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Letter from Honduras: From knifepoint to help from SLUH

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2013 - On Dec. 21, the day the world was supposed to end, I got robbed at knifepoint in my own house. About 8 o’clock at night, right after the Posadas, Kevin, 19, comes by to watch a little TV.

“Where’s your friend?” I ask, meaning Marvin, 17; they’re usually together.

Kevin lives with relatives in Tegucigalpa and is just visiting for the holidays. Chemo was still out, but his cousin Dionis was here. After about a half hour, Kevin says he’s leaving. When I open the gate to let him out, there suddenly appears a guy brandishing a knife, his face banded in a T-shirt.

“Back up! Back up!” Of course, at first you think it’s a joke, but I stifled my laughter and went on defense. “OK, OK, we’re moving, it’s fine, don’t hurt anybody.”

He directed Kevin and Dionis into the kids’ room and took me into my room.

“Gimme your wallet! Now!”

“No problem, here you go, here you go.”

What I didn’t realize was that Dionis had already identified the thief as Marvin -- by his voice, by his clothes, by the little tuft of hair not covered by the mask -- and was telling Kevin, “Let’s jump him!” But Kevin was saying, “No, no, we better not.”

He grabbed the money, looked at it curiously, shut me in the room and ran out. When I heard the gate clang, I burst out, checked with Dionis and Kevin, and, my heart racing, I had to thank God he hadn’t grabbed my laptop sitting on the card table, or the iPod Nano that was already stolen once about a month ago, or my cell phone.

When Dionis says, “Miguel, it was Marvin,” I turn on Kevin, “You guys planned this together!” Kevin denied all complicity, but I told him, “Go find Marvin and tell him to bring back the money.”

As I told the story to other kids stopping by or my neighbors Dora and Elvis, the sympathy and the advice poured in: Put a security camera here, don’t let ANYONE in, call the police, tell their parents, let me go get ‘em (that last was Chemo’s solution!); but the most practical advice was what I had to formulate myself.

Forgiveness.

I’m no saint, nor even near it, but I’m sorta used to the idea. I see it every day in the Psalms I read, every day in the Gospel for Mass, every night in my own prayer, a slip of paper I found somewhere years ago that I keep by my bed:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

“I am worn out, I cannot pray really; accept, O Lord, this monotonous voice and the words of prayer, and help me.

“Help me, O God, to put off all pretenses and to find my true self.

“Help me, O God, to discard all false pictures of thee, whatever the cost to my comfort.

“Help me, O God, to let go all my problems, and fix my mind on thee.

“Help me, O God, to see my own sins, never to judge my neighbor, and may all the glory be thine!”

So I had enough presence of mind that night – somehow -- to tell Kevin, tell Marvin to return the money AND “tell him I forgive him.” It is the Christmas season, after all.

But wait, I was not totally Scrooged! In fact, when the thief asked for my “wallet,” I tried a trick I had used the last time I was robbed at knifepoint in my house a couple years ago.

I grabbed cash out of the wallet and handed it to him, tossing the wallet itself behind the door of the darkened bedroom. Because the cash I gave him was sort of a thick wad, he didn’t take time to notice they were mostly small bills.

Hidden in other pockets of the wallet was another trove of big bills worth about $500! I was acting all scared and stuff, but secretly I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this again!”

Perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of the season, I got a big Christmas present when Chemo passed his last math test on Dec. 18 and was awarded his sixth-grade diploma. Turns out there is a Santa Claus and his name is David Suarez, Chemo’s teacher, who went out of his way, and two weeks deep into his vacation, to help carry Chemo across the finish line.

Ironically, this puts Chemo a full year ahead of Elvis and Dora’s brilliant youngest child, Doricell, half Chemo’s age, who finished first in her fifth-grade class, the class the school wouldn’t let Chemo register for last year, because, at 18, he was “too old.” His Maestro en Casa course was a combo of fifth and sixth grades, you see. But Doricell is a lot more ready right now for seventh grade than Chemo.

