So, (Part I & II)

February 2012

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Natalie Rossman Allen Pandi, the sister of Bishop Lloyd Allen, Episcopal Bishop of Honduras. I offer these reflections.

--- Part I

A concrete block was used to crush her head. Those are not my words, but those of the Bishop of Honduras as he addressed the congregation in Tela today. I do not think he was intending to sensationalize the death of his sister, simply giving voice to the pain and frustration of a country held hostage to violence and debt.

The funeral was scheduled for 2 PM, but by noon the benches and chairs arranged in the courtyard were full. Maybe that is a part of what it means to be in community – when arriving early is not a burden, but rather expected. Beach chairs - the molded plastic style that wilt in the strong sun - were carted out from classrooms and closets to accommodate each visitor. We were repeatedly offered soup and sandwiches to sustain us in the heat. Introductions were polite and intentional.

I recalled in that time, the invitation I received as a naïve Peace Corps volunteer to travel to the village just up the hill for the funeral. I protested that I did not know the man or his family. I was dismissed out of hand. Everyone goes, they said. Everyone. That is community. That is relational. And it was true, everyone was there. And the same was so today. They arrived early and sat quietly, or talked in groups. Just there.

I felt some regret, for I considered then, presiding over funerals where absences were notable. Vacation schedules or work trips kept them from being – present – for vague members of their community who, in truth, were not vague but instrumental in forming their very lives. And worse still I thought, how we now tailor funerals to the schedules of the over scheduled - this age of You Tube grief and Facebook mourning.

By the time that the Bishop approached the pulpit, the sun was diluting the video screen and highlighting the incense that circulated through the air conditioner. The gentle fragrance taunted the humidity just out of reach.

Gigantes. That was the image that he came back to over and over. What happens we are set in opposition to giants?

The bishop referenced the spies that Moses sent in to survey the Promised Land. They documented that the land before them was rich and fruitful. It was a good land, the fulfillment of a promise. Yet, in an all too accurate reflection of human timidity, the people chose to retreat instead. Surely, they said, giants occupy the land and their fate was doom.

So it is with the community in Honduras. As the Honduran closes the door to the street at setting of the sun, they see only giants in a land that offers so much promise and hope. Retreat is the language of the Honduran now. Because gigantes occupy the land, the people cannot be a part of the community, nor rest in the fields of fruit.

Those who have heard the Bishop speak are familiar with a voice that can shake the dust from the sills. He intended to shake us from our stupor, to acknowledge that these giants are of our own creation and we alone can call them out. His voice broke only once, his head settled on the pulpit for a spell, and then he reclaimed his role.

The body was broken, the blood poured out, and we all shared in the feast. The clergy surrounded the altar and proclaimed the good news in a country inundated with bad news.

A police car and ambulance led the procession to the gravesite; but the ambulance broke down along the way. The acolytes and crucifer, with robes flowing and cross in hand, scurried into the next available pick up truck for the journey.

Maybe that image is the one with which we can conclude this part of reflection, the rescue car on the side of the road. There is a fear that the struggling children of Honduras, who are so vulnerable, will be left even more so by the fear of Christian communities who are part of our story.

The story is not with out concern, but we now are called to confront the giants of our own creation. The collect of fear can longer be the matins and vespers of poor. That prayer ends in silence, and silence is more venomous than a concrete block.

--- Part II

The official report, to the degree that any murder investigation in Honduras has an official report, states that the assailant remains unknown. But I have to confess; I know. I had read of the assailant a couple weeks ago in our local paper in Bernardsville, NJ.

The police blotter in the Recorder News is not quite on par with Mayberry, but it does give an intriguing insight into the nature of our town. We have burglaries and complaints, a few teenage parties – news of which makes its way to most households before print. The weekly DUI’s are intriguing, but most local arrests remain off the published list. Cows sometimes find their way outside the fence. And some one once reported a stolen rock. But the week after Natalie’s murder, it was the report of a stolen car that would reverberate in Tela, Honduras.

The Land Rover® was taken from the driveway of a resident who said it was stolen between 9 and 9:45 PM. The timing was precise because the owner that reported the theft had not only left the keys in the ignition, but the Range Rover was idling in the driveway. Now I would never suggest that anyone deserves to be a victim of a crime, but I will echo the words of one of our modern philosophers: “stupid is as stupid does.” I imagine that there are numerous valid reasons that a Land Rover might sit idling in the driveway for almost an hour; a doctor delivering a baby, an abduction rescue, cheese that had to be kept at the proper temperature. But the truth is probably frustrating simple.

