Sunday, April 24, 2011

Semana Santa

Today is Good Friday, Viernes Santa, and is the second day of the most beautiful celebration I have ever witnessed.  Yesterday I began the day by doing a few hours of laundry to catch up, and while I was washing I got a text from Andrea that I didn’t see until a little later, telling me about the preparations with which I could help.  I had offered a couple of times last week, because I really wanted to get more involved in this kind of thing, but I had no idea what it would entail.  As soon as I could, I headed over to the church, where I found Andrea, her aunt Italia and uncle Geraldo, brother and cousin José (two different people), and a lot of the young people from the parish, making decorations, including the painted sawdust, el acerín, for las alfombras.  With Andrea’s help, I jumped right in and started mixing up the el acerín verde.  It wasn’t complicated to do, but I’m not going to write down the process because it would feel like I was somehow not giving the experience credit by reducing it to a recipe.  
After I mixed, kneaded and scraped the green sawdust, I stood up, with green hands, and shared the offered snack and soda with the other volunteers.  We then broke for a few hours for lunch so I came back, ate something, wrote a couple of letters, and at 3:00 headed back to the parish hall.  For the next three and a half hours I helped decorate columns with fresh green branches, in preparation for Easter Sunday, when these columns, with flowers coming out of the top, will adorn the church.  At 6:30 I rushed back home for a quick sandwich, then my roommates and I went to the 7:00 Holy Thursday mass.  Up to this point I had been feeling progressively more warm and connected--connected to the parish, to the people I was working with, and to my own faith and God.
However, during the next two hours at the Holy Thursday services, and the rest of the night I started feeling these kinds of feelings in a way that I had never experienced before.  I honestly feel like, at some point last night, I transitioned into a completely different person.  As I describe more about the night, hopefully I can impart and explain that a little more.  If not, that’s ok, because as I sit here writing this, I am swelling with emotion, which seems to warmly escape each time I exhale; but this is not a strong enough release, and I can also feel it welling out through the corners of my eyes.
The Holy Thursday mass is my favorite mass of the year.  Jesus, the son of God, kneeling down in front of his questioning, traitorous, doubting, denying...human...disciples and washing their feet with his own hands--that is an incredibly powerful image for me.  Yes, dying for us and wiping clean the world’s sins is the greatest act of love, but the washing of the feet and the Last Supper are when Jesus shows us what we, as humans and disciples, can and must do in order to best serve Him.  We must have the humility to get down on our knees, in front of the sinners, the poor, the anguished, and the lost, and offer ourselves and our gifts wholly.  To me, this is what service is all about.   
Father Craig’s homily beautifully touched upon all of these thoughts and feelings as he talked about how professions of faith must also be accompanied with acts of faith.  He recently led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in his homily last night he used a story from his trip to highlight this lesson.  He and his group were standing in line to visit the shrine on the top of the mountain where the transfiguration occurred, and somehow started talking with a woman who was incredibly vocal and open in professing her faith.  At some point she said something about how she would meet God in paradise because she had such a strong faith here in life.  Fr. Craig looked at her and said, that good that you can vocalize your faith so well, but you need to accompany that with acts of faith just as strong.  Later, at the top of the mountain, he looked around and that woman was not there.  He asked where she had gone, and the answer was that she had walked back down the mountain, crying.  I don’t know if it was the place where this conversation occurred, or the way that Fr. Craig said it, but she was so struck by the fact that she had been trying to live a life devoted to God, yet had actually been distancing herself from Him and the true meaning of faith.
