Friday, January 31, 2014

Working Together in La Montaña

This week about 200 pastoral agents from all over La Montaña gathered for four days in Tlapa to share experiences and search together for the best ways to be messengers of life in these impoverished mountains of the state of Guerrero.
Some of the participants in diocesan assembly
I had been looking forward to seeing Sister Carmen Dominguez, the founder of a Franciscan religious congregation here in the village of Tlalixtaquilla. But then I heard that she had hurt her back and has been in bed since late December, so she wouldn’t be attending the assembly. I decided to visit her on Sunday. It was painful to see such an active woman unable to walk, but it was good to talk with her and “catch up” on the work her congregation does with the poor indigenous peoples here.
Franciscan convent outside Tlalixtaquilla
The drive to Tlalixtaquilla certainly brought back some memories. When I approached a river outside the village of Amapilca, I remembered a rainy day back in the early ‘80s when it looked like the raging river would wash away the local bridge. A group of men were trying to tie up tree trunks near the base of the bridge, in an attempt to lessen the force of the water washing away the soil. I remember Bob Nau (from Medicine Hat) helping to tie trees together on the shoreline.
Amapilca River looks different in the dry season
When one of the trees started to be pulled into the rushing waters, another Canadian, Rob (I apologize, Rob; I forget your last name), tried to hold it in place. Suddenly, both he and the tree were hauled into the center of the river. Rob seemed to be caught in the branches of the tree, and he disappeared under the water. All of us near the shore held our breaths as we watched the tree—with no Rob in sight—barrel down the river. As the seconds went by, it seemed less-and-less likely that Rob was going to appear.

Then, almost as if by a miracle, Rob’s head appeared beside the tree trunk. He pushed off from the trunk and swam at an angle toward the shore. The rest of us all shouted and ran downriver. Rob made it to shore and was immediately engulfed in hugs as everyone gave thanks that he was still alive. I sometimes wonder if Rob has ever been able to forget that experience; I know that I haven’t.

The most surprising thing about participating in this diocesan assembly for the first time in seven years was the number of times that words such as “violence” and “fear” were heard. In many of the villages of this mountainous region, it is a real struggle just to stay alive. Being simply poor (rather than being in misery or in “survival mode”) has always been almost a blessing in La Montaña.
Small group discussion in diocesan assembly
But now, things seem to have become even worse. Perhaps in part because of struggles to control the harvesting of drugs in La Montaña (especially marijuana and amapola [opium poppy]), it is quite common to find bullet-ridden bodies scattered throughout the mountains on a regular basis. Life has changed drastically here in the past ten years.

Another not-so-surprising discovery in the diocesan assembly was the anger of so many people against Canadian mining companies. These companies seem to be able to get permits from government officials, and so they can claim that their exploration for gold or other minerals is “legal” here, but the local people are almost never allowed to have a say in how their region can best be “developed.” And almost always, the people have no desire to see mining companies destroying their environment for “riches” that these people will never share.
Hoping that the rosary that my mom held in her hands when she died in December
will help me to drive safely and be as a good a person as she was
One other thought that came to me this week relates to the similarity between what the Catholic Church in Latin America has been expressing for years and what Pope Francis is expressing nowadays in Rome. Anyone familiar with church documents from Latin America realizes that Pope Francis is not saying anything new; what is happening is that the “voice of Latin America” is now being heard on the global stage. My prayer and hope is that other people in the world will truly listen to this voice and allow it to resonate in their own lives and in the lives of their churches—and in the lives of their societies. If this happens, then perhaps the main word I will hear in one of these future diocesan assemblies will be “hope.”

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