In Tegucigalpa, the taxi drivers push their cars forward to the next spot, without starting the engine, to save on fuel. My wife recalls, with still visible terror, of bus drivers in Kenya turning off the motor when driving down hill. This is not the not faux Scotch frugality that abounds in the hills of New Jersey, as an excuse for cheapness, its real life.

Jon Sobrino wrote: “as long as some strive for what they want; all will struggle for what they need.” This is our gigante. It is inconsequential that a car can idle for an hour, unnoticed, simply for the convenience of having the leather seats at the right temperature. But ignorance of the law is no excuse, and I’d like to make a citizen’s arrest. It is such ignorant, arrogant consumption that is taking the lives of so many who are struggling for what they need.

It is what caused Denis Javier to be shot on the bus, in Tegucigalpa, not long after Natalie was killed. Denis was riding in the local bus when a boy called out to him to hand over his cell phone. Denis heard nothing. His earbuds were deeply set and music overwhelmed the diesel roar and the call that took his life. He had just returned from the mall where, with his summer savings, he bought a Nokia phone (no contract) for L325, or $17. When his lack of response was taken as defiance, he was shot and the phone ripped from his hands. This was the first week of his final year in high school.

His funeral was two days later. See, even funerals indicate the desperation of life in the majority of the world. Where we delay and schedule grief according to business calendars and vacations, school plays or sports tournaments, death remains urgent in that part of the world where cars cannot idle alone. We arrived with his classmates, teachers and friends, to what I surmise is the end of the road. Nothing made it that far, no public water or electricity, just family and neighbors as the sole utilities.

A single light bulb grieved over the coffin, fueled by of wire that stretched to the neighbor’s house and his generator. As my eyes tracked the wire from the bulb to the generator, I wandered back briefly to the idling Land Rover. I considered the two engines, each humming with slight impatience. One served to cast shadows of tear streaked faces against the worn adobe walls. The other unnoticed, forgotten, sustained a soft LED glow over an abandoned life.




Ethan M. Engleby October 25. 2008

Ethan M. Engleby

October 25. 2008

His nickname was plucked from banjo strings. Around a campfire one night, an impromptu adaptation of a country / bluegrass tune gave us Uncle Eth. The words went something like: “Uncle Eth took the coon and gone on, gone on, gone on - left us looking up the tree.” It became a refrain, the melody that that filled the gaps as we waited for dinner or looked for sticks to roast marshmallows.

It became the refrain for much of his life for the name stayed with him and most of us knew him that way, if not by name, by spirit. For we always seemed to be looking in places after he had gone on. Like children flocking to an easter egg sighting, we ran to his joy but he had gone on and we were left looking where only echoes of his laughter remained.

He moved quickly - not impatiently, mind you, - but quickly from one phone call to the next, from one text message to the next. You know you are talking to a serious multitasker when you hear the toilet flush on the other end of the phone. Ethan was hard to pin down. You almost felt at times, if you were in a room with him, that he was tugging at his reins, looking for expression, a direction for his energy.

What he wanted, the direction that he sought, what he long for, were his people, all of you. He was the mayor, not just of Canton, where he lived, but he entertained the streets just about everywhere. From Houston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Ethan knew politicians, authors, service technicians. Ethan knew DEA agents in Columbia, not South Carolina, but South America. He was friends with all sorts and types. He was friends with the parking lot attendant in Houston International Airport, who to this day is watching over Ethanʼs car with the promise to let that car out of that airport parking lot with just a small payment on the side. I am not sure, but that man may have been a groomsman in Ethanʼs wedding. He would sit down at a restaurant with his wife - whom he adored above all things - and before the meal was over, four, six more chairs would be crowded around them. “Sit down,” heʼd say to friend and stranger alike.

And we sat down because of his joy. His wit was quick and fast. We would still be laughing from some irreverent thought, or politically incorrect reflection and he would be gone again, down the road to another film, another story, laughing about his dog, nicknamed Fifi, taking hostages at the safeway. That was the light that he brought to us wasnʼt it? Joy and laughter.

If humor disarms the world, then Ethan was one of Godʼs saints for a unilateral reconciliation. He brought us to our knees. He disarmed us. His laughter that came from deep inside dissipated all anger or pretension. He may not have been one to attend church on a regular basis, but he and God were close. And I know that because Ethan called out to God frequently. At the end of every good joke, funny scene in film, he gave God the credit.

For he so wanted the world be be as God would have it. His gentleness was known to everyone. He was generous, even when he could not afford to be. He was trusting, even when his own pocket was being picked. If he had two coats, he would give you one. If you asked him to walk a mile, he would walk two. If he knew he had caused you pain, it would haunt him to no end. He would apologize, and apologize and then he would apologize for apologizing too much.

