I fear returning to “normal”…perhaps God is doing a new thing, and we are invited into this.Tracey King-Ortega
On Palm Sunday, two pairs of church members with two trucks drove out to deliver 250 bags of basic necessities to families across the 27 congregations of the presbytery. They plan to do it all again as soon as possible. … Meanwhile, despite border closings and the threat of spreading the coronavirus between our two countries, deportation flights from the United States continued to land in Honduras. U.S. citizens, seeking virus-related evacuation, were sold seats on the returning ICE-chartered planes.
A whole lot has changed for me in a week. One week ago, I was sharing my last Girl Scout cookies with a group of fellow North American women who live in Tegucigalpa. We listened to this poetry reading and reflected on what we can praise in this expatriate life that is rather difficult. Later that evening, life suddenly got more difficult as Honduras closed its borders and mandated a curfew/quarantine for three cities, including Tegucigalpa, in order to try to contain the COVID 19 coronavirus.
Since late last Sunday, Ceiba, Choluteca and Tegucigalpa have been under police-enforced curfew, all businesses closed, and travel in and out of those cities is prohibited. Travel within the cities is limited to private cars, and two people per car. All public transport is prohibited. All schools are closed. All meetings or events of more than 50 people are canceled, but the business closures mean that even many smaller meetings and events are canceled. Police and military are on the streets enforcing curfews and travel bans.
Friday night, the government of Honduras announced the immediate expansion of quarantine/curfew measures to the entire country, beyond the four cities with coronavirus cases. All businesses are ordered closed, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets making home deliveries, and small neighborhood groceries (pulperías). Travel is prohibited without documented permission from the government, and police and military posts are enforcing cordons. The borders—air, land, and sea—remain closed to entries and departures. There are provisions for foreigners leaving, supposedly arranged through the foreigners’ embassies, but there is little reliable information about travel. The only thing we know for sure is that we are to stay in place to protect the health of ourselves and others.
I have been home all week. I’m in daily phone and Internet contact with my Honduras mission partners, as well as with my family in the United States. Last night I was on the best three-hour Zoom conference of my life, a 20-year reunion of the University of Missouri McDavid Hall FARC Spotlight open mike. I’m trading memes and tips with my Honduran and North American friends and colleagues who are stuck here. I’ve had movie nights and games with my neighbor bestie, and yesterday a lovely walk through our deserted neighborhood.
This morning as I joined a U.S. colleague’s Facebook Live worship service, my friend during the pastoral prayer said “Lord, we are frightened…” and tears welled in my eyes. I realized that during this past week of absorbing information, counting bags of beans and bottles of water, deciding to stay or to go, and escaping via Netflix, I had not admitted to myself or anyone else that I feel frightened. I worry about my parents’ and grandmother’s health. I worry about how our world is changing and in crisis, and there seems to be no end in sight.
Some of the restrictions and measures (military on the streets) seem extreme and kind of scary to me. This is a country with a long and recent history of military coup and violence done to citizens in the name of national security. I have ministry colleagues in Choluteca, for example, who are monitoring police posts to attempt to keep police accountable in protecting human rights. But weighing all the factors, I think it was probably the right move to slow the spread of this virus in our country. Our infrastructure absolutely could not cope with this contagion unfettered.
Also Friday, the Presbyterian Mission Agency recalled all U.S.-based employees, and my employer World Mission gave non-U.S.-based folks the option of staying or returning. I have decided it is best for me to shelter in place in Honduras for the time being. I believe my risks are lower staying in Tegucigalpa than they are traveling and sheltering with my family in Salt Lake City, Utah. I believe I’ll be able to do the same amount of work from “home” in Tegucigalpa as from “home” in Salt Lake City, and I will have less chance of being shut out of Honduras after the borders start to open up again. The Honduras government has actually been equal to or ahead of the various U.S. governments in restricting movement and mandating “social distancing.”
This crisis has helped me assess my missionary life here in Honduras for the past two years. The truth is, my chosen community is here. I feel safe here. I feel cared for here. I feel committed to the Honduran people. My daily support network, colleagues and friends, whether Honduran or foreign, is local and is staying put. I feel safer in fact than I would feel traveling to the United States for an indefinite amount of time. I feel called to be here.
I am supplied with drinking water and food for the time being, and I expect to be able to resupply as needed. I canceled my birthday party I’d planned for next Sunday. I am privileged to be able to access medical care if needed, in a city with good quality hospitals that I can afford. Furthermore, I am not at high risk of needing medical care related to coronavirus, as I am under the age of 50, and I have no underlying medical conditions.
(I’m not alone. Some of my colleagues in Central America and the Caribbean are returning to the U.S., but I know of colleagues in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Costa Rica who are remaining in-country. Everyone’s situation is different.)
