Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Companion Relationship

I came on this trip to Honduras partly with my own agenda, and partly in response to a call.  With the opportunity to take three months away from my regular duties, I was determined to do something that would not be possible to accomplish in less time, and the first that came to mind was to return to Central America, a part of the world in which I have had life-long interest.  Added to the allure of the region was the possibility of studying Spanish, which has been a hobby for almost ten years, in an immersion experience.  When my wife decided that she would like to come too, and bring our daughter, the plan was set in motion.
Then I began to think about the official companion relationship that exists between my Diocese of Northern California and the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras.  I'd met Bishop Allen of Honduras and the Rev. Olga Barrera when they attended our diocesan convention perhaps six years ago.  I also had heard over the years from my clergy colleagues Ed Howell and Andrea Baker about their experiences there.  When I let my Bishop, Barry Beisner, Andrea McMillin, the Canon to the Ordinary know that I was thinking about maybe working a visit to Honduras into my sabbatical plans they responded very enthusiastically.  They informed me that Bishop Allen was going to be attending our convention again in November 2016, and promised to introduce me to him.
I did indeed get to chat with Bishop Allen at the convention.  I told him I was thinking of going to Honduras during my sabbatical, and gave me a brief summary of the different kinds of work going on in the diocese and his message to me was, essentially, "Yes, do come.  We'll be happy to welcome you; we have a place you can stay in San Pedro Sula, and from there you can go wherever you want."  I felt sufficiently encouraged by our talk to begin planning in earnest to include Honduras in my sabbatical plans.  Taking into account my family's various work, school, and vacation schedules I put some approximate dates on the calendar, and roughed out an itinerary that would include two weeks of Spanish-language school in Guatemala with my family, mixed in with some sight-seeing and vacation, followed by three weeks of solo travel, visiting the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras.

What form that visit ought to take was still unclear to me; I spoke with Andrea Baker, who had been a missionary for a year, assisting Rev. Olga Barrera at the Holy Spirit Bilingual School in Tela, and she encouraged me to spend my three weeks there.  Ed Howell described for me his more free-ranging experience, going all over the country on his motorcycle, staying in the homes of diocesan clergy, or sometimes in hotels.  My confusion about what to do while I was there stemmed in part from not knowing how our diocesan companion relationship between Northern California and Honduras works, or how my visit might help develop it.
In January I received an email from the Bishop of Honduras, forwarded on to the seven regional deans of our diocese by Bishop Beisner, of which I am one.  It included a request that someone represent Northern California at the annual convention of the Diocese of Honduras in late May.  I offered to be that representative, thinking that an introduction to the diocese in that capacity might help better understand the companion relationship, and plan my sabbatical visit accordingly.  (I also liked the idea of doing a little reconnaissance before arriving sight unseen with my wife and daughter.). As it turned out, the convention was also attended by Bishop Greg Brewer of the Diocese of Central Florida.  Central Florida has had a companion relationship with Honduras for over 25 years and a member of the Honduras Commission of the diocese accompanied the bishop.
highly developed and institutionalized form of companionship is unusual.  With some time on my hands back in San Pedro after the convention, I did some looking into the websites of other dioceses of the Episcopal Church listed on the Diocese of Honduras website as having a relationship with them.  Of the ten or so listed I found evidence of a diocesan-level commitment on three or four.  What seems more common is that a handful of people within a diocese, often in a single town or congregation will have a continuing commitment to a particular locale, or project in Honduras.
Now that I have been here for two weeks and have had a first-hand look, it appears that this is how it works in Northern California. The relationship established by Olga Barrera, Connie Sanchez, Bishop Allen, and other Hondurans who have visited us, and by Kent McNair, Ed Howell, Andrea Baker, and
others who have visited them, has resulted most recently in a particular connection to Holy Spirit Bilingual School in Tela.
First day of classes, Holy Spirit, Tela
And in the week that spent there I was pleased to discover that our retionship ishaving a real impact.  There is tangible evidence of it everywhere, from the beautiful liturgical vestments given be St. Barnabas, Mt. Shasta, to the security camera system from Aa Saints, Redding, and from the remodeled school library, easily the largest and best-equipped of any I have seen on my tour, supported by the Milennium Development Goals Fund of the Diocese of Northern California and Faith Church, Cameron Park.  This same partnership has produced a beautiful new art room on the school campus.

