Mission to Honduras
Here, finally, is the story of the mission trip to Honduras:
I went to Honduras as part of a 15-person mission team from my church.
We went to an orphanage for young boys called El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza (The Home of Love and Hope), near the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
We would help, about 15 miles away, to construct new buildings at a technical school, where the older boys learn welding, auto mechanics and other trades, also as part of the El Hogar Projects.
Our first introduction to the country’s poverty came as we left the airport terminal and started the short trek across the parking lot to a bus waiting to take us to El Hogar. About 10 boys between the ages of 5 and 12 beset us, begging for money.
“Please,” they said, lifting their hands to their mouths as if eating, to explain they were hungry.
“Please,” they implored, looking at us with big sad eyes.
The orphanage staff said not to give them any money. We were told family members send these children out to beg.
The team climbed aboard the bus, and the children surrounded it, climbing onto a wall next to the bus, poking hands and arms through the windows, still begging.
Following the driver’s advice, we put the windows up, and the boys rapped on the windows until the luggage was loaded aboard and the bus began to inch out of the parking lot.
Police and military personnel stand on almost every corner in Tegucigalpa, and in public places like parks and restaurants, armed with semiautomatic weapons.
The government is relatively stable, but crime is high, especially in the larger cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Many Hondurans carry weapons for self-defense.
The orphanage, like most buildings in Honduras, is walled for safety. The bus driver honked to get the guard’s attention, and the gate slid back to let the bus enter.
Our quarters were dormitory-style rooms the orphanage provides for visiting teams, with the women in one room and the men next door. There was no air-conditioning, which wasn’t a terrible hardship, as Tegucigalpa is in the mountains, where the air cools at night.
Because of lack of equipment, water is provided to cities only every other day. The orphanage has a cistern, but the wall had been damaged in a recent storm. Our showers were sporadic, and in cold water.
The water is not potable, and we were told to use bottled water, even to wash our faces and brush our teeth. The Hondurans drank bottled water, as well.
The boys of El Hogar
The El Hogar compound in Tegucigalpa houses boys through sixth grade. After that, they can attend Santa Maria Technical Institute at the new location in Amarateca, about 15 miles outside Tegucigalpa, or at an agricultural school, to learn farming and animal husbandry.
The executive director for El Hogar Projects explained, “It would be cruel to take these boys off the streets for so many years, then just throw them back.”
By learning a trade, these boys can earn a decent living, and go back to the barrio or community they’re from, and contribute to it.
About 50 percent of people in the cities live in extreme poverty, the director explained, and more than 70 percent of people in rural areas live in extreme poverty.
The per-capita gross national income is $970, according to Unicef. Honduras is about the size of Tennessee, with a population just over 6.5 million.
Unendurable poverty brings most of the boys to El Hogar. They are not orphans in the traditional sense. Most have parents. The children at El Hogar are the ones who have been abandoned because they represent an extra mouth to feed when there is no food.
Boys are tossed out much more often than girls in a machismo culture, where it is assumed boys can fend for themselves better than girls can. Many of the boys have been told they are trash. A number of them were found going through trash heaps and were brought to the orphanage.
In fact, just about every trash container in Tegucigalpa has someone going through it, even in the poorest sections of town, though what the searchers may find is a mystery. People who have nothing pretty much have nothing edible or usable to throw away.
Gangs are growing in the cities of Honduras, as these boys look for acceptance, belonging and a way to survive. They contribute to the crime.
The El Hogar director old the group about one young boy who was found living under a bridge with his mother. There was no shelter, no sanitation, no food. The mother agreed to let the little boy go to El Hogar, where she could visit him.
Many boys have family members who come visit them, and to whom they go at Christmas other holidays.
When the little boy was shown his bed to sleep in, he said, “Really? A bed? For me?” He had never slept in a bed before.
The three facilities of El Hogar are home to about 200 boys. This orphanage and others barely touch the tip of the iceberg of need.
