Bad Luck but Good Fortune

Christmas trip

Over the last couple of weeks, we have had, for lack of a catchier phrase, a run of seriously bad luck. First, we had a very serious accident with one of our two vans. Thank God, no one was seriously injured and none of our kids were in the van at the time. But the van looks pretty bad. It’s been towed away to Tegucigalpa where I’m sure it’s waiting for some insurance inspection. In any case it is presently unavailable to us. About the very same time, we had the other van in the shop to have the tires replaced. They were replaced quickly, but ironically enough, that van developed bad brakes that needed replacement. Whether one had anything to do with the other, I will leave to your discernment. The brakes got fixed and our second van is working quite well now, but we were without any van for about two days. We have one more vehicle, a very large Ford pickup with a substantial bed. When we don’t have any choice, and we are only driving the kids a short distance around town, they can climb into the bed of the truck. It also has amble cabin space so the youngest of the kids can sit inside. But the bad luck continues. The truck overheated and is presently out of commission. No one has really looked at it yet. It’s Holy Week, now so no one is really working. We’re down to one vehicle, praying that it holds up. We delivered eight kids to their families for Holy Week vacation. Laura and I were knocking on every piece of wood that we could find, and thinking about saying novenas to obscure patron saints of automobiles. But we had no issues delivering the children. Still, when we have had to, or wanted to, take all the kids out of the facility for an outing (three times since the vehicles have gone out of commission), we have been forced to make double trips. We’ve muddled through.

The mechanical problems, and we have had even more, would be bad enough, but Mother Nature has not been kind either. We are now definitively in the dry season. There is dust everywhere. Everything is brown. It is extremely hot. Knowing that Massachusetts just had another snow storm, this last point may not invoke a great deal of pity. Still, every day starts out with a haze covering the sky and it sort of feels like maybe it will rain. But it never does. The haze simply lifts and an oppressive sun takes its place. Few people leave their homes between 10 AM and 3 PM because they will wilt away. The rivers are all dried up, and I suspect the wells are low as well. Both the town and we have had some water issues. The town had been turning on the water twice a week for the residents. They are now turning it on only once a week for a two hour period. They claim this is because a lot of people have not paid their bills. I suspect this is true. But I also suspect, though this has not been said, that the water rationing is meant to conserve what little might remain in the well. Laura and I are fortunate in as much as we have a tank on our roof and a pump to fill it. Since the water was turned back on in the town in December we have not been without running water, an appreciated luxury. But this Wednesday our shower didn’t work. We couldn’t figure it out at first. But after we thought about it, we realized that the town had probably turned the water on last week during a period when we didn’t have electricity. A simple equation: no electricity, no pump, no filled tank, no running water. But the water was turned on for two hours on Wednesday, we had electricity, and our tank was refilled. We were fortunate again to only be inconvenienced for a day.

Our electricity usually goes out about twice a week. This is usually just for a couple of hours. But lately, it is going off on an almost daily basis and for eight to ten hour spans. I can only imagine that this has something to do with the drought like conditions, and the scarcity and cost of hydroelectric energy. But then there’s also been the wind. We had a violent wind storm with forty mile an hour gusts that lasted about a day and a half. I was quite surprised that there had been little damage. A few roofs were damaged and the wind turbine at Montaña de Luz was downed. Again no serious damage, and it can be put back up. Though again I can’t be certain if it was related to the wind, but the electricity that feeds Montaña de Luz’s water pump failed the day after the storm. They didn’t have running water for a day and a half until it was repaired. Mostly the wind was scary, as was the earthquake. I take it you know that Nicaragua had an earthquake. We aren’t very far from Nicaragua. For us, it was just a little rattling that lasted about fifteen seconds. Other than those things, and the fact that our house feels like an ocean bungalow with all the sand on the floor, we’ve been doing quite fine.