Ethan had godʼs world down, what he struggled with was our world. The bright children of light are often frustrated by our world that abides in the grayscale of dusk. That is what kept him up at night, what kept him pacing, and anxious, and fearful: how to live in our world. It weighed heavy on his heart. Our world did not engage him the same way he engaged it. Where he brought light, laughter, and honesty he was often met with duplicity, corruption and selfishness. He laid his cards on the table always believing that the other would do the same. And he took more than his fair share of lumps as a result. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

I have seen a proliferation of those “life is good” bumper stickers recently. And as I have seen them I have been frustrated because life is not always good. God is good. That I am sure of. God is good, all the time. But life is not good all the time. And right now is one of those times. The convenient platitudes of grief and death are too wobbly to support us right now.

We always want some sort “take away” from gatherings like this, a goal, direction, plan, a support for our grief. It was suggested that maybe in Ethanʼs honor we all should vote for McCain ten days from now. I would be remiss if I didnʼt at least acknowledge that Ethan is now a resident of the big blue state in the sky and might now encourage you differently.

But there are no easy “take aways” this afternoon. Only hard truths. Uncle Eth has gone on, and we are left looking once again. Looking for his laughter, his generosity, and his kindness - what God bestowed upon us in this gentle man was unique, and God grieves as much as we do today. For a most faithful servant now rests. Finally rests.

Isaiah invites us to go out in joy and be led back in peace. Ethan has lead us through joy and he will lead us to peace. In due time, he will lead us to peace.

Holy Week

The headlines from the national newspaper in Honduras on Maundy Thursday read: “HE DIED FOR OUR SINS.”  Enough said.

The newspaper also included a special advertising supplement for Holy Week, featuring the Stations of the Cross.  Begging the pardon of my Roman Catholic friends, but I don’t quite recall all of the Stations of the Cross.  I do recall counting them at one point and seem to surmise that we Anglicans don’t recognize the same number of stations as do the Roman Catholics.  That may either be an indication of Catholicism’s emphasis on suffering or Anglican forgetfulness, but for advertising purposes, the more stations the better.

So in this special supplement, each station had a sponsor.  For instance, Jesus picks up his cross, was sponsored, say, by Enterprise.  So under the artistic image from a renaissance painting of Jesus picking up his cross was: “Enterprise – we’ll pick you up.”  I regret not saving the issue for future reflection, but I do recall the final station of Jesus’s being laid in the tomb proudly sponsored by Pollo Campero – an internationally recognized name in fried chicken. 

And it was with this in the back of my mind that I found myself visiting the mother of one of our students in her home a few hours outside of the capital.  I sat awkwardly on a couch as we discussed the heat.  This mother of five introduced me to her older daughter, who had a lively face and whose breasts were swollen from nursing her second child.  I suspect that she was no more than twenty.  My companion asked the question that I was too embarrassed to ask, but thirsted for nonetheless, “was there a husband?”  My concern pivoted on social and cultural norms but his question was merely a matter of ascertaining the facts – meaning that, in a three-room home, the concern remains as to how many mouths need to be filled, and the presence of another adult is not necessarily an advantage.  There was no husband.

As we spoke, the mother’s younger daughter emerged from the bedroom, that space being defined by a cloth curtain.  She bore that awkward expression that we all know when we enter a familiar room occupied by unfamiliar faces – the same expression that falls upon us as we try to recall our own cell phone number.  I sensed an incongruity as well as she sat between her mother and sister; for her face carried the innocence with which we long to label the children of poverty, but her body bore the marks of responsibility.  She is hoping to finish ninth grade this year, and she carried her mother’s third grandchild. 

So it was that on Easter Sunday that I took the brother of these two girls – and three boys whose stories are probably not much different – to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to celebrate Easter.  They sat with patience and discipline through the service, staring out the window but responding with precision to the cues offered by the priest: “Amen,” “Demos gracias a Dios,” “Nuestro Padre, que estas….  ” 

We went for lunch afterward, their choice – Pollo Campero – the only Easter lunch.  We ordered the franchise’s version of a happy meal, two pieces, a roll, fries and slaw, a familiar package.  And they ate with the same intent with which they worshiped that morning.  No ravenous gulps of soda or mouthfuls with excess leaking out the sides, but deliberate, conscious bites of patience. 

And each finished, leaving one piece of chicken meticulously untouched.  I recalled the days of stashing pizza crusts aside for late night snacks and winked with knowing comradery.  But our worlds and lives are not the same.  For each boy, without any conscious collaboration, had in mind another for whom he intended this extra piece of chicken.  A sister, friend, waiting for them back in the dorms of their temporary home would share in their hope of the resurrection.