Our group of 32 excited pilgrims departed for the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa (Tegus), on Tuesday, June 29th, to share our love with the poor of that beautiful nation along with our partners there who, like ourselves, want to transform the suffering that exists into dignity and hope. Vicki Kaufmann, our director of Speakers’ Bureau, Ed Young, our new country manager for Honduras and myself were sharing this pilgrimage with 29 of our devoted speakers. These gentlemen of the clergy, many well over retirement age but refusing to define their lives by mere numbers, are Food For The Poor’s (FFP’s) army of knights errant. Priests, pastors and deacons all, they brave the weather of all seasons, and worse, the airports of all cities, to spread the beautiful Gospel message of love that brings hope to the poor of the Caribbean and Latin America. Their great efforts over the years have changed the hearts of many in our own country.
We landed in “Tegus” by the grace of God, as both landing and taking off from this city are terrifying experiences. The mountains that dominate the city seem to be only feet from the airport runway. We were met by our wonderful partners in Honduras, the people of CEPUDO, an organization led by a most dynamic woman, Linda Coello, who not only has a most genuine love for the poor but also the energy of a young child after a few bars of candy. She seems to know everyone in Honduras – the priests, the cardinal and bishops, the mayors, the governors and the ministers. She never accepts no for an answer when she is begging on behalf of the poor. The chapters of her mostly volunteer organization are now nationwide and their efficiency is admirable.
We drove directly to the retreat center of the Universidad Catolica (Tres Rosas), where we would be lodging during our brief stay, high up in the mountains near Tegus, in a town called Valle de los Angeles (Valley of the Angels). It was an awesome facility for a retreat center – 300 rooms, spacious land, lush vegetation, nearby stream, two chapels, meeting rooms and delightfully cool weather. We dropped off our luggage in our assigned rooms and returned to the two buses that would take us to the inauguration of a 50-home village being named in honor of the Archbishop of Tegus and our board of directors member, His Eminence, the most reverend Oscar Andres Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga. We were running late – delayed flight, wet roads, steep mountain climb to the retreat center, missing pastor – and the Cardinal was early and waiting!
Finally, in the area of Cantarranas (singing frogs), we arrived at San Juan de las Flores, where we received a warm welcome of beautiful flowers held by even more beautiful children. The Cardinal was absolutely gracious about our tardiness and we were ready for the ceremony to begin. There were wonderfully inspiring words from the mayor, the representative of SOPTRAVI (the arm of the ministry of finance that has agreed to match any home FFP builds through CEPUDO in Honduras by giving us the funding for another), the formerly introduced Linda Coello, and then it was my turn to speak.
I gratefully recognized all present and acknowledged and praised the wonderfully collaborative spirit present while building this lovely community. FFP, CEPUDO, SOPTRAVI, the church, the municipality, the mayor, the community and even the police and fire fighters had all done their parts in helping us to realize this dream for the fifty families receiving homes. I then recited a famous Cuban poem, by our beloved Jose Marti, called “Los Zapaticos de Rosa” (The Little Pink Shoes) – a piece about a wealthy mother and daughter who, for the first time, internalize the issue of poverty, after an interaction between the daughter and a sick little girl whom she meets on the poor side of the beach. The response was an emotional one, as the poem is very touching, with many of the ladies and a few of the men being visibly moved. On behalf of FFP, I presented the cardinal with a framed copy of the poem and a matching framed pair of “little pink shoes.” He was touched by this unusual gift and very pleased.
The cardinal spoke last. He thanked FFP and the speakers who were there for their work in helping the poor and he thanked CEPUDO for being the link between Honduras and us. He spoke about the widespread suffering of the poor in his country and how much work still remains to be done, imploring us to continue our good work. He recognized all who had contributed to the success of this village, which gave homes to families that had been displaced by the building of a dirt road into the area. He ended with the blessing of the homes and all those who dwell therein.
The villagers had prepared a meal for us of tasty chicken, seasoned rice and salad. We weren’t expecting this generous gesture from those who have so little. They also prepared a heavy snack for the many who attended the event and for all the recipients of homes. We were also regaled with different folk dances performed by an entire family – three generations all dancing together. Beautiful!
That evening, we were invited by the mayor of Valle de los Angeles, where the retreat center was located, to a lovely restaurant in a striking, lush setting in the nearby mountain. The mayor was a gracious hostess, who addressed us all at the restaurant and expressed gratitude for the 50 homes that we were building in her city. We wanted to visit those homes, still under construction, but they were at the very summit of a nearby mountain and the recent rains had made the dirt roads impassable to our buses. Mercifully, the weather was great while we were there – sunny for the most part and cool because of the elevation.
