Letters from Honduras: My home
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2010 - On March 19, 1977, I wrote one line in the journal I was keeping on my first trip out of the United States. "Some day, I'm going to live here." I was in Honduras, Central America. It was a rather rash prediction, you might say, since I had just been through 2 months of homesickness, stomach sickness, faith sickness, just a lot of sickness sickness. But 26 years later, June 26, 2003, the dream came true when I moved for good to a little mountain village in the middle of nowhere called, of all things, Las Vegas, but as different from the "Sin City" in Nevada as stars are from oven lights.
By then I had become Miguel, Hermano Miguel to most, my only desire to live and pray with the poor.
What happened in between? I first came to Honduras as a priest in training, sent there mostly because I was the only seminarian who knew Spanish -- supposedly. That fateful night, March 19, 1977, I had spent the evening on the back porch of the church in the town of Morazan, chatting, as well as I could, with Felix Banegas, 17, who said he wanted to be a priest, too. But Felix said it was impossible. Why? "Because I can't read or write."
How was that possible? It had never occurred to me that you could be so bright and intelligent -- and 'illiterate'! If someone had observed the two of us in conversation, they would have assumed I was the uneducated one, tripping over every other word, barely articulate, and Felix as eloquent as a professor. That night changed everything. I did not get back to Honduras again til 1980, but the first thing I did was look for Felix, who by then had not only taught himself to read and write, he was also teaching folks in three other villages to do the same.
I went back every summer, even after leaving the seminary in 1985, when I started teaching at Parkway North High School in St. Louis. By 1990, I was taking one student every summer to test the experience for themselves. It worked every time. They all began sick and scared, and then, by the time to go home, they wanted to stay. If their Spanish was weak at the start, their farewell thank-you at the send-off in Las Vegas rose to the occasion in heartfelt gratitude -- and grammar.
The question everyone asks is, what do you do there? The answer is often disappointing to a "First World" mentality, perhaps, because, with the poor, you do not do, you be. I have no projects, no plans, no investments -- only to share the life of the poor, who have received me like a brother.
Jesus said, 'Give to anyone who asks,' and I guess that's what I try to do. About 150 poor folks a month come to my door -- or I go looking for them -- for a little help. Most are women with little kids, many abandoned by their "man." They come from Pueblo Nuevo, Nueva Palmira, Paraiso, Terrero Blanco, La Catorce, Nueva Suyapa, Tierra Amarilla, Panal, Cafetales, La Laguna, Guachipilin, Ojo de Agua.
Modesta Murillo, her face and features preserving the ancient Mayan origins of Honduras, comes the farthest, a four-hour trek through the mountains from Buenos Aires, with her four children. It was Modesta who started the tradition of bringing something for me, like three pounds of beans, which after so long a walk, must have felt like carrying 30 pounds. How could I take from the poor? At first I protested, then I understood it would be an insult not to acknowledge their gifts. I live off my pension, and I give it all away.
Sometimes the help is more concrete, literally. Such as building a new little house for Maricela and Juan Blas and their six kids, including Helen, now 11, who has Muscular Dystrophy. They have been my friends for 25 years, it was time to pay my debts! Such a house, of concrete blocks, costs about $2,500. I also try to help kids through school. Education is "free," but even the cost of a pencil can burden a really poor family. I begin each morning, early, doling out hot milk and Corn Flakes for kids on their way to class. For some kids, it might be their only meal til supper.
In fact, it's all about the kids! I cannot go anywhere, even around the block, without a little coterie of urchins. I guess you could say three of my best friends are Ery, who has Down Syndrome; Juan Carlos, a deaf-mute, and Beto, who is blind, and I've watched them all grow up. If I do have a project, it's birthday parties. Some kids don't even know how old they are, or when they were born. The parties are simple, but very popular. A great big cake confected by neighbor Carolina, "churros" (corn chips), and Cokes. Everyone is invited, and everyone has to share. And no name-calling!Maybe my proudest accomplishment is just raising consciousness a little about "apodos," that is, hurtful nicknames. When I got here, even adults called Ery "Mongolito" and Juan Carlos "Mudo." Then there's little Alex, who the kids called "Chunte" (catfish) because he has a wide mouth, and Selvin, "Pollo," because they think he looks like a rooster, or Mariela, "Ayala," because she looks like some vegetable, and Marlon, who they call "Abuela," of all things, because he seems to look like their grandma!
A person is not their weakest feature, they have a name.
A special relationship is with Pablito and Chepito, "Los Bandidos."
"I call them the Bandidos because they stole my heart," I said in a photobook I made for them. Dirt poor and neglected by their alcoholic parents, they had never been to school. I managed to get them through fourth grade before they dropped out for good. Now 17, Chepito is an amazing artist. His specialty is bright colors, intricate patterns, and inventive details. Everyone loves his work, including people who are artists themselves. It may be his way of coping with an ugly life. Pablo, 16, is quieter and more introverted, protecting the hurt within. I built a house for the Bandidos, as an attempt to stabilize their life. The one they were living in, made of mud and sticks, was falling down.
More recently, I adopted Chemo (pronounced shay-mo), a little "orphan" who got kicked out of his big brother's house. ("We can't feed you anymore! Go!")
Chemo had a good heart, but a weak one. I have a heart condition myself, so when I saw how quickly he tired, I took him to the capital city Tegucigalpa, where a severe defect was diagnosed by a wonderful doctor, Karla Andino, who treated Chemo like her own child. A foundation called Helping Hands for Honduras offered their help; they sponsor a team of surgeons and nurses who come down four times a year to do open-heart surgery on children. "But you have to find his mother," they told me, to authorize the operation.
Chemo's mother had abandoned him years before, and our search was fruitless. So I said, "Chemo, I guess I'm your mother." A wonderful judge, who, like Dr. Karla, treated Chemo as if he were her own son, expedited the process, and I quickly became Chemo's legal guardian. Chemo got his operation and is a healthy and normal kid, running around and playing soccer like crazy. Meanwhile, his older brother joined our little group of Alcoholics Anonymous and we're all family now. Including Chemo's mother! We finally found her, and she was very grateful for the help Chemo received. Turns out she had had a mental breakdown, and that's why she left.
I have to say, only faith makes any of this real for me. The thing that always moved me most, the thing that brought me here, the thing that keeps me here, is the faith of the poor, whose prayer is always, "Lord, strengthen my faith."
I work with various church groups, such as the parents' group, the "delegados" (lay ministers), Legion of Mary, the youth group and so on. My work with Alcoholics Anonymous is especially rewarding.
Here you see how generous is God's love for those who seem lost. And if you want to start a fight, just suggest that the faith of the poor is some kind of delusion or mere comfort for their pains. They have died for this faith!
Teofilo Gutierrez, one of my best friends, was viciously murdered by some thugs hired by wealthy landowners simply because he spoke for the rights of the poor, as his faith taught him to do. This is a faith that does justice. Never make the mistake of assuming that, just because folks are simple, they are simple-minded. All of us are engaged by this struggle. This faith leaves no one on the sidelines. Honduras is not some tourist site with quaint customs, curious foods and amusing anecdotes. It is a whole life, lived in the lives of the poor. I invite you to join.