The Circus Comes to Town

Remember when you were a little kid and you went to the circus? The clowns were always special. The iconic representation of this is when a little, colorful car pulled out into the circus ring with bells, whistles and honks, stopped in the center, and someone opened the door. Then the clowns started piling out of the car, seemingly way too many of them to have fit in the small car. Was there a trap door? Was it an optical illusion? Whatever it was, it was certainly entertaining. This is an apt metaphor from what we recently experience with the Mountain Area Health and Education Centers (MAHEC), brigade. All metaphors limp, and I don’t want to imply that the participants presented themselves as clowns. They were quite serious in why they were here, though they certainly were as colorful as clowns.

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There were 38 registered participants on the brigade. As if that weren’t enough, an undergraduate student who was on a different brigade in a different town joined them. Here, we have the expression, “there’s always room for one more on the bus.” There were yet more gringos in the town of Camasca during the ten days MAHEC was here. Four volunteers, two graduate social work students from the University of Chicago, five undergraduate students from Duke University’s Project HEAL (Health Education and Awareness in Latin America), and Laura and I brought the total number of gringos in Camasca to 51. The municipal district of Camasca has only 1,150 residents, meaning almost 5% of the people here were from the US. If they stayed any longer, shopkeepers would have put up signs announcing “English spoken here.”  To be fair, in that group of 51, one was a Canadian citizen and another was a Honduran born in the US. Still, carrying on the metaphor, that’s a lot of clowns!


But even as the numbers awed us and the people of Camasca, what was really amazing was their diversity. Even though MAHEC sponsored the trip, many came with other affiliations. Apart from the University of North Carolina, the schools of Butler University, Bucknell University, and Davidson College were represented. The Society of Friends from Lancaster, PA also came with six members of that church. Henry, now sixteen, was on his third trip to Camasca. As he has in the past, he spent a good deal of his time volunteering at the bilingual school. What we don’t usually see on medical mission trips are children or young people, but this trip was a family affair. Aside from Henry, there was:  Gabriel (who turned 18 last month); twins Edward and Seth (16); Aislin (14); Kai (9); and Henry and Luya (both 7).  All of them experienced the wonder of another culture; making friends among the young people of Camasca. There is always a spirit of joy when international, intercultural relationships are formed, but with children and young people, that spirit of joy seems transcendent and luminous.


What was accomplished in those ten days was truly phenomenal. The medical part of the team visited seven small communities as well as the High School and the Health Center, with hundreds of consults and the delivery of much needed medication. The Society of Friends gave eye exams in the small communities, at the Bilingual School, and at the High School. Many were given eyeglasses and the gift of vision, something for which they had no previous opportunity to receive. This mission of eye care will be followed up on by future Shoulder to Shoulder teams. The Society of Friends also came to the bilingual school, playing and teaching our children. They also helped us install a water collection system at our newest building on the campus.


Their time among us was certainly thrilling, and at the risk of killing my metaphor, it did remind me of the awe and excitement of when the circus came to town. There was a certain exotic character to it. Gringos are easily recognized here. The services they performed were certainly novel. Like high-wire acts, or trapeze swingers, the precision and expertize of their performance (their service) was exceptional. Perhaps, at times as well, their numbers and their colorful characters presented as clowns stepping out of a small car. But there is where the metaphor ends. The circus comes and goes, and whereas the electrifying experiences are remembered, the performers themselves are soon forgotten. They are itinerant, moving on to the next town without even a wave or a look back. But as the team of professionals and their families prepared to depart, we knew that we would miss them even more than the spectacular show they had given us. They are not performers and their intent was not to entertain. No, their presence was a genuine offer of friendship in service and justice. They have impressed themselves upon our hearts. They have given us so much more than their awesome service. They have given us themselves.


We will remember them fondly and await their return. For all that they have done for us, but even more so for whom they are, we are grateful.

