Celebrations Familiar and Exotic

As a child, there was great importance associated with celebrations at this time of year. They seemed to mark a sense of profound security in life’s goodness.  The celebrations were special, extraordinary in how they knocked us out the routine, but also comforting in familiar symbology. The scent of pine from the Christmas tree, the glow of colored lights against the cold and the snow, the fantasies of elves and flying reindeer, and so many other icons touched upon the exotic and the familiar at the same time. As a child, I most certainly believed that these celebrations and their cultural expressions were timeless and immutable. I guess I assumed that the expressions were the celebrations. But now I know this isn’t so.  Living in Honduras, the familiarity of the symbols is lost, yet the extraordinary character remains. Now that these expressions are so different, what exactly are we celebrating?


Obviously there is no such thing as Thanksgiving here because the pilgrims took a more northern route. There are a sufficient number of US citizens living in Honduras that the holiday does not go completely unnoticed. In Tegucigalpa at the US Ambassador’s compound, they have a big celebration.  But we are as far away from Tegucigalpa as from Plymouth Rock so that doesn’t help us any. It is kind of difficult that the special Thursday is just an ordinary Thursday here. Because of that, we decided against celebrating it on the actual day. With a group of folks from Colorado State University doing a cook stove study, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the following Sunday. We had turkey. The Colorado people picked him out of a rafter (incorrectly called a gobble or flock), and he was summarily sacrificed for our culinary pleasure. We did have all the right fixings, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie, but nothing ever quite tastes like it tastes back home. It was a nice day. We sincerely gave thanks. But, there wasn’t any football, and the Frosty the Snowman Special did not air.

Fernanda Graduation

It is school graduation season here because the school year runs from February through November. This is probably a more reasonable schedule; no splitting calendar years.  Still, it seems weird to be celebrating academic milestones when the hint of Christmas is already in the air. Because the great majority of children don’t even get to high school, the graduation celebrations even at the youngest levels are filled with as much pomp and circumstance as you’d expect at a university commencement. Our bilingual school kindergarten graduation was such an experience. In full cap and gown, each graduate’s name is called. The graduate, the graduates’ parents and witnesses (godparents if you will), approach the honored guest table and sign their names into the official record book. Imagine how long it takes a five-year-old to sign his or her name. It is interminable. There are hundreds of these celebrations throughout the Frontier Region of Intibucá where we live. Unfortunately, for many of these children, it will be their only graduation. We are working to change that, at our bilingual school as well as at the others.

Then there was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most of you probably don’t celebrate this. We, however, live in the town of Concepción, so we celebrate the town’s ‘fiestas patronales’ for the eight days leading up to and including December 8. This year it was initiated with a parade. Shoulder to Shoulder entered our ‘carroza’ (float). Of the six entrants, we happily took fourth place in the competition. Believe me, it was a relief not to come in last. We also entered a candidate to become the Queen of Concepción. Unlike our experience of the float, she was coronated Shoulder to Shoulder Queen of Concepción. The week long fair also featured a ‘Rueda Chicago’ (Ferris Wheel) as the major amusement ride. It towered over the town in the otherwise empty gravel field at the town’s entrance. As the ground is not at all level there, its four legs were propped up onto four tree stumps. It wobbled and rocked as it spun at a much more accelerated rate than most Ferris wheels. The policeman standing next to it assured us that it was completely safe. Honduran policeman are well known for their integrity, so we enthusiastically climbed on. Since you’re reading this, it all turned out well.


It seemed like Christmas got seriously started right after the fiestas patronales. In fact it started on December 17, the ‘aguinaldo,’ or the nine days before and including Christmas Day. It started quite brilliantly at 4:00 AM in our little town with extremely loud fireworks, followed by a tone-deaf band, followed by fireworks, followed by a band, etc., ad-infinitum. And here I have my most difficult time. What do fireworks have to do with Christmas? But here they are as ubiquitous as not having water or losing electricity. It just doesn’t put me in a holiday spirit. There are no carolers here, no chestnuts roasting on open fires, and no stockings hung by chimneys with care. So I’m left asking with Charlie Brown, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Well, we’re on a plane tomorrow morning bound for New Jersey. There, we’ll do an interview for a local television station in Princeton. We’ll then visit a friend in Brooklyn. On Christmas Eve, Laura’s daughter Emma will pick us up on her way from Norfolk, VA to Massachusetts. With a week of visiting friends and family, I’m sure we’ll get a good dose of New England holiday tradition. I think, in the end, we celebrate the beauty and wonder of life; our own and the abundance of it all around us. Whether it’s with hot chocolate or tamales, or for that matter with the crazy fruit cake, celebrations are about how good life is, and how good we are one to another.

