On the caravan and those left behind

In last half of the month of October, I passed not a day without hearing conversations about “la caravana” that is making its way from Honduras towards the United States. Sometimes I was part of the conversation; friends and acquaintances would ask me, the only U.S. citizen in the room, what I thought about the caravan, whether I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how I would change migration laws in the United States if I could. Many in Honduras are divided about the caravan. Mothers express heartbreak and judgment about parents who are carrying toddlers and babies on the dangerous journey, or the same about parents who left their toddlers and babies behind. Young people debate whether they would have gone, given the chance, or express either relief or regret that they didn’t take the chance.

What most everyone agrees is that back here in Honduras, there is very little opportunity for jobs, education, improvement. Two-thirds of people are underemployed. Two-thirds of people live under the poverty line.

The most heartbreaking part of this “caravan” of migrants for me is to see the level to which politicians, governments, media and the powerful are using the “plight” of migrants to amplify their own interests and messaging. The timing of the caravan is no accident, but it is not the first, nor is it a sudden trend or surge. Migration between Central America and the U.S. has been a steady trend since the 1980s, and actually in recent years has decreased, for various reasons.

The media in Honduras, all of which is quite politically biased, is playing the caravan of migrants to either right- or left-wing advantage. The left-wing media is following the caravan daily and blaming the current government for the economic hardship and violence that the migrants are “fleeing.” The right-wing media, in support of the current government, is playing up the difficulty of the journey and the U.S. government’s opposition and threats to cut off U.S. AID and military funding, on which Honduras is dependent. They’re attempting to guilt and shame migrants by saying their choice is harming Honduras. They have arrested at least one caravan organizer, accusing him of being a “coyote” and making false promises to migrants.

Meanwhile, the congresses in both countries are using the caravan as a red herring to divert attention from their activities. In Honduras’s congress last month, a motion was passed to protect the identities of arrested suspects, supposedly in order to protect the suspects’ human rights, but which journalists believe will allow officials to avoid reporting the identities of the targets of corruption investigations. In the United States, several states have passed voter suppression laws while those in office rail against the threats of illegal immigrants attempting to vote.

Immigrants are easy targets. They are exercising their human rights to move in order to improve their opportunities and safety. They are making a gigantic sacrifice—leaving citizenship behind—in the hopes of a brighter future for their families.

What makes me the saddest is the characterization of Honduras as a bleak, hopeless place, the vulnerability of communities and families who lose parents and leaders to the ambition of arriving in the north, and the indifference of church communities who don’t use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power despite the danger of sounding “too political.” There are many problems and difficulties in Honduras, but it is also a beautiful, hospitable, resourceful place to live. Many communities, some of which include Presbyterian churches, are harmed by the exodus of migrants. In Puerto Grande on the southern coast, for example, there is really not a single household that doesn’t have someone “in the north,” usually a parent or both parents, leaving children to be raised by grandparents. The person might send back $200 or $300 a month to support their family, an amount that can buy a lot in Puerto Grande, but it also creates a sense of dependence and idleness. Young people who stay behind have few job prospects, little incentive for education, and lots of opportunity to become involved in delinquent activity.

The trends of violence and economic dependence are exports from the United States. Before mass deportations of imprisoned gang members in the 1980s and 1990s, gangs existed in Honduras, but not nearly to the organized and terrifying level that they exist today. Agricultural subsidies, free trade agreements, and neo-colonial economic policies of the United States have made entrepreneurship and development driven by Hondurans virtually impossible. Unbridled corruption in the government of Honduras rewards connections to the U.S. and compliance with U.S. policies over justice and self-development of the people. It’s said, “When Heidi Fulton says ‘frog,’ Honduran officials say ‘jump.’” (Fulton is the U.S. charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

As for the caravan itself, what few people in the U.S. understand is that there is no “line” for migrants to get into. It is next-to-impossible for Central Americans to get an immigrant visa, and the wait is upwards of 15 years long. Tourist visas are denied more often than not, and they cost $160 per application, whether they are denied or not. In order to apply for asylum, a person legally has to be physically in the country they are asking for asylum, and to apply for refugee status, they must not be physically in their home country.

