Thursday, August 29, 2019

New Orleans, Honduras, and the African-American woman

How an African American woman in New Orleans 
got me to Honduras.

During my twenty-third year in campus ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, Iowa, something happened that changed my life. Maybe I should say some things happened.

The first was Hurricane Katrina that devastated the New Orleans area in August 2015.

We responded in the parish with aid and Dee Thompson, a good friend who is a nurse, went and served those who left and were housed in Texas.

But a young man, Nate Stein, insisted that we ought to go and help. He had been involved in our student service projects and was, for a while, on our student justice and service team. He had been to Appalachia.

Finally persuaded, Nate and I began to plan to get a group to go to New Orleans during the March 2016 student break. Fifteen of us went and worked with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The first days we gutted and cleaned a house that was empty. Then we went to another part of town to clean out a house that had not been touched for months. The waters had reached halfway up the wall and remained there for weeks. The house, the furniture, the clothing - all wreaked of black mold.

We arrived and met Sandra, an African-American woman in her sixties, who had raised her children and grandchildren in this house. She was ill just before the hurricane and thus had to stay in her house until the waters forced her out. Then, she fled to a neighbor’s roof to escape the rising waters. She and others were rescued by helicopter. She then went to Houston and she had just come back to New Orleans.

As was our custom, we prayed before we began. I asked her to join us. Her response was most welcoming. She noted that she was a Baptist but was very happy to be joining us in prayer.

Then we began the long work of taking all her possessions out of the house.

 As we took out all her possessions, Sandra stood there with a serenity I could hardly believe.

She stood there – with a sister and a grandson. Occasionally we came across something personal that was not very damaged and offered it to her. She gracefully declined.

What struck me through all this was her tranquility, her calm in the face of seeing almost all of her possessions, her life, being carried out to the curb, to be taken to the dump.

That night the students and I sat around in a church sharing our thoughts on the day. Many of the students remarked on Sandra’s tranquility, her calm. Some asked. “How would I feel if I lost all my possessions?”

But I began to think about my house and my possessions. I began to think of my mortality.
What’s going to happen with all my junk when I die? Who’s going to have to go through it?

It was a moment of detachment.

When I got home, I began to wonder if I might leave my ministry in Ames. I had been in correspondence with Dubuque Franciscan Sister Nancy Meyerhofer, a good friend whom I had first met in El Salvador when I was on sabbatical, volunteering for six months in the parish of Suchitoto where she and four other US sisters served. I sent her an e-mail, asking if there was any way I could be of service there.

This was not something I had thought of. In fact, in February, my spiritual director had asked me if I would think of just leaving my ministry at St. Thomas. I was happy in my ministry and even had the opportunity to teach a class about once a year in the university. I was comfortably ensconced in a nice small house. My immediate response to my director was “No.”

Yet two months later I was seriously considering leaving for Central America

Somehow, while we were emptying Sharon’s house God opened something in my heart. As I look back, I realize that while we emptied out Sandra’s house, I was being emptied.

This emptying raised a deeper question in my heart: Am I called to do something more? (How typically Ignatian.)

Somehow, while we were emptying Sharon’s house God opened something in my heart.

This happened almost fourteen years ago. And now I find myself in the hills of southwestern Honduras, older than Sandra was when we met her. But I still need to keep pondering – What does God want me to let go of? In what ways need I to experience the emptying of God? What more?

In all this I return to a passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians2: 5-7, that has formed me – since high school.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave…

Help me, Lord, to remember the roots of my missionary vocation and an inspiration of my diaconal calling.

Help me, Lord, to empty myself.  

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Two weeks in the parish

The church in Dulce Nombre, built about fifty years ago, has needed repairs and repainting for some time and the work has been progressing in the last few months. Most of the funding has come from some donations, from the sale of coffee from the parish coffee farm, but mostly from the sale of food before Masses in Dulce Nombre as well as collections.

In the process of taking off the stucco for repainting, the stone work on the two church towers was revealed. These are stones which people from town fashioned to put into place under the supervision of the pastor at that time, an Italian missionary, Padre Juan Genarro.

Padre German, consulting with many people decided that we will leave the stone visible – though we are looking for ways to seal the stone.

As the work inside the church progressed, stone was revealed on the back wall of the sanctuary. Padre is doing a make-over of the sanctuary to make it less-cluttered and more accessible for the Masses and other liturgies.

I mentioned that we might want to think of having a mural in the rounded vault above the sanctuary, since the church is somewhat Romanesque in style. We are looking at an artist or two who might be able to do this. I am in charge of this work – and would appreciate any suggestions (as well as any contributions for the towers or the murals.)

Clergy study week – the protection of minors and the vulnerable

Two weeks ago we had a study week for clergy, actually from Monday evening to Thursday noon. There were some last minute changes, but the highlight was a great presentation by a young priest who had just come from a course in Mexico on the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons.

The presentation highlighted the problem of abuse in the church. To this point, abuse by clergy in Honduras has been kept quiet. The abuse of power and conscience, as well as sexual abuse, have not been absent from the life of the church.

In part this reflects the clericalism and the culture of silence that is found in many parts of the church, especially in Latin America. But it also reflects the wider culture. Sexual abuse and domestic violence are not uncommon, to put it mildly. But one hardly ever talks about it and little is done to respond to this.

