When tragedy hits, ‘Be there with the people’

Cubans pick up the pieces following the damage and havoc caused by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, Cuba, Oct. 6.

Cubans pick up the pieces following the damage and havoc caused by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, Cuba, Oct. 6. (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)

What’s a bishop to do?

Even as the death toll from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti was climbing toward 800 in early October, the storm was hitting eastern Cuba as a Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 130 miles per hour.

Days after the hurricane hit, Bishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez of Guantanamo-Baracoa spoke of the damage he saw: chaos, trees without leaves, houses without roofs. “All this horror was experienced in few hours, in the night of Oct. 4,” he said.

In a translation just obtained by Catholic News Service, the bishop spoke of what he asked his priests and nuns to do in the days after the hurricane:

A woman stands in a street near damaged homes Oct. 5 after Hurricane Matthew swept through Baracoa, Cuba. (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, EPA)

A woman stands in a street near damaged homes Oct. 5 after Hurricane Matthew swept through Baracoa, Cuba. (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, EPA)

— Be there with the people right where they are. To wipe away their tears. Raise their spirits. Give them some hope. Do what the apostles did and said: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you.” (Acts 3:6)

— Give food to those who are hungry. By the way, yesterday, we picked up a man who was walking along the road looking for his family, and he confessed that he had not eaten anything or slept for two days. Fortunately, Caritas-Guantanamo staffers … are taking care of this case.

— The coordinators of every community had to make a list with the names of the persons that need help. There is a truck from the diocese transporting … all the donations: crackers, rice, beans, cooking oil, sardines, sausages, soaps, candles, detergent, matches, etc.

— Invite everyone to pray, like Moses did …. You can suggest any initiative about it. To say the rosary to the Virgin, consolation of the upset people, it could comfort in all these days.

— Don’t stop celebrating the Sunday Mass, especially in those places where the churches collapsed. I recommended to put away the rubble and use a table as a temporary altar and invite the faithful to bring an umbrella or something to cover their head for the sun or if it rains. We have to be clear on something that you all know: The building was destroyed but not the church.

He also spoke of things that gave him hope: Catholics and Protestants praying together; people looking at the bright side of things:

— The example of a motorcycle driver who was carrying a passenger. When the passenger tried to pay, the driver refused to accept the money. He did not want to take advantage of the situation of the disaster or the misfortunes of the others.

— When a convoy of utility workers from other provinces passed by … the chief of the electricians said, “Bishop, pray for us (because) we are working with electric current.”

Things are returning to normal now, but various Catholic groups are helping with recovery. You can find them here.

Cubans pick up the pieces following the damage and havoc caused by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, Cuba, Oct. 6. (CNS/Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters)

Cubans pick up the pieces following the damage and havoc caused by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, Cuba, Oct. 6. (CNS photo/Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters)

 

Processing images of poverty, crime and war

Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are seen in the back of a Mexican police vehicle in this 2014 file photo. (CNS photo/Miguel Sierra, EPA)

Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are seen in the back of a Mexican police vehicle in this 2014 file photo. (CNS photo/Miguel Sierra, EPA)

Editor’s Note: Judith Sudilovsky is participating in an Egan Fellowship awarded by Catholic Relief Services.

By Judith Sudilovsky

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — I scroll down my Facebook feed trying to decompress after an intense first day in Honduras.

Some of the interviews we have had today as CRS Eileen Egan Fellows have been emotionally draining for me.

This morning Catholic journalist Janeth Lagos of Fides described a visit to the Guatemalan-Honduran border 2 years ago to meet a busload of returning migrants sent back by the Mexican government, never having made it across the border to the U.S. She made it a point to explain that she does not use the word “deported” in order to protect the dignity and self-esteem of those migrants who are sent back to their country of origin. Among those on the bus who made the 20-hour-ride from the U.S.-Mexican border, across Guatemala to the Honduran border was a little boy — she put his age at 3 years old — curled up alone on one of the seats sleeping from exhaustion. He was dressed in a little white T-shirt. Next to him, she said, was the bag with a water bottle and sandwich distributed to the migrants for the ride.

No adult took responsibility for the child. There was no way of knowing who he was, if his mother or father died along the way as they sought a better life, or if he was sent by grandparents or other relatives with a “coyote” smuggler to join his parents in the U.S. But what was clear was that someone along the Mexican border dealing with migrants thought it was OK to put this boy on the bus alone.

The image of that boy curled up, abandoned, in his seat haunts me as, later in the day, we went into one of the sprawling “colonias” that have invaded the city, spreading up the sides of the mountains surrounding the capital city of Tegucigalpa, to interview participants in one of the CRS-sponsored programs.

