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Youth Mission 2011: Destination Honduras
Story by DAVID SEDENO
TRUJILLO, Honduras — Without a doubt, Honduras is a country that envelops your psyche.
It is a land that seems to gently rise from the deep crystal blue waters off the Caribbean Sea, springing up arid, fertile valleys that produce cash crops for big multinational corporations and for lowly campesinos, and rises even more toward the hills, poetically forming mountain ranges that at sunrise are mystically hugged by slow-moving clouds, a wafting fog that masks the harsh everyday realities for the hundreds of thousands of people living beneath its idyllic canopy.
It is a country dotted with a few major centers of commerce whose hustle and bustle, both good and bad, could be any large city in Latin America. Yet, far from that metropolitan cacophony, in smaller towns and in communities in the valleys and high and deep in the mountains, it is as if time has stood still, even as economic opportunities have flown by, or, worst, never arrived. It is a country where two-thirds of its 8 million people live in abject poverty.
In these settings, boys learn at a very young age the value of a sharp machete so as to clear tall grass to make way for makeshift soccer fields; it is where young and old learn to hug narrow highway shoulders on foot, horse or bicycle without the fear of speeding traffic; it is where cattle looking for greener pastures aimlessly wander onto dirt roads into oncoming traffic and slowly are nudged along by a car horn or the heat from a vehicle’s radiator. It is where rock-hard, pothole-imbedded dirt roads that network throughout the countryside continually challenge the struts and shocks of otherwise tough four-wheel-drive vehicles.
In these settings in Honduras, much like other parts of Latin America, even if people are lucky enough to receive remittances from their loved ones in the United States, many people here try to cash in on anything that can become a service commodity — family roadside fruit stands, makeshift diners, car washes and ubiquitous corner convenience stores that sell everything from plantains and homemade pastries to soft drinks and chips.
Honduras, a land about the size of Virginia, is a country that has struggled with political infighting ever since Christopher Columbus first landed in this eastern seaport in 1502, coining the name because of its deep waters. It is a country inhabited by mostly mestizos who remain staunchly Catholic, but where more and more Protestant missionaries travel to every summer, an effort that has steadily increased since 1998 when Hurricane Mitch took 5,000 lives, destroyed hundreds of thousands of others and left $3 billion in damage.
Since 2004, hundreds of Catholic missionaries from Dallas have come regularly to Honduras, working through diocesan-sponsored or parish-based pastoral and medical programs. Students, teachers, coaches, nurses, dentists, ophthalmologists, and other professionals have given up their free time, sacrificed family vacations and paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of long, hot days, communal living where lack of privacy and self-service washboard laundry are virtually guaranteed, and the realization that their efforts are a virtual drop in the bucket for a country and its millions of people so desperately in need.
Yet they are told many times before and during their trip that they are not traveling to Honduras to change society, but to offer reassurances that Catholics in Dallas, and other parts of the United States, want to build relationships to strengthen their mutual communities.
In the end, the Americans begin to understand that they will receive much more than they could ever give, that Hondurans’ Catholic faith manifests itself not merely in church but through Christ’s examples of selflessness, solidarity and simple acts of kindness.
And so it was with this backdrop in mid-June that 40 high school students and 20 chaperones from the three diocesan high schools — Bishop Dunne Catholic School, Bishop Lynch Catholic High School, John Paul II Catholic High School — and the private Catholic all-girls school — Ursuline Academy — embarked for what many would later say was a life-changing experience. The young Americans would help with the labor at the sites at which they would be working and the Diocese of Trujillo and the local churches and communities would provide the supplies and lunches during the week.
The students would be giving up air-conditioned comfort, nightly refrigerator raids and any activity that tethered them to any electronic gadget. In other words, they would be trading Facebook for face time with Hondurans, young and old, in search of the face of God.
The eight days in Honduras soon were filled with sweat, cheers and tears and self-assessments of an easy life back home and self-professed commitments to return to their schools and home parishes with the same missionary zeal and forever search for God in the faces of those they would encounter.
“When you come here, you will dig ditches or build walls, but it will be more than that,” Deacon Charlie Stump, the director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Dallas and the director of the mission, told the students early in the trip. “You will be building relationships.
“You will find that you may not speak the same language, but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “You will find that you soon will be able to break through the barrier because even though you may be speaking English and they may be speaking Spanish you both will be speaking the language of love.”
On this summer trip, the 40 students and 20 chaperones, including nurses and Father Martin Moreno, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waxahachie, were divided into two camps.
One camp was in Trujillo, the eastern seaside port with an urban setting. The girls slept in the rooms on the bottom floor of the Diocese of Trujillo’s retreat house; the boys slept in a large room upstairs. The 30 people shared five showers and three toilets and washed their clothes outside before putting them on lines to dry.