At the end of the mass, most of the congregation processed around the church behind the eucharist, before it was placed in the tabernacle and the altar was stripped.  When we returned to our seats, there was an hour of devotion and prayer, like what we used to have at home, but this was in the main part of the church, and it felt more right to stay and pray than it ever had before.  Prayer here has also taken on a completely different meaning to me than it had before; it is now a deeply investing, emotional and touching experience, a feeling that, before, I would occasionally have if there were something large going on in my life, but that now is a very present sign of an open communication with God and Mary.  So, as I knelt in the dark praying, it was a much different experience than when I had knelt to say a couple of Hail Marys and Our Fathers after previous Holy Thursday masses.  
After that hour, the parish’s live drama of the Passion began, picking up where the Last Supper leaves off.  The drama showed Judas making the deal with the Jewish high priests, and then progressed across the street to the park where Jesus was praying (in the garden) with his disciples sleeping, and there were young children surrounding Jesus and his disciples as angels.  After the dialogue in the garden, the Jewish soldiers came across the street, dressed in armor, carrying torches and pushing Judas ahead of them.  Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss and immediately followed the struggle when Peter cut off a soldier’s ear, who Jesus then healed.  The soldiers tied Jesus up, got on a couple of horses, and led him on a rope on a procession through town, with all of us following the torches and cracks of the whips.  The procession and drama ended back at the church, and was picked up again this morning.
After the procession ended, I went back to the hall to continue helping with the decorations.  For about twenty minutes just before the procession began, I had helped make some vine wreaths, but now, after the procession, we began the construction of las alfombras.  The alfombras are kind of like very large murals on the street, but they are made almost entirely with sawdust, which is why we were painting sawdust earlier in the day.  Again, I’m not going to go through the process step by step, but about fifteen or twenty of us started working on the alfombra in front of the church.  In the end, it was probably about a hundred feet long and thirty feet wide.  One part was a picture of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the other part was a chalice, with religious symbols surrounding it.  We also made several designs and figures decorating the borders and spaces between the two main pictures.  
So, the construction of our alfombra started at 10:00 Thursday night, and finished at 6:00 Friday morning.  I stayed the whole time and actually was able to do large, important amounts, which surprised me.  The people I was working with did not know me that well, I only met most of them yesterday, but they trusted me enough and were sharing enough to allow me to have a large part in the production.  Like I said, it was surprising, and actually kind of amazing how much they allowed me, who had never even seen an alfombra before this week, to do.  
The actual work was consuming and character changing.  Many of the parts were so detailed that you could only put a pinch of the sawdust on at a time, and remember, it was probably about 300 square feet.  As I was painstakingly working alongside the other parishioners I could feel myself letting go of something that had still held me a little apart from the parish community, and even though we didn’t talk much because my Spanish wasn’t doing so well that late/early, I could sense more of an acceptance and connection.  At one point, very late in the night, as I was working on a part of the Jesus depiction, one of the guys sitting on the side called to me and said something about me being the hardest working of any of the volunteers, and how great that was.  I was talking with him again this afternoon, and figured out that he was talking about all of the volunteers who come through Guaimaca, not just our community, because he didn’t really even know that there were four of us, much less that we are living here for the long term.  I was pretty embarrassed at the time, and still don’t like to write a conversation like this down, but I include it because it is a concrete example of the feeling of acceptance and belonging I started to develop while working all night on our alfombra.  You don’t just automatically become a member of the community you live in, it’s something that requires work, something to which you have to give everything.

