Thursday, July 30, 2020

Getting into good trouble – looking good on wood

Soon after the death of John Lewis, the civil rights leader and US congressman, I came across this tweet of his from June 2018:
"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

I agree completely and I may have said something similar to some people I know and love. If we truly try to follow Christ and serve our sisters and brothers, we’ll get into trouble. One of my favorite quotes of Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ, is, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood.”

When I look at my ministry here in Honduras, it’s pretty safe. I’m not likely to have too many problems. After all, the mayor lives up the road from me, I am privileged as a member of the Catholic clergy, I am a US citizen, I am careful in what I say.

In some ways, I’m glad I’m here. I think that if I were living in the US today I might find myself in some very difficult situations. How can an advocate of nonviolence, a devotee of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, not get into trouble? How can one who looks to the witness of people against the Nazis, like Franz Jägerstätter and Alfred Delp, SJ, not speak up and act in the face of injustice, racism, and the militarization of a country?

(By the way, if you get a chance, watch A Hidden Life, a nearly three hour film on Blessed Franz Jägerstätter.)

But I’m here in Honduras and I’m reluctant to speak out too boldly against policies of the
US or Honduran government unless I’m ready to put my life on the line.

I’m not sure what I need to do in the long run, but now, facing the poverty of the people brought on by oppressive policies, facing the desperation of some in the light of the pandemic and the effects of the shut-down, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to be here, accompanying the people. After all, Dan Berrigan once said, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

And so I’m trying to stand here, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a quarantine and a shut down that affects the people especially the poor.

Most people can go out in their vehicles, or go to banks, grocery stores, restaurants, and even pharmacies only once every two weeks, depending on the last number of our identity cards. No one is supposed to circulate on Saturdays and Sundays.

A few weeks ago I got letters from three of the mayors in our parish asking police and military authorities to let me pass by when I am travelling for pastoral activities. Two weeks ago, unsolicited, I got a salvo conducto that the Honduran Catholic Church had sought for the clergy. I can go out from Monday to Friday for pastoral work in the five departments of our diocese.
Most of the people I know do not have this and probably cannot obtain a salvo conducto. It is thus very difficult for most people to get medicine or take people to clinics without running through hoops.

I try not to abuse this and have gone out in the past few weeks for pastoral work, mostly dealing with young couples seeking to be married who had begun their pre-marriage formation before the quarantine began in March. There are six couples in one village, about an hour from my house by car. Some have not received their First Communion and two have not been baptized. So I went out this Wednesday to spend about two hours with them, helping them prepare for the sacraments. It was, for me, a very good experience, even though not all came. The challenge is to help people understand their faith in terms that make sense to them and their lives.

I also went out to one community to do an interview. There was some confusion on the time and so I got there late – after the couple called me. But it was good. As I left one of the witnesses at the interview asked me to pray for her father who was ill; among the problems was that he hadn’t been able to sleep for five nights! I told him I’d pray and also promised to go, visit him, and bring him communion, if he wanted.

She called me and asked me to come out Monday. I was most happy to go, even though I had to leave home at 7:00 am to get there. I visited the man who was ill, who has been a delegate of the Word for decades. I shared Communion with him and with some of his family. Someone told me that the husband of a couple I’d visited several times was ill and so we went there.

The roads to get to the house were terrible. After visiting and then sharing Communion with the couple, I went out and saw a cat sitting in the window of my car – hitching a ride, I joked.

 On the return trip I went too far over to the left  on the one lane "road" and got stuck in the mud. Even with four-wheel drive I couldn’t get out. Someone came along and tried digging out the tires a bit; when that didn’t work someone put rocks under the front tires and finally we got out. The lesson is: don’t go too far to the right or the left on a muddy road. I probably should think about getting chains.

Next week I’ll be going to another community for pre-marriage interviews. Since the road to the community where the couple lives is inaccessible even with four-wheel drive, we’ll meet in a neighboring village.

There are probably about twelve or thirteen more couples whom I need to interview with their witnesses. This year we have had an abundance of people seeking the sacrament of matrimony. This gives me great joy.

I began a new initiative for catechists this Sunday. I’ve noted that some of the catechists have Facebook accounts. I decided to set up a Facebook group for them, posting several days a week on topics that might help them. I’ll see how this goes – and try to make sure that I am faithful in this. My idea is to do something on a Sunday reading on Sunday. Something about Jesus on Monday. Wednesday I’ll post an image of Christ or the saints, trying to use art that might stretch their imagination. Fridays, I’ll have something on prayers. The other days I’m thinking about specific topics on themes for religious education as well as lives of the saints.

