Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Mission Frontier, Part I

I spent the last week of my tour of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras in the southeast part of the country, in the department of El Paraiso.  If the North Coast is the traditional heartland of the Episcopal Church here, home of its old, well-established parishes and schools, El Paraiso, like Copan Department in the far west, is its burgeoning mission frontier.  On Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning I rode out from my hotel in Tegucigalpa with Allan and Carlos who are field organizers for Aanglidesh, the Anglican Agency for the Development of Honduras, a project of the Diocese of Honduras supported by Episcopal Relief and Development.  Their primary program consists of the formation of Grupos de Ahorro, or Savings Circles, in which women support one another to build their own social and economic capital, by pooling savings and reinvesting them through small, low-interest loans, in education for their children, micro-enterprises, and other needs.  Each group is a voluntary association with a renewable one-year term.  Membership is capped at twenty-five; if a group grows to exceed that size, it will split to form two or more circles in a single community, as was the case in El Zarzal, one of the rural villages I visited.  In Potrerillos, the group had decided to allow men to participate, but the offices of President, Secretary,and Treasurer, which are  limited to one-year terms, are always filled by women, to ensure that cultural patterns of male domination do not reassert themselves.  Female students are also included as members, without borrowing privileges, so that they learn the habit of saving money.
Grupo de Ahorro, El Zarzal
After their initial establishment, the groups meet weekly, and each member brings their weekly savings, which must match or exceed a minimum amount that the women set for themselves.  In both groups I observed this minimum deposit was 10 Lempiras, equivalent to about 35 cents.  These amounts are carefully recorded, both in a ledger maintained by the secretary, and in a personal passbook provided to each member.  A fine of 5 Lempiras is collected from each member who missed the previous week's meeting, and payments of principal and interest are made by those with outstanding loans.  At the conclusion of the meeting the Treasurer reads with evident satisfaction the current balance in the joint savings account, which she maintains in a local bank.  In both meetings I attended, the cumulative savings for the year so far exceeded $2,000 in value--not bad for people living in what we would consider conditions of dire poverty.
The Aanglidesh trainers communicate with the officers regularly by telephone or WhatsApp, the ubiquitous social-media platform in Honduras.  They visit each group in person periodically, to provide counseling and support as well as oversight, and to gather quantitative and qualitative data from the members.  They also conduct trainings on topics such as self-esteem and domestic violence.  In El Zarzal, Allan announced a new training on developing a community vegetable garden, and signed up the needed minimum of ten participants, who committed to attend the initial workshop on how to make compost, and to bringing one large sack each of topsoil, animal manure, and grass cuttings.
Allan of Aanglidesh
On Tuesday night I was picked up in Tegucigalpa by the Rev. Deacon Victor Velasquez, who is Vicar of Manos de Dios in Danli, a mountain-ringed colonial town that is now a center of tobacco production, and home to numerous factories making hand-rolled
cigars, and the boxes they are packed in.  Manos de Dios is emblematic of a paradox I saw manifested in various ways throughout the Church in Honduras: the congregations that are making the most evident progress towards the Diocese's stated goal of auto-sufficiency are the ones that are best-connected with supporting churches in the United States.  Manos de Dios, for example, used to be the site of La Esperanza, but chose a new name at the time of the consecration of their new building, which was constructed with the aid of an ecumenical organization by that name based in Episcopal congregations in central and west Texas.
The ongoing support of these partnerships is what enables Victor's members to undertake entrepreneurial projects like a sewing cooperative, and a school bookstore, as well as to support the music programs and youth and adult formation ministries that are growing his congregation.
On Wednesday morning Victor and I had breakfast with the Rev. Francisco , of an old friend of Rev. Kent McNair of my own diocese, who relocated to Cristo Rey in Danli two years ago, after many years at St. John's Church and School in Puerto Cortes.  Here he has made remarkable progress in
revitalizing a congregation that had been almost abandoned, and is also developing a mission in one of Danli's poorest neighborhoods, at the feet of the San Cristobal mountain.  After a tour of the premises, Victor and Francisco conducted some business related to the program, funded by Kent McNair's former parish of Faith Church, Cameron Park, that is providing elementary and secondary scholarships to academically-gifted and economically-deprived students in Danli and El Paraiso, where many children, especially girls end their schooling with the sixth grade.
With Victer Velasqez and parishioners
After lunch, Victor and I headed out in his truck (provided by Manos de Dios, USA) to visit members
of his missions, El Buen Pastor and Santa Maria Magdalena in the Valle Jamastran, a center of corn, beans, and dairy farming.  This took us to small farms and villages far beyond where the pavement ends, an experience that was to define most of the rest of the week.  Vctor begins his Sunday routine at El Buen Pastor in Santa Maria, in the new church building constructed with the help of a Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Florida.  His second service of the morning is in San Lorenzo, where the congregation of Santa Maria Magdalena meets in a kindergarten built by the Episcopal Church.  He then makes the long drive back to Danli for a 3 p.m. service at Manos de Dios.

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.