paul and Laura

Merry Christmas


Worlds Away, and Yet So Close

It’s six in the morning.  I’ve just woken up and I stroll out onto the deck.  The expansive, gray sky and the soft, damp coolness embrace and welcome me.  I look out to the pasture and the hangar style barn in front of me.  In one pasture, a mare and her foal are scourging the ground for grains, and, in another pasture further to my right, the stallion gallops up to the edge of the fence checking me out.  Four Labradors are bounding up against the posts of the deck to my left, yipping for some attention.  There is a harmonizing wakening all about me and I feel privileged to be here.  I’m struck that I feel so at home here.  It is not anything like my home, nothing like Honduras where I live.  This November day in Ohio, so tremendously different from my home, and yet each in its particular way, so beautiful and so sustaining of life.


Honduran Landscape


Ohio Landscape

Laura and I were welcomed into the home of Wayne and Christina Waite.  We were worried about making this trip for fund-raising and building new relationships.  It would mean meeting a lot of new people; people who perhaps wouldn’t even understand why we choose to live in a developing country and a foreign culture.  Maybe they’d resent us.  Maybe they’d be put off by us.  Could they understand the passion we feel about the people of Honduras?  Would they be willing to engage our request that they partner with us in our mission?  We both felt insecure as we ventured away from our comfort zone.  But Wayne and Christina, their son Daniel and his wife Nidia (from Camasca, Honduras where our bilingual school stands), and their grandson, Jonathan received us with such empowering graciousness that it settled our concern.  This same graciousness then imbued every encounter.


A house in Ohio

The night after the morning on the deck, we were welcomed into the beautiful home of Neil and Bonnie Freund, Neil being one of the partners of Wayne’s law firm.  Again I was first overwhelmed with the foreignness of the environment.  Particularly with the choice of food — scallops wrapped in bacon share little with refried beans.  But the people there loved our stories and the amazing work Shoulder to Shoulder is accomplishing.  By night’s end we had raised over $25,000; good people shouldering a good cause.  And over the next few days we secured relationships that will further deepen and sustain our mission.  Wright State will partner with our bilingual school, helping us to develop best practice models for teaching.  Incarnation Catholic Church and their school will find ways to support our individual students and our classes in relationship to our students and faculty.  A House of Prayer Church will consider all sorts of means to assist us from financial support to music ministry exchanges to construction brigades.  With all of these new and exciting relationships, all of these new shoulders that are now firmly pressed against ours, the mission of Shoulder to Shoulder is alive and growing.


Our house in Concepcion

Laura and I, at first afraid of meeting new people, found ourselves empowered and full of hope.  But that is what we do, we find empowerment and hope in making new relationships.  Ohio seems very far away from Honduras in so many ways.  But it is really very close, and getting closer all the time.

Vacationing, But Not So Far Away

Laura and I are on vacation now.  We are on the tropical island of Roatan, off the North Coast of Honduras.  I guess I would have to say it’s exactly what you would expect from a tropical paradise.  We took a self-guided motor scooter tour up and down the island yesterday and the expansive views of the ocean, the wildlife (iguanas climbing up palm trees a few feet from our bungalow porch), the laid back attitude of island life, all draw us into an “isn’t-this-the-way-life-is-meant-to-be” mood.  But both Laura and I are notoriously bad at vacationing, and this one comes at an inopportune time with a great many changes and challenges facing Shoulder to Shoulder.  So when we’re not tooling around on a motor scooter, we’re making phone calls or desperately trying to maintain an internet connection.  We sneak onto the porch of another unit in order to find a suitable signal to receive and send emails.  It’s hard to say what we feel guiltier about, working while we are supposed to be vacationing, or vacationing when we know there is work to be done.  So we split it down the middle.  That American work ethic drive seems to be imbedded in our DNA.