Details about the program, about the location and about the people will for now not be shared because CRS wants to protect the people interviewed. There will be no pictures of people, either, for the same reason. And there are no pictures of the shantytown because it was too dangerous to take the camera out, even from the car window — which we had to keep rolled down to make sure we were not suspected of being police and to also assure that there was no case of mistaken identity by any possible gunman on motorcycles.

Honduran migrants deported from the United States are seen in Tegucigalpa's international airport in this 2006 file photo. (CNS photo/Gustavo Amador, EPA)

Honduran migrants deported from the United States are seen in Tegucigalpa’s international airport in this 2006 file photo. (CNS photo/Gustavo Amador, EPA)

Last month here one young woman and her family found themselves diving for the floor of their house as a neighbor was gunned down in a gangland murder. It was the fourth such murder in her neighborhood that month.

A young woman has not seen her father since he left for the United States when she was 1. Every month he sends back money allowing her to study. She has given up on believing his promise that he will come back to see her.

Another young mother, now also a widow, tries to comes to terms with the separate grizzly murders of her brother-in-law and husband. Sometimes gangs — known as “maras” here — carry out reprisal attacks of unspeakable torture ending in murder because of something a family member did or did not do, or there have been cases of people being killed in a case of mistaken identity.

Last month another 19-year-old student, from the established, normative part of town who had gone out on his first job, disappeared and was found the next day with his hands and feet cut off. The case has already been closed by police for lack of evidence, and the family has been left helpless and stunned at the murder of the young man.

As I scroll through Facebook, one of the first images I see is the bloody face of a young Syrian girl who was taken to a hospital following a bombardment in Aleppo. Another post is a rerun of a 1952 episode of the reality show “It’s Your Life.” It is about the life of a Holocaust survivor who came to the U.S. as a refugee after the war and later married, uniting her with her brother she had not seen since before they were sent to Auschwitz.

So for me at the moment there is no escape from the images of human suffering and destruction caused by poverty, crime and war which exist today just as they existed in the past. But today more than ever, it is too hard to say “We didn’t know.”

 

Seeking migrant justice in Guatemala

Editor’s Note: Judith Sudilovsky is participating in an Egan Fellowship awarded by Catholic Relief Services.

By Judith Sudilovsky

GUATEMALA CITY — The plane landed at the Guatemalan Air Force airfield behind Guatemala City’s commercial airport and its weary-eyed passengers disembarked onto the tarmac in a straight, organized line.

Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Scalabrini Missionaries’ Migrant Shelter, confers with staff as they wait for the planeload of recently deported migrants to be processed and released from the immigration hall. (CNS/Judith Sudilovsky)

Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Scalabrini Missionaries’ Migrant Shelter, confers with staff as they wait for the planeload of recently deported migrants to be processed and released from the immigration hall. (CNS/Judith Sudilovsky)

One by one, these 200 mostly young men recently deported from the U.S. filed into the receiving hall past us — three journalists participating in a Catholic Relief Services Egan Fellowship to Guatemala and Honduras to learn about the push factors for migration; one feisty Brazilian Scalabrini priest who directs a shelter for migrants; and Lucrecia Oliva, a CRS consultant on migration issues.

As each person entered they were registered by Guatemalan immigration officials before they could leave. Oliva greeted them with a polite “Good afternoon.” She had met with groups of expelled migrants before, but she had not seen them as they first returned.

Now she blinked heavily to keep back the tears.

This time it was different. She saw their individual faces. They were tired and scared. A few were, at least temporarily, jubilant and brash.

Four days a week, three times each day, flights arrive full of migrants deported from the U.S. For many of the young men it was not their first return trip home.

One man, 27, who had lived in New York for 11 years, said he might try to take the perilous journey across Mexico again as soon as the next day.

Though most people we spoke with agree that violence in Guatemala is not as serious as in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, it does exist. Some of the youth may have been escaping gang or drug violence; others came seeking work to support their families in a country where half of the children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

A new government has been in power for less than a year, after the former president, vice president, and half of their cabinet were forced from office and are now serving prison terms for financial corruption. The new leaders have promised to tackle some of Guatemala’s pressing needs, but assert that it will take time to correct even the smallest of the ills of their predecessors who left the national till empty. People are waiting to see what actually gets done.

guatemala-2016-318Oliva said she can understand the need Americans feel after 9/11 for security and caution about who enters their country. However, she realizes that the times have changed since she was given generous assistance when she landed in the states years ago and how it seems that Americans have forgotten their history as a land of immigrants.

