Electricity recently came to Buena Vista, a mountain community off the Honduran Caribbean. The Internet still isn’t there. You have to walk up there if you want to make a connection.
Walking up the Honduran mountainside, I finally can say that I shed my blood for the good of the Church. Well… I guess that I can say that. There are a couple of conditions to the experience which qualify the statement.
The first is the extent to which I shed blood. There are many streams to cross on the way up to Buena Vista, Honduras (near Trujillo), and in an effort to keep my feet dry, I tried to cross a footpath bridge. In doing so, I grabbed a barbed wire fence. Now, I only pricked my finger, but it sure did make my hand excessively bloody.
The other condition is the verisimilitude that my pilgrimage is for the good of the Church.
Erin has been making the hike up to Buena Vista for three years, as she has volunteered at the Farm of the Child (Finca de los Ninos) during that time. The Farm of the Child is the orphanage where I am staying.
“I hope I have done something good while I have been here.” Erin says as we walk. “We struggle with knowing if we are really doing any good. Are the children really going to improve their lives, or are they growing dependant on our support?”
Erin is expressing a concern that I have heard from many social workers, missionaries, religious, and volunteers this year.
How do any of us know that we’re doing any good? That is to say, we feel like we are, but there are doubts.
The children in the orphanage often come from situations of abandonment and abuse. Even if the orphanage is successful at raising the abandoned child, the child still exists in Honduran culture, where poverty and abuse continue to perpetuate themselves.
“Well, at the very least you can be assured that you’re not doing any harm.” I respond to Erin’s observation, appreciating her concern, but also conscious of the harm that would be done to the orphans if there wasn’t a place for them to go.
There is a qualitative difference to what Erin and her fellow volunteers at Finca are doing. She is not just sending money to fix a problem, she is relating to these children, revealing the love that is otherwise lost in confusion. Reflecting on her concern reminds me of a common complaint I receive from adolescents in the United States. Adolescents often feel as if their parents don’t love them. They see through the superficiality of parents who buy their kids whatever they need, when what they really need is for their parents to spend time with them, to reveal the love that a parent has for a child.
The hike up to Buena Vista is made by Erin, Laura (a member of Erin’s community), and several children from the orphanage. We go specifically to visit the Catholic community there. The village of Buena Vista has built a complex which can serve as a kind of retreat house, while the upstairs portion serves as a chapel. It is unfinished, and stark.
To make light of the obvious, as I look around the dilapidated chapel, I note to Modesto, the lay leader of the community, “There are five statues of different Marian apparitions here… I think that is enough to qualify you as a basilica!”
I can only describe Modesto as a sort of “wise elder.” He has a knowing voice and presence that disarmed me to say the least. Getting near the end of my pilgrimage, I find myself waning from the desire to give introduction that I have used over three hundred times about myself and my pilgrimage. It didn’t matter. Modesto got it. He knew. I don’t know how he knew, but he knew, and I knew that he knew… which is new to me.
Modesto launched into an articulation of the Gospel, of journeying, of sacrifice, and of the importance of distilling peace in the tenacious fragility of life. At first I wondered how someone so knowledgeable had made it to live in the back mountains of Honduras, where the road ended several miles back, then I just resigned and said, “You’ve already said everything I usually say. You have quoted the scriptures and papal documents that I usually quote. I have nothing to add.”
I nodded and thought, “My God. Even when I’m too tired to give the message for which I came, it seems to be built into the fabric of life.”
Then Modesto launched into the message that I hear too frequently as I journey to places of extreme poverty. So yes, it does seem to be built into the fabric of life. He said, “We don’t want to receive money from donors in the U.S., we want you to know who we are, and we want to know you.”
The developing world doesn’t want to be treated like the spoiled step-child who is “bought off” in efforts to win admiration and love. They want to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect.
Who could imagine such audacity! They want love, not sympathy.
Modesto continued, “We don’t need money to complete the construction of this church. We have money, but we don’t have the materials. The systems are not set up so that we can buy the materials we need to build and get them here. If you want to help us, then work to change the system so that we will have the ability to help ourselves.”
What Modesto is asking is a great deal more difficult than pulling out your checkbook and picking your favorite charity. He’s asking for the kind of change that takes time, and can only occur as people come to know the situation he faces more intimately.
It seems like the greatest harm that a hike up to Buena Vista to speak to a wise old man was the loss of a little blood from a pricked finger. Beyond that, our company of volunteers and orphans didn’t seem to do any harm by climbing up the mountain.
As for the rest?
Are we changing the system? Are the volunteers at the Farm of the Child helping the orphans? Are we making things better for Modesto? For Buena Vista?
I guess time will only tell. We hope so, and we have faith in God, but we will keep listening to people like Modesto in our hearts. He wants us to know who he is, and he wants to know us as well. For now, the only way to do so is to go up the mountain.