This is a new Honduras.  A running joke between the two of us has been to look at one another and comment, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Intibucá anymore.”  We started our vacation with a conference for NGOs doing development work in Honduras in Tela, another vacation destination on the North Coast.  The conference was held in an exclusive, luxury resort, and it was a bit surreal to consider all these people working amongst the poorest of the poor coming together in a place that could only be thought of as a dream for most Hondurans.  On the second day of the conference, however, we witnessed an impassioned presentation by a Brazilian nun who works with children returning to Honduras after deportation from the United States.  The surroundings could not soften the terror of a world where inequity punishes the innocent heartlessly.  We’ve seen many of these children on the Frontier of Intibucá.  Because of our common commitment with other conference attendees, we made valuable connections and bonds.  We also had a day after our conference for an outing on a boat tour.  I fished in the ocean for the first time in my life, catching a very large (at least as far as I was concerned) King fish that we later had for lunch.  I swam through a tunnel at an isthmus, though I did panic with the surge of the currents.  I propped myself up against the rock wall and now have the scars on my back to prove it.  But I made it through.  Even on vacation, my experiences here are always fresh and startling.

Laura on her Moto

Laura on her Moto

Then on to Roatan on a Ferry out of La Ceiba.  English, Spanish, and Garifuna are spoken here, and the island is well developed because of tourism.  Money doesn’t necessarily change everything, but it has an obvious impact on some things.  The man who is renting us our little apartment here commented that he is displeased that there are so many potholes on the roads.  I had to laugh.  First, most of the roads here are paved.  Second, my understanding of potholes has radically changed since living on the Frontera.  Potholes used to represent minor inconvenience for a driver and passengers and the anxious thought that a few more miles had been subtracted from the life of a tire.  Now I understand potholes as treacherous challenges to navigation, roughly equivalent to tidal waves for a sailor.  There aren’t any real potholes here.

A tremendous catch

A tremendous catch

So Laura and I are here in this tropical island, half enjoying our vacation and half trying to maintain our connections in administrating Shoulder to Shoulder, attempting to lose ourselves in the pampering of luxury, but remembering that most of those we know and serve will never experience even a taste of such abundance.  We are here, but not altogether, and we remain anxious to return to our beloved Frontera where life is more easily measured by less elusive values.   Two days before we began our travels we managed to visit Dr. Doug Stockman from the University of Rochester.  He has a brigade team with him in the little village of San Jose in San Marcos de la Sierra.  Doug has been there in the little village 25 times.  He and his brigade teams have established meaningful relationships of empowerment and dignity with the people of the small village.  While we sat with Doug at breakfast, a typically dressed woman entered carrying a large plastic bowl.  It was filled with bread that she was selling for a couple of pennies.  This is a common sight for Laura and me.  I actually recognized the daughter with her as someone I had seen on the busses selling the same bread.  The woman smiled.  We smiled back, and politely said thank you, but we wouldn’t be buying any bread.  She continued to smile, came closer to us, whereupon Doug recognized her.

She is part of Rochester’s micro loaning program.  Her business of selling bread, oatmeal, and tamales to the townspeople and travelers along the highway, is financed by small loans of about $150 or $300.  She was actually there to pay back the capital and the interest of 1% incurred over a six month time frame.  Doug engaged her and Laura and I translated.  She could not be happier or more grateful that Rochester has given her this opportunity.  She has two businesses, one is the selling of the food items that she prepares, and the other is raising a few chickens and some pigs.   The food selling business is going great.  She lost all of her chickens to a disease, but she was able to sell off one of her pigs to buy more chickens.  She is certain they will soon be laying eggs and she will be making a profit.  I observed this woman as I translated for her.   I felt humbled by her as she beamed with pride and a sense of confidence and self-worth.  She was feeding and providing for her family, a singular ambition, a dream fulfilled in a relationship formed in dignity and respect.  I think of her now as I am relaxing in this island paradise.  How much more opportunity is present among these Island people who vacuum up the dollars of foreigners who dive in their oceans and bask in their sun.  And yet, I do not see any greater pride or a deeper sense of fulfillment.

