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Honduras, part 3

So I left off this story in San Francisco, the small village of about fifty families who I got to entertain for five days with my North American incompetence. That part of the trip was probably the most meaningful, if only for the reason that we were there the longest. But, as all things must, our time there came to an end. Unfortunately, it was much more abrupt than I would have liked.

Each night we would end with devotions. We would have a prayer, read something from the Bible in both English and Spanish, discuss and reflect on the Bible verses, and close with the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. Also, there was some pretty awesome music sprinkled in, usually something a couple of the guys from the village would come up with. So each night we would encourage our hosts to reflect on the Bible passage–nothing big, just a little insight they might have on it to give us a fresh perspective or something. We had managed to get about two people to reflect on the passage in the four days we had been there. Then, on the last night of devotions, we got two people to talk. The passage was the Beatitudes in Matthew.

And then, as soon as the second guy finished talking, we heard what sounded like fireworks in the distance. A few minutes later, Gloria came out to tell us that was gunfire, and she would feel safer if we were tucked away in the school. There would be a watch posted around the building for us, but we had to cut our devotions short that night. So there were goodbyes, and I must have been thanked in elaborate ways by many people I had not even gotten to meet that week before heading up to the school to get ready for bed. Then, just as we were all settling down to climb into our sleeping bags to go to sleep, Gloria came into the school.

“I talked with the mayor in Copan, and he would feel safer if we were in our hotel.”

So we had to pack. It took us less than fifteen minutes to get everything loaded up. We got help from adults and kids in the village to pack up our stuff onto the bus, and before I knew it we were headed back down the mountain toward Copan, and away from San Francisco. By that time I had grown rather attached to the village, and wanted very much to at least wake up once more in it, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen. I don’t think anyone was very happy about fleeing like refugees in the night.

But we had a little adventure getting to the hotel.

First, the bus transmission broke in the middle of the one-lane dirt road that led up to San Francisco. Lucky for us, the government truck that was escorting us was in front of the bus, and not behind it. So we had to unload our bags from the bus to the truck, and about half the people had to pile into the truck. It would take two trips to get everyone, and I just happened to be in the first group.

So a word about security in Honduras: the police carry not handguns, but machine guns and shotguns. They also wear intimidating body armor. And we had two of them standing in the bed of the truck. Which is all kinds of comforting when you start thinking about the fact that there was gunfire not far from where we were staying.

Now, you can imagine my state of mind while we are driving down the mountain in this truck. We had to flee because we heard gunfire, and the bus broke down on the way down the mountain. Now we were riding in a truck with two heavily armed guards standing in the truck bed for protection. While driving along, we encountered a man laying on the side of the road, which the guards went to check out. Meanwhile, one of the girls sitting near me kept asking “where is his head?” His feet were facing us, you see, and his head was out of view. Clearly, people who had just fled a village for fear of guns do not need to be induced into thinking there’s a beheaded man on the side of the road. And then the guards made it worse by saying “es muerto” to the driver.

This may be offensive, I’m not sure, but Latin Americans have a weird sense of humor.

As it turns out the guy was just passed-out drunk. Which, given the circumstances, was a huge relief. We could continue on the bumpy road down to Copan and to our hotel. Which, by the way, was like a mansion fit for royalty compared to the accommodations in San Francisco. Still, I felt slightly guilty (as I always do) when we got there. We had running hot and cold water, mattresses, air conditioning, and even a pool. It was a really nice hotel. As the first group, we stayed up to wait for the rest of our team to arrive and recounted our harrowing adventure. I remember writing in the journal that I kept that I hoped the trip to the two villages we had planned for the next day would remind me of why we were in Honduras, since the whole “flee like refugees and don’t have a proper goodbye” issue had me a little upset.

As it turns out, the two villages we visited absolutely had that effect.

The two villages we visited were Estanzuela and Chonco. They are both poorer, I believe, than San Francisco, and that was quite visibly displayed to me. The team set up half-day clinics in each, and I mainly helped entertain children by providing coloring books and my strange North American-ness. But honestly, the conditions in Chonco and Estanzuela were a sudden and shocking reminder that we were really in a developing country. Chonco, for example, runs out of food on a regular basis, three months out of the year. From one look at the land they cultivate, I can see why. There were rocks everywhere in it. When discussing how their food issue could be helped, we pulled out of Gloria that it would cost about $3000 to provide beans for everyone in Chonco for three months.