She was an undocumented migrant, fleeing her homeland when Guatemala’s military dictatorship ravaged the country, killing those who dared to speak out demanding justice and equality. As young idealistic university students, she and her husband decided to leave for the U.S.. They left behind their young daughter who eventually joined them. Oliva also gave birth to another daughter.

She spent 18 years in Chicago where a family welcomed her and initially gave her work as a nanny for their baby daughter, eager for her to teach the girl Spanish. Oliva became an active member of church in a Mexican neighborhood, helping migrants even less fortunate than she was.

She never felt she was doing enough though.

In 1986 she was able to gain legal residency in the U.S., but in 1998 her heart told her to return to Guatemala and contribute to improving life in the country she loves.

“I was so young, and when I came to the United States people were so good to me, they helped me, I had that gift, and now I saw how these people were so rejected and that hurt me,” she explained. “Maybe they were not escaping violence, but they were escaping for a reason and now their dreams are shattered. It pained me that they were returning to their same reality.”

Though the story of migrating people who are seeking brighter horizons is not a new phenomenon, she said, it has become more public because of social media and the internet. As long as Guatemalan society does nothing to improve the social and economic inequalities or increase job opportunities for rural communities, migration will always remain an option, she said.

“We are wasting the lives of these youth and people. We are turning our backs on them. We are pushing them to leave because we as a country are not offering them a quality of life to reach their dreams and the ability to have land, human rights, education, and proper health care among others,” Oliva said.

“This is not acceptable. If we as a country are not capable of providing them with their rights, if we are not capable of protecting our citizens, we are accomplices in pushing them into the street defenseless. I feel responsible.”

So she is taking responsibility. Next week she also will begin working with the Scalabrini Missionaries’ Migrant Shelter with whom CRS works to facilitate job placements for returning migrants.

#PopeInJuarez: an unlikely and historically hilarious hashtag

By David Agren

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In anticipation of Pope Francis’ Feb. 17 visit to this border city, an unlikely hashtag appeared: #PopeInJuarez.

The hashtag refers to Ciudad Juarez and the pope’s arrival in a city once considered “murder capital of the world.” It has seen a 92 percent drop in the homicide rate since the depth of its drug-related violence in 2010.

A painting of former President Benito Juarez of Mexico is seen in this 2004 file photo. (CNS photo/Mario Guzman, EPA)

A painting of former President Benito Juarez of Mexico is seen in this 2004 file photo. (CNS photo/Mario Guzman, EPA)

However, the city’s namesake, former President Benito Juarez, once feuded with the Catholic Church and authored the 1850s reform laws that stripped the church of its properties, power in legal matters and even prohibited priests and nuns from wearing their habits in public.

Pope Francis’ visit to the country and Ciudad Juarez demonstrate the distance church-state relations have moved in Mexico, which only established relations with the Vatican in 1992. Already in the papal trip, politicians in the states the pope has visited have been eager to appear in public with him and published photos of their encounters on social media and state-subsidized media outlets. That the hashtag would appear in its Spanish form, #PapaEnJuarez, would appear to show a lessening of the anti-clerical attitudes, too — though some of it could be attributed to ignorance. The English-language hashtag appeared to emanate from neighboring El Paso, Texas.

Juarez is one of modern Mexico’s most celebrated figures. His image appears on the 20-peso note, while streets across the country are named after him, along with the Mexico City international airport and even the presidential airplane. He is revered in Mexico for leading it through the French intervention of the 1860s, heading the factions of liberals battling conservative forces in the country and becoming the first indigenous president, although his track record on indigenous land issues is considered unfriendly to indigenous peoples, said Ilan Semo, political historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.

The phrase, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace,” is attributed to Juarez and commonly quoted.

A less-flattering phrase also attributed to Juarez, “For my friends, grace and justice, for my enemies, the law,” has come to sum up Mexico’s powerful presidency and lack of the rule of law.

Juarez was born into poverty in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca state, was orphaned at a young age, moved to Oaxaca City, was taken in by a lay Franciscan and studied in a seminary. He became a lawyer and later, a five-term president.

He’s best known for the Reform Laws, however, which were interpreted as an attack on the church.

“The state stopped being a religious state,” Semo said. “Previously, you had to be Catholic to a Mexican.”

Other historians say Juarez and the liberals acted without consulting the church.

“There was never dialogue,” said Father Manuel Olimon Nolasco, a priest in the Diocese of Tepic and professionally trained historian. “This is the big difference between Mexican liberalism and the liberalism of other countries. … In the other countries, there was a dialogue with the Vatican. That never happened in Mexico.”