Girl Selling Bread

Girl Selling Bread

What wonderful things I am privileged to see.  I am in a tropical paradise.  Every day of my life is filled with new wonders of how rich the human spirit is.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors. You might remember this game, also called Roshambo, from your childhood, or perhaps you still play it to decide who gets to take out the garbage. Depending on the throw of your hand to symbolize one of the three elements, it clearly decides a victor and a loser. Rock crushes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. Though the latter seems a bit dubious and forced. I would think that rock would always win, but then the game wouldn’t make much sense. In any case, the game supports the idea that life is about competition. There are always winners and losers. I guess it takes wisdom to realize that sometimes collaboration is the best game plan.


A few weeks back, some of the board members were here in Honduras holding intense and exhausting meetings and implementing big decisions. At the end of one of these long, somewhat stressful days, we sat around our house in Concepcion telling our war stories of our younger days. Remember that scene in Jaws when police chief Martin Brody, oceanographer Matt Hooper, and Captain Quint finally sit down in the boat’s cabin and begin to bond. They’re telling stories, each outdoing the other with how scarred they have become from life events. It’s a macho, competitive bonding, but a bonding none-the-less. Then the shark starts banging on the boat, first subtlety then violently, and for the rest of the movie, the three have to put aside their macho attitudes and work together, even to the point of sacrifice, for the remainder of the movie.


That was how our stories were being told at our house in Concepcion. One particular story, and I will attempt to protect identities here by not saying who told it, was particularly pertinent. Apparently in the early days of Shoulder to Shoulder, this particular individual was trying to make himself useful. He had no particular medical skills, but there was a construction project at the time. He found himself breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer (a very common activity at construction sites in Honduras). He found himself next to another volunteer also breaking up rocks. As male ego dictates, he found himself in competition, his pride insisting that he could break up more rocks than the other guy. His ego darn near killed him. Later in the day, the doctors at the site needed forms to record their medical encounters with patients. This was something he knew he could do, so he ran off and made the forms. When he came back with them, the same man with whom he had been breaking rocks, complained that the forms were too big. They wasted paper, a precious commodity in Honduras. He ran back, mumbling to himself, but desperately wanting to be of assistance. He remade the forms, found scissors and cut the paper into fourths, and came back with them proud and in need of someone’s gratitude. Of course, no one thanked him.


At this point, his rock, paper, scissors game had left him somewhat disheartened. He wanted to be the winner. He wanted to feel that he was needed and important. Maybe this mission work thing wasn’t for him after all. Let alone that he wasn’t the hero, he wasn’t even appreciated. But maybe it was then that the shark started banging up against the bottom of the boat. Someone had bought in a seriously injured man to the brigade team. Everyone needed to drop what they were doing to assist. Within moments, without consideration of any rocks, paper, or scissors, without a desire to win or a fear of losing, he found himself desperately applying pressure against the man’s wounds. He was covered in blood. When it was all over, he sat alone to reflect. He only then understood the meaning and import of service. He realized it was not about his need to feel important or appreciated, there weren’t any winners or losers, it was only about collaboration and the sincere response to need.

Shoulder to Shoulder has just implemented some major changes in its structure and its organization. We’ve done so, as I see it, because we are growing. Our organization has expanded the scope and size of its service and mission. There is simply a great deal more to accomplish and our administration is more demanding. There is also more pressure to increase our resources to meet the mission. It is a time of great opportunity, and also a time of great challenge. With so much change and growth, so much pressure, and great demand, there may be a tendency to become self-centered. It may cause us to think I can be the hero, I will be the one to lead and save us. This game of rock, paper, scissors would be a fool’s journey. Better that we recognize how we got here in the first place. It was a collaborative effort, a commitment in service and partnership, a working shoulder to shoulder to bring about substantive and sustainable change. This is an honorable mission that supports and sustains the dignity of all involved; those who serve and those served.


