A letter from Tim Wheeler in Honduras
Gloria and I are making visits to churches now during our second long trip during our home stay this fall. We shared this message with a congregation on October 28 and want to share it with you.
Gloria and I are working in rural villages where there is not much in the way of opportunities for a better life. People struggle in different ways. We work in places that are cut off, where others do not work. We are working in basic programs of leadership development, community organization, building self-esteem, hope and providing opportunities.
Heifer reaches 500 communities in Honduras, providing animals and a chance at life improvement. We have seen change take place in which communities receive animals and pass on offspring to others. But really they are passing on more than just the animal, they are passing on hope and dignity and the message that I care for you as a neighbor.
Although we are assigned to work with Heifer as missionaries we are also able to create some new programs directly with local government support in rural communities. We work in a community program centering on housing but directed at building up the skills, self-esteem and leadership capacities of community participants as a broader process leading to change.
In the midst of this situation where suffering is the norm we can find happiness at times with some of the basic joys of life and hope for the future. Kids are kids everywhere and love to play and carry on; even if they are working they think they are playing.
These feelings are enhanced greatly when we as mission workers are able to accompany people where they are and in ways that become meaningful to them. Often this involves providing new opportunities, sometimes for the first time, and helping people gain new skills. In the village housing projects, people work in small groups, working together on each other's houses, and as they build houses they build relationships and begin transforming their lives and the reality around them.
The message of the New Testament is so clear and comes to us in different ways and from different messages. We are told to love God over all, and love our neighbor as ourselves. The reading today from Mark reminds us of this message in a very direct way when Bartimeaus called to Jesus saying, “Have mercy on me.”
In Honduras we often feel that the Scripture jumps off the page into real life in communities and in people’s lives. Making these comparisons makes life beautiful and wholesome.
One day I went to the mountain overlooking the village of Cerro Azul with the mayor of the district. He had taken me on a complete tour of his township and had been explaining about projects that he was carrying out and others that were still dreams. As the events of the afternoon unfolded I felt that it was not by chance that we ended up on this mountainside. We were met with hollow stares and a degree of poverty and such a distraught feeling that even I was taken aback by. People peered out of stick-and-mud houses, bare inside with no real furniture or comfort as we know it that rainy afternoon. Perhaps a fire would take the chill off that night but very little was to be seen in terms of food preparation to warm the cold body. I felt a call that day to do something; yes, maybe they were saying with the hollow stares, “Have mercy on me.”
We talked to those forgotten people that day and perhaps we were asking in a different way, “What do you want me to do for you?” just as Jesus asked. This is a basic question to be asked in the mission field many times during a personal encounter, but yet at the same time the question becomes, "What are you going to do for yourself in order to transform your situation?"
After a community and personal journey with the people of Cerro Azul they were finally able to visualize a new tomorrow. First they had to build up their self-esteem and the belief that they could change things for themselves when given the opportunity. With the support of many we were able to buy a new piece of land and start a housing project in which the people of Cerro Azul started to learn the skills to build their own houses and work together in doing so, in small groups working together on each other’s house. Later a young man named Oscar from Cerro Azul would pass on his knowledge to a new project, and the most humble would become teachers. This is God’s plan.
Jesus asks Bartimaeus to have faith and if he does he will be healed. We work with people so that they will have self-belief and work together, treating their neighbors with love by passing on animals and knowledge, and then when given the opportunity they will be able to improve their lives, another kind of healing. Now they are living in a 6-by-8-meter house with a cement floor and a roof that doesn’t leak. There are 15 new houses in all in the new housing project. The change has been significant; kids are going to school, and there is more sharing among the families and more happiness on their faces. In many ways they have proved that when people are given the opportunity they will respond to it and take advantage of it in a self-improvement process. They have been able to reach a new stage of peace in their lives in which as mothers and fathers they are providing for their children as much as they can.
I would like to share another story in a village not far from Cerro Azul named Copantle. Two village leaders live there who are very different but their stories illustrate how different people attempt to reach for their goals and live out the gospel in some way.
