From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Death and Vacation: My Journey to the Murder Capital of the World

During my last three days of vacation, I’ve thought a lot about death.

I have a feeling that might shock people. I don’t think it should. As English poet John Donne maintains, Death is one of the only two things in life that really matter (sex being the other). It’s also an incredibly normal, frequent phenomenon. But in my culture, and most others, it’s an avoided and terrifying ordeal.
With this blog, I’m not going to try to prove that death isn’t wrenching. But after a few days on vacation in Honduras, I have been struck like a tolling bell that it's a little more normal than I once thought.

Granted, it’s not that I hadn´t experienced death before this two-day trip—three good friends, two Nicaraguan, have died on me in the last year. One because she couldn’t afford treatment for lupus. Another because she got hit by a woman talking on her cell phone while driving. That is, totally preventable, enraging situations.
But in Honduras, death is as frequent a topic as fútbol. BBC calls it the murder capital of the world, with a violent death every 74 minutes (an interesting investigation explains why).

As the sun, gracias a Dios, began to disappear behind green mountains, our bus pulled into San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the country’s industrial capital and most dangerous city. We passed a dozen factories behind barbed wire, where turbines painted with familiar brands like “Pedigree” and “Unilever” emitted face-furrowing fumes and questionably legal green toxins into the River Uloa, which bubbled under a bridge underneath us. I was accompanied by my Nicaraguan friends and co-workers Yelba and Zach, and Lydia, the Honduran who would be our host.

Lydia is a very devoted, very loving, consistently positive Bible-banging Christian. Though she has annoyed me with occasional subtle preachiness, I have been amazed at her gratitude for life, and her resilience to suffering.

Her mother died from ovarian cancer when she was 18. Her father, dejected, abandoned their family to work in the States, and her brother moved from their home on the Coast to San Pedro Sula. Luisa was left to live with her grandmother and find some way to support herself financially. She is now a successful dentist who sold her clinic to do two years of missionary work in Bolivia and Nicaragua. 15 years later, she says her patience and faith are paying off. Her father is even returning from the States to live with her at the end of September.

I have seen Lydia’s well-earned stubborn heart and smile. And so it didn’t surprise me when, pulling into San Pedro, she wise-cracked, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re getting in before dark. We’ll make it to the house without getting killed.”

I proceeded to tell her I didn’t appreciate the joke.

She chuckled, her curvy body jiggling. “I’m not really joking. People get killed all the time here, everywhere. That’s the reality of the world, and instead of worrying about how it’s going to happen, we should enjoy every moment we have.”

She said this without fear, sadness, or the strain of suffocating sorrow in her voice. I was captivated. It struck me that she has learned to accept death, something I’m told is necessary to living a fulfilled life.

The next day, we drove to a tour of Honduras’ famous dam, invited by her sister, a tour guide. On the way there we picked up her friend Luis, a short, squat, cross-eyed catracho with a comb-over. Lydia informed he his father had died three days prior and he needed to get away for an afternoon. “How are you doing, Luis?” Lydia piped, pulling into the parking lot surrounded by barbed wire.

“You know, I’m as well as I can be, considering my Dad died. Making the most of it. The sisters are taking it hard. I’m trying to be there for them. But all will be well.”

It sounded like a comment I’d make after getting a bad deal on cherries at the supermarket.

During the remainder of the afternoon, I was struck by his intelligence, amiability, and strength. As we pulled away from the green valley created by the dam, we once again crossed the polluted river Uloa, which flows through Chamalecón, the most dangerous neighborhood in the city.
“The river beneath us,” he whispered to Zach and I, “is where the maras dump the people who don’t behave.”
“Damn. Is that in the news a lot?”
“Yes, but that’s not why I know about it. I live down there. I was in the MR 18 gang for five years.”

Luis, prompted by nothing at all, told us everything he could fit into a single backseat car ride. He has tried heroin, cocaine, everything, but drugs were never his addiction. As a gang member, he was always addicted to violence. He has killed more than one person and served time. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night if he hadn’t taken out some of his rage with one of his two guns.

Then he found God. He told his homies he wanted to become a Christian. This is apparently the only way, other than dying, of getting out of a gang. He joined Lydia’s Mennonite Church and they kept him under close watch for four years. If he didn’t attend mass one Sunday, they’d have shot him.

That’s not what has kept him in Church. God has. He says both times a random pandillero has pulled a gun on him in the past month alone, he has prayed, and both times, the maje lowered his gun and let him pass. He’s also helping other former gang members to pull out. So far, their church has twenty youth in a rehab group. “All for the glory of God,” he says.

