Our Anniversary

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Laura and I are celebrating something of an anniversary.  We just returned from our third consecutive Conference on Honduras in Copan Ruinas.  The conferences always occur in the Fall, September or October, and they always bring together a wide network of non-profit organizations.  In a sense these conferences mark milestones for Laura and me.  We came to the first when we were investigating sites for possible volunteer placement.  We met the folks from Montaña de Luz and also Susan Stone from Maestro en Casa where we are at now.  Last year at the conference we initiated our volunteer experience in Honduras.  This year we went again.  It provided us a good space for reflection on our one year anniversary in Honduras.

Copan Ruinas is unlike any other town in Honduras relative to its comfort and attention to its tourist trade.  We stayed at a hotel that had the availability of a pool a short walking distance away.  We arrived the day before the conference and took advantage of this to walk down to the pool.  There was hardly anyone else there and Laura and I had this luxurious comfort all to ourselves.  We lounged back next to the pool and after a few minutes, Laura leaned over to me and jokingly asked, “Are we still in Honduras?”  That evening we also had a nice meal at a fancy restaurant where the prices were also unlike anything in Honduras.  We could have had four meals at a restaurant in La Esperanza for the price of the one there.  Still, it was extremely nice that we felt thoroughly pampered for a few days.

Birds at Macaw Mountain, Copan Ruinas

Birds at Macaw Mountain, Copan Ruinas

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Lest you think that our personal delight and indulgence was all we got out of our conference, the “anniversary” did inspire our reflection on what we are doing and will do in Honduras.  The conference focus is on the sustainability of charity and developmental work.  The conference confronts the question of whether the work of NGOs here is truly enabling and transformative.  If you have ever read the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton then you are aware that even good will can be harmful if all it does is create dependencies.  True charity comes from a place of respect and dignity.  At the conference someone said something about the absolute difference between pity and compassion.  Pity is the emotion that distances us from the reality of suffering.  Compassion draws us in.  I wondered about that in reflecting upon our year in Honduras.  Our year has not so much been about what we’ve done or accomplished.  We have not created a tally sheet of our good works.  It has been much more about what we’ve met and encountered in people, events, and realities.  We’ve been transformed in those encounters.  Wanting to do something, to meet a need, to solve a problem, simply to help, always seems to be the starting point for compassion.  I’m sure that is why both Laura and I have come to Honduras.  But it has not been the end point.  This journey of compassion is much more about relationship than it is about particular outcomes.  In the poverty of Honduras, among people who many might pity, we have been abundantly enriched.  It is only our hope that we might have yielded some enrichment for others.

The three conferences we’ve attended have always marked the time for our reflection on our time here in Honduras.  When we came to Maestro en Casa we knew that our time in Honduras would be limited by our lack of resources.  Maestro en Casa is not in a position to offer us a salary or a stipend.  That has been fine with us as we believed in its mission.  We have certainly found our lives transformed here, particularly with the students whom we have come to know.  You will recall, however, a couple of blogs ago, I spoke about our trip to the Frontera (border of El Salvador and Honduras) and our encounter with a medical NGO, Hombro a Hombro, Shoulder to Shoulder.  They have offered Laura and me a job as Communications and Development Director.  Our discernment has led us to agree to accept the position.  We will continue our work with Maestro en Casa through the end of the academic year here in Honduras and be present for the graduation sometime in November.  Through the upcoming month of October we will take some time to travel to and from the Frontera, acquainting ourselves with the mission and work of Shoulder to Shoulder and looking for a residence.  We will officially begin the new position in November.  The salary will satisfy the expenses we incur here in Honduras and allow us to stay in Honduras without concern for our well-being.  It is extremely difficult to make a decision between two goods, which is what we have done.  It will be sad to leave.  But thankfully, we will leave with gratitude.  It is also exciting to move forward, knowing that new experiences of transformation await us.

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I don’t know if we will return for next year’s conference.  After each one we have said that it would be the last.  I am sure, however, that there will yet be another time and place for us to reflect on the wonder and beauty of our lives and to discern the new paths that yield transformation.