Last Wednesday, Fernando, the seminarian in the parish these past few months received the ministry of acolyte. The bishop came, as well as some of Fernando’s family. It was good to assist at Mass as well as visit with the bishop at a meal.

I have also been reading a lot – including a few mystery novels. I read Henri Nouwen’s Clowning in Rome for the first time and found it very helpful for my personal growth and my understanding of ministry.

I have also been active on several conferences.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there were four mornings on COVID and corruption in Honduras. The quality of the presentations was mixed, though two of them have helped me to being thinking about how I might better respond to what is happening and prepare for the future.

I also participated in two Zoom sessions with the sisters and associates of the Dubuque Franciscans. They are having a chapter in November but are seeking input and involving associates in the process. There was one on English on last Tuesday and one in Spanish last Saturday. It was great to connect with the sisters as well as with the other Central American associates. Being connected with these sisters has been somewhat of a lifeline for me. They are an inspiration, especially the sisters here in Honduras. I regularly talk with one or two of them which is good for me in many ways.

I also spoke via Zoom to a student of a good friend of mine, Erlin Johnny, who has an English institute in Santa Rosa. The topic was conflict and I used some of the materials I had used for workshops in Spanish. It was a bit strange trying to do this in English!

I have also been participating in a weekly discussion of Catholic social teaching with a group of folks in Alabama. It’s been good to re-read some of the early documents.

And I've been cooking. I made the best eggplant parmesan I've ever made. I shared a bit with the pastor who found it good. I've also made potato salad and tabouleh. And I have lots of fresh tomatoes from a farmer neighbor.

August is upon us. August 10 is the feast of the deacon, Saint Lawrence. I hope to write something on the diaconate for the first ten days of the month. If you have any suggestions of themes, let me know

If you have gotten this far, thanks. I’ll write more later.

God bless – and wash your hands.

Let us pray for each other.

And take time to thank God for the beauty that is all around us. It may give us the strength to take up the cross and struggle for life and justice.

... even as the rain clouds come in.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The martyrs of Los Leones, Platanares, Suchitoto

It is extremely important that we remember the witnesses to the love and justice of God, not just the grand saints that are known and recognized by the church, such as Monseñor Oscar Romero.We need to remember the saints at our side, at our doorstep. 
I have been investigating the story of the church in Suchitoto, El Salvador, since I spent six months there in 1992. I encountered many people of faith and many stories of those who had suffered and died because of the massive repression and then the bloody civil war - both of which were supported by the US government. 
One of the stories that has fascinated me has been the story of a 28 year old seminarian and twelve young people killed in Los Leones, in the canton of Platanares - a place not far from the repopulated settlement of El Barillo. 
About nineteen years ago I was able to spend time in a celebration in the ruins of the unfinished church where they had killed. Today, on the fortieth anniversary of the massacre, I want to share what I have written and which I hope can be published in a book on Suchitoto some day.I had hoped to get to the site of the martyrdom today for a celebration, but travel there is not possible, due to COVID-19. Instead, I offer this account,

The Massacre of Los Leones: José Othmaro Cáceres and 13 Young People, 25 July 1980

      José Othmaro Cáceres was born on September 19, 1951, one of fourteen children. He was raised in Canton Platanares in the municipality of Suchitoto. A pleasant and sincere young man, he entered the seminary of the diocese of San Vicente as a teenager. In 1980 he was finishing his studies in a seminary in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Photo of Othmaro Cáceres, shared at the memorial Mass
     A note in the archdiocesan newspaper, Orientacion, remarked that he was noted for “a great sense of friendship, joy, tenacity, openness to everyone, simplicity, piety, spirit of service, a deep love of his people, especially the poorest.” He was also a great soccer player. Othmaro’s brother Ariel remembers him as a very friendly and helpful older brother. When he came home from the seminary on vacation he would get up early to milk the cows and then would go out and help in the fields with a cuma, a type of machete. On his visits home he would also meet with the young people in the area who looked up to him and loved to follow him around. He cooperated with Padre Higinio Alas in the parish of Santa Lucía, Suchitoto.