The “irregular” migration road to the United States is extremely dangerous. I have met people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, wounded, and maimed on the road. I have met the families of those who died. The caravan is partly timed as a political demonstration aimed at politicians in both Honduras and in the U.S., and we think that most Hondurans who joined the caravan did it not as a political statement but as an attempt at more visibility and therefore more security—safety in numbers and in media interest.

I am glad that the Presbyterian Church-USA has spoken about the question of irregular migration and the inhumane policies and rhetoric of the United States government. I am glad that Presbyterians in the United States are responding to the current caravan. I hope and pray that in the election Tuesday, the values of hospitality, compassion, and global citizenship are reflected.

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Call me ‘hermana’

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” ~Acts 9:17

So many new names I’ve heard directed my way in the past year. The professional ones: Reverend. Pastor. Missionary. Compañera.

Then there are the not-so-professional ones, mostly tossed at me by strangers: Mami. Sweetie. Honey. Gringa. Amor. Joven.

There are the friendly ones: My friend and colleague calls me Doriña. Her four-year-old nephew calls me Doyi. Nearly everyone else adds an S on my name: Doris. Something about the Hispanic tongue does that.

Names are important. They are nearly always the first thing established in a new relationship. They set the tone.

This summer, I attended the Presbyterian Women’s Churchwide Gathering in Louisville, and there I met several international partners from other Spanish-speaking countries. Like women across cultures and languages always seem to do, they quizzed me about why I am single and debated whether my 38-year-old body still has time to have children. One Dominican Presbyterian elder and Christian educator gave me a particularly hearty ribbing about how I’m never going to attract a partner if I don’t wear skirts that show my knees. Then, the other Spanish-speaking attendees and I sat for interviews with the group Mujeres Hispanas Latinas Presbiterianas (the Hispanic-Latina Presbyterian Women). The interviewer called me reverenda, which of course I am, but which isn’t normally how I introduce myself to new friends. My Dominican friend was horrified. She had been teasing a reverend for days about showing her knees to catch a husband! Why hadn’t I told her? Why hadn’t anyone else told her? She had been treating me just like any other sister of the church.

That’s the thing, I told her. I want to be treated like any other sister of the church. Sister has become my favorite new name. Hermana is the name that more than any other has caused me to settle into a new way of being.

It is how every church member addresses every other church member in settings formal and informal. Hermana Dori, I’m called, and I call others hermano and hermana, whether they are pastors or children. It strikes me as so warm and friendly, not only because it is a term of equality — that is, it describes a lateral relationship, not a hierarchical one — but also it is distinctly familial.

There are many differences between me and the Hondurans I work with in the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras. Skin color doesn’t even break the surface. But every time I call a pastor I disagree with brother, I am reminding both of us that we are each a child of God and part of a family that is the body of Christ. Every time I hug and kiss each member of the classes that I teach, I call them brother or sister, and I remind myself and them that I have as much to learn as they do.

Ananias knew the power of the word brother. When he called Saul by this name, he transformed their relationship. Before Saul’s experience of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul had been threatening to imprison and kill people just like Ananias. Laying hands on Saul, Ananias was laying hands on his enemy. And he called Saul brother. I wonder if this was not the cement in the conversion experience. Of course, the lightning bolt, divine voice, and sudden blindness had shocked Saul into submission. But the name brother: I believe that perhaps this was the true foundation of his new relationship, partnership, and mission.

By grace, through faith, we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. I continually thank God for you all who listen and follow this mission, and for all who contribute to the precious work God does in Honduras. If you haven’t already, please consider making a financial contribution to help continue our partnership.