My mission partners of the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras are in the same boat as everyone around the world, with fewer economic resources to cope. They also are not working, their employers, businesses, churches and organizations are closed. Some of our church leaders have had family worship daily, occasionally using Zoom to connect family members across three continents. Technology for that is more limited here than in other places.
The economic situation in this country is going to be very difficult over the next few months. Two-thirds of Hondurans already live below the poverty line, with one third in “extreme” poverty. Even those who are employed are likely to be under-employed or “under the table” employed, and therefore sometimes not eligible for certain government relief actions. It remains to be seen how this will directly affect the church. It certainly already is affecting the church families that many of my Presbyterian friends know. Some NGOs are already expecting donations and grants to be affected, so even charitable efforts will be cut, and organizations are deciding whether to lay people off now or later.
This is also a country whose health care system is in a shambles to begin with, and which could not cope with the numbers of patients that, say, Italy had to cope with last week. And, finally, this is a country whose economy is generally quite precarious, dependent on foreign remittances from families abroad, on foreign aid, and on external multi-national corporations. Local employees and business owners alike are bound to be in dire straits by the end of a country-wide closure.
So, this is a big deal, and the final results are unknown, and living day-to-day in that unknown is quite challenging. I’m a girl who likes to have a plan, and that just isn’t possible. I feel glad to be connected to you all through this. I know all of your lives and routines are being affected, too. Know that you remain in the hearts and prayers of your Honduran brothers and sisters, and we hope that we remain in yours.
The bus driven by a church elder and presbytery treasurer picked me up at 6 p.m. What should have been an hour-long drive took nearly three, fighting the traffic past three shopping malls during Christmas shopping season. (Black Friday sales have been one unfortunate export from the United States to Central America.) We picked up pastors and church elders along the two-lane highway out of town, where capital city hillsides blanketed with adobe and block houses stacked three high gave way to cattle grazing and pine-forest sawmills. We were on our way to Guaimaca, home of the first Presbyterian church of Honduras, named Bethel, to a velorio, or wake, for the wife of the pastor. She had died earlier that afternoon.
Hers was not the first funeral I had attended in Honduras. The first was on Easter Sunday of 2018. The mother of the presbytery moderator had died the day before. The family had already gathered, as holy week is a vacation holiday for most Hondurans. The Catholic sister giving the homily at the Easter mass deftly interwove the message of the Resurrection with the message of resurrection that all Christians hope for in death. Then the coffin was carried in the presbytery moderator’s pickup truck from the Catholic church to the cemetery, where the protestant family members said their piece.
The second was for the brother of a pastor. Again the family had gathered for a 24-hour vigil, with burial to take place the following day. I showed up in the last hour, joining the procession of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery, transporting a group of kids who had been up all night watching their parents mourn.
The third was also for the wife of a pastor. I traveled with several pastors from the city to the rural mountaintop town, joining the family at the church, and giving the homily, then walking the mile to the cemetery, watching from afar as the family buried their matriarch.
Now, in the first week of Advent, my fourth Honduran funeral, the second to occur during a major religious holiday. As we drove out of town, I watched all the shopping mall traffic from the bus window. I thought back to that Easter Sunday service a year-and-a-half prior.
When I was a hospice and hospital chaplain in the United States, I counseled many families and patients on how to plan for their funerals. Many times I heard the request, “I don’t want a lot of fuss. No service. No big to-do. Just put me in the ground.” I also had patients who had pre-written their own obituaries, pre-paid their funerals, kept up-to-date portraits that were just realistic enough and just flattering enough to look appropriate at the funeral. I had a Mexican-American patient once who joked that instead of paying to transport her body back to Mexico, her family should just prop her up with sunglasses and a drink in the passenger seat of their car, Weekend at Bernie’s-style.
I wonder how some of those patients might have reacted to an unplanned Easter Sunday funeral mass. I thought of some of my own family members, my grandfather, for example, whose ashes spent about five years in a box in my grandmother’s closet before he was buried. There was a funeral at the Nebraska church he pastored, I think, but I was young and don’t remember it. I was old enough to remember the trip we took to his burial in the middle of the Arizona desert. Cousins who had never known my grandfather had joined the family by then. It was during summer, when everyone was out of school, I’m sure, and it was convenient to gather the family in the middle of the Arizona desert.
Actually, I have more than one family member whose cremated remains are in boxes in their next-of-kin’s cupboards, awaiting the right time, or the right gathering, or the right feelings. This fact was rather shocking for my Honduran friends when I told them.
