tlf news

Vol. xx # 3

September, 1999

The Missing Panels

Whenever I arrive in a new city one of the first things I like to do is visit the churches. This is especially true in Central America, as the churches are often at the heart of the city, and filled with vivid images of faith unfamiliar to me. And so it was my first day in El Progreso; I made my way to the downtown parish of "Las Mercedes". It's a fairly new church, spacious, with bare white walls, and pews that arc slightly towards the altar. As I stepped across the threshold of the tall double door entrance, my eyes were quickly drawn to the splash of color lighting the opposite wall just behind the altar. Two sets of stained-glass windows stretch from just above the floor to just below the high ceiling: twelve panels in all to depict four gospel scenes. Burnt orange melts into hues of dirt brown and banana yellow, coloring the Christ scenes uniquely within the context of this scorched tropical climate.

Top left, an angel floats down to Mary: the Annunciation. Below, the baby Jesus sleeps on the hay: the Nativity. Bottom right, Christ hangs from his cross: the Crucifixion. Top right . . . wait, what's this? There's something missing. The top three panels are empty . . . clear glass. Where's the last scene? There's no resurrection!?! My eyes darted left and right, up and down searching futilely for the missing scene. Swallowing hard I began to feel slightly disturbed and even cheated by the omission; the weight of the symbolism started pressing against me. Could this clear glass be more than a coincidence, I wondered to myself. Is this a crucified people? A people living and dying so firmly fixed on the cross that it would be presumptuous to celebrate the resurrection? A society unable or unwilling to express resurrection hope?

As my six week introduction to Honduras commenced I kept these questions and that empty image alive in my head and my heart. Despite my limited time (and my limited Spanish) I could sense the tow of underdevelopment and natural disaster that pulls on this people. Though millions of dollars and aid have poured into Honduras since Mitch, I have seen no new bridges, no new roads, and no new homes. What I have seen is bent-backed women scrubbing clothes against boulders planted in the dirt. I've seen naked children sitting in streams of mud that run through the streets during afternoon rains. I've heard that nearly 40% of the population is illiterate. In this age of microchips and laser guided missiles, a multitude of families live without power, plumbing, or potable water. Young men (boys) in military uniform pedal home for lunch with rifles dancing from their shoulders. My ears have been pierced by the rip of automatic weapons as they've torn through young Honduran bodies, who lay dead for hours in the street. The people of Honduras, it is true, hang heavily with Christ on his cross.

But what of hope? Surely things must be getting better. They tell me that wages, which in the 1970's were about $8 a day, have now fallen to a little under $4. Land which had begun to be redistributed to the many is being recaptured by the few. Even the benefits once doled out by the powerful banana companies are being repealed. Inefficiency and corruption squander the nation's natural and human resources. A country in desperate need of knowledge, skills, and basic services, spends its money making the country safe for the transnationals. Rather than prioritizing education, housing, health care, and clean water, they are subsidizing tax free zones for foreign companies to make goods that Hondurans cannot afford. A resurrection scene in Honduras was becoming harder and harder to picture.

Yet, picture it I did: in a vision that has been taking shape for 20 years. teatro la fragua is finding and forging a cultural identity, a voice and an image with the Honduran people from which power, pride, hope and dreams are springing. Before coming to Honduras I hadn't grasped the breadth and depth of its mission. teatro believes cultural poverty lies at the heart of the Honduran experience. This poverty has desperate consequences that may reach even farther and dig an even deeper hole of despair than material poverty. Hondurans, I was astonished to learn, suffer from a cultural deficiency. They have not developed their own literature, their own poetry, their own music, or their own crafts. Domination by other cultures dates back to even before the colonists, when the people of Honduras were on the outskirts of the great Mayan civilization. It is in this context that teatro embarks on its grand mission: to give expression to the history, customs, tragedies, and triumphs of the Honduran people. They are trying to forge a culture, to develop an identity, and to nurture a capacity for reflection, so that together, Hondurans can begin to dream and to choose a different future. Only a self-possessed, self-aware people can overcome the centuries of domination and destitution known by the Hondurans.

I had the privilege to spend six weeks working with teatro this summer. My main task was to work in the archives. I was to take tlf newsletters and articles and prepare them to post on the Internet. Daily I was moved by the eloquence and the testimony I encountered in those archives and in teatro la fragua. With art they are able to touch something deep in people, something bigger than themselves. Hondurans can see themselves and their own experience reflected in the performances. And teatro is not just performing, but teaching as well. They travel the countryside giving workshops to youth groups on dramatizing the gospels. In the workshop I attended, about 30 adolescents participated. They gathered sheepishly that first night into the main hall, most barely able to muster the confidence to speak their own name. But in three days time they were bursting with song, speaking with authority and moving with purpose. They were creating beautiful stories with their own voices and their own bodies. In dramatizing the gospels the kids create something beautiful, something of their own, and they come to discover the potential and the power within themselves and within the word. The skills of concentration, cooperation, confidence, and language will serve them wherever they go. On the last night of the workshop, the young men and women performed their dramatizations for the whole town at the evening mass. It was there that I could feel and see and believe that these young men and women were becoming children of pride and children of hope. teatro la fragua is at work forging a voice, a cry, a laugh, a resurrection dream with the people of Honduras. They are shining brighter than stained-glass ever could.

Thank you teatro la fragua for your work and for your friendship. May Christ continue to paint with you his scene of glory.

--Mark Kramer sj

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