After a few days in Tegucigalpa, I e-mailed this note back to The Church of Open Arms:
“We all went to Honduras, and guess where we went for lunch? MCDONALDS hahaha. Seriously, it was great. We took a number of the boys from El Hogar there and they had a great time. Any outing is a treat for them ... The kids at the orphanage have nothing compared to our standards, yet they are, for the most part, the lucky kids around here. They have three meals a day, their own beds to sleep in, safety and people to care about them. The orphanage is poor, too, but the staff is very caring.”
That staff didn’t want any of the missionary group fussing over the children as if they were “poor little boys.” They want these children to look upon themselves with pride. They are loved, valued and cared for.
The technical institute
The van ride to Santa Maria Technical Institute is an unforgettable experience. Right-of-way is determined by skill and guts. Drivers honk to let other drivers know the vehicle will be sailing through an intersection. This is done with a short toot. A longer blast means you’ve made the driver mad, and/or “Get out of the way.”
Passing on the mountain highway is an exercise in perfect timing. It was common for us to cringe as we saw a bus barreling around an 18-wheel rig toward us, cutting back into its lane with inches to spare.
Only the brave sat next to the driver, with a close-up view of oncoming traffic.
We passed a camp for displaced people, constructed for those left homeless by Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America in 1998. The camp is still full of people living in tiny, raw cinderblock homes on muddy paths.
We left the main highway for dirt roads the last mile or two, passing small homes, chickens, horses and mules.
The new technical institute’s administration building is the former home of a doctor, built Spanish-style, with rooms around an inner court. Around it, a classroom building and bathrooms had already been erected, and footers for a dormitory were being set.
Our team was one of a number of teams coming in for one-week terms, each picking up where the last one left off. Some of us painted walls inside the classroom building, while others (mostly the men) worked on the new construction.
They achieved a level of sore muscles heretofore never met. Everything was done manually. Mountainous, Honduran soil is rocky. Boulders had to be split with a pickax before they could be removed for the footers. It rained, and the workers had to bail water out of the holes before they could continue digging.
The Hondurans working alongside the Grace mission-team members were not fazed by the work. They were used to it.
In fact, during the trip, the team noted how hard the Hondurans work for just a few dollars a day at a construction job, or at the backbreaking job of farming on steep slopes on the side of a mountain. There is simply no way out of poverty for most. There is no infrastructure, nor any social services to help people.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The team would have never guessed all this by the smiling faces that greeted them. A number of the boys who attend the institute were gone on summer break, but the five or six who had nowhere to go enthusiastically helped the women on the painting team. The boys seemed especially enchanted by the team’s younger members.
We communicated with our young helpers — as we did with most Hondurans — using a combination of trial and error Spanish and English and pantomime. Tegucigalpa and the surrounding region are not tourist destinations, and few locals speak English.
The boys at the orphanage study English in school, and we were greeted every morning with: “Hello. How are you?” from the little ones. The older boys continue to study English at the institute, but they were shy about attempting any until they were comfortable enough with us to overcome their fear of embarrassment.
They were curious about the United States and wanted to visit it sometime. They couldn’t grasp the idea of Florida’s flat land.
"No mountains?" they asked incredulously, in Spanish.
Concept of hospitality
The mission team was lavished with hospitality. The typical meal is beans, rice and tortillas.
Yet, we from the land of plenty were served eggs when there weren’t enough for the children. Strong coffee was brewed just for us.
Patricia, the cook at the technical institute, prepared delicious lunches with chicken or beef for us every day.
It was an embarrassment of riches.
Everyone went out of their way to make us comfortable, and they were patient with our lack of understanding about how things work in Honduras.
The last night of the mission, the team served delivery pizzas and soft drinks to the children at El Hogar. This is a customary thing for mission teams to do there, and the boys love it.
The boys presented each missionary with a handmade thank-you card and many hugs. The teenage members of the team, who had spent a lot of time playing marbles (a favorite pastime) and other games with the boys, had grown attached to the youngsters and didn’t want to leave them.
We all came home with a sense of how privileged we are compared to most of the world, and a desire to share what we have with others, as we are called to do.
I will remember the beauty of Honduras' mountains, and her people.