"Our Changing Mission in Honduras"

by Jeff Mason, Education Coordinator for NY/HELP

abridged version of a sermon given at the
Arcade United Church of Christ
August 24, 2003

I'd like to focus this morning on our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 6. This familiar passage ends with the Lord asking, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" and the response being "Here am I! Send me."

I believe the last time we had a sermon from this pulpit about Honduras was on November 15, 1998, when Gordon Comstock and I did a tag-team sermon about our Honduras experiences. The closing words of that sermon were "Lord, Send Me," and these words were followed by the choir anthem of the same title that you've heard our choir sing beautifully several times since then.

In our message that morning, Gordon and I related our personal experiences -- his in 1989 and mine in 1994 -- about how God spoke to us to become involved with our New York state conference's NY/HELP project in a remote mountain region of north-central Honduras.

The words of the anthem are a powerful echo of the words from Isaiah. Permit me to read you some phrases from this anthem:

"There goes out a call to the people:
'Who will go? Whom shall I send
to the hurting souls of the nations,
their broken hearts to mend?'
If ever there was a time to bring a word from God above,
how will they know the way of truth unless they see his love?

Lord, send me.
Let me be the one to go.
Here's my life, I yield control.
Mold my heart to Your will.

Guide these feet and let me be the one.
Lord, send me.
Take this life and let me be the one.
Lord, send me.
Lord, send me."

The reference to the hurting souls of the nations was especially meaningful when Gordon and I gave our message and the choir sang its anthem that morning, because it had been less than two weeks since Hurricane Mitch had dumped four feet of rain in just four days on parts of Honduras, including La Laguna.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, the people of our church and other churches across New York State responded with amazing generosity through their donations to the NY/HELP treasury, and with that money we've undertaken some major projects that might not have been possible otherwise.

We of course have continued our medical clinic located in the village of La Laguna. This also serves people in several other communities, some of whom have to walk for a few hours to even reach the clinic. This clinic is staffed by Mirtila, a woman from La Laguna who received her nurse's training with assistance from NY/HELP. The clinic has been in even greater demand whenever a NY/HELP group has included a health care professional, such as our own Dr. Comstock or Kris Hanson, a pediatric nurse practitioner from suburban Buffalo.

Prior to Mirtila, the clinic had been staffed for a few years by Wualdetrudiz and Maria, two other La Laguna women whom NY/HELP aided with their nursing education. With the encouragement of NY/HELP, Wualdi and Maria received scholarships in 2001 to spend nearly a year in El Paso, Texas, in a program for health care workers from rural areas of Latin America. Our church was one of three churches that made it possible for Wualdi and Maria to spend their Christmas vacation in Western New York, and many of you were here the Sunday they worshiped with us and the following evening when they shared an evening of fellowship with us in Wetzel Hall.

Along with the health of the people of the La Laguna region, the other primary focus of NY/HELP ever since it began in 1989 has been to improve the nutrition of the people. Because they are indigenous people, they have been relegated to some of the least productive land in Honduras, and their crops have provided for a very limited variety of food products, and thus poor nutrition. Over the years a number of NY/HELP volunteers, including several people from our church, have worked with the people of La Laguna to introduce new crops, with limited success.

The poor yields for corn and beans and the low income they bring in led many people over the years to respond in desperation by creating even more farmland using slash-and-burn techniques. The folly of this deforestation was shown at the time of Hurricane Mitch, when many people's crops were washed away and several significant mudslides took place in the La Laguna area. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, because the donations that were received after Mitch made it possible for NY/HELP to seek a relationship with an in-country group that could work on permanent solutions to these problems.

In 1999 we began serious discussions with Sustainable Harvest International, which has its world headquarters in Maine. We contracted with SHI for a significant amount of money to undertake a three-year project in La Laguna and several neighboring villages. This was funded by NY/HELP but carried out by trained people in-country who are able to be present on a much more frequent basis than groups from New York. Sustainable Harvest has successfully implemented many projects to improve farming practices and to produce a greater variety of products that not only help people eat better but also bring in a greater income.