The Trujillo missionaries were divided into two work areas. One was a few miles down the road in Silin, where they helped dig a 25-square-foot septic tank next to a church so that the parishioners would have an on-site bathroom. The other site was a community 30 minutes from Trujillo called Ocotes Altos. This was an encore trip to continue the work started in the community several years ago. The students painted the wrought iron bars on the window openings and also helped paint the two-room schoolhouse across the street.
The other group of 20 students was based in Bonito Oriental farther inland. They stayed at the local parish’s retreat center, a more rural compound setting where the constant barking of dogs and their overnight canine skirmishes became the talk of breakfast.
From this camp, they were subdivided into two groups. One helped build a chapel in a relatively new community called Colonia España. The other was sent to the community of Feo and helped dig a trench around the perimeter of a church for a cinderblock wall, and to help as much as they could in the construction of that wall.
“Many of these students have never held shovels and this is a good experience for them, to feel what it is like to do physical labor and to sweat a bit,” Lydia Torrez, the mission’s co-director, said outside of the site in Silin as two students mixed sand and cement with long shovels.
“They may be used to air-conditioned homes and having someone else do this kind of work,” she said, “but here it is doing the work themselves and maybe thinking that when they get back home they could be more helpful around the house and not complain so much and maybe remember Honduras when they are doing it.”
For many of the students, working the long hot days was the antithesis of their normal existence back home, but none complained, as the days also were punctuated with newfound camaraderie, and the healthy challenge of attempting to communicate with their new Honduran acquaintances, especially the children.
Children of all ages were there at each of the campsites. Some wanted to play card games; the little girls wanted to be constantly held by the older blond teenage girls.
At La Finca del Niño, a school and orphanage outside of Trujillo, the students learned about how the school was helping to put order back into the lives of students who had been orphaned or abandoned.
The Bishop Lynch students also delivered a check for $2,000, money collected throughout the year to help the orphanage.
And at a church in central Trujillo, Father Moreno celebrated a Mass and the students learned about the descendants of slaves who continue to celebrate Mass in their own special way.
The face of God
At the end of the day, after dinner, the missionaries at each site gathered in a circle with each one spending a few minutes in the middle, reflecting on what each had encountered during the day and where and how they saw the face of God. As the week progressed, the observations became more reflective, personal and emotional some choking back tears as they described their experience.
“The physical work is just the avenue through which we are able to know each other, to cross the barriers and the boundaries to get to know each other,” said Torrez, who also is the director of development at Bishop Dunne. “By doing that, we find God and we find God within ourselves.”
One young man told the story about how he saw God in the face of a child. After a working in the rain they played a game in which he had to go barefoot through the mud, a young girl came to him with a basin of water to wash his feet first.
Others told about being mesmerized by a woman named Gladys at the Colonia Espana site, describing her as fervently passionate about her faith and fighting to protect people’s rights at the hands of government.
Others talked about the simple acts of kindness, of the Honduran people wanting to sit and visit even if they did not speak the same language, but managing nevertheless, to communicate effectively.
One of them talked about a man with a broken arm who still found the strength to carry on with his work, and another man who had a fractured foot sustained in car accident, but who endured the pain to stand, talk, and work. And he did it with a broad smile.
The JPII students talked about Anna Basso, a recent graduate who had recently succumbed to cancer, and the strength that they got from her, knowing that she always was happy. And on the day of her funeral, when hundreds gathered in Plano to bid her farewell they said they caught glimpses and images of Anna in the simplest things in Honduras, such as the birds or flowers they found on their impromptu hikes, but especially in the innocence and smiles of the children that reminded them of Anna.
The students were schooled by young Honduran soccer players, but they taught card games to the children, sang with them and made friendship bracelets and showed some of the women that the process was relatively easy and could provide them with a microbusiness.
The students also got doses of Honduran reality not commonplace in Dallas. The students couldn’t get to one campsite on their second day in Ocotes Altos because dozens of campesinos were blocking the road in protest, seeking, and later getting, concessions from a landowner. At the Trujillo retreat site, a series of issues forced water conservation admonitions from chaperones and near enforcement of water rationing.
Hope and Peace
As a testament to the relationships that have been built over the years, Deacon Stump and Maritza Fierro from Bishop Lynch traveled to several communities during the week to check on old friends — Father Jack Donald, a “retired” Jesuit missionary who still pastors over 60 communities in Bonito Oriental — and on the progress of past projects, like those in La Esperanza (hope) and La Paz (peace).
At La Esperanza, they discovered that the congregation at the local church and community remembered them well and that the community has a need: more Catholic Bibles in Spanish.
On the way toward La Paz and a community of several dozen families who comprise St. John the Baptist Catholic Church high in the hills north of Bonito Oriental, they talked about the work two years ago that had united numerous families.
The work involved students being bused to a site and then walking about an hour uphill the rest of the way, crossing seven streams in order to get to the community. Fierro wondered if the community remembered the students’ work in digging a trench around the perimeter of the church property, hauling sand from a creek bed a half-mile away and then mixing it with cement for the foundation.
