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.

On the road to Tomal�, and the miracle spring

So there I was in Tomal�, 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 Tomal� 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 Tomal� 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. Tomal� 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 Tomal�. 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.
Tomal�, 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 Tomal�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 Tomal�. (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 Tomal�ns, 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. 

Passing the hat - or plastic bottle - to raise ransom money

I wrote this almost two weeks ago, but hesitated in posting.
I�m a visitor in Honduras, and reluctant to appear judgmental about my hosts. I don�t want to draw unwanted attention. And someone was in danger.
But the rumour mill says he was released, so I guess it�s OK now.
It was the day to take the hogar kids to the pool. So Sunday morning Jody went to buy mortadella - bologna - and bread and the various supplies needed for lunch. She bought a cake - $6.50 - because Carina�s 16th birthday was the next Tuesday, and Jody has a soft spot for teens.
On the street, she met a woman we sort of know, a teacher at the private bilingual school, staffed by a few Hondurans and semi-volunteer gringos. The woman had a five-gallon water bottle and was collecting donations.
A young Honduran man known at the school - I think a family member works there - had been kidnapped Saturday. Now there was a campaign to get donations to pay the ransom.
He must be well known. Jody got a lift in a mototaxi on the way back from Angelitos, the orphanage/foster home, and the driver said the soccer team he coached - uniformed with Real Madrid shirts through Jody and supporters in Victoria - had cancelled its game because of the kidnapping. 
And there were donation bottles in Bodega Gloria when I stopped to shop on the way back from the pool.
This is wrong on so many levels.
Practically, shouldn�t the kidnappers have done a little research before they grabbed this guy? It seems poor planning to snatch someone whose family has to do a fundraising drive to come up with ransom. (Though perhaps kidnapping someone from a richer family brings more police pressure.)
The gossip is that the kidnappers wanted five million lempiras - $250,000. I�d guess there was about $15 in the container at the store. (Jody gave $5.) The ransom demand did not seem well thought-out. 
But maybe it was just an asking price.
It�s hard to imagine a comparable situation in Canada. If someone is kidnapped, the police take over. There might be a ransom drop, but the family doesn�t hold a 50-50 draw at the Legion to try to come up with money to pay the kidnappers.
In Honduras, people don�t expect the police to ride to the rescue. They sort things out as best they can, without the state�s help.
Kidnappings aren�t common here. We heard a hotel owner was kidnapped by a bumbling gang just before we came down. Things went wrong and he was killed. A doctor was snatched last year in Santa Rita, the next town over, and ransomed after a week or so.
And, I hasten to add, gringos don�t seem to be targets. Even kidnappers must know how hard it is to transfer money from North America to Honduras. And police reaction would likely be more intense.
But it is odd to live in a country where you pass the hat - or, more accurately, the water bottle - to buy someone�s freedom.
The kids from the hogar had a good time at the pool. I�m hoping the fundraising drive is going well too.

When home is the most dangerous place for women

Honduras, like most of Latin America, has a problem with domestic violence.
I�ve been working through a research report, trying to do a Spanish summary of document only in available in English.
The report, Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, is both grim and fascinating.
Grim because women are getting battered. The study compiled the results of massive surveys from 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 
In Honduras, 9.9 per cent of women between 15 and 49 reported experiencing partner violence in the previous 12 months. That puts Honduras in the middle of the pack for the region. (The survey covered those who were or had been in a relationship.)
That�s five times the rate in Canada, where people rightly see domestic violence as a serious problem.
The Pan American Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the survey responses, which covered not just prevalence, but risk factors and attitudes.
There were some important findings.
For example, Honduran woman whose first marriage or common-law relationship was formed when they were under 15 were more than twice as likely to experience partner violence as women who waited until they were 25. Even delaying a few years significantly reduced the rate of violence.
Likewise, Honduran woman who had their first child between 15 and 17 were 75 per cent more likely to experience partner violence than women whose first birth came after they were 21.
Convincing teens to wait - not easy - could make a large difference.
So could dealing with alcohol abuse. The research looked at triggers, and found 30 per cent to 50 per cent of women cited the man�s drunkenness or drug use as the �cause� of the violence. (Mostly drunkenness.)
Then there are the cultural issues. In Canada, the number of women who would say partner violence was sometimes justified simply wouldn�t register in a survey.
In Honduras, 15.6 per cent of Honduran women between 15 and 49 who had been in a relationship agreed wife-beating is sometimes justified. That rose to 20 per cent in rural Honduras, home to about half of the population.
Legitimate reasons, according to those women, included neglecting children or housework (12.1 per cent), going out without telling partner (6.2 per cent), arguing or disagreeing with partner (6.1 per cent), burning the food (5.6 per cent) and refusing sex (3.2 per cent).
The responses raise an underlying issue. The surveys didn�t ask men about violence, triggers or attitudes. If one in five rural women think wife-beating can be justified, what would men say?
It was also striking how few women sought any kind of help. In Honduras, almost two-thirds of women kept the violence a secret. Only 34 per cent told anyone they had been assaulted by their partners - even a family member or friend.
And only 19 per cent - fewer than one in five - sought institutional help. They didn�t go to police, or social services, or a doctor or women�s group. (About 11 per cent of Honduran women experiencing partner violence sought help from police or a protection agency; nine per cent from a church or religious institution; 4.5 per cent from a hospital or health centre; 0.1 per cent from a women�s organization or NGO.)
Why not? In Honduras, 36 per cent of those not seeking help considered it unnecessary - the violence not serious, or normal. About 27 per cent were afraid of retaliation or more violence; 17 per cent were ashamed; seven per cent didn�t know where to go; six per cent didn�t believe that anyone would help.
There are some obvious lessons. Give women somewhere to go to get help. Create women�s networks and shelters that provide support, especially in navigating the system. Work to shift the shame from them to the abusers. Fight a culture that normalizes and justifies wife-beating. Make partner violence a health issue.
And make men and boys take ownership of the issue.
This should be urgent. Not just because so many lives are being damaged. Or even because the costs are so enormous, as the report sets out.
But because of the future being created. The study found �the single consistent and significant risk factor across all surveys� was a history of �father beat mother.� Women who grew up in violent homes were twice as likely to endure partner violence in their own lives. 
Inaction today means children are learning to be the next generation bringing fear, violence and sorrow to too many homes.

