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?