On the way there, she and Deacon Stump talked about a little boy they had encountered two years ago. The boy was playing with other children on a boulder and had fallen on a boulder and cut his head in a couple of places.
At first they were told it was a scratch, but when nurse Patty Barton saw it, she realized the severity of a deep 3-inch long cut on his forehead. The wound needed stitches, but because they were so remote all she could do was put a bandage on his head. She checked on him in subsequent days and left supplies and showed the boy’s mother how to dress the wound each day. Many people in Dallas had wondered how the boy had fared.
When Fierro and Deacon Stump arrived at La Paz, they also discovered that the foundation the students helped build two years ago had evolved into a wall around part of the property.
Faustino Guillen, who leads regular prayer services at the church because the priest, Father Donald, comes around only about once a month, told Fierro that not only was the community inspired by the Dallas students’ work, he recited the names of the people he remembered.
“We thought they were not capable of working in the sun, but honestly they were stronger than we were,” Guillen said. “They carried loads of sand on horseback, walked a long way and they always had a smile on their faces and the community fell in love with them.
“Our church has grown from that day,” he said, “because that week they were an inspiration to all of us because they demonstrated to us how to show love.”
Fierro, standing aside listening to him, was fighting back tears.
“It is an overwhelming feeling to see the finished product that we started,” Fierro said. “It is emotional that he remembered all of us by name and that the faces that we held in our hearts are also in theirs and that they have been thinking about us, too.”
Also, Fierro and Deacon Stump discovered that the boy with the split head had moved away from La Paz, but had returned to the community with his parents at virtually the same time as Fierro and Deacon Stump to visit other family members. The boy, Jose Efrain Pasqual, now 11, smiled when he saw the visitors and said he remembered them, especially “Pati.”
Barton, the nurse, choked up later in the day when Fierro relayed the news to her.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that he was there at the same time,” Barton said. “I always wondered what had happened to him and he remembered everything. He remembered my name and of course I never forgot his name. That was huge for me. That was probably the best part of this year’s trip for me.”
Deacon Stump said that because of the hard nature of the work in La Paz that those who worked there kept thinking about one thing when they reached the community that is nestled against a protected forest. “You know what you find at the end of the road?” he would often ask and answer himself, “La Paz.”
Peace is what Father Donald is fond of saying that he continually has found in Honduras, which he first came to in 1977. Known to the faithful as “Father Juan,” he said he finds peace in the people and their faith despite economic and political hardships of the recent past.
He also said that Honduran society, especially youth, continues to be challenged and enticed by some of the negative worldly realities — drugs, gangs, straying from the church.
Father Donald spends about one week each month traveling via motorcycle to as many of the rural communities as possible to celebrate Mass, to officiate at weddings and baptisms, and to hear confessions, among other sacraments. A few days before the students’ visit, he was injured in a motorcycle accident and has been recuperating.
At a small clinic where he was convalescing when Deacon Stump visited him, Father Donald talked about the importance of the Dallas youth missions and continued relationships with various Dallas parishes because of the increased proselytizing from Protestants in Bonito Oriental and other parts of Honduras.
“They come with the mission of faith preservation and they continue to make great inroads to many parts of Honduras,” Father Donald said. “They are very persistent and have done a good job with programs, especially the big megachurches that are sending people down here recently.
“That is why it is so important for people in Dallas to understand how important it is for the work that their people do here and hopefully other parishes will find it possible to begin their own programs to help communities here.”
At the end of the week, through tradition, the students gave their work gloves to those they had befriended at their various campsites. Their work shoes stayed also, along with other clothes that they opted to donate to the church.
“This is the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Anna Underwood from John Paul II. “I’ve learned so much about myself and the world and about God and I’m hoping to take back a newfound faith in him.”
Others said that they would encourage their classmates to apply for next year’s mission trip to Honduras and to be focused once they are there.
“I would tell them to take advantage of every moment that you have in Honduras,” said Victor Lopez from Bishop Dunne Catholic School. “You may never get the opportunity like this again and you just need to be thankful that you are alive and spending time with these children and building relationships.”
At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, parents, siblings and friends of the young missionaries waited anxiously for their return. Some of them brought homemade signs and water.
Several of the students said that they wanted a hot shower, a few days at home and then would be glad to return to Honduras. And Deacon Stump said that Honduras hopefully is not the end of the road for these young missionaries.
“What we want them to do is to realize that everything that they put into and got out of Honduras will be transferred back to our diocese in Dallas,” he said.
“We hope that they will find ways to work among the poor and less fortunate here, to show that others care about them and to continue building those relationships that focus on the language of love and finding the face of God in everyone that they encounter.”
Photo by Jenna Teter / The Texas Catholic
© 2010 The Texas Catholic Publishing Company. All rights reserved.