Your sister in Christ,

Dori

P.S. I want to update you on several projects that the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras has undertaken in partnership with the Presbyterian Church (USA) this year:

Villa Gracia: The retreat center just outside of the capital Tegucigalpa has successfully come under the direction of the Presbyterian Women of Honduras, and we are less than $4,000 from our fundraising goal. The center was purchased in part with a grant from the Birthday Offering of the Presbyterian Women of the PC(USA). I accompanied Honduran PW Vice-Moderator to the Churchwide Gathering in Louisville, as well as to Northwest Arkansas and to Tampa Bay, Florida, to network and learn about ministry partnerships and other camp and conference centers in those places. What a whirlwind trip, and so fruitful! Nora and I returned feeling inspired and energized about the possibilities at Villa Gracia. Since March, the retreat center has hosted more than two dozen groups, about a third from the PC(USA), about a third from other denominations in Honduras, and about a third from inside the Honduras Presbyterian church. It has become a center of gathering, of learning, and of women’s leadership. The Honduras Mission Network continues to raise funds to complete the purchase of the property and make needed renovations and upgrades, such as plumbing and furniture. If you would like to support this effort, please contact David Gill of Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas: ferncliff@gmail.com

Heart surgery for a pastor’s son: Eduar López is the 12-year-old son of rural lay pastor Fidel López. Eduar suffers from a congenital heart defect that developed into a life-threatening condition and required surgery. After a fundraising effort by U.S. and Honduran Presbyterian churches, Eduar’s surgery was completed successfully on Oct. 4. The operation was performed by the only pediatric cardiac surgeon currently working in Honduras. His team has been operating for only two years, he told us after the surgery. Eduar’s parents and friends are overjoyed, relieved, and singing God’s praises. Eduar is a bright and sweet boy who loves to draw, help his family serve the church, and play soccer. Now he will be able to sing in church and play with his little sister without becoming short of breath and risking heart failure.

Presbyterian pastors in Honduras are not paid a salary. They nearly all support their families with non-church jobs. Economic need is one of the major stressors on pastors and one of the main reasons many consider leaving their ministries. The López family’s medical bills were paid by a pastoral emergency fund set up to help alleviate some of these economic stressors and enable pastors to stay in the ministry. If you would like to have more information about Eduar’s progress, or to know about continuing needs and concerns for the family and community, please contact me: dori.hjalmarson@pcusa.org.

Spirit of the living God

Life in the church Honduras has helped me to both simplify and complicate my understanding of prayer, liturgy and worship, and what it means to be Presbyterian. “For God chose us in Christ,” the letter to the Ephesians reads, “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love God predestined us to be adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ.” This chosen-ness is both eternal and immediate, having taken place before the beginning of the world, and taking place again and again with every immersion of baptism, with every anointing, with every choice we make to follow the rocky road, up a creek bed, in search of Jesus Christ.

Pentecost in a parking lot

We prayed for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room.

A reflection on Acts 2:1-21.

On a recent Saturday, I spent time with women of the Presbyterian church of Honduras, as they fasted, prayed, and consecrated a retreat center that they are newly managing as a ministry of the church.

In pairs we walked through the property, blessing the major buildings and grounds: the dormitories, the chapels, the trees and grass, the entrance, the kitchen. We touched doorposts and tree trunks with hands carrying olive oil, and we prayed prayers of blessing. I was chosen with my partner to bless a large partially outdoor structure that previously had been a parking shed. New concrete floors have been laid, and a wall has been newly painted. Since the retreat center has been under new ownership, it has housed several large gatherings, including my installation as mission co-worker in Honduras.

My partner María Elena and I moved from one end of the room to the other, on opposite walls, placing our hands on the walls, and the bits of furniture, and the floor, and we prayed individually for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room. María Elena prayed her prayer in Spanish, as did I, and then I sang a song in English, and then she sang in Spanish.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,” I sang. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

I haven’t sung this song in years; the last time I remember singing it was in my childhood church in New Mexico. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except for the movement of the Holy Spirit, during this intimate Pentecost moment. María Elena said later that she felt “transported,” and I felt the same. The parking lot had been transformed into a sanctuary, and a bilingual one at that, she said.

Whenever we invoke the Holy Spirit, speaking the language too deep for words, knowing that transformation and renewal is taking place, we are experiencing Pentecost.