What Sacrifice Yields

In the two and a half years Laura and I have lived in Honduras, I’ve become accustomed to being led around. That’s understandable. It’s not my country, and at least initially, everything is unfamiliar. The positives to being led around are that you build relationships of trust with your guides and you begin to discover things hidden under the surface. It’s an ongoing process of exciting discoveries, like the wonder of Christmas morning for a five-year-old. The negative to being led around is to be placed in that position of dependence and vulnerability. To trust being led takes moving beyond one’s comfort zone. It really implies sacrifice – doing something beyond the necessary with the hope that it will provide something better. Sacrifice and surrender.
Having so often been led around, it’s a good feeling to finally achieve the position of leading someone else. Such was our experience with AHOP (not to be confused with IHOP), A House of Prayer, a church community from Xenia, Ohio who recently came to Camasca to share and serve. While the team was here they sponsored a sports camp. They also spent some quality time at our bilingual school with our children. The church sponsors three of our children so they are very much committed to our mission of education. They hoped to meet a few of the families of our children while they were here. Laura and I knew just which families to bring them to, and how to get there. Just follow us.

Lunch At AHOP's Sports Camp
Lunch At AHOP’s Sports Camp

“But there’s no road here,” one of the AHOP members bemoaned. We were standing on the cobblestoned street just outside the town center. I ducked down under a branch and gestured for the others to follow. The path is not at all obvious from the road and the thickness of the foliage would not offer any assurance that this was the way to any domicile. The group reluctantly fell in behind my lead. Along the path we’re inching our way down a sharp precipice. The view is incredible, looking down over about 2,000 feet, you can spot the Black River five or six miles distant winding through the mountain passes. But, could anyone really live down here? Down a rock-warn channel, passing bulls, cows, and calves along the way, over, under, and through barbed-wired fences, zig-zagging in and out of a pineapple grove, we descended. The earlier cobblestoned road now long forgotten, and yet in reality it was only a few hundred yards away. If I listened closely with my ears attuned to my heart, I could hear the incredulous thoughts, “But where in the world is he taking us?” Where indeed, fording a rill across a makeshift brick, up a muddy hill, and down along the other side, we arrived on the porch of Maria Dolores. She, her daughter Keilyn in second grade, and her son Bryan in kindergarten, were there to greet us.

The Walk to the Childrens' Homes
The Walk to the Childrens’ Homes

Everyone sat, resting after the tiring, somewhat anxiety producing, hike, on the plastic chairs already placed in anticipation of our arrival. We were welcomed with generous hospitality, Maria Dolores managing to provide us all with glasses of pineapple juice, no doubt freshly squeezed from the grove we walked through. Through translators she told us a bit of her story. Her brothers and sisters, with the exception of her brother German and his family, have all attended college and moved on to begin professional careers. She has stayed behind in this unlikely abode where she grew up to take care of her aging parents. Her mother, who was asleep while we visited, has coronary disease. Dolores has to take her to the doctor, obtain her medication, and take care of her father, her children, and her home. She tells us this matter-of-factly, with no sense of resentment or pride. She shares her hope for her children. She is grateful for the opportunity of the bilingual school, certain that her children will find the way beyond the confines of the situation they were born into. As she tells her story, as she reveals her sacrifice generously offered in hope, her visitors begin to bond with her. Josh, a pastor at AHOP, and Jillian share the story of their toddler son. He, like Dolores’ mother, also struggles with heart difficulties. From Xenia, Ohio, to Camasca, Intibucá, to this home hidden beyond the trees, the distance has lessened to nothing more than a knowing glance. Before we leave to visit her brother German and his family, we join hands in the warmth of prayer and thanksgiving.

Maria Dolores and Daughter Keilyn
Maria Dolores and Daughter Keilyn

Her brother’s home is a two-minute walk away, though it too is hidden under the trees. Juan Carlos, a first-grader, sees us coming and gathers the chairs for us to sit inside his home. German is there with his eldest child, an adult daughter who has been physically challenged since birth. Iris stands at about the height of her six-year-old brother, Juan Carlos, and walks with severe difficulty. She can no longer make the trip into town on her own, but relies on other family members to carry her. Her smile is infectious as she pleasingly relates to us how she assists her mother, a teacher, with computer work, English classes, and documentation. Her mother cannot get home frequently, as her teaching job is in La Esperanza. German stays home, tending his personal farm and taking care of the family. He has two other sons, both of whom are attending college. When we hear this, there is a collective, albeit silent, gasp. How is it possible that this family supports two children in college? And yet again, like his sister Dolores, German relates his story without the expectation of pity or honor. It is simply what he has done because it is necessary. He himself may never, will never, leave this home where the journey to and from it is exceptionally onerous. But he and his wife will take care of their daughter and forge a wider path for their sons on their journeys from home.

