That's not the worst of it.
I though about that the other day as I was sharing with my 7th graders the Parable of the 'Good Samaritan'. We'd been discussing the beginnings of Christianity within the Roman Empire and our textbook happened to mention that Jesus taught in parables - a word no one in my class seemed to fully understand. Aghast at their lack of basic biblical knowledge, I turned to my laptop, played a few examples of parables from "Godspell" and then began to explore their meanings with the class. We looked at the 'Parable of the Sower', 'The Prodigal Son', 'Lazarus and the Rich Man' and then finally arrived at the 'Good Samaritan'. I asked if anyone knew what message Jesus was trying to convey with this particular story. There were the typical responses of "Be kind to everyone!" and "Don't ignore people just because they look different or messy!". My particular favorite came from a young boy who said "Never trust a priest!". Finally, one girl raised her hand and very softly said "It doesn't matter how good you look on the outside, what matters is what's in your heart."
Those words landed me solidly in the gut.
I was so proud of her and felt thus moved to tell the class a story.
In my first year as a missionary here I lived in a busy downtown neighborhood. I knew very few people in my barrio aside from my landlords; in contrast to everyone else it seemed, who were intimately connected with one another almost daily. I rode my bike nearly everywhere I went in those days and in short order my twice daily trips to and from the church offices became just another cog in the predictable and rhythmic clock that was the life of my neighborhood. One sunny noontime day I decided to leave the office early and head back home for lunch. It was a short ride from the offices to my house and as I cleared the last corner onto the long street at the end of which sat my dwelling, I noticed a man begin to shuffle off the curb and towards the middle of the street. I was a long way off when I first noticed him but even then was surprised that, given his unnaturally slow gait, he would attempt to cross the street when he could clearly see me coming. As I drew closer I noticed that his pace hadn't changed much and that if he didn't alter his tempo we would most likely collide. Surely I thought, he could see me and would adjust his stride accordingly.
It wasn't until I was on top of him, literally lying on top of him, that I realized he was blind. I didn't exactly hurt him, as just at the last minute (though still not realizing he was blind) I braked and swerved to avoid hitting what in that quick flash I presumed to be a complete moron.
Lying there though, nearly face-to-face I could see the anguish and discouragement begin to gather around his mouth and eyes; not from any real physical pain because the collision had simply been he and I slowly falling into one another. No, the anguish I imagined came from a place of frustration at once again being knocked-down because some fool-hardy speed-demon realized too late that he was blind. I felt severe and wrenching pity for what I'd done to this man.
And then I did what I never thought myself capable of. I grew hot with embarrassment. Panic overtook me; surely the many people on their porches and along the sidewalks, my neighbors, surely they had seen what had just transpired. What they must think of me! My head began to spin and the only thing I wanted to do was be as far away from there as I possibly could. Without even saying a word to the man I got up, jumped on my bike and rode as fast as I could back to my house.
I'm still ashamed to tell that story.
My 7th graders were justifiably appalled and did not hesitate to tell me so; I think one student might have even mentioned Hell in the chaos that overtook my classroom. I shared that with them though to drive home the point of how corrupted we truly are. I was a missionary in a land that practically worships missionaries; I could do no wrong in the eyes of many here and yet when push-came-to-shove I was no better than the Jewish Priest on the Jerusalem Road. Pride was alive and well in my heart and proved as much when it mattered most.
"Don't assume then" I exhorted my young rapt audience "that just because you go to church every week, go to catechism classes or have taken your first Holy Communion that you're a good person. This parable tells us in a very clear and simple way that it matters not what you look like on the outside in terms of religiosity, what matters is what is in your heart and we know what's truly in our heart by the way we respond to the unexpected events in life; to the blind men stepping into our path."
I thought about all of this the other day in Los Laureles. My time there has become vastly diminished what with this teaching job and all but I have not lost sight of the fact that I am here, living here, because I want to serve that community in any way I can. I was there though on that lazy Sunday afternoon to watch a soccer game. Soccer games, especially in poor communities like Los Laureles can become heated affairs with emotions running high, fist-fighting and the occasional discharging of firearms. I've seen it all. What I'd never seen though is what happened this particular Sunday afternoon. I was sitting with my good friend, confidant and former neighbor, Johnny, watching the game when from behind us, up the hill on the road, came marching a troupe of masked men carrying semi-automatic rifles. In their midst they marched a young man with a car tire shoved down over his shoulders so as to restrain his upper-bodily movements and with a plastic bag over his head. These men weren't from Los Laureles but rather from the poor, neighboring, river community of La Fe (There are a lot comings and goings between the two communities and so they know each other well). One of the masked-men noticed Johnny sitting there on a rock and, because Johnny is something of a mover and shaker in the Laureles world, the man came over to pay his respects and explain what was going on.
