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.