Gahanna – the garbage dump
The next morning, we left for a visit to the garbage dump on the outskirts of the capital. Jesus often referred to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where the conditions were horrible and there was burning garbage everywhere. He spoke of the “fires of Gahanna” and many have thought he was referring to the eternal inferno. If Gahanna was anything like the garbage dump of Tegus, then indeed it was hell. The well-fed vultures were everywhere, competing with the hundreds of human beings for the already slim pickings from the refuse of the “capitalinos.” Legions of flies were everywhere and the smell was so pungent that it was almost palpable. For the first time since our arrival, I broke into a sweat.
As we walked through the dump we met some young children (although there were not many) covered in the filth of that awful place. Yet some were playing soccer; two young friends were playing with a plastic tube retrieved from the mountains of garbage. It’s called adaptation and survival. A policeman told us that they often find bodies without organs there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about these kids being exposed so early in life to such horror. Some exhibited the telltale signs of malnutrition – listlessness and discolored hair.
At first, the garbage pickers thought that we were coming to distribute something, as they started to form a line voluntarily, almost as an indication that the distribution would be orderly. They were disappointed, but soon returned to their work, if you can glorify that labor of desperation by describing it as such.
We met a missionary priest who has been working arduously to help the people there. I was filled with admiration for him. We spoke about different projects that he wanted for the people there, like homes for the grandmothers who take care of the grandchildren while the parents try to eek out an existence at the dump.
We also met a lady who was the leader of a cooperative that had been formed there. She told us that they began with 120 members, but 23 had died of contamination from medical waste or other hunger related issues, like toxic poisoning. As we were speaking, two disgruntled looking young men walked up, surrounded by what appeared to be a group of their supporters. As the woman spoke to me, one of the two kept shaking his head. His anger and frustration were evident.
He expressed to me that when they distribute donated goods there, those who do not belong to the cooperative get excluded from benefiting from them. The priest and the leader of the cooperative tried to silence him, asking him not to discuss internal issues in front of the “visitors,” and although I understood the point they were making, I felt the young man’s level of frustration and anger was so high that he looked as if he would break into tears, or worse.
We engaged each other in an open dialog, where I listened to all that he had to say and then he listened to me. I explained that I was not only aware of his frustration, but also sympathetic to it, that we did not discriminate in our distributions, using poverty and need as our only criteria. I told him that I knew that they would not be there in that place of suffering if they had any options, that I realized that the garbage collectors were picking the garbage of its recyclable materials before they got to the dump, that we were not there for poverty tourism, but rather to determine how we could help. I encouraged him to join the cooperative or become organized in some way, explaining that if they didn’t and we attempted to make distribution of goods to those who work at the dump, that many more could simply walk in on those distribution days and undeservingly share in the benefits that were designated for them, thus reducing the benefits that they themselves would receive. We spoke for about 20 minutes and I observed that his facial expression softened considerably as I spoke. At the end of our conversation, he, and those who surrounded him, had taken the long journey from anger and frustration to an understanding that culminated in his apologizing for the intrusion and telling me that he had no anger or negative feelings towards us. I assured him that I was happy to talk to him, that I appreciated his expressing his feelings that also represented those of others. Truly, I admired the leadership and honesty that this young man displayed on that day and his willingness to understand our position. I believe that the mutual respect achieved can instill hope and help lead to better cooperation for the future.
We left that horror of a place with a heart filled with sorrow and a bus filled with flies.
Never Ending Lunch
Next stop was an Italian restaurant, Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers), where the local Tegus chapter of CEPUDO had invited us to lunch. It was a very sweet and appreciated gesture, as we normally just go to a fast food chicken place, like Pollo Campero (Country Style Chicken). However, there was a dark side to this outing. They brought the pizzas, the steaks and the fettuccine to our table after a reasonable period of time, but, for a reason that escaped us all, we waited more than an hour and a half for the last plates of chicken to be served. Maybe the chickens were giving trouble to be caught! To be sure, the food was delicious, and we certainly appreciated the kind, well-intentioned gesture, but next time – Pollo Campero!
We had some activities planned for that afternoon and we knew we had to rush because the Cardinal had invited us to mass at the Cathedral of Tegucigalpa at 4:00 and we did not want to be late. We made a quick visit to a nursing home in the city that we support with food and other goods. The gentleman who runs the place was an elderly man himself, sporting a prodigious white beard. He had been many years ago called to become a monk and that formation led him to the missionary work that he was undertaking – saving elderly people who were homeless and alone in the world. The home was not in good condition, but so much better than the alternative for the many elderly there.
Up to the mountains in order to meet some communities in need of assistance. We were only able to drive through as far as the buses could take us, as it would have required more than a half-hour walk to get to the areas in question.
We were able to include a short visit to the Basilica of Suyapa, named after the patroness of that country. We visited the original church behind the new basilica, where the wooden image of Our Lady of Suyapa still resides. Hondurans subscribe to the miraculous powers of this tiny image, no larger than an average thumb. The façade of the new basilica was impressive, but we had to be satisfied with skipping a visit to the interior because of time restraints.