2014-04-17 11.31.20

Holy Week here is as much about vacationing as it is about faith because everyone has it off. Today, Holy Thursday, we took our kids to a swimming park on a farm about forty-five minutes from here. Of course, we had to shuttle them there in two groups as we still are limited to the one vehicle. But it was a gorgeous day. Apart from the swimming, there’s a small zoo, a rodeo, and horseback riding. We had a marvelous time. It is just so enriching to see the smiles on our kids’ faces. I drove the two shifts back as our director had taken the two morning shifts. A Nueva Esperanza resident and a good friend of Montaña de Luz was at the park as well with her family. As we drove out on the second trip home, she and her family were in her pickup truck a few vehicles ahead of us. As we turned onto the main way, we noticed they had stopped. They had a flat tire, no spare. Nothing is open, so there is no place to repair it until Monday. Leaving the car abandoned would most certainly mean it would be gone, or at least totally stripped, by morning. We stopped. We offered them our spare. They thought they might have enough air in the tire to make the trip home and attempted it. We drove behind them. About half way there, they couldn’t risk driving it any further and stopped. We stopped behind them again. This time we gave them our spare and helped them change the tire. It was slightly bigger than their other tires, but it could be driven the short distance they needed to go. With all the problems we’ve had over the last two weeks, it made me think of the adage, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” In this case, tires. It’s Holy Thursday and we’re fortunate enough to do some feet washing.

 

Folly

Kristen with kids

A very close friend of mine, who happens to be a priest and a faithful reader of this blog, recently commented to me that these writings of mine are my slimly veiled attempts to continue to give a weekly homily. His critique gave me some pause, but certainly not because he was wrong. I would like to think of them as reflections, more spiritual than religious. Still, I guess that I would have to admit that you can take the boy out of the priesthood, but you can’t take the priesthood out of the boy. I would defend myself, however, to say that there has never been any attempt to proselytize. That being the primary thing to which I have always rebelled. The most spiritual people I have known, many of you even now reading these words, have also been the most anti-religious, if not self-proclaimed atheists. I guess my primary purpose and hope in this publication is that we all might give due reverence to that which is meaningful in life.

The thing that is so special about being here at Montaña de Luz is that we grabble with profound questions almost on a daily basis. What is love? How do we love? Can our work, our love, our ministrythreatening disease and face the reality of mortality at much too early of an age. We are present to children who have known the horror of abandonment and wrenching loss. We are present to children who have been traumatized. It is really not a hard thing to figure out at all. We are present to children who have been denied the most basic of human needs: to be loved. On our part, the response is no less difficult to discern: we need to love them. But oh, how hard it is to love!

Love is confused with so many things, is it not? Laura and I watched a woman on a bus the other day with her four-year old son. She was on her cell phone and seemed somewhat annoyed by her son’s need for attention. First, she bought him a bottle of bubbles. He was still fidgeting and demanding. She then bought him some cotton candy from a vendor through the bus window. All the time she stayed on the phone. The child was looking at his mother expecting something more. When the child didn’t get what he wanted, he satisfied himself, at least in the moment, with the bubbles and the cotton candy. But then again, yesterday morning I saw our neighbor with his five year old son outside our door on the street. The man seemed to be waiting for someone, looking around a little anxious. His son was talking a mile a minute. He was talking about seeing a cow on the road the other day and what the cow had been doing. The man couldn’t have been at all interested in his child’s ramblings. Still, he took a moment to listen to him, to be present. The child was thrilled. I can’t tell from these two incidents which parent loved their child more.  But I can tell, at least in the moment, which child realized the impact of love.

At Montaña de Luz we’re desperate to love our children. Still, there are thirty of them. Sometimes, I suspect, the expressions of our love are somewhat less than convincing. We have different staff, and different volunteers, that sometimes give different messages. The consistency and constancy of our love is often challenged by the need to manage an organization. People come with cakes and piñatas and spend an afternoon with the kids. They want to tell them that they care. But then they leave, and that yields something of a contradictory message. Beyond all of this, and this is the hardest of all our challenges, we want to be loved as much as we want to love. It’s often very difficult to discern between what is our need and what is the child’s need. So love, as sincere as our intentions might be, is tangled within all sorts of other junk. Sometimes, we’re just too wrapped up. Sometimes, we fail.