German, Daughter Iris, and Son Juan Carlos
German, Daughter Iris, and Son Juan Carlos

Our journey down began with a sense of uncertainty that produced insecurity. We could not see the way, what could lie beyond the trees or below the mountain. But we found a place of rest and comfort. We met with welcome. Leaving, climbing out, was hard. We would, in a sense, be going very far away. Yet having been here, the way back would be something forever in our memory. We had become, somehow, very close to these families hidden under the trees and below the mountain.

Thank you, AHOP, for your willingness to be led. We hope you discovered something valuable along the way, “a pearl of great price.” You will always have welcome.

February Not Quite Like You Remembered It

February Not Quite Like You Remembered It

For the majority of my life living in the States, I absolutely loathed February. This is indeed my personal bias, but I’ll state my arguments anyway. Being a New Englander, it is very cold and raw in February. It just makes the winter too long. March brings the possibility of an early round or two of golf, but February just has to be endured. For sports fans, February is also a complete wasteland. Oh yes, there is the Super Bowl, but that use to be at the end of January until they made it the first Sunday of February to allow for extended play-off games. Still, after the Super Bowl there is nothing of import (except perhaps badminton games) until college basketball’s March Madness. February is so far away from the beginning of the school year or graduations. And who would ever get married in February. They put Valentine’s Day in February to trick us into believing it has some worth. Besides all that, February is just strange as a month. It doesn’t have enough days, and then its days correspond to March’s days exactly, like Groundhog Day only extended. Then there’s leap year that messes everybody up. I guess the only thing February has going for it is primaries and caucuses for the political junkies in an election year like this one. I’ve never been much of a political junkie. February has just always been difficult to get over.


But here in Honduras, February is a completely different experience. It is the end of school vacation, school begins on February first. Because the Christmas season is overly extended here, it is also the end of the Christmas season (I don’t think they have yet taken down the crèche in the central plaza in La Esperanza). We are now already in the heart of the dry season and summer is beginning. Yes, summer! The days will get drier and hotter, much hotter. With school in session, sports get really serious, especially fútbol (sorry, soccer), kids in full force running up and down the fields. Here, February is anything but boring. It is an amusement park ride and everyone is jumping on.


Ever Bonilla and Angela McCaskill on the radio advertising the brigades

Many of those who are jumping on the February roller coaster are the Shoulder to Shoulder mission trip participants. Whether it is because February is such a grueling month in the States, or because February rocks in Honduras, we have seven brigades scheduled in this all too short of a month, even with the extra, leap year day. One-hundred-three otherwise unknown gringos will come and leave their mark upon the soil of Intibucá over the next 29 days. This is great! This is exciting! We are so much looking forward to it. But at the same time, it means an incredible amount of planning and work.
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  •  Brown/Wingate is once again going to their clinic in Guachipilincito. They have so many participants, twenty-six, that they have decided to do it in shifts over the course of three weeks. They are also planning on more patient educational days and more professional training days. Our Honduran medical professionals are really looking forward to sharing practice protocols with Brown/Wingate’s team.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University and Fairfield Family Practice Centers are once again housing themselves at their clinic in Pinares. They serve some of the poorest and most isolated people in the Frontera. We appreciate their long standing commitment.
  • For the first time ever, Shoulder to Shoulder is hosting Unidad Hospitalaria Móvil Latinoamerica or Latin America Mobile Hospital Unit. They will be providing general and proctologic surgeries for many of our people in the Frontera as well as from La Esperanza. They will be at the hospital in La Esperanza. We are incredibly proud of this new mission and hope that it will be the beginning of a very meaningful relationship.
  • Mountain Area Health Education Center will return to Camasca with a small contingent of travellers to complete a study and to offer some assistance at the health center there, as well as at our bilingual school.
  • Johns Hopkins is coming to Santa Lucia once again after a year’s hiatus. It will be a small brigade, but we are pleased and honored to receive them.
  • Larry Tepe and a small dental brigade will see patients at the clinic in Concepción.
  • We will complete the month with a mega brigade from Cleveland Clinic and Christ Church of thirty-three people descending upon the small town of Camasca. I’m certain they will be a force to reckon with.

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So for all of you that will be sitting around your house feeling sorry for yourselves as the month of February drags on and on, we invite you to think about coming to Honduras. It’s the place to be this February.