New art classroom

A group from Faith Church went to Tela in June to lead a vacation bible school, and their rector, Rev. Sean Cox, was so impressd with the students from Holy Spirit who assisted with the program that he is inviting some of them to Cameron Park tnext summer to help lead a bilingual VBS there.  Holy Spirit is the beneficiary of other companion relationships as well.  A St. John's in Alabama has been sending medical mission teams to Tela for fifteen years and there gear has a permanent storage space in the shower stall in the school director's office bathroom.  St. Michael and All Angels, in the Diocese of Dallas helped build the school cafeteria.  The needs in Honduras are many, and I am excited to see how the growing relationship of mutual-assistance with Faith, Cameron Park will impact the mission of Holy Spirit in Tela. At the same time, I wonder how much more of an impact this companion relationship could have ifmore connections o like this were to develop.  How would it be congregations across our diocese were partnering with a bilingual school, acongrgation, or a social service project of the Diocese of Honduras, so our companionship became truly diocesan in scope?  How might our Trinity Cathedral, for instance, benefit from a relationship with the cathedral El Buen Pastor in San Pedro Sula, for example, and vice versa, of course.  How might an expanded relationship, and the personal exchanges and transformationds it would entail, empower the development of bilingual and multiculfural ministries to Latinos/-as in our  diocese, something the Board of Trustees has recognized as a strategic priority?
Now that I have been here, I can say that, whatever form it ultimately takes, our companion
relationship with Honduras will grow by the proliferation of direct contacts between the people of our two dioceses.  I believe that it is by encouraging these contacts, through exchanges such as the one that Faith Church is planning, short- and long-term mission trips, and the like, that  relationships will be forged that grow into alliances , with a transformative impact in Honduras and Northwrn California.  A further benefit of expanding our involvement in Honduras would be the opportunity to work in partnership with mission-minded Episcopalians from other dioceses,many of whicom represent a more "conservative" and "evangelical" strain wthin the Anglican Communion.  There is important work of reconciliation for us to do there, which will contribute to the spiritual growth of all concerned.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nothing Impossible

Yesterday I visited Holy Trinity Episcopal School in La Ceiba, Honduras, where I was greeted warmly by the Rev. Nely Varela Zuniga, who is director of the school and of the adjoining church, and the school's co-director, Ms. Veronica Flowers.
For the next hour or so, I toured the classrooms, which are arranged in three levels around a central coutyard, introducing myself and engaging them in a little bilingual conversation.  The classrooms were less than completely full.  La Ceiba has been hit particularly hard by Honduras' recent woes, due to the near-collapse of the tourism industry, and ongoing withdrawal of operations by the Standard Fruit Company (Dole), historically the dominant player in the local economy, from the country.  The result: many of Holy Trinity's anticipated students  have yet to matriculate, because their parents have not yet been able to scrape up the tuition.
Nevertheless, I met many bright children and friendly teachers who welcomed into their classes.
Rev. Zuniga told me that the school retains its reputation for academic excellence, and I could see for myself what she described as its advantage in the use of computers and realated technology, but she also described the challenge the school faces in a crowded and competitive field of bilingual schools in the area.
Because of its location near the heart of town, Holy Spirit cannot easily expand its facility.  Land is cheaper on the outskirts, and another large school recently abandoned its downtown location to construct a new physical plant, complete with olympic swimming pool and soccer field, outside of La Ceiba.  The church, which was built to replace the large wooden building, one of the first Episcopal churches in the country which was demolished over forty years ago to permit construction of the school, is likewise too small to accommodate the whole student body, and so when the entire schhol gathers for special religious celebrations, they must improvise an altar in the school auditorium.

After touring the church and school we visited a low-cost medical and dental clinic that the Episcopal Church has operated for many years at the entrance to the poor neighborhoods that lie at the base of the mountains that rise out of the littoral.  The duty doctor was absent that day, but nurse Wendy, who has also begun studies on the weekends at the seminary in San Pedro, was there.  The building was of a good size, but was poorly-maintained and badly-equipped and -supplied.  Rev. Nely explained to me a little about the up-and-down history of the
project: how it was established by a doctor and nurse who were missionaries from the United States, and who kept it funded and supplied for a number of years from their own network of donors.  The project's fortunes declined when the missionaries left, only to rise again to a new height around 2008 or 2009, when the government of Honduras partnered with the church to create a model health center, complete with psychologists and social workers.  After the coup-d'etat of 2009, the new government did not wish to continue the partnership unless the church would give it title to the property.  The church refused, and the government withdrew its personnel and resources.

 It just so happened that our arrival coincided with the visit of a former physician of the clinic.  This man has spent the last number of years rebuilding a defunct meat-packing plant in La Ceiba into a thriving business.  But throughout this time he has not forgotten about his dream of providing medical care to the poor.  He has purchased all the equipment needed to create a a modern surgical theater and he was at the clinic that morning to meet with a contractor to see what would be required to renovate to remodel and renovate the building.  I have met people like this everywhere I have gone on this journey with the Episcopal Church in Honduras: people who retain, in spite of the seemingly endless catalogue of unmet human needs around them, a lively desire to address those needs.  In spite of all the obstacles and difficulties they face, they see the possibilities just as clearly; they remain firm in the conviction that God has called them to be of service to others, and that if they continue striving to be faithful to that call, nothing will be impossible.