 

Setting sun at MDL

Do we love? Have we loved enough? We are about to enter Holy Week. I think of Jesus: his expressions of love for the people and the people’s expressions of love for him. By all accounts, Jesus failed. Though all that Jesus wanted to do was convey the enormity of God’s love through himself, the people turned on him violently. They didn’t love Jesus back. In fact, Jesus failed so badly in his expression of love that they killed him. The purity of Jesus’ love was a lot better than ours. Then maybe my expectation that love will be transformative is misplaced. Maybe this is just a fool’s journey. I suppose thinking that love can overcome the cruelty of injustice, abandonment and trauma is like believing that Jesus’ love was actually victorious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Textbook Social Work

Dilma y Karin

Kaila (not her real name) came to Montaña de Luz when she was eighteen and today she is thirty and still with us. Kaila is our most unique resident. Kaila is tri-lingual, speaking Spanish, English, and Garifuna. She is also mentally challenged and so she finds it somewhat difficult to communicate in any language. In the United States she would probably do very well in a small residential program. Those don’t exist here in Honduras, but she seems quite happy with us. We don’t really know much of her history. Her mother was HIV positive and died with AIDS. Still, we do know that Kaila did not contract HIV vertically. The circumstances under which she probably became HIV positive cause one to tremble. There is a narrative of what might have occurred in our records, but its veracity is in question. After her mother died, Kaila went to live with her biological father on the island of Roatan. Kaila was the oldest of four half-siblings, but did not have a full sibling. Shortly after going to live with her biological father, she came to Montaña de Luz. Since then she has had no contact with her family. Montaña de Luz, for all intents and purposes, has become Kaila’s family.

Kaila’s sister Debra (also not her real name) lived with Kaila until their mother died when Debra was six. Now married with a two year old girl and a nursing career, she began a search for her lost sister. Her family, either because they didn’t know or were unwilling to disclose, had no information to share with Debra as to her sister’s whereabouts. Many of them said she was dead and Debra should just leave well enough alone. Kaila’s father, who presumably did know where Kaila was, said nothing to Debra. He even said that he didn’t care to know anything about Kaila even if Debra should find her. Debra started randomly calling hogares (orphanages) around Honduras, asking if Kaila had ever lived there. A little over two months ago, she called Montaña de Luz and our director told Debra that Kaila was alive and well living with us. Since then, Debra and Kaila have had a couple of conversations over the telephone and Debra promised that sometime soon on a Sunday she would visit.

Every Sunday since then Kaila has become excited telling us that her sister was coming. Last Sunday she seemed even surer than usual, as if she had some special insight. In fact Debra had called the director that very morning to say that she and her two year old were coming to visit. Our director was away that week and weekend, so it would fall to Laura and I to assist in the reunion. It, of course, would have to be one of the craziest and busiest Sundays we have ever had. Sundays are hectic anyway as we are generally driving our children back and forth from Mass to Sunday School and to catechism classes. There was also a group here from the states and there are always special things needing to be done for them. As it turned out, another family showed up unexpectedly to visit their five-year-old nephew. They had just finished their visit and we were returning them to Ojo de Agua, some seven miles away, so they could catch a bus back to Tegucigalpa. Just as we started out with them, our director called to say that Debra and her two-year old daughter were waiting at the entrance of our town.

Now we had one-hundred and one decisions to make in a three minute span of time. We would certainly pass Debra on the way, but there wasn’t much room in the truck and we didn’t think that it would be the most gracious thing to ask anyone to ride in the truck bed. We also had our laundry in the truck that we were going to drop off at our house. This now seemed an unreasonable thing to do as well. In the end we decided that we would leave the family that was with us at the entrance to the town, pick up Debra, drive Debra back to Montaña de Luz, then return and pick up the family we had left and drive them to Ojo de Agua. This was not the most ideal situation, but given our choices, we thought it would be the least offensive to all of our guests. We stopped at the entrance of the town. The family with us graciously got out of the truck and said they didn’t mind waiting the ten minutes it would take us to return. We met Debra and her child and they climbed into the truck. It seemed like it was going to work. But then God, fate, or Karma intervened to spoil the best laid plans of mice and the Manships. I went to circle the truck out onto the main road and pull around 360 degrees to return from whence I had come. There’s a big ditch at the entrance to our town. I bottomed out the truck (I did this once before, but we won’t talk about that). It’s very embarrassing. All the strong, healthy, Honduran men (thank God they were there, again) had to pull, push, and lift the gringo out of the ditch. Within ten minutes we were free. By this time Laura, who hadn’t like the plan to begin with, had decided on something different. We squeezed everyone into the truck and drove to Ojo de Agua. The first family got out for their bus, and Laura, I, Debra, and her daughter drove back.