View of our alfombra from the bell tower of the church

Close-up of the Holy Trinity--I worked a lot on Jesus

I hadn’t realized while making our alfombra that other people were also making others all over town.  When we finished ours at 6 am and someone asked how the others were coming, I did a double take and asked what they meant.  It was just hard to believe that there were more people staying up late, making similar massive beautiful alfombras.  They took me around the corner, and right there was another one, about half the size of ours and just as beautiful.  Then, I looked down the street and saw two more groups of people working, and, shocked, asked how many there were in total.  My new friends said they weren’t sure, but thought there was one for each station of the cross.  That was confirmed by someone else, so we continued on down the street to see the next couple of stations.  These were smaller than ours and than the second one I saw, but if I didn’t have anything to compare them to I would have said they were pretty damn big, and each one was detailed with beautiful colors, designs, pictures and symbols for each station.  I was awestruck that there were enough people (and enough sawdust in the world) who cared enough to get up very early in the morning (the smaller ones only took 3-5 hours, not 8 like ours) and create these beautiful alfombras all over town.  After seeing a couple of them, we turned back so we could go home and change out of our now tie-dyed clothes and wash off the sawdust and paint from our bodies.

Alfombra of the First Station
When I got home at quarter past six, there really wasn’t time to go to bed so I just washed up, had a hearty breakfast of macaroni and cheese, cinnamon rolls and coffee (bad coffee, we’re out of the Honduran grind), and waited for Norlan to walk over to the start of the Viacruces (stations of the cross).  They were starting in our barrio (neighborhood), but I had no idea where, so I needed his guidance on the way over.  In true Honduran fashion, he still hadn’t come out of the house at 8:00, when it was supposed to start, and then in true Norlan fashion, he came out about five or ten minutes later, without a shirt on and brushing his teeth (even though he was supposed to sing and play guitar).  He apologized later and said he hadn’t woken up in time, but things like this just don’t bother me anymore, it is one way that I have started to relax here.  
When Cassie, Norlan and I arrived at the first station, we saw a large group of parishioners gathered around, Father Craig with his truck and a microphone system in the back, the group of actors dressed in their costumes and ready to act out each station, the altar that the owner of the house set up in front of their house with a tablecloth, flowers, candle and religious picture, and the first alfombra.  This alfombra was, like the others, extremely beautiful.  The narrator for the station began with the description of the station and some prayers, then the actors acted out the station.  For this first station, Jesus is Condemned to Death, there were actors for the Jewish crowd, the high priests, Roman soldiers, Jesus, Barabas, Pontius Pilate, Mary, and some disciples, and they acted out the whole scene, up to Pilate washing his hands clean of Jesus’ blood and sending Him off on the path to crucifixion.  When we got to the actual crucifixion, the soldiers tied Jesus to the crucifix, but made it look like they had nailed him on, and lifted him up on the cross so that he was there, with his crown of thorns and fake wounds, above the crowd.  When he “died” on the cross, again he was up on the cross above the crowd and cried out his final lines.  It really was beautiful and touching in a way that the story never had been for me before.  It was obviously different from watching a movie like The Passion of Christ, but even without the special effects I would say that the live reenactment is more personal and meaningful.  
First Station