Laura and I are honored to be part of Shoulder to Shoulder. We ask for everyone’s shoulder of commitment as we continue and expand this mission of dignified service.


Oh boy, have I ever neglected this blog. Many of you may have been waiting on it, and I apologize for that. Still I want to say that we have been extremely busy. The work at Shoulder to Shoulder is fully engaging, and mostly Laura and I are very grateful for that. I suppose, however, that as of late Laura and I feel like we are part of a Morton Salt commercial: “When it rains, it pours.” We are in the middle of the school year here as it runs from February through November. It is not summer here either, as ‘summer’ occurs during the dry season of late February through early May. So, we are seemingly far removed from the seasonal movements experienced in the US. Still, universities want to squeeze their summer activities into August and this has a great effect on our time and energy. In these first two weeks of August, we have three medical brigades taking place in different places at the same time. Brown University and Wingate School of Pharmacology have been in the small community of Guachipilincito. Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) is in Camasca. Finally, the University of Minnesota graduate nursing program is in Santa Lucia. Bouncing around from one place to the other has been difficult enough, but Laura and I have also been hosting Dick Buten, our board’s Chief Financial Officer, who has been visiting this past week. Dr. Jan Tepe, the responsible agent for our extensive dental program, has also been down, seeing many patients and shoring up the program. Laura and I have not had a moment to think.

In the midst of times like these, one feels the force of the winds and waves. Keeping the ship afloat becomes the primary goal while the direction and destination of the voyage is no longer of consequence. At least it has seemed so over these past few weeks.

June bug invasion

June bug invasion

I have been very aware of this, and have noted something of a living metaphor for it in the pattern of our life here in Honduras. We are so much closer to nature here than we ever were in the States. Lest you think I am about to make a Granola, back-to-earth’s-goodness, commercial, I find this a particularly annoying reality. Necessity has made me something of a maven in the hunting and killing of tarantulas and scorpions. This issue presently seems resolved with the installation of ceiling sheetrock that has sealed the space between our walls and our roof. Still, many other exotic insects are unimpeded by these barriers. These come in spurts of time lasting from a day until weeks, but when they come, they come in hordes. At any given moment, there is a specific genus of ant that invades us. A number of weeks ago, it was a beetle that I would refer to as a June beetle. Those came in such large numbers that we were literally shoveling them out of our outside sink drain. In these days when we have been so busy, it has been the flying things. Calling these things insects is really a misnomer, because the immensity of their size would dwarf many birds. There have been a variety of these. The very ugly ones have long (about 1 ½”) feelers. Another kind presents as a hybrid between a dragonfly and a bat. One flew directly into my back the other night while I was washing dishes and it darn near knocked me to the ground. The big green, flying grasshoppers (locusts?) might be the worst of them all. I suspect that airport flight control centers throughout Central American have confused many of these with small, single-engine, prop planes.

To be sure, metaphors limp (which is using a metaphor to describe metaphors). The insects come in force and we are ill prepared to receive them. They take up all our time and we cannot return to regular activities until they have left. They often require extraordinary efforts and creative practices to attend to them. These are the things we have felt over the last few weeks.

Dick Buten's Party at the Bilingual School

Dick Buten’s Party at the Bilingual School

In reality, a great deal of our time was consumed with Dick Buten’s activities and business while he was here. This was actually a wonderful thing as he had come down with laptops, televisions, and tablets. The equipment is to be used to initiate a top-notch, computer-driven curriculum at our bilingual school. This is very exciting. Still, it’s also very nerve racking as we only had a few days with Dick to learn the system. Also, it represents a steep learning curve for our teachers. Apart from the new technology for the bilingual school, exciting, yet anxiety provoking, Dick is also dealing with the financial challenges Shoulder to Shoulder faces. Because he’s only here a week, he’s in high-powered meetings with all our partners from early morning into the evening. Laura and I are generally with him, feeling the intensity of it all. We are grateful that he is dealing so well and thoroughly with the critically important aspects of the organization. But does it really all have to happen at the same time?