You know, the math he was doing was so weird and complicated that the year was over before I realized, gratefully, that it had not included the area of a circle or the volume of a sphere. But that means it’s lurking in the “high-school” curriculum. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think there’s any way Chemo can do more advanced academic work. In fact, I was planning my own little course of study for him that would include lots of reading (“high-interest,” of course), including a little Bible or religion study. Some tests, quizzes, what have you, but no math!

To celebrate Chemo’s “graduation” -- and Dionis’ Confirmation -- we made a quick trip to El Progreso to see Teatro La Fragua’s signature production, “Navidad Nuestra,” “Our (Honduran) Christmas.”

Manuel Figueroa from Las Vegas (now teaching in El Progreso) was featured in multiple roles in this adaptation of the Christmas story. I asked Manuel what he would most like me to catch in a photo. “When Herod chokes me!” for telling him a new King has been born. Got it! By the way, Herod’s raging at the “subversive” new-born Jesus is taken almost verbatim from President Roberto Suazo Cordova’s 1983 denunciation of Padre James (“Guadalupe”) Carney, the “subversive” Jesuit missionary who cast his lot with the poor and was assassinated by Cordova’s henchmen.

Another production, very Honduran as well, was a wedding of four couples in La Cuatro, just about the poorest little community around here. The ceremony was so simple and unadorned that it put these imitation “royal” weddings you hear about to shame.

Padre Jaime and Padre Manuel have been doing a wonderful job of encouraging folks even with three or four kids already to enjoy the sacramental version of marriage “in the church,” without all the expense of a big wedding, especially of a reception. Poor as the folks are, they manage a little coffee and rolls for the newlyweds.

Someone in Las Vegas came up with a novel idea: a dance, a party, a banquet to celebrate the end of the year WITHOUT ALCOHOL! A committee was formed, the salón, site of all the debaucheries, was reserved, a fancy menu was prepared, music was provided (by my neighbor Elvis, including vocals by his exceptionally talented daughter Lily), and I loaned them my chairs. A big crowd attended, despite the steep entrance fee of about $10; the committee members had gone door to door showing the hand-made invitation, a gentle arm twisting, ensuring a success. It was a fundraiser, actually, for repairs to the church. Everyone agreed, we have to do this again!

Alba, Santos, and their five kids headed off Dec. 17 to El Transito for their own annual fundraiser, that is, picking coffee for the next two or three months. They pile all their belongings into the boss’ pickup and climb on top. The idea of this annual migration is to make enough money to last all year, or make some big purchases like a horse or get started on a little house, but it’s a rigged game. Oh, the boss is nice enough and treats the folks well, and keeps good order so drunks don’t cause trouble, but “the company store” absorbs a large portion of the workers’ earnings. A family might actually have to leave someone behind when they head home, to work off the debt they still owe.

Olvin, 20, came to Las Vegas the other day, to visit his best friend Selvin’s grave on the second anniversary of the shooting that left Selvin, 17 at the time, dead and Olvin badly injured. Some trigger-happy truck driver took them for bandits in the dark, on the road, before their little community (La Cuatro, again) got lights. Olvin has come a long way, now with a girlfriend and baby son, a life we wish Selvin could have enjoyed, too.

Often, kids need extra help, even if they have a mommy and daddy. Ana Cristina’s Antony, 2, one of my many little godchildren, was just wasting away because of malnutrition. So he finally ended up at San Ivis, a sort of foster home in the city of Yoro, run by Maria Puerto. When I went with Ana Cristina to visit him, I realized that this is the Center built and maintained by the generous support of Saint Louis University High School volunteers under the leadership of veteran teacher Charley Merriott, who brings a group of seniors down every year between semesters.

Each group leaves a souvenir of their visit, a sort of shield painted on the walls. So I decided I’d delay this letter till I could get back there and get a picture. Of course, I invited them to visit us in Las Vegas, and maybe some day ...

When I wished Happy Birthday to Brendita before Mass on Sunday, Dec. 30, she gave me this mortified look and slipped her hand away from mine. She’s 14, when any adult attention is an invasion, I guess.

But when Padre Jaime called her and Ery, turning 25 the same day, up in front to pray for them, the wall was down and she could not resist. If it had been anyone than Ery, with Down Syndrome and our community’s role-model, she might have ducked under the pew!

All best wishes for the New Year!

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