OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #224 Honduras Reflections
I’m back from our short-term mission trip to Honduras. We took a team of seven to encourage the church and prepare a children’s playing field and were away 11 days. I could write a lot about the whole experience, and in fact kept a fairly detailed journal. It was quite a learning a growing experience.
Here are a few highlights. We moved 25 tonnes of rock, more than 20 tonnes of fill, several tonnes of sand, mixed 14 bags of concrete, and sanded pews. We worshipped in Spanish and jumped off a cliff into a local swimming hole. Two of us got sick (yes, that includes me) and I came back with a nasty infection on my ankle from a scratch at the beach. I almost left my finger on the back of a rock truck. We stayed with families and enjoyed wonderful hospitality and friendliness. We had some wonderful times of study, worship and prayer together. And those are just the highlights.
This OnFire is an extended one because I wanted to explore with you a question which has deeply troubled me since my time there. Some of you may have had similar experiences on mission trips and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There is so much I could have written about, but from this I think you will get some sense of our experience there, along with the spiritual issues I experienced.
By later tonight I will have a powerpoint on my website www.onfireletter.com so that you can see some pictures. Thanks to those who sent kind and encouraging words after I accidentally sent you some of the pics.
Finally, thanks to so many who wrote and told me they were pledging to pray for me daily. In total I had more than 20 people respond, and I am grateful. I certainly felt the power of God’s strength and protection while I was away. While you were praying for me, I was also praying for you from Honduras. Many, many thanks.
My first glimpse of life in Honduras was as the plane levelled off on final approach into San Pedro Sula, the largest city in Honduras. Looking out my window, I could see hundreds of low block houses with steel roofs, surrounded by wire fences. To me it looked like a scene from one of those TV shows for sponsoring children. The rust and concrete added to my sense of pity, and I wondered how people could live there, so close to the screaming jets of the airport, and in such houses.
Over the next 11 days, the biggest lesson I would learn was to see past appearances and differences in living conditions to see the people and spiritual need. While life was difficult, it was not unbearable and my pity was not helpful. I would learn this lesson by staying with a family from the church we went down to help. In the past mission teams had stayed at a nearby mission compound, but we wanted as much as possible to live and eat as Hondurans in order to establish relationships with people from the church.
As we arrived in our village just outside the city of Siguatepeque, I was curious to see the house where I would stay. Surrounded by a fence to keep chickens in and dogs and people out, it was made from concrete block with a steel roof and concrete floor and looked a lot like the houses I saw outside the airport.
Concrete, brick and steel are typical in Honduras because they are durable and resist termites. In addition, the materials are relatively cheap, strong and quick to assemble, essential elements in a place where workers earn $7-10 US per day. Last year Honduras experienced a stronger earthquake than the one in Haiti but there were few casualties, partly because of the strength of these construction materials.
There are three bedrooms with a common sitting area and a kitchen / dining area. There is electricity; in fact most people in our village have electricity. Water comes from the city and is turned on several times a week on a schedule which the locals know, but I failed to discern. It is stored in a pila, a large open concrete holding tank. Our home has one outside for washing and flushing the toilet, and a smaller one inside for the kitchen. More prosperous homes have a plastic tank mounted on the roof to provide gravity flow into the house.
My room has a double bed with a sheet and a light blanket. I’ve been given the room belonging to Alfredo, an eleven-year-old boy. A treadle-powered sewing machine sits in one corner and night stand in another. It is bare, but comfortable; the bed has a box spring and mattress.
I can only speak a few words of Spanish, but Alfredo attends an English school and so he shows me around the house. “You like?” he asks as Spanish language Disney Channel appears on a TV I hadn’t noticed before. Leading me outside, he opens the door to what appears to be an outhouse. A low toilet sits on the floor and he demonstrates how to wrap my hand in toilet paper and then fold it so that I can deposit it into a waste paper can after use. Later I learn that the sewer pipes are small and will not handle the paper. A small basin sits on the edge of the pila for scooping water in the toilet when I’m done. I feel like a child because someone has to explain these things to me, but I’m grateful for this boy to show me the basics of living here.
Standing beside the pila, Alfredo mimes pouring water over himself with the basin. “You chower here,” he says. Our “sh” sound is difficult in Spanish and so I get the idea that this is where I will clean up. I wonder about undressing in the open since there is another house not far away. Almost reading my thoughts, he points to the toilet and indicates I could “chower” there.
On top of the pila there is a scrub board with some clothes waiting to be washed. Over time I will notice that everyone here seems clean, even the men who work with us to build a rock wall. Despite the fact that the rainy season has begun, washing clothes is a daily ritual. I’m not sure how clothing dries since it takes several days for my sweaty t-shirts to dry in my room. One day I watch Alfredo wash his white school t-shirt and put it on a half-hour later, still wet.
Pastor Mario explained that we would be eating at the church and that the menu would be typical Honduran foods. Beans, rice and bananas became our staple items and we ate them in many different ways. At least one meal per day had beans - whole, mashed, crushed, or as a paste - sometimes served on a soft tortilla flatbread. Very green bananas were boiled or deep fried like potatoes. Several nights I arrived home to see the same foods we had eaten at the church being prepared by my family. This was reassuring and helped me understand that we really were eating as regular Hondurans.