Othmaro Cáceres

      On July 16, 1980, Othmaro arrived in El Salvador from the seminary in Mexico. He was going to be ordained deacon and then a few weeks later ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of San Vicente. After a visit home he planned to return to San Vicente, where he would be ordained. And so, on July 24 he went to visit his family in the canton of Platanares outside Suchitoto, even though he had been advised against this.
      On July 25, 1980, thirteen young men, with José Othmaro Cáceres were killed in Caserío Los Leones, Platanares, by a death squad from Fabián Ventura’s private army. This was a joint military operation with ORDEN and the armed forces that began about 11:00 am.

      Some of the young men may have had connections with the guerrilla forces. But this was a time before there were many organized guerrilla groups in the area. Some were digging shelters for the people as well as preparing supplies if the people had to leave the area suddenly. Many of the youth were actually involved in the work of building the small chapel. Three walls of the chapel are still standing but it still lacks a roof.

      Othmaro was meeting with the young people in the unfinished chapel. According to one report, they were meeting to plan his first Mass in the little chapel. The young people had taken a break in their meeting and were in the church, sharing candy, but Othmaro was outside.

The unfinished church of Los Leones, site of the massacre
      He had just left the chapel when Ventura’s troops arrived, coming from the road and the fields. He heard shots and hid in the grass. When he thought the troops were gone, he entered a nearby house. But they had not yet gone and caught him there. “You’re the one we’re looking for,” they said and accused him of being a guerrilla leader. According to one report, he asked his murderers, “Wait for me to prepare myself,” and knelt down to pray. He asked God for forgiveness and was then shot and then  attacked with machetes. He died of several shots in the chest; afterwards his head was destroyed by blows of a machete.

      Two of the young men killed, José Belarmino Leon and Santos Adrián Leon had been working on the church. An account from their mother, Santana Josefina Leon de Reyes, includes the following details:
      After they had killed the youth, they were seeking a girl names Esther. While seeking them they ran into Othmaro. “You’re the one we’re looking for,” they said. Othmaro lifted his hands and said, “Lord, pardon me.” They took him behind the house and killed him under a mango.
      They machine-gunned him perhaps only because he was studying for the priesthood.
   Those who were meeting in the church all were killed - some with candy in their mouths, others with candy in their hands.
      The death squad cried out afterwards, “We’ve won.”

      An edited version of another account from the testimony of Señora. María Angel Alas, widow de González, October 2, 1983, follows:

      On July 24, 1980, the seminarian José Othmaro Cáceres came to Canton Platanares. He had just arrived from Mexico and was about to be ordained. He was originally from Platanares.... He stayed in the house of Don Manuel Cáceres and his other brothers. That very night he invited my sister Fidelina Alas whether she would serve as his mother for his priestly consecration.
      The next day at 8:00 am he went to the chapel we were constructing for the canton. There he was waiting for his friends from the canton because they wanted to show him how the construction was going. I was present for the meeting and he was inviting us to attend his ordination when four trucks cam by way of the road with National guard, solders and by the field the civil Defense came so that the people wouldn’t flee out the back.
      At that time Fabián Ventura, the head of the Civil Defense, with members of the Civil Defense, entered with National Guard and soldiers. When they first entered, the civil defense members said: “Thus we would like to meet them.”
      Then the youth group which was with Othmaro said that they were just a group of friends meeting together. Then seminarian Othmaro joining his hands and lifting his face [alzando su vista clara], told them that they should let him speak with them. It was at this time that the Civil Defense led by Fabián Ventura began to shoot; the National Guard and the soldiers followed. The dead were: the seminarian Othmaro Cáceres, Belarmino Reyes (24), his brother Adrián Reyes (21), Angelito Rivas (14), Alfonso León (26) and the others young people - a total of fourteen; one young man who managed to flee and get into a straw hut which they set fire to and he died burned.
      I was able flee with Ester Deras, with Martha Alas, Julia Solórzano and a number of others and we ran away from that hamlet. When they left we returned and found the destruction which was horrible: the body of seminarian Othmaro was asked for by the priest of Suchitoto and was buried there. We buried ours in the canton. After that day the men no longer slept in their homes and began to sleep in the fields.

      There was a woman in the house where Othmaro had been before he was killed. A young woman named Nicolasa Leon, she was involved with Caritas which was distributing food and other necessities to the people affected by the violence. Although her name was registered as Nicolasa, she had been called Guadalupe from infancy when she had been healed after prayers to our Lady of Guadalupe. When the death squad entered the house,  they asked for Guadalupe Leon. She told them to look at her identity card and see that she was Nicolasa. They left her in peace. She and others look upon this as a second miracle of la Guadalupana.

