TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras— Amid the destruction that still plagues Honduras, Father German Calix of Caritas has found “the one positive side of Mitch.”
Along with the floods, death and destruction, the aftermath of last autumn's Hurricane Mitch carries with it an opportunity to focus on the concept of self-development urged by directives of Pope John Paul II, Father Calix said.
It's a theme that has been echoed by the Latin American Bishops in such documents as Nueva Evangelization, the result of the bishops’ 1992 Santo Domingo Conference.
“But there is a fear that because of the situation with Mitch, people will become more dependent,” he added.
“We are also trying to do away with a paternalistic attitude from the Church,” said Father Calix, speaking in his office in downtown Tegucigalpa. “Our philosophy is that people should be working for their own self-development.”
To combat an attitude of dependency, the Church in Honduras supports volunteers working in their own neighborhoods to help others. It also supports the concept of “food for work” programs and long-term, low-interest loan programs being initiated nationwide to help families rebuild their homes, Father Calix said.
For example, in the municipality of Oropoli, a Catholic Relief Services-administered project helped residents break ground for 71 new houses washed out by a nearby river, according to Catholic Relief Services spokes-person Kerry Hodges.
Women were making bricks for the homes, designed to have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a patio and a latrine. Catholic Relief Services hopes to have the homes completed by August, Hodges said.
In El Negrito-Morazan, in the Department of Yoro, Jesuits are working with the Irish government and the aid agency Concern Worldwide in 23 communities to rebuild some 397 homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch-related flooding and landslides.
Thoughout El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, at least 9,000 were confirmed dead and 13,000 were missing as a result of the storm. In Honduras alone, a country of some 5.6 million, at least 6,000 were killed in the storm and 12,000 remain missing. Two million homes were damaged or destroyed.
Residents are allowed to take out low-interest loans to pay for the legal costs of taking ownership of the land where their homes will stand, said Jesuit Father Patrick Wade, a U.S. native and pastor of the Catholic parish in El Negrito who has worked in Honduras for about 30 years. “There is always the idea that, without guidance, some work for themselves, and not for the good of the community,” Father Wade said.
He agrees with many priests who say that the reliance of foreign governments on church agencies to carry out storm-related aid programs has temporarily derailed the Church's chief occupation. “Since the hurricane,” he said, “we have not had much time to do evangelization with people. We've been too busy dealing with the results of the storm.”
Evangelization of the poor was stressed in the January post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, the Church's blueprint for today's America, both north and south of the Rio Grande.
In it, Pope John Paul II calls service, “a concrete testimony of the preferential love for the poor which the Church in America nurtures. She does so because of her love for the Lord and because she is aware that ‘Jesus identified himself with the poor.’ In this task which has no limits, the Church in America has been able to create a sense of practical solidarity among the various communities of the continent and of the world, showing in this way the fraternal spirit which must characterize Christians in every time and place.
“For this service of the poor to be both evangelical and evangelizing, it must faithfully reflect the attitude of Jesus, who came ‘to proclaim Good News to the poor.’ When offered in this spirit, the service of the poor shows forth God's infinite love for all people and becomes an effective way of communicating the hope of salvation which Christ has brought to the world, a hope which glows in a special way when it is shared with those abandoned or rejected by society” (No. 18).
A Culture of Interdependency
But along with millions in international aid promised to Honduras, the natural disaster also carried the possibility for greater corruption and the creation of a culture of dependency, Father Calix said.
So far, Caritas International has helped with about $1 million in emergency and reconstruction aid. Another $2 million was in the process of being transferred to Honduras in late April, with the promise of some $4 million in reconstruction aid for the remainder of 1999.
Catholic Relief Services reported in February it had sent about $230,000 to Caritas in Honduras for construction or reconstruction of homes lost and damaged by the hurricane and for administration of that aid; Caritas also distributed about $608,839 worth of medicines and supplies from the Catholic Medical Mission Board to about 77,000 people and programs, according to a Catholic Relief Services report.
After the hurricane, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging received thousands of dollars in unsolicited donations for victims of Hurricane Mitch, said Pedro and Carolyn Ferradas. Based in Costa Rica, the couple oversees Christian Foundation for Children and Aging projects in most of Central and South America.
In May, the group Christian Foundation for Children and Aging planned to send $44,000 to projects affected by Hurricane Mitch, Mrs. Ferradas said. Similar amounts have been sent to affected projects in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala since December, she said. The private aid agency has also received and is distributing three large shipping containers full of clothing and other material aid, which it does not normally accept.
To combat potential corruption, agencies like Catholic Relief Services and the Christian Foundation have worked to make sure aid is carefully documented.
Catholic Relief Services’ Hodges saw this first-hand. during a visit in February.. “At the warehouses, they have a list of families already shown to have been affected by Mitch, and who need food supplies,” she said. “They had I.D. cards, and when their name was called, they would sign a form and then pick up their rations. It was quite efficient.”
Aid for those assisted by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging is purchased through the parish, and is delivered with the help of volunteers.
Every liempira (the Honduran national currency) spent is accounted for, said Father Patricio Larrosa, as he displayed a three-ring notebook holding dozens of pages of neatly handwritten lists back at the parish rectory.
Organizers hope to direct as many efforts as possible to solutions that will allow Hondurans to return to a culture of self-sufficiency.
As the Holy Father writes in Ecclesia in America, “This constant dedication to the poor and disadvantaged emerges in the Church's social teaching, which ceaselessly invites the Christian community to a commitment to overcome every form of exploitation and oppression. It is a question not only of alleviating the most serious and urgent needs through individual actions here and there, but of uncovering the roots of evil and proposing initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and fraternal” (No. 18).
Liz Urbanski Farrell of Buffalo, N.Y., recently returned from Honduras.