Brigade at the Bilingual School

Brigade at the Bilingual School

On Wednesday, the bees came. In the morning, frantically buzzing about my sugar infused coffee, one dove into the cup. I drank without looking and got stung on the roof of my mouth. At around 2:00 PM, another one stung me on the elbow. So very exhausted and very overwhelmed, sometime shortly after the second bee sting, standing outside of the clinic in Concepcion, Dick and I were taking a little breather. Even though maybe our intention was to rest, I’m certain one of the high energy, critical themes was being further considered and evaluated. The insects were buzzing about, literally and metaphorically. Maybe at this moment I was wondering whether it was all worth such tremendous efforts and energy. Perhaps I might have even asked Dick the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” question. But just at that moment a pickup truck pulled in up next to the entrance of the clinic. Two teenage boys jumped from the bed of the truck. An older boy, perhaps 21 or so, climbed out of the driver side of the cab. It was clear by physical resemblance, the three were brothers. One of them opened a wheelchair aside the open passenger door. The eldest reached in and cradled an older woman in his arms, lifting her from the seat to transfer her to the wheelchair. Another brother waited at the back of the wheelchair ready to push her into the clinic. The last brother attended to straightening her dress in front of the chair. The man driving the pickup looked like he might be the father of the boys. The older woman grimaced in pain with the transfer, but could not have been more lovingly attended to by these boys. They wheeled her past Dick and I, acknowledging us as they passed. Their expressions shared a strange mix of apprehension, fear, and concern coupled with gratitude. Dick and I were silenced.

New School Construction

New School Construction

Instead of the cynical question of what were we doing, I made a declarative statement. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we built this clinic.” Dick thought about what I said and answered, “But it’s likely we won’t be able to do much for her.” “No,” I said, “It’s not what we can or can’t do that’s important. It’s that we’re here; that they have a place to bring her; and that what they’re feeling can be honored.”

Dick was quiet. All the buzzing insects quieted for a moment or two. In the midst of so much that needs to be done, we must not fail to celebrate the miracles that spawn about us. Lest all our effort be wasted in a vain exercise of arrogance.


Poverty and Paradise

Our recent trip home was very brief, but very enjoyable.  It was just a little over a week, but most of it was taken up with Emma and Kay’s “one-year anniversary and public wedding ceremony” among friends and family.  Laura and I have taken to staying at houses we find via airbnb.com (the internet version of Bed and Breakfasts).  We stayed in West Springfield with a young man who runs a hostel for travelers in the Andean mountains of Peru.  He was very interesting.  In fact he was returning to Peru the day after we would leave to return to Honduras.  It was a little strange staying in an apartment where all the belongings were being packed up, but it is a hundred times better than staying in a hotel.  With just a week, we didn’t see all our family and friends, but it was good to reconnect with the many we did see.

Emma and Kay at wedding celebration.

Kay and Emma at their wedding celebration.

Emma and Kay’s celebration was an absolute joy.  We met Kay’s parents for the first time, plus many more of Emma and Kay’s friends, and re-connected with relatives and friends whom we hadn’t seen for a very long time.  We stayed until very late, actually the early hours of the next morning.  The bartender and many from the wait staff had left, but the DJ graciously hung around until we were all out the door.  The next day we met up with Emma and Kay again at the Clarion Hotel in Windsor Locks, CT.  We spent the night there in order to get up early the next morning for our return flight to Honduras.

We were a little bit nervous about showing Emma and Kay around Honduras.  After all, the places we frequent, as well as our two homes in La Esperanza and Concepcion, are not exactly tourist spots.  We subjected them to long and arduous bus rides over unpaved roads for four days.  Concepcion was dreadfully hot, to the point where it was uncomfortable even to move.  But they saw our haunts, met many of the people we’ve come to know so well, and witnessed our pride in giving them hospitality.  They saw Honduras for what it really is, its subtle charm and beauty hidden beneath a shadow of extreme poverty.  Then after four days, we dropped them off at the airport in San Pedro Sula from where they would fly to the island of Roatan.  This would be their real Honeymoon vacation, a tropical island where they would be waited upon and spoken to in unfaltering English.  We felt good that they would have some time to relax and enjoy the deep blue of the Caribbean.  Paradise at last!