Estanzuela had a different difficulty. They live on the plain, but unfortunately on the wrong side of the road.

Literally. The wrong side of the road.

On the one side, there is the land of the rich people, with fertile fields and well-fed cows. Then you literally cross the road into Estanzuela and the land is suddenly rocky and poor. The men in Estanzuela mostly work in the fields across the street, but unfortunately their bosses can’t be bothered to wait for them to leave before they spray pesticides. As a result, the men are slowly going blind. This hit me like a wave while I was helping in the clinic and I had to step outside to compose myself. This was definitely not the United States.

After our clinic days in Chonco and Estanzuela, we had a day in the Mayan ruins of Copan, which was pretty cool, and some free time to explore the city. We had some fun taking in the sights and sounds and smells of Copan before leaving for San Pedro Sula to catch a plane back to the United States.

And that was the trip. Yes, that “but that’s not much of a conclusion” feeling you’re getting is something like how I felt coming back. I’m not naive enough to think the trip there somehow fundamentally changed me, but it would be within the mark to say I will not soon forget about it. It took me four weeks to finally get my bearings (which was wonderful since classes started back up the day I got back), so whatever happened there did emotionally knock me around. And now I know that, at some point in my ministry, I have to work in international missions.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Experiences

 

Honduras, part 2

So I left off at the trip to San Francisco. To say the least, it was a very long trip. Eight hours long. Also, I now appreciate having not only paved roads, but also lines on those paved roads. I can’t imagine driving in Honduras.

One thing that struck me was when we got out of sight of Tegucigalpa. You know how, in the US, cities just keep going on and on, and sort of blend from urban metropolis to suburbs to rural land? Tegucigalpa was more city then rural. No transition zone. And it was right after this one ridge–we went around a mountain and the city was just gone. If you didn’t know it was there, you would never have guessed.

Going across eight hours of countryside helped to reveal what Honduras looks like in more ways than just a few photos on the internet could show. Gloria, the woman who is in charge of Heifer International in Honduras and who, apparently, knows everyone in the country, pointed out some farms where farmers had tried to reclaim the land from richer landowners. Reclamation was a legal thing in many Latin American countries wherein unused land could be reclaimed by others if they could establish cultivation or land use there. Basically it’s if you don’t use it, you can lose it; large landowners often just sat on their land instead of using it. Now that is sadly illegal. Gloria pointed out a few farms where just such a thing had taken place.

It was interesting making it up to San Francisco. From the feel of the drive, it seemed to be on the top of a mountain. On more than one occasion I had to look intently at the seat in front of me to avoid panicking at the sudden drop-offs mere feet away from the bus. I have to commend our driver, Nehemias, for his amazing skills. Along the way we got a view of what kind of village we were going to be in. The hills were covered in coffee plants, and we saw kids walking along with machetes two-thirds as tall as they were! As I would come to discover, Honduran farmers use machetes like we use pocket knives.

We ended up staying in the school in San Francisco, and it was the funniest thing unpacking before the gaze of thirty-some children who looked at us like zoo animals. The children’s fascination with us wouldn’t really end before we left. We arrived too late to do any work, but we did share a Bible reflection with them that night. I read from the New Testament in both Spanish and English, but I’m sure I messed up a few words.

What we did during the week could be divided into three parts. The first was working on construction–digging foundations or making and transporting bricks–and it was very labor-intensive. The second was helping in the clinic–sorting vitamins or registering people to be seen. And the third was the most common and could be mixed in with everything else, which was be a source of entertainment. I was really good at that last one.

I did spend the first two days mostly working on construction. The Hondurans had no problems digging foundations with pickaxes and shovels. I, soft gringo that I am, found it intensely difficult to maintain my stamina. Dan, the professor who led and organized the trip, kept coming by to make sure I was taking breaks. After all, the Hondurans would always, always, always outdo me, so there was no need to overwork myself and, in all likelihood, get hurt in the process. As it turns out, not doing any exercise for months and then trying to dig a foundation with a pickax will get you tired! Who knew?

