Letter from Honduras: Tres muertos
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sunday, June 16, was a day full of promise. In the morning, a special Mass with 15 boys and girls making their First Communion. In the afternoon, a new session of about 20 couples already in committed relationships for years, now preparing for the “sacrament” of matrimony.
Little did I realize the chasm that would open at our feet, leaving the whole town staring into the abyss.
As the couples group was breaking up, the smiles and relaxed touches suddenly met confusion outside. But I blithely walked along till Tala’s stricken face stopped me.
She answered the question I did not even have to ask. “Tres muertos.” Three dead: Chimon; his wife, Santos, and their grandson, David, 17, murdered, shot up in an ambush near San Antonio, about an hour from Las Vegas.
Chimon is always on the move with his big truck, packed with building supplies or enormous bags of grain and coffee, trips to San Pedro every week, usually extra “hands” riding in the bed to help with the loading and unloading. This time, only one, Ery, my neighbor with Down Syndrome.
That’s what Tala was trying to tell me! “No one knows where Ery is!” Did he get away? Did they go after him? Is he dead, too? If Ery is gone, too, cry havoc....
For one very long hour, we held our breath. Word came that Ery had been picked up by the late bus, due in Las Vegas about 6:30 p.m. Every time there is a death, I discover more connections. When the very first person who clasped and held Ery off the bus was Maria Juana Vianney, one of the leaders of our parents association, I learned Ery is her godson.
They brought the bodies back the next day; they arrived in three stately caskets, their heads heavily capped.
That tragic line-up of three caskets seemed almost absurd, a wicked joke. How much can you take? You just felt helpless, moving from one to another and back again, each an incomprehensible sight.
I had just seen Chimon a couple days ago. Santos I barely knew, but her hospitality was legendary. David was a big kid, and he looked huge in his casket, so cramped I was sure he would get up and stretch.
David was a prominent member of the Youth Group, so it was no surprise that Padre Manuel arrived at the house in an early-morning rain. He held an impromptu prayer service.
The gospel reading of the day just happened to be from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say offer no resistance to evildoers.” Padre Manuel, who as a priest in El Salvador, must have given this sermon a hundred times before, reminded us that violence, revenge, hatred, is not the way of resolving conflicts. It was fitting and passionate, but afterward it occurred to me he had not mentioned “resurrection.” Hope, yes, but unspecified.
Later that day, Manuel offered Mass in the front yard of the house for a large crowd, including Ery moving along the edges, where I sought him out to hold his hand during the “Our Father.” Again, Manuel gave a powerful defense of love and forgiveness to break the cycle of violence, but still no “resurrection.”
I thought, am I the odd one? It’s such a natural theme at times like this that I wondered if Manuel was just determined not to spout cliches. Indeed, I questioned myself, do I take this article of faith for granted, so automatic a comfort? Do I actually believe it, after all?
By the time it was my turn to preach at the novenario a couple days later, I had searched my soul and searched the scriptures and re-found my faith, starting from scratch, you might say. So I leapt into the resurrection like a cliff-diver. I hoped I was not just indulging “my thing,” but this family and our whole community was down for the count.
As Martin Luther King said when he nearly despaired after so many death threats, bending over a cup of coffee at midnight, “I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself.” This was real!
And a couple days later, when I got another chance, I realized no one had mentioned Ery yet. So I leapt on that, too. As best as we can figure, the killers let Ery go because he cannot talk. His “handicap” saved his life! And really ours, too. So there’s the caution for the “quality-of-life” philosophers who deny the dignity of human diminishment.
At the regular Sunday Mass a week later, Padre Jaime also did not mention resurrection. He was certainly passionate enough. “If you hate, you do not believe in Christ! If you kill, you do not believe in Christ! If you lie or gossip, you do not believe in Christ!” But he seemed to blame us for the violence, with the whole family sitting right in front of him. “You let me know if you’re going to keep this up, because if you are, I won’t be your pastor any more!”