This past winter, SHI proposed continuing our relationship, and we agreed, so much of our money in 2003 has gone toward a fourth year of Sustainable Harvest projects. Two of the days of my group's trip in July were spent visiting six of the mountain villages with Jorge, the main SHI employee who carries out the projects we've paid for in this region. Among their projects are the installation of new stoves in a number of homes, with the goal of reducing respiratory illnesses caused by the smoke from poorly ventilated stoves. This follows up on an earlier project paid for by NY/HELP to provide the materials for new roofs on a number of homes in order to replace the thatch roofs that can be the cause of serious disease problems.

While we were there last month, a number of people in these communities enthusiastically discussed some other projects they'd like to see happen in the near future. These projects, such as a demonstration garden on the grounds of the clinic, could be implemented much more effectively if the people could work on them with SHI. In the next few months the NY/HELP steering committee will have to determine where we can get the money to continue with Sustainable Harvest in 2004, since the extra money we received after Hurricane Mitch is nearly gone.

There's a third major project I want to discuss, and that's the education project that's closest to my heart. On my first trip to La Laguna in 1994, the elementary classes were being taught by a single teacher in a small, wooden building consisting of one dark room. This was an improvement from several years earlier, when there had been no school in La Laguna at all. By 1997, the local education department had opened a larger, brighter, two-room elementary school, although the remote location and the lack of running water and electricity have made it difficult to retain qualified teachers there for very long.

In the summer of 1997, when my daughter and I were part of a NY/HELP group with a woman named Susie Briggs, we began a long-term program to pay one of the La Laguna teachers a little extra money to teach a class later in the day for students who might eventually want to go beyond the six grades available there. When I last spoke from the pulpit in the fall of 1998, we had three boys who were about to leave for junior high school, or colegio, in the larger town of Yoro, where they would live in a private home, thanks to NY/HELP.

Although none of those original three boys made it all the way through junior high school, for a variety of reasons, we found ways to improve the program. In February 2000 a girl named Norma entered the colegio, and in November 2002 she became the first of our scholarship recipients to complete the three years of junior high school. A few of our scholarship recipients have been attending a private, church-affiliated vocational school in Yoro, rather than the colegio, and we will very soon have our first graduate, Orlin, from the vocational school in the carpentry program. Later this year, we also hope to have a few more colegio graduates.

The extra money from Hurricane Mitch has had something to do with the fact that our scholarship program has started to bear fruit. In 2000, NY/HELP provided several thousand dollars so the vocational school could buy the land for a new campus on the edge of town, which has now replaced the totally inadequate vocational facility that had previously been in use. Also in 2000, NY/HELP made a significant donation toward the expansion of a house in Yoro that had been bought by Bill Briggs, our former New York Conference minister, for use as a boarding house for our scholarship students. A retired minister and his wife were secured as house parents, and NY/HELP has paid their salary and the expenses of the house since students first moved into it in February 2001.

My favorite times when I'm in Honduras are the evenings I spend visiting the boarding house, where the students view the house parents as a second set of parents and their housemates as a second family. It's a happy place, where the students can read and study in a house with electric lights, live in a home with running water and nutritious meals, and attend classes taught by qualified teachers.

At times their grades leave something to be desired, but much of this is due to the inadequate elementary schooling they received. Our in-country coordinator, Jimmy Alvarado, visits the boarding house occasionally and looks over the students' report cards, which eventually make their way to me. He periodically has to remind students that people in New York have made sacrifices so they can live in the boarding house and attend school in Yoro, and that the students have to work hard in return.

Jimmy had reminded one of our new seventh graders several times this year that his grades and behavior were far from acceptable, and four weeks ago this morning I was meeting in the clinic with this boy and his mother, informing them that his scholarship had been terminated and that he could not return to the boarding house with the rest of the students that afternoon. That was easily the low point of my trip, but we try hard to be good stewards of the money people in New York have given. The boy's mother understood, and we both expressed our hope that when her son is more mature in the future, he might try it again. The mother also remains very grateful for the opportunities NY/HELP has given her older son by providing him with a partial scholarship to study auto mechanics at the vocational school.

