conditions, and involve all sectors of society.” Salvador Nasralla, whose supporters consider him the “president elect,” has agreed with some conditions. The opposition Alianza has called for talks with a mediator before January 27, when Hernández is scheduled to be sworn in as president.
      But there is a problem. Dialogue is good, important, and necessary. But when the dialogue is called by one who monopolizes power, when the power relations are significantly unbalanced, it is difficult to have real dialogue.
      I think this is why the opposition is calling for demonstrations. Again. Ponder the words of Martin Luther King, writing to his critics:
The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
      This helps me think about the dilemma of calls for dialogue, without considering the real situation of the country.

What about the violence?
      There have been cases of violence by the demonstrators, mostly throwing stones. Some have blamed cases of violence on infiltrators, which is very possible. But it is also possible that many who demonstrate come with deep wounds from the structural violence they experience (the hunger, the corruption, the fraud, the impunity, and more) and are reacting with violence because of these wounds. Also, the violence of some demonstrators may arise from the massive show of military force by government police and military as well as the use of tear gas.
      I am not trying to justify violence but we have to consider violence in context.

      The late Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil, and nonviolent leader, wrote about the spiral of violence. First there is the structural violence, the violence of poverty and injustice; second, there may be the violence of those who revolt; third, there is the violence of repression of those who seek to maintain the structural injustice. To only castigate the violence of those who revolt is to miss the whole picture and excuses the structural violence that provokes the violence of those who revolt.
      Martin Luther King, Jr., saw this clearly and spoke often and pointedly for nonviolent action and against violence.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.... Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. (Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community)
      But in his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered exactly a year before his martyrdom, he put the calls to violence of some blacks in context:
"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
      King realized that he had to speak against the violence of a system that purveys violence world-wide.

The challenge
      Martin Luther King Jr. offers us in Honduras a challenging way to try to see and understand what is happening.
      Honduras is not the US in the 1950s and 1960s. But his words have helped me begin to understand more deeply what is happening here.
      But I still wonder if something more is needed.
      Jesus said that there are some demons which are only cast out by prayer and fasting. Fanny Lou Hammer said, “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Touched by a martyr on a pilgrimage

Wednesday, my pastor and I went on a pilgrimage to the site of martyrdom of a US missionary to Guatemala. On July 28, 1981, Father Stanley Rother, was martyred in the church center in Santiago Atitlán. Known affectionately as Padre Apla’s to his Tz'utujil parishioners, he had spent thirteen years there, as part of the Oklahoma Mission.

Padre German and I spent some time in prayer in the room where Blessed Padre Apla’s was killed. It is a sacred space, one of those “thin places” where heaven and earth meet. I was especially moved by the plaque indicating blood stains. Here he had shed his blood.


He once wrote, “To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

As I understand, Blessed Stanley Rother was not a firebrand priest, but he was a priest who brought the presence of God to a people living in the midst of the darkness of repression and war. Rather, he was a priest who provided a place for people to recognize their dignity and their capabilities. He started any number of projects, some of which still survive in one form or another.

But what I find especially moving is his presence with the people. I heard a story of how he would regularly take lunch to poor parishioners and sit down and eat with them in their homes. He was their brother.

But to be present so that people can recognize their dignity and their rights was dangerous in Guatemala at that time – and is still dangerous in many parts of the world. He remarked on this in his 1981 Christmas letter:

A nice compliment was given to me recently when a supposed leader in the Church and town was complaining that ‘Father is defending the people.’ He wants me deported for my sin.
This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.
He did not flee.

And this made an impression on the people. In Santiago Atitlán, we stopped at a cell-phone store to make a phone call. Padre German asked the young woman if she knew Padre Apla’s and if she had any memories. As she responded I could hear and see the tender emotion, remembering him. And, pointedly, she said

“Él no huyó” – “He did not flee.”

He stayed with them, despite the threats.  As he wrote to a friend,

[O]ur presence here means a lot for the people…
When I hear the people during Mass here on Sunday or Thursday, the cacophony of prayers going up to the Lord, His presence must be there. I am delighted to be a part…. At first signs of danger, the shepherd can’t run and leave the sheep fend for themselves. I heard about a couple of groups of nuns in Nicaragua that left during the fighting and later wanted to go back. The people asked them where were you when we needed you? They couldn’t stay and were forced to leave. I don’t want that to happen to me. I have too much of my life invested here to run.

We had a chance to talk to the pastor. He told us how he regularly gave blood in the hospital he helped found. The night before he was killed, the sisters asked him for a ride the next morning. He mentioned that he’d leave early because “tengo que dar mi sangre” – “I have to give my blood.”

That night he was killed and gave his blood as a witness of God’s love.

In a niche in the front of the main altar of the church in Santiago, there is a small vial of blood from the heart of Beato Padre Apla’s. We spent some time before the altar in prayer where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, praying as people prayed the rosary on their knees. 

Seeing the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and seeing the vial of the blood of a martyr directly underneath, I recalled the call I feel as a deacon to give myself to others, entregarme is the Spanish word. I also recall that in the ordination rite, the deacon is called to live as one entrusted with distribution of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?

¿Quieres imitar siempre en su vida el ejemplo de Cristo, cuyo cuerpo y sangre servirás  en el altar?

As I prepared for the diaconate, I was moved by several authors who noted the significance of the deacon as minister of the Blood of Christ.

Saint Augustine spoke of St. Lawrence the deacon in this way:

In the [Roman} church… he carried out the office of deacon. There he was a minister of the Blood of Christ; there, for the name of Christ, he poured out his own.

Both Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI noted the deacon especially as “a minister of the Blood.” For this reason, when there is communion under both species I usually distribute the Blood of Christ.

The pastor gave Padre German permission to preside at the five pm Mass in the church in Santiago Atitlán. I served as deacon, and so it was for me a great moment when as a deacon I lifted up the Blood of Christ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, conscious of the presence of Christ’s blood in the chalice in my hands and the presence of the blood of a martyr under the altar.

May the Blood of Christ and the blood of the martyrs, especially Padre Apla’s and Monseñor Romero, open my heart to give my all for God and for God’s poor.

But the poor are the ones who also evangelize us. There is a custom in Santiago Atitlán that entering the church before Mass and leaving the church, children grab onto the hands of the priest (and the deacon). But, as I entered the cloister beside the church on my way to the sacristy, a little boy came up to me and grabbed my hand. I was stunned – and went over with him to three other young children. They touched my heart, as I bent over to talk with them for a few seconds.

This was not something I expected but I see it as part of the legacy of one who gave his life for the people, accompanying them, touching them, and being touched by them.

May the blood of Christ and the martyrs keep me ever open to the touch of God – offered by the poor and the children. 

But I must recall that Father Stan Rother is not the only Guatemalan martyr, nor the only Guatemalan killed by the military in his parish. My first time in Santiago, I prayed at the shrine to the right as you enter the church where his heart and other relics were placed. I noticed how the local people would bow before the shrine where, I presume, they still preserve some of his relics.

But I remembered a memorial of metal crosses on the wall by the shrine. It was removed from the church and is now in the garden of the rectory. As we sat waiting to see the pastor, I counted at least 236 crosses, most between 1980 and 1992. They were victims of the repression. 

The blood of the poor, the blood of martyrs, the Blood of Christ. 


For a recent biography of Blessed Stan Rother, Beato Apla’s, check out María Ruiz Scaperlanda’s The Shepherd Who Didn't Run: Father Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma. (Our Sunday Visitor)