I don’t know. In such emptiness, I suppose I would opt for the “Comfort ye my people” approach, the way Handel’s “Messiah” starts. I felt like saying, and I did say later at the novenario, if Padre Jaime doubts our faith, let him come to the novenario!
It really was something, the novena of mourning. Usually, after the initial wake, I get most of my chairs back. This was the first novenario I’ve seen where they kept adding chairs and benches and church pews every day.
The whole nine days were a witness to our faith, Catholics and evangelicals alike. The family, though much consoled, were exhausted. Every day they prepared refreshments for us, and on the last day, platefuls of tasty food.
Padre Manuel offered a final Mass at the house for the occasion. Still no resurrection; in fact, you could tell that the depth of the tragedy was getting to him, too. I wanted to tell him about the resurrection! But I felt more like crying than ever
As a gentle rain fell and we huddled for shelter, Manuel said, “These are God’s tears,” a metaphor he denied when it rained at the first Mass (“This rain means life!”). The beautiful thing was that the rain kept us all together even after the Mass ended, just talking and thinking and finishing the leftovers, as if no one ever wanted to leave, till even the family stopped “waiting” on us and just sat down, really for the first time in nine days. It was a liturgy all its own.
The next morning, another lovely custom: coronation, that is, decorating or “crowning” the grave with all the flowers, remembrances, and settings that have accumulated during the novenario.
The tomb was stunning. Perhaps befitting a man in the construction business, it is a work of art, a spacious bed of concrete overlaid with emerald-green ceramic tiles, and three metal plaques, each etched with photo, dates, and biblical citation.
Ana, Chimon and Santos’ very capable daughter, had asked me, “You know, we’re pretty ignorant about the Bible, could you suggest some quotations?” Well, I had to answer that! “Any family that has as much love as this one does, and shares it so freely, is NOT ignorant about the Bible! I can suggest some words, but YOU are living the message!”
You almost hope that, if you really dwell on this death, these deaths, somehow it will stem the tide and hold off another onslaught. But even our catastrophe was just a drop in the bucket of a country swimming in massacres. A few days before, a young policeman, his wife, and baby were killed in a town some miles away. A few days after, in another town, four killed and 10 wounded at a church service!
Escaping the violence has become the number one reason -- not economics -- Hondurans give for braving the gangs and deserts along the border to get into the United States, 100,000 a year.
So that’s why I cringed at the thought of Chemo joining the soccer players for a game in San Pedro Sula between Las Vegans from here and Las Vegans working or studying in San Pedro. “If you go, Chemo, I’m going with you.”
Actually, the expense was the really scary thing about the trip. Can I just interrupt myself to put my cards on the table? I just got socked with a $400 light bill (it’s usually no more than $50) and I can’t pay it. It’s cut the legs out from under me, as far as helping anyone, which means I’ve lost my reason for being here.
And that’s just the tip of iceberg. Whenever possible, I use a credit card, so I’ll “never” have to pay. So I’ve done a pretty good job of robbing myself! It’s a problem of my own making, obviously, since I give everything away, a habit I learned from some very excellent people, including my sister Nancy and the new Pope, following Francis of Assisi’s example, which is not helping my situation!
Anyway, victim of a misguided austerity, I refused to buy Chemo soccer shoes, called “tacos.” So righteous I am. But once the game started, and I saw him on the sidelines, I said, “Let’s get you some shoes!”
A few short blocks put us in front of Oliver’s Shoe Store, and 20 minutes later we were back at the stadium.
Chemo played the whole second half, and he was so thrilled just to get into the game, but of course he had to keep his game face on, you know, lest someone think this was just child’s play. Meanwhile, I snapped enough pictures to fill a book.
When our bus spent the whole next day in the shop, Chemo and I finally opted for a bus to Morazan, to visit Fermin and Maria and family. There we spent the rest of the week, and we loved it! But I did not have my computer, so that’s why this CASA is delayed. It’s OK, because, except for the last couple paragraphs, I didn’t want to write it anyway. You may feel the same way about reading it.