We now have eight students living in the house, and last month I held conferences with most of them and their parents to go over their most recent report cards and to discuss their plans for next year. Most of them hope to return to the house next year, and several applications have already been received from sixth graders who hope to fill the open slots in the house for next year. Orlin will be moving out of the house when he completes his vocational course, but Norma, the girl who completed junior high school at the colegio last fall, has begun the senior high course while continuing to live in the house. NY/HELP is also providing some partial scholarships to students who have relatives with whom they can live while attending school in Yoro.

The salary of the house parents and the expenses of the house are a major expense. As with Sustainable Harvest, the money we received after Hurricane Mitch is almost gone, and our steering committee is now facing the challenge of how to raise and where to spend money in the coming year.

If you looked at my sermon title in your bulletin, you might be wondering by now why I called it "Our changing mission in Honduras," so that's what I'd like to focus on next.

The philosophy behind mission projects has changed for many churches in recent decades, and the philosophy continues to change. The philosophy behind the NY/HELP projects is no exception, and we've especially seen some changes in the past year.

Hymnals are a good place to see the changes in mission philosophy. Our old hymnals had their first copyright in 1941 and were acquired by our church fifty years ago this Christmas. There are 18 hymns in the "World Missions" section of that hymnal. All of them, of course, are in English, and some of them blatantly reflect a low opinion of the intelligence and the level of civilization of many of the peoples in other parts of the world, particularly those in areas with warm climates and jungles. Many of those hymns were written during the Age of Imperialism, when many Christian churches in western Europe and the United States were very aggressive and even militaristic in their goal of spreading the Christian faith throughout the world.

Very few of those hymns appear in The New Century Hymnal, copyright 1995, that is now in our pews. I know most of us have struggled at times to get used to some of the new hymns and the new words to old hymns, but that's beside the point this morning. As you've turned the pages in the new hymnal, you've undoubtedly noticed a number of bi-lingual hymns. Probably more of these are in Spanish than any other language, and this in part reflects the diversity of the United Church of Christ. Some of these hymns are in languages that reflect the value of other cultures that were previously looked down upon in earlier hymns. There is less emphasis on conversion and more on brotherhood and helping one another.

Although the people of the La Laguna region of Honduras are probably all aware that our groups are connected to churches in New York, NY/HELP has never had conversion to Christianity or to our brand of Christianity as a goal. As I mentioned earlier, our two main original goals were to improve the health and nutrition of the people of the La Laguna area. Those will always be significant goals of NY/HELP, even though their percentage of our total budget has declined as other projects have grown.

Another goal I haven't mentioned yet has always been to improve cross-cultural understanding, and that's been done in a variety of ways. In the earlier years of NY/HELP, most of the people who went from New York to Honduras were involved with manual labor projects. I recall spending a lot of time on my first trip working on various gardening projects, and one day of my second trip was spent helping dig a deep hole for a new latrine. We worked side-by-side with Hondurans on these projects, and by doing so we showed them we felt these projects had value, and we also got to know and understand each other better.

Our groups have become smaller in the past few years, and we've spent less time on projects involving unskilled manual labor. Some of this is due to a discussion initiated by our former pastor, Tom VandeStadt. Each person who goes on a NY-HELP trip pays quite a bit of money out of their own pocket to do so, and in some cases that money could be put to better use if the person stayed in New York and sent the money for Hondurans to do the work themselves. We try not to be like some groups that raise thousands of dollars in the US for a group of people to go to a poor nation to engage in some sort of simple construction project, for example. Too often these Americans have no contact with the people in the foreign community, and the money raised here could have been used to have local people do the same project, instead of paying for a lot of plane tickets. The Americans return home feeling good about the good work they've done, but no cross-cultural understanding has taken place because there was no real contact.

We've tried not to fall into this trap in Honduras, but the rising crime problem has caused most of our groups in the past two years to spend their nights at a hotel in Yoro, rather than in the clinic in La Laguna. Admittedly, this has reduced the number of hours in a day during which we have contact with the people of La Laguna, but it's given us more time to spend with the students at the boarding house in Yoro, and has reminded us to work closely with the people during the hours when we are up on the mountain.

Another significant change has been our shift to a more regional approach. There are nine villages in the tribe or region, and the Sustainable Harvest project, funded by NY/HELP, has been working with six of them for three and a half years. Our groups in April and July of this year made a point of being more visible in more villages and establishing working relationships with more people in villages other than just La Laguna.