This gave us an additional ten to fifteen minutes to talk with Debra on the way back. We had never met her or spoken with her before. As we drove back it started to become clear that Debra had no idea what Montaña de Luz was. It further became clear that she did not know that her sister was HIV positive or that she was mentally challenged. As we began the two minute climb up to Montaña de Luz, Laura asked me in English, “So, Mr. Social Worker, what’s the rule book say about disclosure in a situation like this?” Kaila certainly did not have the capacity to give us consent to disclose. Her sister certainly had a need to know. In anywhere from five to ten minutes she was going to find out about her sister anyway, and that would not be what you would call an ideal disclosure. I slowed the truck down to a crawl and Laura calmly explained what Montaña de Luz was, that her sister was HIV positive, and why her sister was still at a home for children when she was thirty years old. Tears flowed, but we made it up the hill without bottoming out in any new ditches. When we arrived, Laura took Debra off to register her with our security station and I went and found Kaila and prepared her. The reunion was joyous.

Kaila and Debra spent the rest of Sunday and all of Monday together. On Tuesday morning at 5:00 AM, Laura and I picked up Debra and her sleeping two-year old in the same truck. We brought them to our house as the early morning bus to Tegucigalpa comes right by our house. Now I had a little bit more space to practice Social Work. I asked, “How was your experience?” She looked at me. Her expression was one of gratitude with a tinge of sadness. She answered, “In all honesty, it was beautiful.”

On Mission

OSU group meeting Playing spoons

Since coming here in September, Laura and I have had very little contact and engagement with persons from the US.  That’s not entirely true as Kristen, our director, and other long-term volunteers, are from the States.  Still, they live here, and this makes a big difference in how they engage with us and with Hondurans.  In this past week plus, however, it seems that we have been inundated with US visitors.  In many ways this has been a tremendous blessing to us personally.  We have been able to have long and deep conversations in English with people who share in basic underpinnings of our culture.  But at other times, I’ve noticed just how out of place these people can be.  It has caused me to reflect on what it means to be a foreigner.  What does it mean to tread upon another’s soil?

Thirteen undergraduate students, a grad student, and their engineering professor from OSU were at Montaña de Luz last week.  They had projects to complete for which we are indeed grateful.  We now have a wind turbine that generates sufficient electricity to light three outside light bulbs.  It has capacity to provide even more energy that we will eventually use.  This is important as electricity is incredibly expensive here.  They worked on purifying our water supply.  This was probably successful, but we still have to do some more tests.  This too will be of great benefit as we now spend about $25 per week to purchase drinkable water.  They also built a model hydroponic unit growing fish and plants in an eco-sustainable system.  The science is way beyond me, but it’s cool, none-the-less.  Though the projects were of value, they were here for such a short period of time.  It’s hard to imagine what impact Honduras and Montaña de Luz had on them, or what impact they had on us.  Even as the environmentally enmeshed plants and fish will grow, they did not have time enough to swim, root or sprout.

They left Sunday.  Laura and I left Saturday on a long bus trip north to the city of El Progreso.  A brief three day vacation, we managed to visit some friends.  Acquaintances that we have both known were on a week-long medical brigade.  On Sunday, we toured the city with them.  They, having made this trip for many years, were more familiar than us with the city.  Oddly enough we found ourselves in the midst of a large motorcycle race through the cordoned off streets.  I couldn’t help but think how we stuck out:  eleven exceptionally white people walking through city streets turned into a motorcycle race track.  With everyone cheering and rooting on the events, we were all but oblivious save to avoid getting run over.  The night before we had dinner with someone who had been a long-term volunteer at Montaña, and now works raising money for a youth empowerment non-profit in El Progreso.  On Monday, we visited an amazing young man, Shin Fujiyama, and the program he founded, Students Helping Honduras.  He brings thousands of college students down to Honduras on week-long service trips every year.  They build schools and assist in the continuing construction at a complex with an orphanage, a private school, and 44 families that have been relocated from a desperately poor shanty town.  Shin’s passion and inexhaustible energy has built something of profound value:  a place where lives have been transformed.  But the presence of gangs and desperation has brought theft and violence.  Shin reluctantly enlisted the service of the military to halt the ambushing of supplies and insure security.  They have also forayed into the community to arrest gang members, drug users, and dealers.  Unfortunately, some of the families blame Shin when their sons get arrested and he has received death threats.  An unintended consequence, the foil of poverty, that no good deed should go unpunished.