Alfombra of the Seventh Station

Each station was set up in a similar way, with a homemade altar and the alfombra in front of the host house and the reenactment scene.  We processed from station to station, walking around a large amount of the town on the way, singing songs in between each stop.  The Viacruces today really emphasized the parts of life here that are just so different from life in the US, like the sense of community and sharing that exists.  It also emphasized what I look for in religion, that sense of community, love, faith and communication with God.  Even without being so personally meaningful, it would certainly be something I never forgot for the simple beauty of it all.  
The stations ended with our large alfombra in front of the church, and the adoration service that I have always attended at 3:00 on Friday afternoon.  After that I had time for a nap--good thing, I almost fainted a couple of times--and then at three there was a service called Santo Entierro, which celebrates the holy burial.  For this they had a full-sized glass case, with pillows, a statue of Jesus, and flowers inside, which was carried by four people, each carrying one end of the pallet-poles on a shoulder.  
In the church they started out with a couple of prayers, then three men walked to the front of the church to carry Jesus’ effigy.  At this point Father Craig caught my eye and motioned for me to go up and be the fourth, which really surprised me, so I hesitated.  But when an older woman in the front row of the next section over turned to me and earnestly told me to go up, I walked up and joined the other three at the casket.  We picked it up (it was much heavier than I expected) and walked out of the church, everyone else following us down the street to the first stop.  Here, in front of someone’s house, was another homemade altar, similar to those from the Viacruces.  In all, there were six of these stops at a family’s house, the seventh stop being a large exhibition room at the graveyard.  At each stop the narrator, Manuel, or another woman, would say something, then we would all pray, and then thank the family before moving on to the next stop.  After the last stop at graveyard, we picked the casket back up and processed with it back to the church, where there was just a short closing.  
It was a huge honor for me to be one of the people carrying the pallet.  Not only because it was an important job, but because it was another example of becoming much more connected to the community, more of an actual member than an outside volunteer.  The same person who had said something to me last night about being a hard worker was the person carrying the pallet next to me, which was good because it definitely brought us a little bit closer, and because on the way back we were able to talk a little, so that now he knows more about me and my roommates.  I started writing this journal right after the holy burial service, so it is probably pretty obvious how I felt at the time.
There was one more Good Friday service today, at 7:00, called La Procesión de la Dolorosa.  It was run by two woman’s groups in the parish, and was a celebration of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.  Mary is very important here in our community and is worshiped, prayed to and identified with a little more than in the parish communities in the US I was a part of.  I think this is very common in many Latin American communities.  
The procession itself started in the church and moved through town to five stations set up, again at people’s homes with little altars in front.  The groups carried a statue of Mary with us, and between each station, while processing, we sang songs by the light of the candles that some brought and the soft glow of the street lamps.  At each stop we said a decade of the rosary from the Sorrowful Mysteries.  I never realized it before tonight, but the mysteries and their emotions are seen through the eyes of Mary.  For example, the sorrowful mysteries are those events that were sorrowful for Mary as a mother.
This service, so peaceful, was the perfect way to end the day.  It brought to close all of the stories and celebrations of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and gave us a perspective with which to see the Passion and Resurrection.  Since arriving here, but especially this week, it has been especially valuable to me to spend more time praying to Mary and thinking about these events from her perspective.  She is the human mother of God, and she is who was left here with us after Jesus was crucified.  Therefore, although she was without sin and ascended to heaven, in my opinion it is easier to identify with her, and it is thus a little easier to understand the life and death of Christ when seeing the events through her eyes.  
Actually, while we were walking in Mary’s steps, following the death of her son, I felt a parallel to other funeral and burial processions I have taken part in, for those I know who have died.  It became all the more sorrowful because at this point I somehow saw the events through the eyes of the mother of the departed, which then helped me return to the present and see the death of Christ through the eyes of Mary much more clearly.  I think that this, the connection that can be drawn from Mary’s suffering to one’s own life, back to the Passion, could be why people here identify with and worship Mary more than I was used to in the US.
Holy Saturday was another day of preparations to ready the church for the coming services.  From about 10 am-6:30 pm, I was at the parish hall helping make decorations out of branches with green leaves, which we tied to long vines and hung around the church.  There were several other people there all day as well, many of whom I had already met while working the other days, and a few new faces.  Again, I really enjoyed helping out, not only because I saw how beautiful the end product was, but also because I ended up meeting many of the younger people in the parish, who now say hi to me when they see me.
The Easter Vigil began at 7:00 with the blessing of the new fire.  We met in front of a woman’s house in Barrio Suyapa (the neighborhood where I live), where there was a large fire that was blessed and then used to light the Easter candle, which then was used to light all of the smaller candles that we had.  It was amazing how much light there was when all of our candles were lit, and it was breathtaking to see all of the faces flickering with the flames, to hear the songs we sang, and to feel the strength of our community as we processed together through town back to the church.
The actual Vigil service began back at the church, where after the initial prayer, we extinguished the candles and participated in the following readings and prayer in darkness.  Then, just before the Gospel reading, the lights were turned on to symbolize the coming of the light of Christ.  With the lights on everyone could fully see the beautiful decorations all over the church.  All of our efforts to ready the church really drove home that this week is a celebration very much alive, as long as we make the effort to live our faith and to keep the light alive through our thoughts, words, and acts.
Last night was the first Easter Vigil mass I had been to, and for this I am thankful.  This triduum has been full of new experiences and new ways to practice a faith that also feels relatively new and fresh, so I’m glad that the culmination of the celebrations was also a new and provoking experience.
Easter mass this morning was of course beautiful, and was nice because it was a reminder of the Easter masses I have been to through the year.  There was not, however, anything very new or different about it, except for the decorations which were still there, the beautiful sermon Father Craig gave, and the differences I have already noticed between masses here and masses in the States.  The one significant difference for me was the deep feeling of gratitude and love that lingered after the other days’ celebrations, which was good to notice--I would have been upset if it did not continue and sustain itself.  
When we came home today, we had an Easter basket hunt that Tori kindly made last night while we were at the Vigil mass, I made a large brunch, we are going in a few hours to Easter dinner with Father Craig at the rectory, and I am filled with a warm peace.  I wish everyone back home a Happy Easter--“Felices Pascuas.”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Funny Stuff