An additional note:

Many of you who read this blog have been financially generous to Laura and me and the work we have been engaged in at Maestro en Casa.  As always, we are indebted and grateful.  Maestro en Casa is an excellent program that provides quality education to persons who want and need it.  Laura and I intend to maintain our relationship and support of Maestro en Casa.  You are welcome to do the same.

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In Memorium

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We received terrible news on September 3rd.  It will be difficult for me to forget that day as it was the day before my birthday. Laura’s youngest sister, Nancy, died.  She had battled breast cancer, seemingly successfully, and was in remission for four years.  Two years ago her cancer metastasized into her bones.  She accepted the physically challenging treatments for a second time, attempting to stave off the progression of the disease.  She maintained her courage, hope, and dignity, but must have tired greatly.  At the end, she did not linger or seem to suffer greatly, certainly a gift to her family and friends.  As soon as we received the news, we made arrangements to fly out to Atlanta the next day.

I recall similarly returning from a visit from Honduras some years ago.  I had then received news that my mother’s sister was in a coma.  She died the day after I returned home.  It is a surreal experience to make such a trip under the cloud of grief.  The expectation, of course, is that you are on vacation, but the reality could not be more distant.  There is no means to make the buses or the planes go faster, and anxiety increases with each mile passed.  In Atlanta the immigration officer asked us his standard series of questions.  “So, you’re taking a vacation?”  “Actually,” I hesitantly responded, “we’re here for a funeral.”  His face fell, he sincerely expressed his sorrow, stamped our documents, and let us through quickly.  It was a powerfully transcendent moment of connection where our common humanity was honored.

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Life is so precious and yet so fragile. We attach ourselves so thoroughly to those we love.  Millie, her mother; Laura and Jane, her two sisters; Michael, her brother; Rob, her husband; Robert, Andrew, and Daniel, her three sons ages 20, 18, and 15; her close friends and family, are forever attached to Nancy.  So intensely beautiful, while at the same moment so intensely sad.  Laura and I feel so fortunate to have decided to take our quick trip in late June.  We saw Nancy and her family.  It was one of the principal reasons we made the trip and the reasons why we couldn’t manage to see all of our family and friends.  But we spent quality time with Nancy, something we will always cherish.

My personal faith has always been premised on the inner feeling that so much love present within me, and my trust of its presence within others, could not possibly be limited to the brevity of physical life. That accounts for the sense of the surreal in our rushed trip to Atlanta.  We’re back now.  Nancy and her family were much better off than most of us and they enjoyed comforts that few of us do.  It’s impossible not to consider the extreme difference of what life is like there as compared to here.  That is also quite a challenge for me, and an added dimension to the surreal quality.  Without making judgment, it’s always jarring.

Yet, I have to say that this time I was struck with how superficial the differences really are.  Our friends here, upon learning of the loss of Laura’s sister, offered the same condolences.  The connection to our humanity, the knowledge of vulnerability, is the same here as anywhere.  There is so much more that unites us than differentiates us.  It is truly sad that we so seldom live with a sense of our common humanity.

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September 15 is the commemoration of Honduran independence. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are all parade days here in La Esperanza.  On Saturday, all the kindergarten kids march.  On Sunday, all the escuela children (1st – 6th grade), and on Monday, the actual day of independence, the older colegio teens (7th – 9th grade).  They all dress in band uniforms, a military look.  It seems every child in town is given the chance to march.  Walking around the town along the parade route, all of the families wait in anticipation for their son or daughter to pass.  When they do, they beam with joy.  Cell phones are raised over the heads of the crowd to get a snapshot.  I imagine if the family has a little extra money, they get that picture printed and post it to their wall.  The pride and joy seem to flow from one family to the next.  Though the context and the cultural expression are so different, the feel for what is truly important never changes.  How precious.

Life is a gift. Love is its honor.