Emma and Kay enjoying the outdoors.

Kay and Emma enjoying the outdoors.

But after their return home, Emma was speaking with Laura on the phone.  She told her mother that they had enjoyed their entire trip, but they had enjoyed their time with us much more than their time in Roatan.  Emma said that after having experienced the ‘real’ Honduras, the comfort and pampering they received in Roatan almost seemed disingenuous.  The thin veil of luxury did not so well conceal the poverty beneath.  In any case, they preferred the Honduras we have come to love:  a genuine people whose poverty is from a lack of possessions, but not a lack of character or integrity.  It does make you wonder, however, where one can find paradise.

Laura and I were simply thrilled to have the opportunity to show Emma and Kay around.  We love taking the role of hosts, showing our guests the beauty we have found among our humble surroundings.  We often take volunteers and visitors into our homes, for a dinner or an overnight.  As I write this, we will be hosting two young Hondurans this week from Tegucigalpa who will be making a documentary for our bilingual school on the Frontera.  Meeting new people, sharing our life and our world, could there be anything more joyful?

Arturo and Paul talking on trip to San Isidro.

Arturo and Paul talking on trip to San Isidro.

But everything is not always joyful.  We are sometimes reminded that life in Honduras can be dangerous as well.  For me, the scorpions and tarantulas are enough of a reminder of this.  But even they are only comical allusions to some of the more serious danger.  The week after we hosted Emma and Kay, we returned to Esperanza on a Friday afternoon.  One of our friends from Maestro en Casa where we had first volunteered in La Esperanza had left us a message on Facebook.  One of the teachers, Arturo, a gifted, intelligent man with whom we had become good friends, had died.  This seemed impossible to us.  He was young, only 33, and very healthy.  He had a young family.  How could this be?  We had a difficult time accepting it.  It was the result of a car accident.  Along the very road where Laura and I had walked for seven months to get back and forth to the school, there is a small bridge over a culvert.  It is only a small brook, but during the rainy season the culvert was always getting clogged up, and the little brook would flood over the road.  A few weeks ago, walking along the road, Laura and I realized that they had finally fixed it by reconstructing the bridge.  Still, there were no guardrails along the bridge (Honduras would never consider the need for guardrails), and the road itself narrowed there at a sharp turn.  I recall thinking at the time that it was even more dangerous after the repairs than it was before them.  It was there, we were told, that our friend Arturo lost control of his vehicle.  It isn’t entirely clear what happened.  Perhaps the car flipped over into the shallow, but swampy, water.  Perhaps, he hit his head and fell unconscious.  But just like that, he was gone.  Life is fragile.

Arturo and Paola at Maestro en Casa Graduation 2014.

Arturo and Paola at Maestro en Casa Graduation 2014.

Life is precious.  We are grateful for having known this man.  We are grateful for having met wonderful people here in Honduras.  We are grateful for uncovering the richness and beauty of this amazing country, so poorly hidden beneath the flimsy veil of poverty.  I think, perhaps, we have seen paradise, as fleeting as it is, when we have really searched it out.

All this…

A couple of weeks ago we went to Mass on Sunday morning in La Esperanza as is our custom.  Both Laura and I had a sense of déjà-vu as we sat in the familiar pews that have become our own.  It’s May, the month dedicated to Mary.  Any given Sunday in May, the faithful come to the church with spring flowers to present them at the altar of Mary.  I recalled, we both recalled, that on one of our first visits to the church we encountered the same celebration.  I had even written about it in this blog on June 2, 2014.  It dawned on us that we’ve had our home in La Esperanza for an entire year now.  This does not seem at all possible.  It only seems like weeks ago that we watched the pious procession of May flowers.