To fully grasp the gravity of the situation as I'm about to describe it, you need to know something of life in La Ceiba. Many of the poor suburban neighborhoods of La Ceiba (the suburbs are not for the rich in Honduras) are controlled and run by gangs connected to the major gang networks of MS-13, Mara 18, Los Bloc and others. Fortunately Los Laureles, La Fe and Los Bomberos haven't been infected by the gangs but that may be changing. In order to fuel and fund their activities the gang of a particular neighborhood will extort all of the various small business and homeowners, requiring that they pay what's known affectionately as a "War Tax". If a person or business chooses not to pay, the gang may be obliged to run them off their land or kill them...or both. They also extort people living in neighborhoods that aren't controlled by gangs and major businesses in the downtown La Ceiba area. It's a frustratingly awful existence for the poor people that live in these neighborhoods or the hard-working folk struggling to make a living off their businesses; only to have surly, lazy men show up at your door demanding either money or your life.
In case you're wondering, the police are of no service to the people here and sometimes are even of service to the gangs themselves.
With that in mind let me recount what the masked-man told Johnny.
Apparently the young man, now stuffed so neatly into a tire, was a gang member from the San Judas community, one of the most dangerous, gang-infested neighborhoods in all of La Ceiba. He had been sent by the gang there down into La Fe to collect rent from a small, poor woman who ran a little grocery out of her home. What the gangster was unaware of was that the community of La Fe, in light of the fact that the police are completely useless, had recently held a meeting and formed their own protective militia. They're on everyone's speed dial in the community there and so at a moment's notice can arrive to dispense of any unwanted criminal elements. That is exactly what this poor woman did - when the young man demanded the war tax be paid she feigned going into her house to get the money and instead called the La Fe militia. Within minutes 5 men with semi-automatics descended on the woman's house, I suppose with a tire in-hand, and had him detained. They then began marching him on the road out of the community and towards the main highway where they thought to wait for the police to arrive and take him away (and under his breath the masked-man muttered: "and release him the next day."). It was on that march that they passed by our community soccer game and decided to stop to take a break.
As the masked-man was recounting this story for Johnny a crowd began to gather round the "tired", young gang member. People that had been avid spectators of the soccer game came streaming across from the other side of the field to see what the commotion was; within minutes there were easily 50 people gathered in a humming, sweaty circle around the young man. I must admit that curiosity got the best of me and I too walked over to get a better look. It was in that melee that some of those gathered around began to beat the young man; people began kicking and punching him in the head, one man took the butt of his rifle and jammed it into the man's shoulder. The man, his face still covered by the plastic bag, began to cry. Something within me was screaming "DO SOMETHING!" but I didn't know what, I thought maybe to simply place my body in front of the young man but I found my feet reluctant to move. In that moment of my own indecision Johnny came bursting through the crowd, gun in hand and barged right to the middle of the circle. Cursing and yelling he defied anyone to touch that boy again; he demanded that the people there show compassion. "It's one thing to protect your community" he shouted "It's quite another to act like animals." One of the masked-men made a move towards Johnny, liking he was going to confront him, but a few larger Laureles men appeared out of the crowd at Johnny's side and the man stepped back. A woman from La Fe walked up and took the bag off the boy's head and then turned to the crowd and began to specifically point out other men and boys in the circle that had at one time or another been involved in drugs, theft or gangs. "None of us are perfect" she pleaded "and all of you were given second and sometimes third chances at life. Let's do the same here." The crowd wasn't exactly placated and there were some that were still quite visibly eager to have another crack at the boy, still sitting there on the ground with a tire around his torso. Johnny and the other Laureles men and the woman from La Fe held firm though and within a few minutes the police arrived and so the crowd dispersed.
As the young man rode off in the back of the police truck, Johnny and I drifted back toward the soccer game that had continued unabated in spite of the very large and unnatural disturbance taking place on the sideline. Out of the side of his mouth he said to me: "If they wanted to hit him they should have done it in a fair way; taken the tire off him and let him fight one-on-one...there was no way that I was going to let them beat that boy to death like that though...not like that."
It doesn't matter what you look like on the outside, be you a priest, a missionary or a poor man from the garbage dump; what matters to God is what's in your heart. And sooner or later the events of life always force what lives in your heart to come out, probably when you least expect it.
Johnny with our champion soccer team from a few years ago.