We were picked up to visit Shin and his program in a large rented school bus.  Initially, it was just us and two staff in the school bus.  But we went to another hotel where a group of 75 students from Clemson University awaited us.  We actually waited for a larger bus to come as ours drove off to pick up a smaller group of students from Maryland University at another location.  We drove off with the Clemson students, packed like sardines and blasting unintelligible rap music through the bus’s stereo system.  Even though all these kids spoke English and presumably were my cultural kin, I have yet to feel greater culture shock than in those fifteen minutes on a packed yellow school bus.  I also noticed that none of them seemed to be looking out the window.  I remember thinking that all of these kids are having an unparalleled, life experience, but I also wondered how many of them would truly recognize its beauty.

At the hotel, there was also a group of missioners from the US.  One morning they were all outside next to their van.  They must have been preparing to evangelize somewhere (or maybe simply build something) as they were all gathered together in prayer.  They praised God vociferously.  About fifteen yards away from them a street person, somewhat obscured behind the hotel’s gate, stood rummaging through a trash barrel.  Call me cynical, but the fact that they didn’t notice him didn’t surprise me in the least.  That, I considered typical.  What surprised me and even caused me to tremble was that he paid them no attention.  He couldn’t help but hear them and see them.  They were that audacious.  But for him they were of no consequence whatsoever.  That is a sobering reality.

When I was pastor at Holy Family in Springfield I ran across an anonymous quote.  I was so moved by the quote that I painted it on our sacristy wall.  It was later painted over by someone who found it and my pastoral philosophy unattractive.  I can’t recall the exact words and have not been able to find it on the internet.  Forgive my paraphrase.  “Whenever you enter upon another person’s culture, the first thing you should do is take off your shoes, because the ground upon which you walk is sacred.”

Social Work

 

StarlynMasks

Laura and I came to Honduras, and specifically Montaña de Luz, as social workers.  All of our lives we have worked with people and communities on issues of empowerment and justice.  This is what we wanted to do here, and certainly a great deal of what we do would be filed under the rubric of social work.  We are working with our teenagers on gaining life skills and independence.  There is great need to assist our younger children with self-esteem and confidence.  There are a great many issues that surround behavioral management, basically parenting skills, and we have been offering advice and support to the “Tías” and Honduran staff in the day to day struggles and challenges of meeting the physical and emotional needs of 30 children.  We are learning how best to interface with the larger community and other social service agencies in providing wider systems of support for the children as they begin to break away from Montaña de Luz.  We are also beginning to know their families and what place they hold in the lives of the children now and in their futures.  I am also beginning a volunteer program based on the Big Brother / Big Sister model in the US and other countries.  All of this is good social work.  It is exactly what we expected and we feel privileged to offer our small part in a challenging environment.

But, there are many other things that Laura and I do here as part of the team.  These are things that are not quite so readily understandable as part of a job description for social work.  In her wildest fantasy, Laura would have never pictured herself as an arts and crafts guru.  She has also taken over the “God’s Gift” program:  translating cards and letters between the children and their US sponsors, taking countless pictures of children in school uniforms, on outings, and at play, and finding interesting tidbits for newsletters.  It in earlier blog I revealed that I had become a horticultural specialist.  As of late I have become a bicycle mechanic.  Much to my astonishment, this position was formalized at a staff meeting where it was agreed that I would be the go-to person for all things bicycle.  I don’t ever remember those courses in high school or college, but apparently I had dormant mechanical skills that are only now surfacing.  I am also in charge of doing our weekly grocery shopping.  My Spanish is fairly efficient, and I have been using it the great majority of my life.  But not really eating many vegetables, and not having much reason to converse about comestibles, until a few months ago I had no idea what “apio” or “repollo” meant.  Now they have become part of my weekly lexicon at the farmer’s market.

