Wednesday, February 27, 2013

They occupied the church, and why that's a good thing

I went down to check out the church occupation in the main square today, as it entered its fifth day.
The Catholic church is the dominant building in Copan Ruinas, as in most Honduran towns. It’s nice - two bell towers, a centre tower with a clock that usually shows the right time. 
Right now, the facade is spotted with hand-lettered signs protesting - politely - the transfer of the local priest.
It’s only the second local protest I’ve been aware of since we’ve been here. The first was a road blockade on the highway to Guatemala when people got fed up with a couple of months of frequent power outages.
I like protests, even if I disagree with the cause. (Hate groups and their ilk excepted.) It seems good if people take a stand for what they believe in. 
This one is especially interesting because it involves the church’s role in society.
Some parishioners are angry because the bishop, based in Santa Rosa de Copan, about three hours away, has transferred 14 priests in the diocese, including Father Daniel Humberto Corea of the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in Copan. He’s been here for 13 years and has many supporters.
The decision was at least partly political. The bishop thought the priests were getting too active in joining with some parishioners’ push for social and economic change. 
The bishop says the rotation is normal, but critics say, convincingly, that’s simply not true based on past practice and canon law.
And the bishop undermined his own position when he complained the protests are being led by supporters of Libre, a new leftish party that could do well in November’s presidential elections.
The Roman Catholic church is still important here. Newspapers regularly cover statements by the church on public issues. A Honduran cardinal is a longshot candidate for the next pope.
And it has a political past. In the 1960s, the doctrine of liberation theology began to gain ground among Catholic clergy in Latin America. Priests and parishioners saw a religious duty to champion the poor and oppressed and, logically, denounce the rich and oppressive.
That made many people nervous. The U.S.government saw Latin America as another front in the Cold War. It didn’t want the Catholic church even indirectly threatening governments the U.S. saw as allies. Powerful people in Central American countries didn’t want the church pushing for changes in the status quo.
And of course, many people in the church hierarchy - including the outgoing pope - were unhappy with the movement.
It wasn’t just a philosophical debate. Groups in the U.S. - including, famously, Oliver North of the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years - encouraged and funded evangelical missions to Latin America as a counterbalance.
They worked. 
In the 1960s, Honduras was virtually a Catholic country. 
Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but a 2007 national survey found 47 percent of respondents identified themselves as Roman Catholics, and 36 percent as evangelical Protestants, a huge change.
Unlike Canada, almost everyone counts themselves as Christian, and a member of some church. Hondurans are genuinely baffled when I try to explain Canadians’ lack of religious affiliation.
And, unlike in Canada, churches don’t seem to be much interested in helping others or building a stronger community. The things Canadian churches do - providing shelters, running meal programs - just aren’t considered.
Partly, that’s a result of the way evangelical churches have developed. In Copan Ruinas, there are a huge number of tiny, informal churches, often meeting in homes. Congregations are too small to consider launching any collective efforts to make the community better. (That concept might not exist anyway; charity appears to extend, at most, to immediate family. There is no real equivalent to a United Way campaign or tradition of philanthropy here, even among the very rich.)
It’s also, I expect, a legacy of the Roman Catholic church’s decision to step back from an activist theology and focus on the next world, not this one.
Whatever the reasons, Honduran churches are failing. They could be champions of an effort to work with others to make a better life for Hondurans. They aren’t, at least as far as I can tell.
If the people occupying the church on our square can change that a little, more power to them.
Footnote: Hundreds of faith-based groups from North America come to Honduras every year to help people, building schools and water systems and providing health care. 
I recall discussions about whether people without religious faith had a reason to help others. Of course they do, I would say.
But it’s interesting that the people who actually show up to do the work almost all share a religious conviction of some kind.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On the road to Tomalá, and the miracle spring