An invitation to join in ministry

New relationships, new life at retreat center

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The Presbyterian women’s council met in April to fast, pray and consecrate the grounds of Villa Gracia in Tegucigalpa.

This year the tapestry of partnerships between U.S. and Honduran Presbyterians became more intricate. The women’s ministry of the Honduran Presbyterian Church received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Presbyterian Women organization — about two-thirds of what is needed to purchase and refurbish a retreat center called Villa Gracia. The center will become a place where all 26 congregations in Honduras may gather for spiritual formation, conferences, camps and education. In two months, the women’s ministry has hosted a day-long retreat titled “The Power of the Wise Woman,” a three-day pastoral education encounter, a lunch-time presentation of scholarships to 95 youth, and a church plenary meeting. The chair of the women’s committee, Selenia Ordóñez, says that the job was so big, she worried it couldn’t be done. “I was stressed out and anxious,” she said, as the women cleaned and repaired rooms, sewed bedclothes and curtains, and planned menus. “But after a successful first event, I started to think it might be possible.” The women say that they trust in God’s help that they will make Villa Gracia into a life-giving and sustainable retreat and conference center.

More help is needed. The Honduras Mission Network of the (PC)USA is making efforts to raise the remaining $70,000. As I write this, about one-third of the needed funds have been raised. For more about the Presbyterian Women grant, go to https://www.presbyterianwomen.org/what_we_do/support-mission/birthday-offering/

See more on the development of the retreat center, called Villa Gracia, or Village of Grace, at http://villagracia.org/

Be brave and strong

Teaching a workshop on the sacraments to pastors and elders of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

Written as a reflection for a mission connections letter.

I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because THE LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible

This verse was read before I knelt and prayed before the Presbyterian congregations of Honduras, their pastors’ hands laid on me, and I was installed as the mission co-worker assigned to work with them for the next four-year term.

The commandment to be “brave and strong,” to not be afraid, was particularly meaningful to me because I arrived in Honduras immediately after a time of political turmoil and violence. At the time of my installation, I had spent the previous month heeding my Honduran colleagues’ advice on where to go and not go, whether to drive alone, whether to visit strange neighborhoods for the first time. I had chosen a rental home and a car with safety and security as my primary goals. I had watched news of political protesters killed by military forces, police officers killed by gang members, bus drivers extorted for “taxes” to thugs, a corporate executive arrested for masterminding the assassination of an environmental activist. There is plenty to fear in Honduras.

I am used to being independent and bold — as a journalist and as a chaplain, I went into places where others feared to tread. I am not used to heeding the fears and worries of others: I travel alone, I live alone, I have driven cross-country alone, I have accompanied the dying alone in their hospital rooms.

Blessed by pastors in Honduras as I am installed as mission coworker.

“Be brave and strong.” “Don’t be terrified.” I mulled over those words as I knelt on Pastor Edin Samayoa’s sweater — he had taken it off and put it on the floor to cushion my knees. Pastor Edin leads a church in a neighborhood where I am not allowed to go alone, or at night, and where newcomers have to announce their presence, roll down the car windows, and get permission from gang members to enter.

Your God goes with you wherever you go. Those words were made flesh to me as I was helped to my feet, and dozens of people, everyone in the congregation, came forward to embrace me and hug me tight, and whisper in my ear their blessings and prayers. “I’m with you, you’re not alone.” “I pray God’s blessing on you.” “You are already a blessing to us, and we are so happy you’re here.” “Whatever you need, we will be there for you.” “We love you.” I felt their hands on my shoulders, their lips on my cheek, their tears of joy and welcome on my shoulder.

They are with me, and I am with them, and God is among us, wherever we are. In my short time in Honduras, I have seen the flowering of new projects and ideas, sparks of the Holy Spirit’s movement — among lay pastors studying to improve their care of their congregations, among women working to take over and renovate a spiritual retreat center for the benefit of all 26 Presbyterian churches here. I am learning also to reach out towards the warm spirit of caring that has been offered to me here. Nothing I do here will be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with me, embodied in the care and concern of hundreds of church members, the hospitality of strangers who have become family. I am learning to leave “alone” behind.