The street leading to the Paso del Norte boring crossing is lined with posters welcoming Pope Francis in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

The street leading to the Paso del Norte border crossing is lined with posters welcoming Pope Francis in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 15. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Conservatives, backed by the church, proceeded in 1863 to invite Austrian Archduke Maximilian, backed by French forces, to serve as emperor. The times lent itself to such a scenario: The United States was stuck in the Civil War and unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine of no European colonizing in the Americas.

With the end of the Civil War, French forces left Mexico, leaving Maximilian on his own. He was captured by forces led by Juarez and executed in 1867.

Parts of the Reform Laws remain intact, although the church is now allowed to own property, religious dress is permitted and the church enjoys more freedoms than before.

Ordinary people, Semo says, appear OK with the pope visiting Mexico, but still express discomfort with the church playing a large role in politics — suggesting the Juarez legacy still looms.

As for the church itself, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City tried to rehabilitate the relationship with Juarez in 2006, suggesting Mexico needed another figure like him for the presidency.

“Juarez was always Catholic, never ashamed of being Catholic, was a practicing Catholic. I hope another Juarez becomes (president,)” he said.

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Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero

A faith connection on Cuba’s slow but emerging lane of technology

HAVANA — It’s a scene all too familiar in the U.S., but not one you’d expect in Cuba: a group of schoolgirls cupping their cellphones with their hands, protecting them from the glare of the tropical sun. Most are looking at pictures or listening to music downloaded on the phone’s memory card. Few can access the Internet using their phones.

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones in their hands to protect from the sun's glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest  gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith.  (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

A group of schoolgirls cup their cellphones with their hands to protect from the sun’s glare in Cuba. While few Cubans have access to the latest gadgets, Catholics have long used technology in various forms to transmit the faith. (CNS photo/ Rhina Guidos)

Internet is not illegal in Cuba, but it’s regulated, it’s not easy to get and it’s too expensive for the average Cuban to afford (sometimes an hour can cost as much as a quarter or half of a monthly paycheck). Estimates of Internet connectivity vary: some say 5 percent of the island’s 11 million inhabitants have Internet access, others say 25 percent.

Yet cellphones, lately smartphones and even tablets, are not an uncommon sight. Some have been brought in by relatives abroad eager to communicate regularly with family on the island. But younger Cubans eager to communicate with the rest of the world are finding ways to put more than the devices’ telephone ability to use. Those eager enough to connect to the world outside of Cuba can find their way toward Internet at hotels that offer free Wi-Fi or other tourist-friendly establishments that sometimes have easy-to-hack passwords.

In Catholic circles, technology, even without the Internet, has long been used on the island as a way to transmit the faith. Though they may not always be able to access online content, some Catholics admit downloading and sharing the Bible, versions of the Liturgy of the Hours — a set of prayers also known as the Divine Office — and other religious content using memory cards that can be inserted into cellphones, desktops or TV sets.

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones,  or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Using memory cards, some Catholic Cubans have access to the Bible on cellphones, or the Liturgy of the Hours, to help them maintain a life of prayer throughout the day. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Some say that “for a price,” in other words, on the black market, they have purchased and downloaded movies such as the “Son of God” movie and the “Catholicism” video series by Father Robert Barron on a thumb drive. They plug the thumb drives into another device at home to enjoy the religious content that may not otherwise be available to them and their families, not because it’s prohibited, but because it can’t be readily found in a store.

Cuban Catholics also have made a debut on Facebook. The Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba has a Facebook page. Recent status updates include Lenten activities and the rebuilding of churches damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Before the cellphones, the memory cards and tablets arrived, many say that, back in the day, they watched movies about the lives of the saints and other popular Catholic media events using Beta and VHS cassettes — in case you remember what those looked like.

Guidos, an editor at Catholic News Service, went on a Lenten pilgrimage to Cuba in early March. This is the first in a series of blogs about the daily life of Catholics in Cuba.

International newspapers report migration situation with blend of truth, hope

Guatemalan migrants deported from U.S. arrive at airport in Guatemala City. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Guatemalan migrants deported from U.S. arrive at airport in Guatemala City. (CNS photo/Reuters)

By Julia Willis

WASHINGTON -– Amid all the U.S. news media reports on the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border with the influx of children and adults, we decided to take a look at how the local press in Central America is reporting on the situation.

As gang violence remains rampant throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -– one of the drivers for migrants coming into the U.S. — local newspapers seem to be doing their best to maintain a sense of hope in the articles they publish.

While daily news outlets such as El Universal in Mexico have a duty to report the truth regarding the dangers of migration and the likelihood of deportation, they also attempt to encourage Latin Americans by focusing on small victories in the fight for U.S. immigration reform and increased relief services for migrant populations.