      After the killing of Othmara and the twelve young people, Ventura went to a house nearby and hacked a mark in the door with his machete. “Here I leave my mark,” he said. “Next Friday I will continue from here on up [the road to Suchitoto].”

      There is a legend that the next Friday Fabián Ventura went to continue his killing at the turn off the Suchitoto-Aguilares road toward El Roble. At the entrance to the road he encountered a woman in white with her hand raised to prevent him from entering. He could not enter then. Other times when he tried to enter, he encountered the same woman. Who was it? Some say it was the ciguanaba; others say the Virgin Mary. (The ciguanaba is a Salvadoran mythic woman spirit who preys on men in the countryside.)

      After their death, the young people were buried near the unfinished chapel. Fr. Jorge Benavídes came out to take the body of Othmaro Cáceres into town where a wake was held in the Palacios family home. (Father Rafael Palacios was a priest killed in June 1979. The Palacios family lived in Suchitoto and Fr. Raphael is buried in the church.) The funeral Mass for Othmaro Cáceres was celebrated in the church of Santa Lucía in Suchitoto on July 26 with Monseñor Freddy Delgado, vicar general of the diocese of San Vicente, presiding.

      Some have wondered whether Cáceres was targeted or if his death was merely circumstantial. However, he had been involved earlier in the mission teams that assisted Padre Higinio Alas in the countryside; when he came home for vacations from the seminary he would help in the missions and spend time talking with Higinio about pastoral work.

      His death and the death of the others were the work of Fabián Ventura, death squad leader who had his own private army. Othmaro’s death is considered to be the straw that brought the Resistencia Nacional to plan the murder of Ventura. They killed him later that year with an attack on his home in the canton of Asunción, Suchitoto, at the same time they attacked his house for his mistress in what is now Haciendita Uno.


Photos of the procession and Mass remembering the massacre, about 2001

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Update on my diaconal ministry

I haven't written for more than two weeks and so here's a long post on what's happening.

Last Wednesday was the fourth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

The last four months have been quite different than the previous years.

Since March 23 we have been quarantined, staying at home except for designated days to go out. As a result my diaconal activities were very limited.

I probably could have gotten away with going out to villages occasionally, since I know the mayors and, according to our pastor, the police recognize me. But I decided that I should not count on any privileges. Thus, I travelled only on the designated days, mostly recently only once every two weeks.

I did go out for several days during Holy Week and in early May to accompany the municipality’s program of providing some basic items, driving some of the workers as well as some of the bags. In a very real way, that was my diaconal service, accompanying the outreach to the poor.

 I also began walking several days a week here in Plan Grande, which provides a great opportunity to talk with folks.  I even brought Communion to two home bound persons.

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of the pastor, I got letters from three of the mayors that would, hopefully, le me get around a little to do some pastoral work. Then I found out that the Catholic Church at the national level had obtained a salvo conducto for the clergy. Thus I could go out from Monday to Friday within the limits of the diocese.

About a month ago, the church at a national level released protocols for public Masses – masks, distancing, use of gel and disinfecting of persons on entering the church, communion in the hand, and disinfecting of the church before and after the Masses or services. Even though people were having celebrations in some villages, even here in Plan Grande, I did not feel comfortable presiding until the protocols were out. For the most part the protocols are being followed here in Plan Grande, as well as in the main church in Dulce Nombre. One of the problems is that though the government has been claiming to distribute several million masks, many people do not have them. Two weeks ago, I bought a hundred from a friend in Santa Rosa.

Other things are slowly resuming,

Just before the curfew began, I was planning to meet with several couples for their pre-marriage interviews. There were about 15 couples ready for the meetings which we had to postpone.

I finally met with one couple and then, at the pastor’s insistence, met them again to talk with the young man who was not baptized. We finally arranged his baptism last Wednesday and the couple’s wedding yesterday.

I baptized the young man in Dolores on Wednesday, a nearly perfect way to celebrate my diaconal ordination. It was a joy to be able to celebrate with him and with a small group of folks.

The celebration included a young couple who were presenting their forty-three day old child. Here there is a custom of presenting a child in church forty days after birth.

The pastor asked me to preach the day after, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at the Mass in the neighboring town of Candelaria. It was the third Mass I’ve been to since March and the first I’ve preached at.