So there I was in Tomalá, having coffee with the mayor, perched on a couch in a dark living room, bags of newly harvested coffee stacked along the wall.
I had been minding my own business, sitting outside on the hotel’s plastic chairs, working on case studies on a couple of interesting women’s projects being done by OCDIH, the NGO I’m helping. (We love acronyms in development land.)
Then the mom of the family who owned the hotel brought her son, Edgar, and pushed him to talk to me. Last year, they sent him and his younger sister to an English-language collegio - high school - in a town a couple of hours away. She wanted to make sure the kids were learning.
They were. We talked, and their English was great. The parents stood watching critically.
Then the mayor came by, with a TV journalist from Globo, doing a piece on Tomalá and its big fair. 
The mayor wanted me to come to see a sacred spring, water with healing properties thanks to a sighting of the Virgin Mary there.
How could you say no? Simply by being a gringo, I had a vague celebrity status.
So we walked - the mayor, his wife, the hotel owner (an ex-mayor) and his wife and brother, the kids and the TV guy - up the cobblestone street a block and down a lovely path to El Posito de la Virgen. 
It’s a little pool, very clear, where water apparently trickles out at the base of a 15-metre rock face. It’s credited with healing powers, though I never really got the back story.
Some people were there, washing up. The TV reporter filmed the mayor talking about the spring with his little handicam. The mayor and his wife downed glasses of water from the pool. (I passed.) 
I noticed the TV guy kept framing his shots to get me in the background - I supposed it made it look like there were gringo tourists in town. He even did a brief interview, in which I uttered flattering generalities about Tomalá and Honduras in bad Spanish.
The mayor hopes publicity for the spring would attract devote Roman Catholics to the town, providing a badly needed economic boost.
That seems a long shot. Tomalá is pretty enough. But it’s almost in El Salvador. To get there from Copan de Ruinas - the nearest town with many visitors - we took four buses. The actual travel time was about seven or eight hours. Half the trip was jammed into rapiditos with too many people. 
And the last hour was up a dusty dirt road  in the mountains to get to Tomalá. The climate in the province of Lempira’s high country is extreme even by Honduran standards, with six months of drought followed by six months of torrential rain. The road would be frightening in the rainy season.
Tomalá, without the vendors
The mayor noted that the town is pushing to have the road paved. But Honduras has about 70 stalled construction projects now because the government hasn’t paid the contractors. Main highways are potholed and risky. Unless Tomalá’s spring does have miraculous powers, the chances aren’t good.
I liked the mayor’s optimism. And it’s surely necessary. There’s some subsistence farming and a little coffee. But it’s hard to see how anyone earns a living in Tomalá. (It’s not even on the drug transit routes.) 
The town - about 6,000 people including the settlements in the hills - hopes that it will get dividends if a talked-about hydro project goes ahead in the nearby mountains, but those tend to be developed by foreign companies with proceeds to the national government.
Judging by the number of people who tried out a “Hello, how are you” greeting, the town likely does benefit from remittances from residents who have made the long, dangerous to the U.S. (About 19 per cent of Honduras GDP is money sent home.)
There were visitors. We were there, because CASM, the organization my partner works with, has an office and she came to talk about communications and learn what they do. There were a half-dozen people from Minnesota, down on a project to hand out glasses in nearby, even-poorer villages. (Quite a good project - there’s a story here.)
And that weekend, the town was jammed with vendors for the saint’s day feria. Literally jammed. Makeshift stands were set up everywhere there was a three-metre square space, selling everything. Clothes, shoes, housewares, fruit, dried fish, vegetables, candy  - lots of candy - tools, and, of course, meals. 
Kitchens were cobbled together in a few hours. Hammer together a rickety wood surface - always, it seemed with reused wood and nails. Then top it with adobe, build a couple of rough cookstoves out of more adobe, start the wood fire and away you go. Vendors slept in the stalls at night.
It was festive. The fair saves Tomaláns, if that’s what they’re called, the two-hour bus ride to San Marcos to shop. (We changed buses in San Marcos; dustiest place I have ever been. If you are on the run someday, I’d suggest hiding out there.)
But not festive enough to attract tourists.
Which explains the mayor’s enthusiasm for the miraculous spring. It might seem a little desperate, but he’s trying. Better desperation than hopelessness.