Cement bricks are interesting to make as well. I worked with one of the men making bricks from forms–all we had to do to try any job was ask, which was great–and it turns out the whole process is very simple. The cement set on its own, so all we had to do was form it and then leave it to dry. I’ll try to give a visual: you have the rectangular container that’s open top and bottom. It’s sitting on the ground, so you pour cement into it, and then put a wedge in the middle (the bricks I was making looked like |V| from the side) and fill in the sides around the wedge by stuffing cement in. The tough part was getting the brick out of the mold. First, you had to remove the wedge. Then, the tough part, you had to lift up the container so it didn’t pull apart the brick. That is much harder done than said.

As for the clinic, that was very interesting. The boring part was counting vitamins. After a full day of working on foundations, however, I welcomed a repetitive, and easy, task. The more exciting and slightly more unnerving one was checking patients in. We had to get their name, age, blood pressure, and temperature of all the adults and the names and ages of all their kids. This is lots of fun when your Spanish is barely passable for a classroom setting. Not only that, but there’s the accent barrier to consider. And some people had very long, complicated names. Maria Teresa Perez-Mejia might sound like Maria Tesa Berzmeha. Which I know is not a Hispanic name, but my gringo ears can’t figure it out. So I would have to ask again. And again. Then just write it down and hope for the best. Also it’s very awkward to take blood pressure and temperature when you have no conversational Spanish to work with. But, I will say that I am glad I got the chance to do that. Tough as it was, I got a chance to observe the people while they waited for the doctor.

And finally, I got to be entertainment. How shall I convey this? How about a list. I entertained the people in San Francisco by:

  • Accidentally snapping the plumb line for the construction sites twice, and then thinking I did it a third time but still getting a good laugh from all the guys (turns out it was the guy behind me who snapped it),
  • Totally messing up the Spanish to ask if I could help make tortillas and subsequently getting laughed out of the kitchen,
  • Playing rummy with some eight-year-olds for a few hours,
  • Failing spectacularly at a game of soccer (which, as it turns out, was a lot more fun than I anticipated),
  • Demonstrating my amazing lack of skill at milling corn for tortillas, and subsequently getting laughed out of the kitchen,

I’m sure there were other ways that I provided some mite of entertainment for them, but I don’t speak Spanish so I don’t know what they were saying about me. Regardless, it was a lot of fun learning the stuff that I learned.

I’m still not done with this, but I’ll finish telling about this experience soon. Hopefully in a more timely fashion than this last one.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Experiences

 

Honduras, part 1

I had never been out of the country before this past January. My cause for going out of the country? A cross-cultural requirement that put me in the hemisphere’s second-poorest nation, Honduras. It could be called a mission trip. Certainly an eye-opener to the world that is not the United States. I wouldn’t call it life-changing–certainly not yet–but perhaps course altering.

Having only spent ten days there I don’t want to adopt some smug “learned” and “worldly” way of approaching things. Nor should I. I’m still a North American, living in my nice, climate-controlled and electrified apartment, continuing to live like I did before I left. To claim I was somehow enlightened and changed by the short time there would be an affront to all things decent in addition to old-fashioned offensive to the people who I spent time with in Honduras. The experience affected me, but did not fundamentally change me.

But I can’t help get the feeling that I have been exposed to something that will transform me in the long run. I spent only enough time in Honduras to become bewildered by the culture divide without being entirely immersed and overcome by it, and returned to the United States where, a week after returning, I am still disoriented.

Even so, I will try to convey some of what we did there.

Our trip was through Heifer International. If you don’t know about that organization, you 1) must never look at anything related to global aid organizations and 2) should support what they do however you can. They work on development projects that are by their very nature bottom-up, which manages to avoid a great deal of the corruption that afflicts many aid organizations. We were going to a village in rural Honduras where they were receiving materials to build twenty-some homes, and where we would set up a temporary clinic to pass out vitamins and medicines to people who have basically no access to healthcare.

My first impression of Honduras was in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and the topography of the region reminded me heavily of the Appalachians, only if more people lived there and if they happily built concrete block shanties up the sides of the mountains. This seems like an exaggeration, but it isn’t. At many points I saw steps carved into the rock up the sides of roads leading to houses on top of hills. In the course of driving through these filled neighborhoods of shanty-dwelling humanity, there were no less than three soccer fields–lines and all.