A La Frontera

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One of our friends just emailed us, slightly concerned because I have been remiss in updating the blog.  I have been aware of this and feeling somewhat guilty.  I can assure you that we are both fine.  I do have to say that it has been a challenging month for me while recuperating and healing after my fall.  Everything we had read on the web informed us that healing from broken ribs takes from 4 – 6 weeks.  Still, those for whom it applies don’t want to imagine that ‘they’ must have said that so as to avoid giving anyone false hope, and in reality healing must take a much shorter course.  For me, however, celebrating four weeks today, webmd.com seems to be right on the money.  I am at the eighty-five percent phase and suspect that I will take the full six weeks.  Last week I was able to get to work every day, but mostly I left early.  I would like to say that I was either in too much pain or too tired to write the blog, but that would be misleading.  I have been doing a lot of reading and downloading movies, so sometime after the severe pain from the first week and a half lessened, I certainly could have written.  In fact, mostly staying at home, I had very little inspiration.  You would think with all the time in recent years that I have spent in recovery of some sort, that I would have become rather good at it.  But I am a lousy patient, tremendously self-centered and needy, most certainly driving Laura crazy.  The four walls have simply not become my bosom friends.  I needed an adventure.

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So we took one this last weekend.  We really wanted to get more of a feel for the rural department of Intibucá.  We had recently made a contact with a young woman working for a health and education NGO, Hombro a Hombro / Shoulder to Shoulder, in the southern section of Intibucá.  She had given us a general invitation to come down and visit.  We sort of forced a long weekend out of last weekend and took her up on her offer.  It is, after all, Labor Day, and all of you are enjoying picnics as I write this.  My birthday is coming up this week, and Honduras is entering its independence month.  We had plenty of reasons, and excuses, to treat ourselves to a mini-holiday.  We have seen some of the North, East, and West of Intibucá, but we had not experienced the South.  It’s called La Frontera (the frontier) partly because it extends to the border of El Salvador and partly because it is unimaginably rural.  The trip all the way to the “municipality” (truly an overstatement) of Santa Lucia is about 40 kilometers or 24 miles.  It took four hours by bus with very few stops as there is little to stop for.  It’s almost entirely an unpaved journey which at various points appears more like a river bed than a road.  In that forty kilometers we dropped about 5000 feet (gratefully not all at once, but at times that seemed a little too likely).  Ah, but such incredible beauty!

There were vistas, unadorned, uncelebrated, and uncommercialized, that challenged the majesty of the Grand Canyon.  There is a sense of purity to the geography and the people who live here that witness a sacredness that we felt privileged to experience.  Santa Lucia and the two other towns we visited, Concepción and Camasca, are built into the hilly landscape.  The houses and the few small businesses are knitted closely together, either because of the challenging topography or the social need to huddle securely together, or both.  The small in-town roads are all cobblestoned, and quickly end a few hundred yards from the central square.  The bright colors and intricate designs of the buildings, reminiscent of the ginger bread houses of Martha’s Vineyard, betray the pride of the people.  The people themselves are sincerely amicable and literally go out of their way to welcome you.  So pastorally idyllic, it would be easy to forget the hardship of what it means to live there.

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But it would be truly arrogant not to notice.  Outside of the quaint towns and beyond the breathtaking vistas, people live in some of the most extreme poverty that exists in our world.  Lack of clean water supplies, lack of adequate nutrition, no electricity, exposure to extreme heat and torrential rains, no access to medical care, little or no education, and a host of other unmet basic needs mean that life is a constant battle for survival.  That is of course why Shoulder to Shoulder is there.  We were impressed with the little we saw of dedicated service.  They have a large staff of doctors, nurses, nurses aides, health promoters, and teachers.  Unlike other NGOs, they have only one non-Honduran employee on the ground in Honduras.  They are committed to sustainability and empowerment in a very visceral way.  They care about the people they serve.  For some families it could be as long as ten hours to the nearest hospital.  The clinic, gratefully, can be reached in one or two hours.  As awed as we were by the beauty and privilege of visiting the place and the people, we were spiritually moved by the service.  Would not our world truly reflect the inner beauty of our humanity if we took greater consciousness of caring?

It was good to arrive back in La Esperanza:  civilization and coolness.  We hope that we also can reflect the same generosity of Spirit that we encountered on our journey through the frontier.