Most of the unskilled labor projects that needed to be done in La Laguna have been done, so in recent years people such as Dick DeNise from the church in Honeoye have sought to recruit people with particular "blue-collar" skills that might be lacking in La Laguna.

For people who wish to get involved with work projects of a less skilled nature in the next few years, there are plenty of things that can be done in these other villages.

In the educational aspect that I coordinate, my only contact with the teachers and students in the schools other than La Laguna used to be limited to the morning of the annual Lempira Day pageant. In the past two years more teachers and parents from other villages have begun asking for partial or full scholarships for their most talented students and for other aid for their schools, which are underfunded by the local government.

Last year, the teacher from the more remote community of La Kiloma invited me to visit her school, where she introduced me to her top sixth grader, Eva, as a potential scholarship recipient. We were pleased to be able to provide Eva with a partial scholarship from NY/HELP this year and even more pleased to see how well she's been doing at the colegio in Yoro.

Also while I was in La Kiloma last year, the parents presented NY/HELP with a request for help in fixing up their dismal school building, which I brought back to our steering committee for consideration. The April group contracted with a local man to do the work, and when we were there last month the people of La Kiloma proudly showed off their greatly improved school building.

The teacher in the most remote community of El Paraiso last month recommended her best student, Carlos, for a scholarship, so we took him to Yoro so he could visit the vocational school, where he'd like to study auto mechanics. Carlos is 17 years old and is just finishing sixth grade because El Paraiso didn't even have a school until a few years ago. Eva and Carlos are examples of the way in which people in the other villages have seen what NY/HELP has done for the people of La Laguna. Now they hope we can extend such opportunities to their villages as well.

Not every decision we've made has been a wise one, and some of the changes we've made in the past few years have been acknowledgements of mistakes we've made. For example, we know that democracy has usually been a good system in our society and that committees can function effectively if properly run. Once we got going in La Laguna, we tried to promote democracy by creating a committee to oversee the clinic, for example, and then conducting elections for committee officers. Just as we've been seeing in Iraq since April, people who are not used to democracy don't always understand or appreciate it right away when Americans have tried to introduce it to them.

Some of you might recall about a decade ago when our church and others in the state contributed toward the purchase of a four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup truck for NY/HELP. The goal was to empower the people of La Laguna by leaving the truck under the control of the clinic committee, but it was seen by some on the committee as their personal vehicle when the New Yorkers weren't around. In the end, the truck was totaled in an accident, and Orlin, the boy who's almost done with his carpentry course, will forever live with major facial scars as a result.

Although the people who won elections over the years usually were trustworthy and respected at the time of their election, too often they used their office for their personal gain, rather than for the benefit of the clinic or the school. In cases where such people were later voted out of office, it caused resentment and the creation of factions. We'll never know for sure, but this might explain the double murder that took place a year ago in La Laguna. In the case of the school committee, it appears in a couple of cases that political connections had a lot to do with determining which students were selected to receive scholarships.

As a result, it's been a year since we've mentioned anything about elections or committees in La Laguna, and no one seems to mind. We feel we've accomplished a lot of good things for the people of La Laguna, and now for the other villages as well, and the people sincerely appreciate it.

Although NY/HELP has accomplished a lot since 1989, we've also learned that in some areas we started off in the wrong direction, and in other areas we perhaps started out taking giant steps when baby steps would have been more appropriate.

No matter how the shape of our mission has changed in 14 years, or how it changes in the future, the words of Isaiah remain the same:

"Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

"Here am I! Send me."




For our benediction this morning, I've chosen brief excerpts from four letters I was given last month.

From the teacher and the parents' committee at the school in La Kiloma: "In these short lines we want to give you our most sincere expressions of appreciation."

From Eva, the student from La Kiloma: "Thanks to God and to all of you I have begun to realize my goal of being a student. Many thanks and God's blessings always on all of you."

From Orlin, the boy who's finishing vocational school: "I'm grateful with all my heart for all of the help you gave me while I was studying."

From Orlin's mother, Delia: "May God give you many blessings for the good you all have done."



NY/HELP Honduras

Arcade, NY 29 August 2003