Our Church: Nuestro Señor de Intibucá

Our Church: Nuestro Señor de Intibucá

A full year has passed for us in this quaint little town of La Esperanza.  It has certainly gone by like lightening.  I suppose that comes from our sense of welcome and familiarity.  We are tremendously content and grateful to be here.  I recall how anxious we were when we first came to Honduras.  We were bouncing around from place to place, from organization to organization, and it didn’t seem like we were going to find a fit.  But, after all the bouncing around, the anxieties that we wouldn’t or couldn’t appreciate the culture, and the uncertainties of finding an organization where our goals and its goals could mesh, by fortune’s fate, we have eased into a feeling of home.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, we’re only in La Esperanza now on the weekends.  We spend most of our time in the extremely, rural town of Concepción.   Our home there, rented for us by Shoulder to Shoulder, is very comfortable, but Concepción is so small we’d likely go bonkers on the weekends looking for things to do.  But, in La Esperanza, we have a thriving social life.  We’ve befriended a whole array of US volunteers and ex-pats.  We meet them at the supermarket, or at the restaurants, or walking along the streets.  We think of ourselves as La Esperanza’s welcoming committee for gringos, having had many of them to our humble home for dinner.  But it is not only the English speakers that greet us with familiarity.  Walking down the street it is not at all uncommon to hear someone calling out our name: the restaurant owner, the hardware store couple, or one of the teachers from Maestro en Casa.  We have become part of this community, and it yields such a sense of contentment.

Market in La Esperanza

Market in La Esperanza

After so many fits and starts with organizations, it was refreshing to find Shoulder to Shoulder.  The philosophy is what really draws and sustains us.  There is a commitment to collaboration with Hondurans that is rarely witnessed by other charity organizations.  This sometimes makes for difficult and challenging work.  Oddly, Hondurans don’t always agree with American imperialistic ideals (I’m being purposely hyperbolic).  There is always give and take, the messy, exhausting, and frustrating work of maintaining relationships, but at the heart of the mission is a sense of dignity and integrity.  We also never have enough financing, the budget is always in the red, but we use black ink to record the measure of our hearts.  I don’t suspect I’ll be remembered for my money, and I don’t want to be anyway.  Besides, it’s me that’s been enriched for being here.

We have plenty of work.  In fact our job descriptions have doubled or tripled since last month’s board meeting in Tegucigalpa.  We were “hired” as the Directors of Communication and Development.  That was enough work certainly.  But now we are also part of the on-site brigade management team, organizing and executing all of our service and medical groups, about eighteen a year and growing.  We are also taking a strong leadership and development role at our bilingual school.  We are busy.  But both of us love the work.  It sustains us.

Street Scene in La Esperanza

Street Scene in La Esperanza

Settled, content, anxiety free, connected, enriched by friends, unencumbered by money, and just plain happy, we really couldn’t ask for more.

There is more, though.  As I write this, we are two days away from returning to Massachusetts for a short visit.  Though it is always important to reconnect with family and friends, this time it is truly special.  Laura’s daughter Emma married Kay a year ago in a civil ceremony.  They did it with some haste for legal reasons of convenience.  Kay is a naval officer and Emma is working as a Social Worker and returning to school for her MSW.  They are an amazing couple, truly committed to one another and their dog and two cats.  They also just closed on their new house and moved in last week.  What we are going home for is the celebration of their marriage with friends and family.  It will be Friday, May 29th.  This will be such an exciting event.  Though I am not Emma’s father, and she has one who is a tremendously loving parent, I still feel quite proud.  Still, that is not all.  Emma and Kay are going to return here to Honduras with us.  They will visit us in La Esperanza and Concepción.  We have not yet had the experience of a personal or family visitor.  How wonderful it will be to share with them all that has inspired and sustained us.  After their time with us, they will head off for their honeymoon in the beautiful, tropical island of Roatan, Honduras.  Unfortunately, Laura and I are not invited.  With any luck, I can convince Laura to go before we leave Honduras.

Laura working outside.  Great Internet!

Laura working outside. Great Internet!

When I was still a priest and people would share with me some particular joy from their personal lives, I would always respond with the same phrase:  “All this, and heaven too.”  I suppose it was a way of honoring their joy, but for me it was simply a pat phrase.  I never really reflected too much on its meaning.  But, after a year and a half living the dreams of our hearts, I guess I’m much more aware of how singularly important happiness is.