A good cry, new connections with old friends, staying put are my best medicine

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.

Social distance walking at sunset through my Tegucigalpa 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.

Standing in my calling

Standing in my call
In the labyrinth outside Baird Hall on the campus of San Francisco Theological Seminary, May 24, 2016.

Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.

The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:

By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.

Wendell Berry

Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.

A song of ascents by the migrant laborer

an Advent devotion based on Psalm 126

When we had the good fortune to cross safely into this land, O God, we became dreamers. We laughed with relief, with optimism, and ironically with fear, knowing that the wrong word upon our tongues could end in deportation and undoing.

Those in other nations looked upon us with envy, believing us to be saved, but suddenly we knew in our flesh that it was not yet true. Some of us are still missing. We dream of our grandmothers, sons, nephews, sisters, husbands, grandbabies, back in the land where we were born but don’t belong.

We rejoice because we may now remit and save and feed the flesh of our torn flesh, the bone of our broken bones.  We praise God for our safety. And we plead for theirs.

Restore us, O God. Make us a whole family. Be like the waters of the Rio Grande, so long absent, suddenly bursting forth, washing away the sins and the hurts and the fences, and soaking the soil and renewing life.

May we who sow their fields with our tears then reap with shouts of joy.

May all families who go out weeping, bearing the seeds of dreams, return home with shouts of joy, carrying their own babies, feeding their own families, kissing their own lovers, embracing their own flesh.

Job: A lamentation

I lie at the side of my road, hollowed by shareholder robbers, identity thieves.
Where is the voice, the calling in the wilderness, I had heard drawing me forward?
I was so distracted by your voice, O God, I forgot to watch the intersections
And you allowed me to be bowled over, and I tumbled and rolled and skidded
Out of my clothing, out of my very skin, which is left on the pavement after flaying
And I lie on my back, open to the slate sky, blank. Who am I without my job?
No one will answer; my compatriots, fellows on the journey, stream by, and you allow
Their abandonment, you let them continue without me. They become my enemies
Unwittingly. I am on the same road, still, but unmoving, and suddenly with perspective
Anew, from below, from the side, from the sidewalk. I strain for your voice, for you
To tell me who I am, how to re-clothe myself, where the pieces of my skin can be grafted
And where I must scar as a reminder of who I was (or still am?) Only you can tell me
What happened, because I was listening to your voice and didn’t see what happened.
And now I cannot hear you.
I cannot hear you.
I know you were there.
Because of you, I am here.
But I cannot hear you now.
Until I stand up. And lose my shame, and decide on my identity, and choose a path.
Then will I hear your voice again. Will I hear your voice again?