My guess is that in the Honduran church abuse is different than in other countries. One particular concern of mine is the abuse of vulnerable adults, not because they don’t know what is happening, but because of the imbalance of power. Recently we have seen some of this in the abuse of religious women in India and parts of Africa. It also happens here, in Latin America.

There are other cases. A prominent conservative Catholic publication revealed stories against a bishop who seems to have taken advantage of some seminarians. There may be cases of abuse of minors – female and male – that will probably come to light.

I pray that the church might be open to responding with justice and love – without defensiveness.

A good start is being made in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. The bishop will be setting up a commission to deal with prevention as well as reporting of abuse.

This is very important. It will, I believe and hope, open a can of worms. The abuse of power, conscience, and sex are not uncommon in the whole society. If the church begins to respond in an open and integral way, many may feel empowered to speak about the abuses in the society as a whole, in families, businesses, communities, and more.

Please pray for us – that we may have the courage and the conviction to go forward to protect the vulnerable among us.

Preparing for Confirmation

We’ll have confirmations in our parish, Dulce Nombre de María, on September 30 and 31. More than 160 will be confirmed in three different locations.

We have had two meetings of catechists this month. We meet regularly for formation on various topics and to share ideas. This month the topic was the Mass. I decided to take advantage of these meetings to work with the catechists to prepare the confirmation Masses. I had them choose the readings and also find persons to do the readings and fill the different functions.

We also had a morning for confessions. Most of those who will be confirmed, as well as some sponsors, came. Five priests from the deanery helped – but we had confessions from about 9:30 to noon. Then we had Mass, in which about 50 on those to be confirmed received their first Communion.

Other events

This Thursday we also had a training session for the members of our parish who will go on mission in October. In our deanery, missionaries will go to a different parish to visit people in distinct villages. These are parishioners who will take out a whole week and live in a different parish. Their commitment is extraordinary. We have had training to help them deepen their faith and their sense of mission. Next month we will have a two day training session which will include some training in how to approach people.

In past years we have had weeks of mission within the parish in which parishioners went in groups of two to visit homes in different villages in the parish. This year, as part of the Extraordinary Year of Mission, called by Pope Francis, people will be visiting other parts fo the diocese.

Saturday we had a youth encounter in a park near Dulce Nombre. Young people from seven different parts of the parish came. After walking to the park, there were games and presentations by the various groups as well as food, brought and shared by the different groups. We closed with a Celebration of the Word with Communion, which I led. It was fitting that it was the feast of Saint Bartholomew and that the Gospel was the calling of Nathaniel in John’s Gospel. I briefly recalled how we are called, often by other persons, to go and see Jesus – not just talk about Him. I also noted how Jesus saw the good in the heart of Nathaniel and praised him.

Today, I went to the 7:00 am Mass in Concepción and preached. After Mass I was going to a distant village when I noted that I had a flat rear tire. I changed it – but it took almost an hour since I didn’t have an adaptor for the tire wrench. Looking at the flat tire, the result of a nail puncture, I noted that the tire needed to be replaced. So, it’s off to Santa Rosa tomorrow to buy tires.

I had planned to leave today for a diocesan cultural day in the national seminary in Tegucigalpa. But, considering the state of the tire, I didn’t want to take a seven-hour trip without a good spare (and I can’t buy a tire until tomorrow.) So, regrettably, I decided not to go.

This may be a blessing in disguise. I came home from changing the tire and proceeded to fall asleep for over an hour in my hammock.

So continues the work of ministry in our parish.

Next month we celebrate our feast day on September 12. There is a novena of Masses each evening starting September 3. There will be a procession and Mass on the morning of September 12.

Our formation activities will continue. I will help in the day of formation for delegates of the Word, those who lead the Sunday celebrations in their communities. As I mentioned above we will have a two-day workshop for the missionaries.

I will meet, as usual, with the extraordinary ministers of Communion, accompanying them in their monthly meeting.

I will also have a special workshop for new catechists. We have about 25 people, mostly young, who are interested in becoming catechists. This will be a two year process, at least – helping them to learn their faith better, to master teaching skills, and to know about our parish’s life of faith so that they can communicate more easily with their local communities.

I will also have a meeting of Social Ministry. We have been meeting several times a year. In the last meeting we identified a number of problems. The two most pressing issues concern water. One problem is the contamination of water due to deforestation and well as the run-off waters of the coffee de-pulping process. We hope to be able to move forward promoting ecologically friendly processes.

But the other problem is access to water. Most of the water comes from mountain springs, but some of them are drying up, partly due to the lack of sufficient rainfall and the elevated temperatures we’ve been experiencing this past year or two. But also, deforestation has had a major effect on these springs. One of our projects is to devote the first weeks of October to various tree planting projects – in part to celebrate the legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron of the environment.

Much more is happening in our parish and in the country. Migration continues, fueled by the violence of gangs and drug traffickers in the major cities and the north coast, by the lack of a justice system which promotes impunity and the lack of judicial sentences for crimes, the ongoing poverty and corruption, and also the climatic changes which make agriculture an even more precarious occupation. This will have to wait for a later post, but it deeply concerns me and many here.

But in the midst of this, God is found and people live their daily lives – often with great love and sacrifice. And there is joy.