While in Tegucigalpa, we visited a neighborhood called Suyapa. There was a magnificent cathedral down the road from where we wandered about, and while in the neighborhood we visited a community designed for mentally and physically handicapped people to have a home and a job. They were very friendly and willing to talk to us about what they did. The woman who appeared to be either in charge or the senior resident was really pretty funny, offering the dog that stayed near the house to us since it barked too much for her taste.

At the retreat center in Tegucigalpa we got to hear from a grassroots development organization in Honduras from a woman named Norma. She explained the way that her organization would hear directly from the people what it was that needed work and how best to mobilize a community to do something. It seemed, from my impression, to be a great organization. I hope it does well and achieves all that she had talked about. That afternoon we heard from a representative of the Heifer Project in Honduras. Within the country, over 300 villages and thousands of families are helped by Heifer. It, too, sounded like they were doing a lot of good in the country.

The last visit we did in Tegucigalpa was to the mall. Our leader, Dan, wanted us to experience that so we could compare and contrast it with North American malls. For one, it was physically the same thing as any mall I had been to. It even had the subtle feeling that not being a preteen with nowhere to go made me unwelcome there. Yet the demographics were far different. There were full families everywhere, and the mall had a full-on grocery store. Also there were three Dunkin’ Donuts. And an internet cafe, which I had never seen before. It’s a bank of computers where you pay to get onto the internet. A testament to how ubiquitous the internet is in the States, that it struck me as odd that one would have to go to a public place to pay for a chance to check emails, news, or whatever.

Next: The eight-hour drive across Honduras to the village of San Francisco!

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Experiences

 

Traditions

Since it’s Christmastide, it would make sense that I would write something about Christmas. Maybe about the Christ Child, or the Virgin Mary. Maybe even Joseph or the Magi (oh wait, that’s Epiphany…). Or maybe something about how the presents aren’t what’s important about Christmas, or some diatribe about how it’s “Merry Christmas” not “Happy Holidays.” Something like that.

But y’know what? I don’t really feel like it.

For some reason, this year I just never quite got into the Christmas spirit. Maybe it had something to do with my grandmother’s ill health and nobody else really feeling it either, or maybe it was the lack of Christmas songs and carols, or how late I got away from the seminary and how concentrated I was on exams before leaving for the break. Maybe it was the warmer weather, what with the temperature hardly dropping into the forties even in the dead of the night. But in any case, it just didn’t feel very much like Christmas like I know it.

Even the church service felt distinctly un-Christmas-like.

And I’ve been thinking about why it felt so off, and it occurred to me that it was the traditions. We all have traditions, rituals that we do on a regular basis. One of my big ones (I am really into tradition, apparently) is New Year’s Eve, where everyone stays up until midnight to bring in the new year with Dick Clark. Every year. No exceptions. It wouldn’t be a proper New Year’s Eve without watching the ball drop on TV and Dick Clark counting down really off-the-mark, reaching “Happy New Year” two whole seconds before or after the rest of us. It just wouldn’t be right.

Christmas is like that for me as well. Without all the proper traditions, it just doesn’t feel right.

So some people might criticize tradition, saying that it’s wasted ritual and it’s meaningless “going throught he motions.” But I beg to disagree with that. Those motions I go through, and many other people as well, resurrect in us something very primal and comforting. Humanity absolutely loves things to stay the same. It loves regularity. We’re so obsessed with keeping things in order and repetition that we can’t help but make every single year made up of the same days, same months, same hours, in a huge cycle. Even though this year’s July 18 or whatever is absolutely not the same thing as last year’s July 18. It’s about keeping a regular cycle of things to keep it comfortable and understandable.

So we have something to come back to and remind us what exactly is important about it.

There was an article I was reading that my dad gave to me about a Danish neuroscientist who tested MRIs of twenty devout Christians as they recited the Lord’s Prayer, a Christmas wish list, and a rhyme of some kind, to see what happened to the brain while these things were said. From his study, when the Lord’s Prayer is recited, it triggers a dopamine emission (in devout Christians), while the Christmas list and the rhyme actually lowered dopamine levels. His conclusion was the expected benefits of reciting the Lord’s Prayer were what did it. I have a feeling the familiarity plays no small part in this particular ritual.