Mass At The Cathedral
We arrived for mass a few minutes before the celebration began. I entered the sacristy to greet Cardinal Oscar and, as always, he was very warm and welcomed me with a smile and a hug and I then went into the church to sit with the group. It was my first time in the cathedral and it had an impressive Baroque style, silver and gold ornamentation behind the altar. In contrast, the rest of the cathedral was elegant in its simplicity, with a beautiful pastel peach color, accented with white. During the homily, Cardinal Oscar introduced our group to his parishioners and, again, spoke admiringly of our work.
After the mass, Cardinal Oscar had a reception prepared for our speakers and some visiting priests and four contemplative sisters of the same order who were in Honduras with plans to establish a convent there. He greeted everyone individually at first, then later spoke to the group in English and offered to answer any questions the speakers may have. After a lengthy and candid Q & A session, we had to leave because we were invited to City Hall and didn’t want to appear habitually unpunctual.
Unique Mayor of Tegus
Since the inauguration of the village at San Juan de las Flores in Cantarranas, I had done many press and TV interviews about the new homes there and about FFP’s work in Honduras. At the mayor’s reception for us, the number of these largely increased. The official purpose of the reception was for the signing of an agreement between the municipality of Tegus and CEPUDO, basically assuring that they would each do their parts in helping the other in bringing help to the poor of the capital and its environs. The press loves signing of agreements, and they turned out in droves.
I was seated at the head table, at the right hand of the mayor, Ricardo Alvarez. Linda Coello was to his left. There were two or three speeches before Linda was asked to speak, and then I followed. I expressed to everyone that we did not come to be thanked for our work or to hear expressions of gratitude, but rather because we were fulfilling our mission, as instructed by Christ in the Gospel, to love our neighbors and to feed His sheep; that we were there to express our love for our brothers and sisters in Honduras.
Ricardo was then asked to speak and, although his PR people had asked me to translate for him so that he could speak in Spanish for the sake of the press, he delivered his entire address in English so that our group would understand, sacrificing PR for our benefit. Yet, this was not the most impressive aspect of the mayor’s speech. The content was truly moving. Without reading or referring to notes, he had the courage to say, before and audience of well-to-do supporters and politicians, that his priority while in office was, is and will be the poorest of the poor in his constituency. He implored those who could afford to help, to join in his efforts to give dignity and hope to a large number of the destitute of the capital.
Although I tend to be somewhat cynical when listening to politicians talk, there was a certain disarming sincerity in this man. I could understand why he was reelected for a second term, and I thought that if I were a citizen of Tegus, I would vote for him too. We were then treated to a delicious repast of heavy appetizers and wine, when the ceremonial session was over.
Our Last Morning – Breathtaking Surprise
Since we didn’t have to be at the airport until 10:30 AM, we were going to be taken to the pretty downtown section of Valle de los Angeles in order to get acquainted with the quaintness of the area and to give the group an opportunity to shop. I must confess that I was lukewarm about the first and mildly horrified about the second. I must admit, I enjoyed walking around the little town with some of my friend/speakers, and even engaging a couple of very young “elders” of LDS (the older elder was twenty) in conversation – one was American and the other was Honduran. They had a church and youth center in that town. I was in such a good humor that I even went into a couple of the souvenir shops and browsed.
Why the good mood? Well the night before at our last group reflection, I had wanted to see something of more substance, more related to our mission, more inspiring than going shopping at a tourist trap. But it was not to be. All the places we could visit were too far away and we would never be able to make it to the airport on time. I went to bed that night sadly resigned to my fate.
In the morning, however, the light shone through my cloud of gloom. It was announced that because we had brought such sunny weather to the country, a road that was formerly impassible with our buses had now dried off. We would, therefore, have access to a 50-home village that we are in the process of building not far uphill from the retreat center in the mountain where we stayed. Divine intervention?
We arrived at the new village under construction and everyone was awed at the beautiful scenery that greeted us. It was high in the mountain and it seemed like another world – cool, remote, peaceful. I looked up and I saw that if we climbed another 100 feet, we would be at the very summit of the mountain and there were homes built all the way there. When I reached the top, I totally lost my breath – not because of the climb, but because the view was so totally breathtaking. I had never, in all my travels, seen anything more impressive. Majestic mountains, verdant valleys, lush vegetation – the calming sounds from the crystalline waters of two nearby rivers would lull the residents of that village to sleep at night.
The residents were there, working on the finishing touches of the homes that were almost complete – both men and women, young and old. I felt better than I can likely express in words. The extreme poor, in so many ways, have lost the lottery of life by being born to families and in countries with so little resources that they live under conditions that would border on sub-human. Yet the residents of this village would have something that even the wealthiest and most powerful would envy – a home seated in the midst of the sights and sounds of God’s most beautiful creation – as their very own, every day, all their lives.
I was leaving Honduras bursting with excitement that FFP and CEPUDO would finally allow the residents of that yet unnamed village to shout out to life, “BINGO!”