Yesterday, fifteen undergraduate students from Ohio State University engineering department arrived at Montaña de Luz.  They’ll be here a week and have three exciting projects to complete.  They are going to re-purify our water purification system that hasn’t been working.  They are going to install a wind turbine to generate electricity.  The third project is in hydroponics in which they are going to create a small tilapia breeding pond that will double as a garden.  Laura has been the liaison for the group in these weeks leading up to the trip.  She has been reading all the emails, translating them, and making up the list of provisions that needed to be purchased.  Again, not social work per se, but vitally important.  It is a thankless job as everyone knows that whatever goes wrong will be first blamed on the messenger.  We are both now to be placed into the position of translators for the next week.  We needed three vehicles to pick them up at the airport yesterday because of the many supplies and donations they carried.  The people from Sandy Hook, CT also sent down donated supplies with the OSU group for which we are most grateful.  As we needed three vehicles, I was also employed as a chauffeur.

Driving in Honduras is nothing like driving in the States.  Most people don’t drive here, unlike home where almost everyone drives.  The roads are in tremendous disrepair.  The vehicles are all twenty to thirty years old.  The trucks barely crawl up the steep hills with winding curves.  You need to drive with a certain sense of abandon or you’ll never get anywhere.  You keep one eye on the car in front of you, one eye on the car in back, one eye on the approaching vehicles, and one eye on the potholes.  It’s always exciting.  Yesterday I got pulled over at one of the police check points.  I was threatened with a ticket and the confiscation of my license because, after he had pulled me over, I didn’t put my emergency flashers on.  The fine would have been about 700 lempira ($35), but he said he could let me go if I could see my way to buying him a soft drink.  As it turned out, I only had bills worth 100 lempira ($5) in my wallet, so he was probably able to buy a couple of soft drinks.  Social work?

Here at Montaña de Luz, Laura and I face tremendous challenges in what obviously belongs to our chosen profession of social work.  It is hard work and requires attentiveness and commitment.  Odd though, that it is these other tasks, these ancillary responsibilities born of necessity, that really get to the heart of what it means to be have become volunteers at Montaña de Luz.  These things, the accomplishment of these things, put us both in touch with what social work is all about.  They humble us, and they open the door to the real, day-to-day needs of these thirty children.  We do not sit apart in offices (we have an office, but find it absolutely impossible to keep the kids away from it or us) and design programs.  Our social work is indeed social, and really, really messy.

 

 

 

Adios

Watching the fires from our backyard.

Watching the fires from our backyard.

Fire

I generally focus on the positive in these blogs.  Overall, Laura and I are having an incredible journey.  We’re meeting wonderful people, feeling more and more part of a community both at Montaña de Luz and in our small town of Nueva Esperanza, and our sense of the work that we are doing with the kids is becoming more defined and meaningful.  Still, and perhaps it is because I am now on week three of a vicious cold that only now seems to be finally dissipating, there are challenging moments.  Some of these come from culture and the nuances of a language that neither of us truly master.  Other times the challenges come from living in a developing country where things we have always taken for granted are just not present, or at least not consistently.  The internet is one of those things.  Lately, Tigo, our internet carrier and one of the only two available, has been even less reliable than usual.  That also means our phone service as well as the internet connection is a hit or miss deal.  As frustrating as it is, however, the frustration is not as severe as when something so seemingly critical is lost in the States.  Here, we simply figure out other things to do and pay it less attention.  Similarly, I hardly think twice about the fact that I can’t throw toilet paper into the toilet because sewer and septic systems are so tenuous.  Mostly, I am overjoyed when I use a toilet outside of my own house and actually find that there is toilet paper.  Something that does create anxiety for us, however, is the nightly fires we endure.  We’re in the middle of sugar cane harvesting.  Part of the harvesting process is burning off the cane stalks.  I’m told that this is not a necessary part of the process, but it makes the entire process considerably cheaper.  The sugar cane industry is tremendously important here, so it is unlikely that the burning will stop anytime soon.  The controlled fires, almost always at night (though I don’t know why), are ferocious.  The flames rise up fifty feet into the air within hundreds of yards of homes (including ours).   The roar is deafening, the emanating heat, unnerving, and the smoke and ash invades everything.  The smoke constricts your lungs and the ash literally snows into our house.  All of this, plus we are in the middle of the dry season.  Seems rather risky, but all we can do is knock on wood.