Monday, August 21, 2017

American Dream

Rocio, Edgar, Karla, and Sebastian Noriega
On the afternoon of Sunday, July 24th, a few minutes after the appointed time of 2 p.m., Carlos, the director of the PLQ Spanish language school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, met me and my family at the front door of the school.  He unlocked the large street door and the smaller inner door and admitted us to a spacious, plant-filled courtyard, apologizing for his tardiness which was due, he said, (in Spanish) to "a deluge near my house - and I'm not lying."  Three or four other students entered with us, or came in shortly after, and we got acquainted with one another or connected our mobile devices to the WiFi while Carlos called our host families to let them know that we were there.
About an hour later Sra. Karla Noriega arrived to take us home, accompanied by her husband Byron, and we set out to walk the four or five blocks to their house.  On the way, Byron remarked on my San  Francisco Giants cap, and asked where we were from.  That was when we learned that he knew Petaluma well; his sister lives in Novato.  That night at dinner we learned more of the story: how he had been an unauthorized resident alien in Marin County for seven years, starting out as a day-laborer picking up work on the street corner, and eventually finding regular employment painting houses and commercial buildings.  He must have obtained a false Social Security Number because I overheard him telling the kids another evening after dinner about the taxes that had been regularly withheld from his paycheck.  Apparently Guatemala's current government is making an effort to collect more of the statutory taxes people are supposed to pay but hardly do.  From other conversations, anecdotes, and asides I heard during our time in the country I gather it's not going well.  But its nice to know that, thanks to the high esteem in which my fellow citizens hold our government, I will be receiving some of Byron's lost income when I retire.
Byron and Karla have three children: Edgar, 15; Rocio, 13; and Sebastian, who if 4.  The gap in age between the two older children and their younger brother is due to the seven years That the couple was separated, Karla raising the older children alone in Quetzaltenango while Byron supported the family with the money he earned in California.  He came home at the end of that time with enough to buy the house in a working-class section of the city that we shared with the Noriega family, including Byron's mother, and two teenagers from Karla's home town of Solola.  They board there during the week, to take advantage of the superior educational opportunities that exist in the city, returning home three hours on the bus every Friday afternoon.
At dawn on Monday mornings Byron backs his pickup out of the living room (yes, you read that right) where it is secure overnight, and goes to his job driving a truck, delivering consumer goods to stores all over western Guatemala.  This takes him away from home for most of the week, though he returned for a night on Tuesday or Wednesday both of the weeks that we were there.  Although an armed guard rides with him, it is up to Byron to load the truck himself, and because it is too large to enter the narrow streets of most of Guatemala's towns, he has to park it in a central location and then deliver his goods to ten or fifteen stores from there by means of a hand-truck.  Effectively, he told me, he works three jobs but receives a single salary, which is far lower than what he earned doing less-skilled work in the U.S.

Yet he is happy to be reunited with his family, if only on the weekends.  He has provided them a house of their own, furnished with things he brought back with him in his pick-up on his triumphant return from the States.  It enables Karla to earn extra money for the family by hosting foreign students like us from PLQ.  Together, they are able to provide a private school education, which is every Central American parent's hope, for their children.  This, or something like it, is the American Dream, as it is being lived in cities and villages throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.  As we in the U. S. crack down on unauthorized immigration, and seek to make an impregnable fortress of our southern border, we are not always aware that we are depriving people like Byron, Karla, and their family of the only realistic path of upward mobility that the world provides.  It is their stories that are conspicuously absent from our debates about labor migrants.  We do not understand what it costs them to come here, or what it makes possible in their lives.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tropical Paradise

"Honduras now is like Costa Rica was twenty years ago."  Alain, the French-Canadian who owns and runs, with his Honduran wife Helen, the Villa Helen's hotel and restaurant on the beach a half-hour east of La Ceiba is talking about the potential of his adopted country: for tourist devlopment, and for a real estate market for retirees and investors looking for low taxes and inexpensive beachfront property.  There is another side to his optimism, one that I have heard expressed in various quarters here: hope that Honduras' recent nightmare of crime, corruption, and disorder is coming to an end.  Just down the beach is a fitting symbol of the recent period, in the form of a once-beautiful and luxurious beachfront home, abandoned and left to decay by its American owner.

The rutted dirt road that leads from the coast highway to Villa Helen's passes by some examples of a lost dream of a slightly different kind: modest one- and two-story cinderblock houses that were begun and never completed.  According to Alain this is due to the 30 to 40% interest rates that Hondurans frequently have to pay on construction loans.  It seems that the dream of owning one's own piece of paradise, at least in this country, is one that often leads to a rude awakening.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.