By Ignacio Gama and Kristen Gunn
In a lock down that has kept Hondurans at home since March, the clergy and pastoral leaders of the Episcopal Church of Honduras are finding new and creative ways to reach people with las buenas nuevas, the good news of God’s saving love in Christ Jesus, which necessitates the care of bodies as well as souls.
In some ways it has never been so difficult to practice incarnational, embodied religion. But in Honduras, where, according to World Bank statistics, just under half the population lives in poverty and many do not have internet access in their homes, the present crisis has created singular ministry challenges.
The Episcopal Church of Honduras, which serves people in all sectors of Honduran society, is nevertheless doing everything it can to face these challenges with faith and hope. In a sense this pandemic is revealing what is best and unique about this particular diocese of Province IX.
“Once the lockdown is over we will have a huge amount of work to do,” The Rt. Rev. Lloyd Allen, Bishop of Honduras, wrote to us some weeks ago via email. “We are holding Bible studies online, celebrating the Eucharist online — it is sort of awkward-feeling. … However, I’m already planning and have organized the clergy to be ready to begin food drives. There are a lot of people dying from the lack of food and proper healthcare.”
In the weeks since he wrote us, at least one such feeding operation has already sprung up on the island of Roatán off Honduras’s northern coast. The Revs. Nelson and Kara Mejía, a married pair of priests serving on the island, have worked together with one of their congregations to start a safe, socially-distanced soup kitchen that offers meals for pickup by the most vulnerable in their neighborhood. When we spoke with them via Zoom, the soup operation had just fed over a hundred people and they were hoping to raise enough money to grow it by 30 percent the next week. “We need to be able to keep doing this,” Reverenda Kara told us, adding that a donation link would be made available via the website for Teach Them to Fish Micro-Industries, a partnership between their church in Roatán and Trinity Episcopal Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
The spirit of collaboration, solidarity and enthusiasm for the work of the Church has been growing nearer the center of the Honduran outbreak in San Pedro Sula as well, inspiring clergy such as the Rev. José Batiz to obtain safe-conduct permits to periodically check in on his parishioners, and to celebrate the Eucharist outdoors. “‘Father, when, when? When can we meet?” the people of his church, San Lucas Evangelista, have been asking. “We’re a young church, but one with great spirit,” Batiz said of the diocese in general, adding that these times had made more evident the great worth of “small, tightly-knit congregations, like those of the early Christians, where each member is valued and embraced.”
Even as the diocese’s many churches and its several bilingual schools have been forced to offer their ministries online, the turn to virtual means of communication and connection has brought hidden blessings. For some the experience of church has become more intimate and family-oriented, as relatives and friends gather privately to follow pre-recorded services via messaging platforms. The Rev. Jackie Ruíz of San Pedro Sula told us that the new format had helped her to rediscover the joy of praying the offices purely “for enjoyment” with her family. “We do it because we long to be in the presence of God,” she said. Another priest in Tegucigalpa, the Rev. Gerardo Alonzo, shared that more people than ever had been watching Morning and Evening Prayer on WhatsApp, thanks to his parishioners’ forwarding the services to others. “It’s not a normal time, but it’s God’s time,” he told us.
The Rev. Connie Sánchez, who oversees a diocesan NGO empowering rural women, said that smartphone technology had enabled the organization to keep offering instruction on finance and business planning, but that hunger was becoming a serious challenge for the women she serves, many of whom are single mothers fighting to keep families alive. Though the lockdown has prevented her from leaving Tegucigalpa to physically assist the hungry in rural areas, she has been able to refer callers to other clergy and churches nearer to them. “There is nothing more painful that to hear the words, ‘Reverend, I am hungry,’ but knowing that God is with us, we can face this epidemic,” Sanchez said.
While much remains uncertain, the Honduran church looks positively towards the future, perhaps precisely because it has for many years wrestled with adversity on many fronts. The clergy have a vast array of responsibilities, especially in education and development. Though they may be more hard-pressed than ever, we consistently heard from them a message of hope. In the last decade, the diocese has been working hard to achieve financial self-sufficiency. Despite the present economic setbacks, it is remarkable that so many members of the clergy demonstrate a deep faith that God will provide, and that lay people are ready to take a more decisive role in a movement less concerned with the future of the Church, and more with being “the Church of the future.”
Ignacio Gama and Kristen Gunn are students at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.