As we drove up to the church in Guaimaca, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that the church was celebrating a posada, the Catholic pageant enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for room at the inn in Bethlehem. A giant tent had been set up at the church entrance. Chairs lined the walls of the sanctuary and overflowed into the street under the tent. People came and went freely, paying their respects to various family members and friends. Seemingly out of thin air but actually from the mourning family’s next-door kitchen, small plates of chicken and rice were produced. Even though I politely declined—I had already eaten dinner—my refusal was politely declined; I ate. Trays of coffee, soda, and sweet bread were passed around. Dozens, maybe hundreds, were served that night. We ate chicken, with the open casket, the 50-year-old portrait of the church matriarch on a table surrounded by offerings of bouquets and wreaths of flowers.
This is just how it’s done in Honduras. No matter when a person dies, the family comes, the friends gather, the velorio takes 24 hours, or 48 if the family members are especially far away, or especially wealthy. Then they are buried. Easter Sunday or not. In the middle of the Christmas season or not.
In a way, this is a result of a culture that is less inclined to strict and detailed planning, complicated liturgical calendars, the written word. This culture is oral, in the moment. My U.S. culture is on one hand rather more rigid and documented, but on the other hand, rather lacking in knowing just how to do things when the time comes. At Ursula’s velorio, there were no grand speeches, no liturgy, no hymns. The simple funeral service would have been spare. Prayers, songs, a homily, and more prayer, then food.
I didn’t know Ursula well. I met her a handful of times in the past two years, and each time I prayed with her for comfort in her final days, relief from pain and suffering, and strength to go on, if that is God’s will. I never asked her about her funeral plans. She wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it, I’m sure. But then, there was nothing for her to plan. There is just what is done: A simple gathering. A simple meal. A simple message of the resurrection that comes after grief.
“I will feel very lonely when I go home,” said Ursula’s husband, pastor Cristobal Flores. “Thank you for your prayers. I need God’s strength.”
I wrote a little something for the folks who helped make me into a journalist, and though they didn’t know it, a pastor: “My heart goes out to my former newspaper colleagues who remain, working hard to continue telling their community’s stories. I now live in a country that does not enjoy those same freedoms. Nearly all media in Honduras is highly partisan, and opposition voices are regularly subject to threats and violence.”
Living in Honduras for the past few months has felt especially difficult and intense. What started as a labor dispute between teachers’ and doctors’ unions and the government has become a multi-sector agitation against government corruption and economic desperation.
Classrooms from elementary to university have been closed at various times, and public hospitals have not been attending patients. Taxi and bus drivers have been occasionally involved in blocking streets and shutting down cities. University students, some of whom graduated in early June with little hope for finding jobs, have marched. Military police have shot at student protests. Commercial trucks have parked outside cities, refusing to enter, and some trucks have been burned during protests. The U.S. Embassy was vandalized and has been partially closed.
It is difficult for me to see God in this environment. If God is in the rule of law, there is little of that. If God is in social and economic justice, there is even less. If God is in peace, compromise and goodwill, there is almost none.
Some days I have had to look very closely for the smallest sign of God’s presence. Mark’s gospel gives me an image that I can hold onto: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (4:30-32). What can I take from this seemingly simple image? The kingdom of God is very small. It is planted in earthly soil. It doesn’t necessarily put an end to the burning, life-threatening sun scorching the earth. But it does provide shade, a sanctuary, open for all.
I recently accompanied a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is completing a General Assembly directive to write a comprehensive study of Central America. In Honduras, we visited a government reception center for migrants deported from North America, heard from individuals and families directly affected by the push and pull factors of the immigration process, and interviewed international officials and organizations working in anti-corruption and social justice.We heard from Joana, a Scalabrinian nun, an immigrant from Brazil herself, who serves migrants at the Honduras government center, which receives up to 10,000 deportees weekly from the United States and Mexico. She and her team of volunteers were once up for four days straight receiving flights of 250 passengers each that arrived at all hours of day and night. Her message as 150 young men and women disembarked wearing U.S. Customs Enforcement-issued gray sweats and white T-shirts, their possessions in garbage bags? “God loves you. I love you. You are worthy of love.” And she gave them coffee, a little food, and a smile.
We witnessed the secondary trauma of a Mennonite social services agency worker who had accompanied October’s much-publicized caravan of migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border. She had walked alongside mothers with babies and people with amputated legs, trying to find them strollers or wheelchairs to replace the ones that had fallen apart after days of constant use. She had tried to provide a little solace for families, making ad-hoc playgrounds for kids while parents looked for a phone, or water, or transportation. She shared a picture of a five year old taking a broom to sweep the dust off the tarp on the ground where her siblings were sleeping while their mother was taking care of errands and gathering food. “The first loss is dignity,” Yanina Romero said.