Although U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Virginia, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed his support for increased deportation of migrants in a recent interview with ABC News, El Universal presented a positive twist on the story in a July 14 article titled ‘Congress ready to give more funds.’

“I would definitely pass emergency funding targeted for what’s necessary,” Goodlatte said, “but most of the money that the president is asking for is to continue the process of further transporting these children and adults further into the United States. And that, I think, is what the American people don’t like to see because they know that that is not deterrence and that will result in even more people coming into the country. The projection for next year is 150,000 unaccompanied minors. It’s already projected to be more than 90,000 for the rest of this year.”

Other news outlets have attempted to describe the difficult process of deportation by highlighting the help that individuals receive once they have been returned to their home country. Media also is reporting that various agencies of local governments in Central America are meeting to assess the ongoing situation and discuss solutions.

El Heraldo, a daily newspaper in Honduras, reported a story about the first 18 mothers and 22 children returning to Honduras from the U.S. by focusing on the support that the Catholic and Protestant churches provide for these individuals in a July 14 article.

“We are working to develop a reception plan that first and foremost makes these families feel welcome,” said Ana Garcia de Hernandez, the first lady of Honduras. “In order to do this, we have asked for the support of the church, both Catholic and Protestant, so that each returning flight has that spiritual accompaniment, because these families are enduring a very difficult emotional situation.”

As young children continue to disappear throughout Central America, Prensa Libre, a daily newspaper in Guatemala, showcases stories about kidnapped children being reunited with their families and Pope Francis’ thoughts about the “humanitarian emergency.”

Although all of the Spanish-language papers I read described the suffering that migrants endure as they attempt to flee violence in their home countries, they also featured articles promoting hope and encouraging their people to look forward to peace and security in the future.

Crowded streets, churches attest that Holy Week and Easter have never been more alive in this El Salvador city

SOYAPANGO, El Salvador — The Easter Bunny doesn’t live here. There are no egg hunts, no large bags of candy for sale or Easter baskets or bonnets in these crowded streets. But there are crowded churches and the advent of Easter has never been more alive.

Good Friday crowd in Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Crowd gathers on Good Friday in Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

In El Salvador, which means “The Savior” in Spanish, and which is named after Christ, Holy Week leading up to the Easter Vigil, the big event here, is bigger than Christmas, New Year’s and Easter combined.

In Soyapango, people take most, if not the entire week off of work, and attend about 30 different public acts.

“It’s not a family holiday in the sense that people don’t spend their time around a table with food,” said Father Estefan Turcios Carpaño, the parish priest at San Antonio Parish in Soyapango, the third largest municipality in the country with about 290,000 predominantly Catholic residents.

Parishioners spend their time at a different table, the table of the Lord, he said.

Lines for those waiting for the sacrament of reconciliation have been long, leaving many to wait an hour or two, or longer, for confession. On Thursday, the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador ran out of hosts for those who attended the chrism Mass in the capital nearby.

It’s hard to move through the streets because they’re swollen with the faithful participating in the religious processions, and even the smaller events, such as the re-enactment of Jesus in the olive grove. There are crosses everywhere, reminders of how special this time is, even inside the small sauna of a nearby holistic center.

Women stand in line for Good Friday services  Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Women stand in line for Good Friday services Soyapango, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

San Antonio can only accommodate about 2,000 to 3,000 at a time in the main church. While it would be enviable to any pastor, the parish faces a problem of physical space.

The church swells so much during Holy Week that Father Turcios has had to employ the help of other priests to celebrate Mass and Holy Week events in separate events in nearby neighborhoods, to stave off people from the main church.

He has found a way to broadcast parts of the celebration on a Facebook page, so that everyone will be comfortable and able to listen and reflect during this important holiday.

Helen Girón, 27, was born and grew up in the United States, until her family moved from Texas to El Salvador about a decade ago. Back in Texas, the celebrations focused on one day, Easter Sunday, she said. And it always felt a bit more focused on the material, on what Easter accoutrements could be bought and sold in the stores, she said.

“Here, it’s about building community,” she said. “This tradition helps us become more united.”

Another scene of crowded streets on Good Friday. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Another scene of the crowded streets on this Good Friday. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

Father Turcios quotes Pope Francis to illustrate the fervor behind his parishioners: “No one is saved by himself.” We are saved, he said, as “a community of believers.”

It might be uncomfortable at times, said Irma Vargas, one of parishioners, about the elbow to elbow space inside and outside, but the music, the liturgy, the excitement of so many people is “like rainwater that gives life to a plant,” she said.

– – –

Guidos is an editor at Catholic News Service. For more photos of Holy Week in El Salvador, follow her on Twitter @Catholic_Editor.