I like tradition. That’s not to say I oppose all things new, but I like having something to fall back on to remind me of what’s important and what’s happening. It doesn’t ruin things to not follow tradition, but it certainly makes it harder. What would Thanksgiving be without turkey? What would birthdays be without cake? What would Easter be without really, really loud and joyful hallelujahs?

So that would be a good thought to ponder with the coming new year–what traditions do you hold onto? What’s so important about them? We’re all human, so maybe it’s just the comforting value of familiarity.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in Just a thought...

 

Ὁ Ἐρος Θεου

This is not a new realization, I think, for a Christian to come to some kind of conclusion about the meaning of Jesus Christ. The sheer number of the theories of atonement that are considered acceptable far outweigh the idea that God’s purpose in coming to Earth as a man could have some kind of limited reasoning. But one of the things that struck me, oddly enough, just yesterday, was this notion of how God makes good things come from terrible things.

Obviously, God is all-knowing. That’s just a tangential piece of what existing outside of time and space results in. If you can see all things laid before you, in all times and in all places, obviously you know exactly what is happening in all cases. And if you’re all-powerful, you know what to do to make those events got the direction you want. It’s about utilizing the resources you have to get the result you want.

Yes, that’s a very vulgar and borderline blasphemous way of describing God’s will in this world, but I only say it to run to another point.

The single most important event in human history—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is a perfect example of how God takes our sins, our shortcomings, our human frailty, and accomplishes His higher purposes for it. Jesus was the perfect human being—the “second Adam”—and performed miracles, showed signs, preached the Good News, and let everyone know “this is what God is like.” Yet, by being human and thus subjecting himself to human powers, he was wrongfully accused, convicted, and executed in all the most horrible ways humanity could come up with.

And then from that came something amazing.

By using our very sinful selves, God made sure He could save us from ourselves. He played on our hatred for challenging long-held beliefs, for overturning stable systems, for “rocking the canoe,” and as a result was called out and executed for it. The sin of mankind resulted directly in the death of Jesus. But then God did something everyone should have expected (given how God operates) but no one did expect.

He took that sin, that most grievous sin, and turned it into His greater will.

Yes, we crucified our own God. Yes, we sinned terribly and continue to sin terribly. But this god, this creator and lover of humanity, took pity on us and decided the only way He could not only atone for us but also let us know how much He loves us was to use our sin in our favor as only God can do.

God used our sin and selfishness to save us. He died that we might live. He let our sin consume Him so that, by His divine will, He would show us that even our worst sin—consciously and purposefully executing our god—would not even be a trifle of a bump in the road to separate us from His love. He would use whatever means necessary, even to the point of dying on a cross, to show us that we are His.

We talked in history the other day about mystics. A man simply called “Pseudo-Dionysius the Aereopagite” was pretty prominent. He is credited with a lot of the origins of mystical thought in the middle ages. One thing that stood out was his refusal to use the term agape to describe God’s love. Instead, he used eros, namely that driven, unbound, passionate and unbridled love, to describe it.

I suppose thinking about that radical love of God shown on the cross that has started making me think twice about that term. Perhaps it is more appropriate than the rather tame feel of agape.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Hectic Week

I was reminded these past two weeks that Seminary is still a school. And schools have papers and tests. And I continue my tradition of not doing my papers until the last minute, and not studying for my tests until the night before. So, naturally, that is what I have been doing instead of anything else. But also a lot else, I guess.

I wrote a pretty good paper on St. Dominic, who started the Dominican Order (officially the Order of Preachers). He’s an interesting guy. Lots of focus on meeting the people who have either not met the Church or drifted from the Church where they are. He opposed the idea of going among the people (the Cathars of southern France to be precise) with fancy robes and gilded crosses and pomp and circumstance. Rather, he figured it made more sense to let the Gospel present itself as convincing evidence, and strip away any pretensions of worldly power from the Church. He was passionate about what he did, and his resulting Order reflects that.