As I wrote this, my friend and colleague, a Honduras church leader and theological student, was in Mexico. He left Honduras in March, looking for work because low coffee prices left his farm in debt he can’t pay. He was away from his wife’s side for the first time in their marriage. Traveling with a guide he trusted but who was extorting his family for more money for “safe passage” to the United States, my friend was in what seemed to me a hopeless situation. Each day he weighed the risks and rewards of continuing his attempt or returning home. “God is with us, God is here, sister Dori,” he told me on the phone. “I have my Bible with me. The word of God is here among us, and I’m able to share it with lots of people here with me. I have faith.”
A couple of weeks later, my friend’s wife called me with “the best news ever.” Her husband was on his way home. For him, crossing the border was a failed attempt, a financial loss. For her, success was the reunification of her family. “Pray for a job for him,” she said.
The kingdom of God is so much more complex than we imagine. In a bleak and hopeless landscape, we find little spots of light. Amid oppression and desperation, we find the hope cultivated by family connection. We find dignity — shady spots for our nests — under the tree of God’s presence in our created world.
“We are learning what we’re capable of,” said Selenia Ordóñez. She and I share an anniversary: Ordóñez and her Presbyterian Women’s team began running a retreat center ministry the same week I was installed as a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. For the past year, we have both been learning what we’re capable of.
My job description is “facilitator for theological education and leadership development” within the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. The focus of my first year, although not explicit, has been education and development of the concept of partnership. I see my work as empowering and highlighting the capabilities of the Honduran church and sub-groups, such as the Presbyterian Women, youth groups, lay pastors, and theological students.
During a recent visit, the Presbytery of Carlisle and the Honduran church took a day out of their schedule of home construction to receive training from a local organization on intercultural and international partnership, and to start a process to assess and renew their bilateral relationship. I confess that some of our participants started out skeptical that this training was of any practical value — admittedly, its value was less tangible than building a home from cinderblocks.
Inspired by the training in partnership and mutual concern, the week ended with a Honduran-led initiative that has never happened before: A leader in one of the Honduran congregations gathered volunteers and workmen to join in partnership with the North American volunteer construction crew in building the home of a member of a different congregation. Local presbytery leaders are now encouraged to practice this demonstration of mutuality and partnership more intentionally in their own communities.
In March, the Presbyterian Women of Honduras learned that the U.S.-Honduras partnership has met its goal of raising $189,500 to complete the purchase of the retreat center property that they have been running. The Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA) gave $100,000 from one of their grant programs. The Presbyterian Women of Honduras contributed $520.77 to date. This discrepancy brings to mind the story of the widow’s mite in the gospel of Luke. “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.’” But I don’t believe this story in Luke is really about money and economic class. It comes at the end of a lengthy critique of the Temple system that creates inequality, and a warning from Jesus against the traditions of the scribes and other Temple leaders.
Our old ways of worshiping, of maintaining our connection to God, of supporting the activities of the Temple, are not truly just and good. We must examine our traditions and live into a new way of connecting to God that is not entirely financial and unequal. It is telling, I think, that Jesus does not call us all to be like the widow, but he does warn us all against being like the scribes. This story calls us all, rich and poor, to live into a new way of relating to God, to the church, and to ourselves.
This is what the Presbyterian Women of Honduras are doing as they manage a ministry of the church. They are doing so without the direct oversight of a male pastor. They are making decisions for the retreat center based on their understanding of hospitality, mission and ministry. They are seeing and valuing the gifts of ministry that they can contribute, rather than seeing only what they lack. We are transforming our concept of partnership from one of “giver and receiver” to one of mutual work and mutual contribution. Together, we are learning what we’re capable of.
Rev. Rob Woodruff
The chasm that often exists between theory and practice was on my mind as our session considered the request. The open disposition of a community is tested when boundaries are challenged.
Second Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, N.M., welcomes transgender migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The congregation’s boundaries were challenged, and according to their pastor, they are learning how to be hospitable amid discomfort uncertainty. I was touched by the honesty and unfinished-ness expressed in this article by Pastor Rob Woodruff in Presbyterian Outlook magazine.
“There’s a way to go to Guatemala as a tourist and see beautiful places like Antigua and Tikal without ever knowing a genocide took place in that country in the 1980s and 90s and that still today indigenous Mayans face racism, discrimination, environmental degradation, forced disappearance and death.
“U.S. intervention in Central Americacontributed to the conditions that have caused so many Guatemalans and Hondurans to leave their homes and travel toward the U.S. border, however unwelcome they are in the eyes of the Trump administration and many of its ardent supporters. Contemporary American, Canadian and European corporations continue to exploit Guatemala with hydroelectric dams, nickel and gold mines, and fruit and coffee companies. These operations take land away from indigenous subsistence farmers, poison the soil and water and impoverish many Mayans even as they enrich oligarchs, politicians and foreign corporations.”