You do get used to it though.  There really isn’t any other choice.  The cultural clashing and language subtleties are things that are much harder to get used to.   They leave me scratching my head.  They’re easy to recognize, they happen consistently, but their ubiquity does not make them any less off-putting.  Here’s a simple one.  Passing someone on the street, wanting to greet them, but not wanting to strike up a conversation, the custom is to say “Adios” and continue on your way.  You don’t say anything else, and this is perfectly acceptable etiquette.  Imagine simply saying “Goodbye” and nothing else to someone in the States, then continuing on your way.  It would be insulting.  It might even result in a verbal, if not physical, alteration.  Another social custom that seems extremely genial almost always makes me ponder its oddity.  Upon entering someone’s home or office, one is expected to literally ask “permiso” (permission).  It seems like such a nice thing, and it certainly places a value on respect for someone’s privacy – their domain.  Still, it’s something that is done every time you walk into a room.  In my cultural sensitivity, it seems like overkill.  In our culture, I think we get to the point where it is all right, even relationally healthy, to assume that the permission has already been granted.  It doesn’t need to be asked for.  This brings new depth and meaning to the American adage of “killing with kindness.”

Those who know me are not surprised that food is my biggest struggle here.  Actually, I like a great deal of the food here.  I probably eat more of a variety of things here than I do in the States.  But serving food is another unique cultural experience.  The host always prepares the guest’s plate.  He, but most often she, does not ask you what you like, but rather assumes that you will eat everything that you are given.  Mostly this is not a problem.  I push things to the side.  I offer what I don’t like to someone else.  Still, this is a culture of acidic and greasy sauces.  French fries are served in something that looks like a mayonnaise, sweet, tomatoish soup.  Salads are drowned in this stuff.  It absorbs into everything on the plate.  I have developed a very particular means of asking for a hamburger at a fast-food joint.  When I give my order I ask the attendant to please consider that I am an American.  I am strange and exotic.  I tell him or her that I don’t want anything on my hamburger.  I tell him or her that although they might not think that I really mean nothing and that everyone likes mayonnaise, I am actually one of the strangest persons they have ever met.  I get them to laugh and nine times out of ten the burger arrives without mayonnaise on it.

Living in this culture, living in a developing country, and attempting communication in this language are all tremendous, ongoing challenges.  Still, they stretch us to grow.  They demand that we search out that which unites us while struggling with all that creates insecurity and mistrust.  Beneath all of it there are tremendous riches to be mined.  Even with the food.  But what has been particularly hard, and has no redeeming value, is being away from friends and family at critical times.  Today we heard from a friend whose Dad is severely ill.  We know him very well, he’s a close friend, and it’s just so hard not to go and visit him at the hospital.  Two people I knew very well as a priest have recently died.  It was wrenching for me not to be present at their wakes and funerals.  My niece just gave birth to twins on February 13 after a very difficult pregnancy.  I am saddened that I will not see or hold Ava Maria or Sonya Nicole until perhaps we go home in the late summer.

Laura and I love being here.  Still, we are always who we are and are never released from our connections and bonds.  We miss you all.  Please, remember us as we have not forgotten you.

Adios

At the Gate

Outdoor fun

 

Lola and Eric Oct 2013

(I thought I would try to give you a small window to glance at the lives of some of our children.  I have changed the names of the children I present here as they have a right to their privacy.  Some of you who already know the children will recognize them in my descriptions.  For the rest of you, you are welcome to come and get to know them yourselves.)

Every morning, we arrive at the large gate of Montaña de Luz after a brisk mile’s walk up the mountain at about 7:45 AM.  The guardsman, when he is at the guardhouse, generally opens the padlock to the gate and lets us in.  Sometimes, he is elsewhere on the grounds such that a bell over the gate needs to be rung to alert him of our presence.  Almost always, regardless of the guardsman’s whereabouts, Nance, a vivacious, animated thirteen year old has spotted us from the top of the driveway, some one-hundred-fifty yards from the gate.  She yells out our names and comes running toward us with joyous enthusiasm as if we had come to declare her the winner of the Publisher’s Clearing House.  If the guardsman is not present, she will grab hold of the padlock and seemingly attempt to open it.  Of course she can’t, as only the guardsman has the key, but this never discourages her attempt.  When she recognizes, yet again, she cannot open the gate, she vigorously rings the bell.  Once in, we both get huge hugs, Laura’s a little bit longer and tighter than mine.  She interrogates us as to how long we will stay, what we will do, and if we will have time for her.  Before we really have time to answer or to engage her on what’s happening, she is already yelling out someone else’s name and running off ahead of us; her job as greeter now complete.