We went to eat platter-sized baleadas before dropping him off. “We’d better get going, though,” he chuckled. “I want to get home alive.” 

I laughed with him, and hurt badly at the same time. The catrachos I met in the last four days have transformed my way of thinking. I thank them for their hearty acceptance of what life has dealt them. But I was grateful to cross the border back into tranquila Nicaragua, where the burden of privilege churns my heart, but where I go to bed (more-or-less) safely. But because they can´t, I will always carry them in my heart. Is that enough?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ivan Illich, SJ Blasts International Volunteers from White Culture

Read this article if you are, or ever have been, a white volunteer in an international setting, for whatever period of time, and are interested in getting your heart exploded.
I intend to blog about it soon, but for now, I would like the world to know I´m thinking about it.
Some ¨favorite¨ quotes of mine:

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.
You start on your task without any training. Even the Peace Corps spends around $10,000 on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you?
People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly.

There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


I have found prison to be a healthy place to be.
I´d rather be in prison than be a lobbyist.
Though it can be chained, the truth cannot be silenced.
You cannot teach democracy behind barbed wires and the barrel of a gun.

Here was some of the lightly-drizzled wisdom shared on Sunday in Managua by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam vet who founded the world´s most influential anti-military movement, the School of the Americas Watch.
On Saturday, a fellow JV announced to me that Fr Roy was in Nicaragua with an SOAW delegation, aiming to persuade President Daniel Ortega to pull his troops out of training at Ft. Benning Georgia, the school whose graduates have gone on to murder Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four churchwomen in El Salvador, Sandino, the El Salvador Jesuits, and to lead oppressive, US-interest regimes throughout Latin America.

Needless to say, I followed him around.

I first caught him at 14th of September, a Christian Base Community (CBC) where I attend Sunday celebrations. Actually, he caught me. I showed up to 14Sept as usual, ready to tell the community about FrRoy´s 2pm talk at the North American cultural center in Managua, and then two large white vans pulled up outside. Many important-looking, kind-faced Estadounidenses rolled out with cameras and artisan garb. I'd never seen him before, but for his infamous searching laser blue eyes, I recognized Fr. Roy bringing up the rear. He was wearing a Romero t-shirt. With a few holes in it.
The CBC turned Sunday´s celebration into a call for justice and a dialogue with the delegation. ¨We have come, among other things, bringing an apology,¨ shared Fr Roy. ¨For countless years of suffering that our country has caused yours. We walk amid you humbly and hoping to learn.¨
Don Rafael, one of the community´s founders, monitored the encounter. ¨We´ve had good gringos in our midst before,¨ he said, glancing at me with a chuckle, ¨but we want to thank you for being in solidarity with us. May we work together to live the Gospel.¨
After a quick lunch at home, I headed to Casa Ben Linder, Managua´s North American culture house, where Father Roy shared some of his story. He has a softspoken voice, strained by past and present anger, and a tired angel-face.
A navy veteran who received the Purple Heart, Fr Roy´s true conversion came when he became a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia. He witnessed firsthand the environmental, social, and psychological effects when the US treats Latin America as its backyard.
He first exercised civil disobedience at Fort Benning when he learned the US was using the base to train Salvadorans in war tactics, the same Salvadorans whose party had murdered Oscar Romero. Dressed as high-ranking officers, Fr Roy and his companions infiltrated the base with a boombox, climbed a tree at night, and played Romero´s final sermon into the barracks. It ends, ¨Stop the repression!¨
¨Needless to say,¨ Roy wisecracked, ¨they weren´t as amused by our efforts as we were.¨ The group spent a year and a half in prison, writing hundreds of letters to build up support for what would become the SOAW. Every year in November, thousands of protesters from all over the world gather outside Ft. Benning for a solidarity march and vigil. It takes three solemn hours for the throng to sing the name of every known victim of the School of the Americas.

My time in Nicaragua (at least for this round) is wrapping up. I leave mid-December. When this reality has hit my heart, I feel stripped from my core. I feel I will be leaving my soul in this country, and headed back to a place where the majority don´t (and say they can´t) live with their eyes and hearts wide open.
But Fr Roy´s visit reminded me that no matter where I go, I am not alone. There are people with me, people better than me. People who are willing not only to risk their comfort, but their liberty and their very lives, for the good of the most oppressed.