Both of the leaders have benefited from Heifer programs, receiving animals and training in their care as well as in integrated farming techniques that are friendly to the environment.
Don Ramon works on his farm with the assistance of many members of his family. He has developed a very nice farm with a variety of crops and with cows and a fishpond. What stands out is his entrepreneurship skills and hard work making his farm a huge success.
Each day Don's son comes, on school recess, to take the milk, about eight liters, to his house, where it is brought to a boil and then sent to school for the school glass-of-milk program. All of the children line up, smaller kids come running too with their glasses, and the teacher dishes it out. It is a time of joy in the village. Here we see a successful project taking place, a farmer able to sell his milk and earn $5 every day and children improving their nutrition.
But there is something more—a decision by the local mayor to implement the program in this way. Yes, there are choices of what and when and where we do things. He had the government funding and could have purchased the milk commercially, but he chose to support a local farmer and keep the money in the community; in this way he is helping to create a better world locally and helping to create peace in the process.
Dona Aneglina is the other person I want to tell you about. She is the mother of six. She taught herself to read by tuning in to a radio literacy program and then turned around and taught other village members. She has helped her family get by, by selling cheese locally, usually buying and reselling it and going village to village. She also received a lot of training in agriculture and animal care. She and her husband saved money and bought more land. Her dream was to develop a farm school on her property. She has cows, goats, chickens, a pig, and a fishpond with tilapia. She has been able to develop a bio digester to create methane gas to cook with. She has an eco-wood burning stove, a solar oven and solar lights. It is a huge gift that someone who has struggled a great deal to get where she is today is so willing and ready to turn around and share her knowledge and encouragement with others by passing on knowledge. The farmer-to-farmer method of education is a proven concept in development circles. People are more apt to learn from someone like themselves.
The last story today is about a woman named Digna from the village of Cerro Azul. She lost her husband suddenly. Bartolo was his name. He never got to live in the new house that he had built for Digna.
One day Digna came to Gloria where she was sitting. She came up from behind her, quietly, and started talking in a soft voice sort of in the middle of a conversation. Her meekness gave an idea of the role of women, of people who have never developed some basic skills or had the opportunity to do so. “So,” she said, “is it true that I have to move out—my mother-in-law said she wants Barto’s house, also the corn crop?” “Digna,” Gloria responded, “no one is going to take your house from you. When we began this program we said it would be men and women together; women have rights too. The mayor will legalize your house and housing lot in your name.” Digna was quiet. She was thinking about what was said, letting it sink in, trying to change her old way of being dominated, trying to see a new future for herself and for Santos, her daughter, who is 11. She was quiet, but Gloria could see that she was happy.
Digna had told Gloria that she had had a total of six children but only Santos had lived. She didn’t explain it; that was just the way it was, almost an opposite way of thinking. That was the normal—why would it be different?
Gloria started giving some literacy classes to women who were interested. One day, when a mission team was at the site, later in the afternoon, Gloria had gone out to the bus that would drive them back to Trinidad for the evening and was sitting there resting from the day’s activities. She felt a tug from behind. It was Digna, who said, “Can you help me with my literacy work?” She was trying to write the letters in a row across a page. I think the little tugs and calls for attention were a sign of change taking place in Digna and gradually she would become more confident and in control of what she is doing.
This is the hope that we see, a community that cares and opportunities for people to grow in different ways. Perhaps Digna epitomizes this process, her doubts and small steps forward. This is the reality that we work in and see progress and hope. They are living their faith every day with the assuredness that every day God will provide a better life, and they are willing to take the opportunities. This hope is reflected in the people—just as Bartimaeus opened his eyes and could see, they by trusting the Scriptures and having faith are able to receive the gift of seeing the new life that they are creating and a better future for their children. The people we have mentioned are doing for themselves and carrying out their faith; we are there to encourage them.
Thank you for this opportunity today, may God bless you and bless the people like those I have talked about today.
Tim and Gloria Wheeler
Apartado 15027, Colonia Kennedy
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 10
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 20