One very distant community in the parish, about an hour’s drive from where I live, has six couples ready for the sacrament of matrimony. I had decided to go there and meet with the couples and their witnesses since they cannot easily get out of their area. There is no public transportation. In addition, they are not supposed to go out except on the days designated by the last number of their id. Obviously, not every couple would be permitted to go out the same day. So it made sense for me to go. So I have gone out three times and had two interviews each day.

What is fascinating about these couples is that the initiative to seek the sacrament of matrimony came from them. They began meeting and discussing a number of things. At first, they had some resistance from some folks in their village since they were meeting without someone from the village’s church council. But finally they began receiving the preparation for the sacrament. Now they only have to wait a few details and would like to be married in August. Of course, they have to do this in a small ceremony, probably six separate wedding. Two of them women will also have to receive baptism before the wedding. I have encouraged them to wait for a bid celebration next year and I have promised to help buy a chancho hornado – a roasted pigfor the celebration next year.

What is encouraging about this group is that the initiative came from them; they didn’t wait for someone to say that they could start marriage preparation. They met and then asked for it. I am encouraging them to continue to meet after their weddings and form a base community among themselves.

I am waiting to hear from other couples in other villages for the interviews. I also have to look into how to prepare a few of them for baptism before their wedding. I am looking forward to this opportunity to serve.

Two weeks ago, the clergy of Honduras were supposed to have our national study week. Of course, we couldn’t get together but they managed to have online Zoom sessions for five mornings. I wand psychology. as looking forward to this because the theme was the protection in the church of children, minors, and person in situations of vulnerability. The study week was led by Father Daniel Portillo of CEPROME of the Pontifical University of Mexico. About two hundred clergy participated, including a few bishops. I was aware of most of the information since I had been at a meeting on the theme in November 2018 in Bogota, Colombia, sponsored by the Latin American Conference of Religious and I had also just finished a four week online study with CEPROME on Abuse in the Family. But it is so important that we in Latin America begin to face this openly and seriously.

This week there is supposed to be a four-morning online study for the diocesan clergy on COVID and Corruption in Honduras. There will be presentations on the theme from the perspectives of sociology, economic, medicine, the law, I am looking forward to this.

The situation continues with serious outbreaks in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and several departments on the north coast. Here in our diocese, the situation is mixed. There were efforts to open up a bit, but they have been pulled back in Gracias Lempira and may be in La Entrada Copán.

The situation is difficult for many, especially those in the cities where people are not working and for those who depended on the informal economy, selling items in the streets. In our parish there are people who do not have enough to eat but many people in the countryside have some access to food. Yet, the situation could get more serious. A neighbor told me that in Dulce Nombre beans are about 28 lempiras a pound, though they are about 5 lempiras less here. (One lempira is about four cents of a dollar.) A few months ago, beans were 15 lempiras a pound.

One bright spot is that the 7000 of green coffee sent by the association of small coffee owners in El Zapote arrived in Ames and the money has been received by the association. They will therefore have some money to help with basic needs. Those is central Iowa can contact El Zapote Coffee which recently had a drive through sale of coffee in the parking lot of St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

Image may contain: plant and outdoor

What to expect?

I do not know. The medical system is severely threatened. And even though the government has received more than 100 million dollars worth of aid, corruption has been serious. Whether the system will be able to respond to the cases is unknown.

Yet people continue their lives.

What do I say to people? Don’t lose hope.

I also share with them what a friend who is a doctor working with COVID-19 patients has told his medical colleagues:
Don’t panic.
Be positive.
Kindness counts.
Wash your hands, wear protective gear, and stay home if you’re sick.

I think that’s good advice for all of us.

On a personal note, I have been able to be in contact with folks – Skype, Zoom, and a good phone calling plan have enabled me to talk with friends not only here in Honduras but also in the US and Palestine. I am also participating in some discussions with folks in the US and participated in some education events here and from Mexico. Reaching across borders, if only electronically, is important. I have spoken once with my spiritual director and have to arrange another session the end of this month.

I have been doing a lot of reading. I completed ten books in June – six of them novels! But I also have read two books by Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out and Clowning in Rome,  both of which have been very helpful. I am also in the middle of a monumental work of Gerald Schlabach, A Pilgrim People: Becoming a Catholic Peace Church.

What the next months hold is unpredictable. I won’t do my usual fall trip to the US since the situation of the pandemic is still up in the air. I do hope that I can do some more writing – mostly on the book on my path to the diaconate that I’ve been trying to put together for about a year.

In the meantime, be safe, stay sane, pray a lot, and wash your hands.