On March 19, 1977, I wrote one line in the journal I was keeping on my first trip out of the United States. “Some day, I’m going to live here.” I was in Honduras, Central America. It was a rather rash prediction, you might say, since I had just been through 2 months of homesickness, stomach sickness, faith sickness, just a lot of sickness sickness. But 26 years later, June 26, 2003, the dream came true when I moved for good to a little mountain village in the middle of nowhere called, of all things, Las Vegas, but as different from the “Sin City” in Nevada as stars are from oven lights. By then I had become Miguel, Hermano Miguel to most, my only desire to live and pray with the poor.
What happened in between? I first came to Honduras as a priest in training, sent there mostly because I was the only seminarian who knew Spanish — supposedly. That fateful night, March 19, 1977, I had spent the evening on the back porch of the church in the town of Morazan, chatting, as well as I could, with Felix Banegas, 17, who said he wanted to be a priest, too. But Felix said it was impossible. Why? “Because I can’t read or write.”
How was that possible? It had never occurred to me that you could be so bright and intelligent — and ‘illiterate’! If someone had observed the two of us in conversation, they would have assumed I was the uneducated one, tripping over every other word, barely articulate, and Felix as eloquent as a professor. That night changed everything. I did not get back to Honduras again til 1980, but the first thing I did was look for Felix, who by then had not only taught himself to read and write, he was also teaching folks in three other villages to do the same.
I went back every summer, even after leaving the seminary in 1985, when I started teaching at Parkway North High School in St. Louis. By 1990, I was taking one student every summer to test the experience for themselves. It worked every time. They all began sick and scared, and then, by the time to go home, they wanted to stay. If their Spanish was weak at the start, their farewell thank-you at the send-off in Las Vegas rose to the occasion in heartfelt gratitude — and grammar.
The question everyone asks is, what do you do there? The answer is often disappointing to a “First World” mentality, perhaps, because, with the poor, you do not do, you be. I have no projects, no plans, no investments — only to share the life of the poor, who have received me like a brother.
Jesus said, ‘Give to anyone who asks,’ and I guess that’s what I try to do. About 150 poor folks a month come to my door — or I go looking for them — for a little help. Most are women with little kids, many abandoned by their “man.” They come from Pueblo Nuevo, Nueva Palmira, Paraiso, Terrero Blanco, La Catorce, Nueva Suyapa, Tierra Amarilla, Panal, Cafetales, La Laguna, Guachipilin, Ojo de Agua.
Modesta Murillo, her face and features preserving the ancient Mayan origins of Honduras, comes the farthest, a four-hour trek through the mountains from Buenos Aires, with her four children. It was Modesta who started the tradition of bringing something for me, like three pounds of beans, which after so long a walk, must have felt like carrying 30 pounds. How could I take from the poor? At first I protested, then I understood it would be an insult not to acknowledge their gifts. I live off my pension, and I give it all away.
Sometimes the help is more concrete, literally. Such as building a new little house for Maricela and Juan Blas and their six kids, including Helen, now 11, who has Muscular Dystrophy. They have been my friends for 25 years, it was time to pay my debts! Such a house, of concrete blocks, costs about $2,500. I also try to help kids through school. Education is “free,” but even the cost of a pencil can burden a really poor family. I begin each morning, early, doling out hot milk and Corn Flakes for kids on their way to class. For some kids, it might be their only meal til supper…continue honduras travel story here.
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