We had two goals as we left Canada - mutual encouragement (Romans 1:11-12), and to make ourselves available for service to the people of Mario’s church. As we arrived we learned we would expand a children’s outdoor play area on the side of the hill beneath the church. Over the years teams had terraced the land and built a retaining wall. Our job was to extend the concrete wall and stabilize the lower sections by placing rocks and fill. This would make it suitable for soccer and other games, particularly for their vacation Bible school in August when 500 children would attend.
In total we mixed fourteen 40kg bags of concrete and moved about 25 tonnes of rock, along with the same amount of fill. It was hard work in the heat and humidity. We had a wheelbarrow to move the fill, but we moved the rocks mainly by hand. The truck delivering these materials had no dump, and so we also helped unload everything. On a side note, I almost lost a finger on the first day of work when I jumped down from the truck after unloading rock. My wedding ring caught, but thankfully I hit the ground before much damage could be done. In twenty years this has never happened before. I walked away bleeding but intact.
We found the Hondurans to be hard-working people. We worked alongside several men over the course of the week and admired their strength and stamina. We thought we were doing OK mixing cement until they mixed a bag in about half the time it took us. That was humbling but we took the lessons from it to make our work easier.
The other job we did was to sand the pews in the church. These were really wooden benches which the church had purchased second-hand from a school. Just as in Canada, students had marked on them and put their gum underneath. We sanded them by hand for two afternoons, but could not get all the marks out. Eventually the local cabinetmaker was called in to apply his power tools. This was an exercise to watch. When the heavy sander drew too much power from the inside plugs, the men tapped into the main electrical line running into the building. This appeared to be common since the wires were already stripped at that section of cable.
The first days were a shock for all of us. The living conditions were not what we were used to and we did not want to do anything to make it harder for our hosts. What was unusual for us was normal for them, and our simple mistakes (like flushing toilet paper or leaving lights on) had the potential to cause great inconvenience or expense. They had their routines and we must have seemed out of place. I wonder how many times they shook their heads at us “Gringos” and wondered if we would survive.
Plus, there were so many contradictions in the country. We travelled to our village on a modern, well-engineered concrete highway. Along the way we passed American tractor-trailers and signs for cell phones and Coca Cola, but off the highway it was like stepping back fifty years, only with electricity and customized ring tones. Children walked cattle down the road to the pasture below the church. Roosters crowed all night and chickens clucked in back yards. And yet, on a trip into the city we passed a fancy new French restaurant and saw mansions surrounded by walls with more blocks than would be in our entire village.
After four or five days of living there, we began to settle into things. The newness of the situation wore off, and I began to see that while life was difficult and people were definitely poor, they lived with a certain amount of daily comfort. The food was simple but adequate even in hard work. Our home was dry and the beds comfortable. Reliable electricity made food storage possible for those with a refrigerator.
Don’t misunderstand me - any comfort they had was held in tension by a lot of uncertainty about the future. Food prices keep rising and the cost of living was very high in relation to their wages of only $7-10 US per day. Furthermore, unemployment and under-employment were chronic problems. One man from the church, a brick layer, had not worked in several months. I’m not sure how he managed to feed and clothe his family, but he seemed to have a peace about his situation and faith in God for the future. Another man from the church took unpaid vacation from his job to help with our construction. Work was slow and there may not have been enough work for him anyway. We take cash flow for granted (even if we feel its not enough), but life in Honduras is hand-to-mouth.
I came to see that life was difficult and uncertain, but it was bearable (at least for many in our village - we certainly saw areas of extreme poverty), and so my sense of pity upon first seeing Honduras was not needed, nor was it helpful. In fact, my pity prevented me from seeing some of the spiritual needs of the people. As I talked with Mario later in the week, I began to hear of the difficulties in leading his church. Many of his elders did not read well, making it hard to share teaching responsibility. Marriage was rare, and so it was hard to convince born-again couples to marry. Most churches could not afford a full-time pastor, and even lay-pastor training was expensive. Pastoring is hard work at the best of times; being a pastor in Honduras is all the more difficult.
As Mario explained all of these things, I also saw some other needs. American culture was all over Spanish TV and I think it contributed to a feeling of poverty among the people. Sociologists observe that we no longer try to “keep up with the Jones” next door, but the “Jones” we see on the television, and I think it also happened there. In addition, many families had relatives living in the US and so the “American” way of life was seen as the end goal. It is hard to heed Paul’s call to be content (Philippians 4:12) under such conditions.
In addition to seeing need in Honduras, I reflected a lot about life at home and began to see personal need. “Contentedness” was not only their spiritual issue, but mine. How much is “enough?” For eleven days we lived very simply and had all we needed, without a lot of the things we take for granted in Canada. It is possible to have full bellies - even full houses - but still have empty hearts. It is possible to hide spiritual poverty behind a collection of things. And in contrast, it is possible to have nothing, but be rich in the fullness of Christ. We met people who demonstrated this for us everyday.
And so I reflected on life in Honduras and at home. I’m still trying to work out what this means for me, my family, even my ministry. I can’t answer it all yet, but the question troubles me: how much is enough? Regardless of what I have, will I be content with Jesus Christ?
This is a troubling question for me, and I’m not sure it won’t be for you also. But even still, I hope it helps. Be on fire.
OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published June 3, 2010. To subscribe or reply, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives are located at email@example.com. Blog located at http://www.onfireletter.blogspot.com/