There were also various tests and assignments, including a video project about following the Holy Ground Model to approach pastoral care, a quiz on the New Testament canonical listing of the books, and a test on lots of history about the Medieval Church. It’s very much like school has always been. Which is lucky, because it’s literally what I’ve been doing since I was four (re: my whole conscious life and then some).

And then there was this whole thing about my grandmother’s one kidney going into renal failure last weekend.

I suppose it’s not that there’s something horrible about her dying, since she will be out of pain and sadness forever and get to be with her God and her husband and all the rest of her family that has gone before her. I deal well with people I know dying, because I’ve got that little nugget of information in my head assuaging any fears or worries. I’ll see them again; it’s just I’ll have to wait a while before I do.

But somehow it feels different from other people I’ve seen go.

I got to speak to her last Friday when I first got the news, and we talked for a few minutes. Pretty much everyone figured she would be gone by the end of the weekend, so I wanted to at least get to tell her goodbye. I did well holding it together right up to the point that she handed the phone back to my dad. It struck me like a freight train that those words might be the last mortal words I ever heard from her. And it’s not as if I’m unique in realizing that; people have lost more and closer people than that. But nevertheless, it is going to be much more difficult than I realized. I kept thinking this week, as each day passed, I did not want a call from my parents. In fact, I got back to the apartment one afternoon after a particularly difficult day of classes to find a voicemail on my phone. My heart sank and I simply knew I would not be going anywhere that evening if it was the message I was coming to dread. It turned out to be something else entirely and not even from my parents.

But the fact that I am fearing that phone call lends so much more weight. I don’t know how I will react.

When I lost my grandfather, I didn’t even cry until the funeral. It was like a distant fact, a parcel of information that was sad, but in a “tragedy hits people you don’t know” kind of way. Now I’m wondering if I will immediately react or if it will be like all the other situations of seeing people off.

So I keep coming back to knowing that my grandmother is truly looking forward to joining the Church Triumphant. I will miss her, and I know her children will need all kinds of prayers, but we will all see each other again. It’s just a question of time. No matter what it is, I can fall back on that knowledge that this is not the end of all things. God made the promise that we would not perish but have eternal life, and I believe that.

And so does my grandmother.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Experiences, Seminary

 

Welcome to the Kingdom

As often is the case, I was idly thinking the other day. Daydreaming, that would be a better term for it. I was daydreaming as I often do, because it was Thanksgiving break and I didn’t have anything pressing that I needed to do, and anything that I actually did need to do, I didn’t have the stuff to do it with. Papers, you know.

So I was idly thinking while reading this book about the future of the church (The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins) when I got to a page that talked about how most of the new members of churches in the Third World–where, by the way, the Church is growing the fastest–are being baptized into the faith as opposed to being born into it. Adult baptisms, you know, the kind where the baptized is making the conscious decision to commit to the Church.

And then I got a realization, like all the others that I seem to be getting lately, that hit me like  freight train.

One day, in the near future, I’m gonna be baptizing people.

To give some measure of context, when we have baptismal services, I get giddy. It’s exciting. Yes, the baptized is pretty much always an infant since I attend a church where infant baptism is the norm. But the weight of it is still palpable to me. This isn’t just some kid getting its head splashed with some water while a guy in robes says some words. No, this is a big deal. It’s the ceremony that says “you are God’s, now and forevermore.”

“I have claimed you, and you are Mine.”

“You are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit now and forever.”

It’s not a simple “welcome to the club” moment. In the baptismal service, the pastor specifically asks the parents if they will look after the child’s Christian upbringing, to understand the commandments and the scriptures, the Lord’s prayer and the Creed.

“Are you prepared to ensure that this child sees the Kingdom?” That is what the pastor is really asking.

Then the congregation is asked essentially the same thing. “Will you also ensure this child sees the Kingdom?”

It’s a communal contract, and agreement of all the people present to see to it that this child realizes it is a Child of God, marked, claimed, and sealed by God to be His forevermore.

And this is where the whole thing hit me. One day I will be doing that.

I will be speaking the words, telling the child before they can even understand me, “You are God’s. He has picked you.”

Not gonna even try to lie here: I am gonna cry at my first baptism.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Just a thought...