Maybe it's time to stop waiting for a miracle

It�s the festival of Our Lady of Suyapa in Honduras, a celebration of a tiny carved image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that�s venerated here.
The carving - less than three inches tall - is credited with miraculous healing powers. Suyapa is seen as a benelovent force looking after Hondurans when times are hard, as they usually are.
Sunday is the main celebration of the 250-year-old icon. Thousands of people have been making the pilgrimage to the Tegucigalpa neighbourhood where the caarving, usually in a small church, is moved to a basilica built specially for its display.
I haven�t been yet, but would like to. We went to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the devotion of the faithful - and the sprawling market of commemorative items for pilgrims - were impressive. You shuttled past the image on moving sidewalks inside the church, so people wouldn�t linger too long. (It was still a much warmer experience than joining the long lines visiting Ho Chi Minh�s tomb in Hanoi, where guards watch closely for any signs of disrespect - like having your hands behind your back - as you approach the bleached body.)
Marco C�ceres of Honduras Weekly, the leading English-language news and analysis source for the country, wrote an interesting piece headlined �No harm in a  little idol worship.�
Suyapa, he wrote, �represents one of the few things in Honduras today that can help bring people together and get them to put aside their differences, even if it's just temporary.�
While it may seem silly placing so much credence in a tiny piece of carved cedar, there's no real harm in it, and if it can unite Hondurans in silence, stillness, and prayer... well, that's no small achievement,� C�ceres wrote.
Canada is a resolutely secular society today, to an extent that baffles most Hondurans I talk to, who assume everyone has some religious affiliation. So partly, this a question of perspective. And I genuinely respect faith in a higher power and the chances of a better world.
But I worry a bit about faith as a substitute for action.
In San Pedro Sula a few months ago, the taxi driver taking us from our hotel to the bus station was a chatty guy, talking about getting deported from the U.S. after 12 years and the perils of being a cabbie in the city. He had been robbed, a pistol held against his head, he said, an occupational hazard.
But now, Raul said, life was safer. He had arranged to be on call for the hotel, and had other regular customers, and no longer had to do street pickups.
�Gracias a dios,� he added. You hear that a tremendous amount here. 
I�m too polite to talk about religion, and too inarticulate to engage in philosophical discussions in Spanish.
But I often want to point out that while God might have been helpful, Raul was the one who made the difficult trip to the U.S., saved some money, got a decent car, made a sales pitch to the hotel and delivered reliable service so they would keep on using him.
At the least he should say thanks to God and and his own efforts. 
Partly, of course, it�s just an expression, a way of showing faith. 
But there is also a sense of real fatalism - that individual efforts and community efforts don�t really matter as much as divine forces. And fatalism and learned helplessness can be close relations.
Congress has just passed a law making Suyapa and the area around the basilica part of the country�s cultural heritage. La Prensa quoted Rigoberto Chang Castillo, the congress member who sponsored the bill. He said the decree acknowledges that Honduras is a secular state that respects religious freedom, but has deep Christian roots, �the values of which all build on the principles that underpin our society and strengthen the culture of peace and democracy.�
Except when you have the highest murder rate in the world, and a democracy that can be kindly described as troubled, maybe it�s time to rely less on faith, and more on changing things through action.

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