Today and tomorrow a couple of psychologists are coming to the school from San Pedro Sula to talk with the girls and us and to do some activities, about what I have no idea.  There are certainly quite a few girls here who could use someone to talk to, with all of their problems at home and in their daily lives.  

Anyway, that's not the funny part.  The funny part is that earlier in the week I was talking with Segundo Ciclo (8th grade) about the psychologists coming, and they took that opportunity to tell me that I was scary to them.  I was pretty shocked and a little hurt, because I get along really well with this group and have built a confianza with them.  I asked them what they meant, and they said "You're a psychologist, right?"  I told them no, that I only studied it in school and that I couldn't practice psychology like the people who are coming, but why did it matter?  Their reply was that I could read their minds...and at this point I felt a little better about being "scary" because I thought they were joking.  I assured them no, I couldn't read their minds.

However, yesterday Cassie was talking with Primero Ciclo about the psychologists, and apparently the girls were very insistent that all psychologists could read people's minds.  So, psychologists=magicians, and because Cassie and I studied psychology, some of the students are a little afraid of us because they think we can hear their every thought.  I wonder how many girls have seen us coming and frantically tried to think of something else, or run in the opposite direction, because they were thinking something they didn't want us to know.  I actually kind of like this power...

The second light-hearted story of the week was from last night as we were returning to our house after Animación Juvenil.  Our neighbor, Norlan, finished up his chorus and guitar classes with the girls at the same time, so the four of us walked our bikes/pedaled very slowly with him as he was walking home.  A little way up the street, I asked him, as a joke, if he wanted to sit on the crossbar of the bike (between the handlebars and the seat) and ride there as I pedaled.  Like I said, I was joking, but he immediately said "Sure!" and jumped right on.  It was definitely a little awkward because there really is only enough space for someone Norlan's size to squeeze in between me and the handlebars, and my legs were pretty much wrapped around his hips as I was pedaling.  I had to pedal and hold on to his shoulders, which were right against my chest, as he held the handlebars and steered.  It was a little weird at first, but fortunately since being here I have gotten used to having less personal space, and I was able to get over it pretty quickly and enjoy the novelty of it.

I was a little worried at the first turn, but he said it was no problem, and expertly maneuvered around it.  Then, I was a little more worried when we were crossing a side street, with a motorcycle turning left towards us and a car coming down our street towards us, because the motorcycle did not see us, but Norlan braked at the right moment and avoided a collision.  It was definitely an exercise in trust--literally handing the reins over to someone else.  