The next child we will generally see is ten-year old Ellie.  She too has a large voice and will have yelled out our names at about the halfway point up the drive to the small, cabin like building that houses the administrator’s and volunteers’ offices.  She is as animated and energized as Nance, but she does not run to meet us.  Rather she waits for us to come to her, wearing a jubilant, brilliant, Cheshire catlike grin.  She thoroughly enjoys the company of adults and will do all that she can to stay with us.  Anything but shy, she is coy and intentional, looking to receive some particular attention or prize.   We have learned the need to redirect her.  Oddly enough, another ten-year girl, Karin, has the same physical makeup as Ellie.  For our first month here, both Laura and I would call Ellie “Karin” and Karin “Ellie.”  We both laugh at the absurdity of that now because there could not be two personalities more opposed to one another as Ellie and Karin.  The whole day could go by without either of us taking note of Karin.  When I think of Karin, I think of these tremendously colorful birds in the Honduras ecosystem.  They are breathtakingly beautiful, but mostly unnoticed as they so well blend into the environment.  Karin is a soft, silent, unassuming soul.  Still, as personalities are always perplexingly complex, Karin has moments where something inside rages and rebels, calling on everyone to notice her.  Ellie will also have moments when her fire within is but a smoldering wick.  It is at these times when we are most humbled by the mystery of these children’s lives.

It is never too long after we have arrived that Stiven will wander upon us.  He is five and he is as cute as the proverbial button.  He most often stumbles upon us alone which says a lot about his independent spirit.   He’s the little, big man; always insisting on carrying the biggest bundle of groceries, pushing a wheel barrel three times his size, or wanting to drive the truck.  His curiosity and inquisitiveness give him a seemingly ceaseless zeal.  Often he asks disarming questions to which only a sixteen-year old could comprehend the answer.  His is a wise old soul.  Still, when he is disappointed, he wails and cries.  At these times, consolation is so distant and somehow we too know the injustice of his pain.

Danny, seven, is a whirlwind, and unfortunately has become known as our problem child.  He’s mischievous, forever challenging the rules.  His brain works faster than most, and he certainly meets the criteria for a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder.  He finds it almost impossible to focus, moving from one thing to another without ever settling.  He’s incredibly intelligent, but that is seldom recognized or praised.  Whereas he has trouble focusing his energy, the focus of many in his world is not on his intelligence, but rather on his bad behavior.  Unfortunately, in our world, being different is likely associated with being bad.  Danny has internalized that script.  His low self-esteem and lack of confidence will be more of an obstacle to him than his attention deficit disorder.  He’s a challenge to us all, but one that is well worth the effort.  His brother, Alan, only a year older, offers almost as great of a challenge.  His energies are not directed into the world, but rather inwardly focused.  He’s hard to reach, preferring to isolate himself within his private world rather than face the intensity that accompanies relationships.  He keeps himself away from crowds or meeting new people.  He finds it difficult when the stability of routine is changed.  Even so, there are times when his drive to connect, to love and be loved, is so clear and visceral that it makes you shiver.

I relate but a small slice of our life at Montaña de Luz, our coming to know the children, and building relationships.  There are 25 other children that I didn’t talk about; all of them uniquely beautiful in their personalities and their relationships with us and others.  We want to be able to help these children to face the difficult circumstances of their lives.  But our desire to help these children is itself challenged and redefined as we come to know them.  First, whereas we want to give them something we think they need, we are humbled to realize that they already have everything they need in the mystery of who they are.  They are posed to change the world if they can find the confidence in the incredible wonder of who they are.  Secondly, as much as we would want to teach, it is clear that we have as much, if not more, to learn from them as they from us.  We need to be agents of welcome.  We need to find the guardsman to open the gates.  How privileged we are to have come to know these children.  What a marvelous journey awaits them and us.