It's really common for people here to travel like this.  Last night Norlan told me that it's how they teach people how to ride bikes, one person who already knows how sits on the crossbar and steers, while the person learning sits on the seat and pedals.  He also said that it's the preferred method to get around town with your girlfriend, and after experiencing the complete lack of personal space last night, I guess I could see why.  But since we have arrived, we have even seen entire families on one bike.  The father will pedal, the mother will steer and/or hold a child, another child can be balanced on the handlebars, and another child or two can ride on the back--some bikes have a short platform attached to the seat, but many more have pegs that the passenger stands on.  We were quite impressed by all of this when we first arrived, and joked a couple of times that we were going to have to try it, but we didn't think that the first time one of us would try would be with Norlan.  Definitely quite the experience!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Never Give Up

The moment of the week was when I gave today’s (Wednesday, 3/30) Biology quiz grade to one of my students, Marilyn.  She was the last one to finish, which wasn’t unusual, but what was unusual was that as she was taking the quiz she was constantly writing.  Normally when she’s taking quizzes or tests she will just stare off into the distance or write some few things, before erasing them and sitting there again.  She also has a harder time paying attention in class, so I have to make sure I engage her with every new topic.  
However, she has recently been doing a lot better, especially with taking notes and with writing lab reports.  She is now consistently one of the highest grades on the lab reports, where she started off at the bottom.  On the first Bio quiz, she earned a 20%, the second lowest grade in the class.  However, on today’s quiz, the second one, she earned a 62%, the highest grade in the class.  I was so happy while I was correcting it, and so happy when I got to tell her the grade, because she obviously put a lot of work into it, and she showed just how much that hard work is able to pay off.  
I don’t think I’ll ever forget her face when I told her that she earned the highest grade in the class.  This is an extremely caring, friendly girl who very much wants to please her teachers, and one of the ones who I feel like accepted us right away, and she puts a lot of trust in us.  Yet she, like many of the girls, has very deep issues with confidence and self esteem.  She’s confident enough when interacting with people, but when it comes to achievement and educational growth, she had no faith at all, and was really limiting herself.  But as I told her her grade, her face lit up so much that I could tell that this new feeling of pride came from deep, deep down.  This is exactly what I have been waiting for with her, for her to finally do something that she feels proud of, to see the efforts she put in pay off in equal parts of results.  
Now, I just hope she remembers this feeling and uses it to motivate herself in the future.  I am really pushing these students, holding them to the same standards that I would hold an Honors Biology class to if I were teaching in the United States.  However, not only is this the first time that they have been held to high standards like this, it is the first time they have been asked, forced, to think outside the box during and after class, it is the first time they have had any structured evaluations like these quizzes and tests, and it is the first time that they have had to hold themselves accountable.  
A few weeks ago I took the whole class into the chapel in the beginning of class, and asked them to think about what their education means to them, how they can fully take advantage of their opportunities and gifts as they walk along the path that God has set in front of them.  Then, I told them that I wanted them to write down one way their education can improve their lives, one way it can improve the lives of other people in their communities, and three things they can do each day to achieve these goals.  As they reflected and wrote, I could tell they really started to think about these questions, if not for the first time, then at least in a way much more deep and intense than ever before.  For example, when they finished, I expected them to all sit together and talk quietly until they were all done, but instead they sat apart in silence, looking down at their papers and inwards at their hearts.  When they all finished, I let them sit for one more song on the stereo and then brought them all together in a circle.  I told them to keep their answers in a safe place so that they can go back and read it in a few weeks or months, and then we closed with an Our Father.  Walking back into the classroom and in the start of the class material, they were quiet, but soon livened up and were more participatory than they ever were before in class. 
So, despite me pushing them hard and all of the new classroom settings, little by little they are rising to my expectations, as Marilyn showed today.  My philosophy is to treat them all the same and to constantly challenge them, to never water anything down for them.  The first day that I feel sorry for them and make accommodations for them because they are economically underprivileged or not from a strong educational background, is the last day I will stop helping them.  They are just as capable as any other High School Biology or Chemistry student, and therefore I will treat them the same way.  Even if the exams are very difficult for them, they at least learn how to think critically, apply information, and generally just how to succeed.  Set the bar high, provide support on the way there, and they will reach that bar.  
Thank you, Marilyn, for taking a responsibility in your education, thank you for listening, and for believing.  Thank you for giving me the strength and faith to continue.