Monday, June 27, 2011


Church as it was at time of first visit, 1998--parish postcard picture

Each time I’ve gone to Chiapas, parishioners at our Port Huron Catholic churches, and the Physician Health Care Network clinic staff where I’d worked, have contributed generously in prayers, medicines and money to our travels.  After ten years of our keeping connected, and the efforts of many working for peace, especially the catechists and believers of San Mateo parish, the violent threats have diminished considerably in this part of Chiapas.  The internal checkpoints that tried to restrict outside support, have been removed, and only one much smaller military post of the three in Tila remains.  Though only a few church workers were killed in the bad times, a bus caravan with Bishop Ruiz, Bishop Raul Vera, Padre Heriberto, and many catechists was ambushed—the bus pumped full of 150 bullets.

Counties in Chiapas that had Catholic chapels & churches attacked, or closed by local authorities in the period before April, 1998.
Miraculously no one was mortally wounded.  Many parishioners were imprisoned.  Now the violence has subsided.  Persistent work for justice, persistent prayer by many, persistent preaching and hearing confessions by Padre Heriberto and the committed clergy of the area—these have made the difference.  They believe in the power of confession.  The military employed locals to fight as paramilitaries, creating divisions Protestant and Catholic, even dividing Catholics within parishes and families against each other—lured by monthly payments in a land of poverty.  To reconcile these wounds the priests ask the perpetrators to come to confess their sin, make some reparation, and come back into community as brothers and sisters.  And the people are doing this.  Step by step, one by one. 
La salud no debe ser un lujo.  Health ought not to be a luxury.  Poster by Medicos del Mundo
When our mission group pulled into the village of Jolja, Rogelio’s whole extended family turned out to welcome us.  Plans were quickly made to have an impromptu clinic after lunch, and we were served tortillas and beans made fresh from crops grown in the community, cooked over the open fire without chimney in their kitchen hut, with chickens roaming freely under table to scavenge what they could from the packed clay floor. Hospitality was abundant and tangible.  Andrea and our young people were taken up the mountain to their fields, harvesting a couple of items by machete.  Bridget, Cassie, and D.J. are single, starting careers and finishing school.  Jolja young folk, also in teens and twenties, were well into supporting families, babies at their breast, and machetes at their side.   They were obviously proud of their land, their families, and their language--Chol.  They were greatly amused at our trying to pronounce basic Chol vocabulary, and kept provoking us with new words to attempt. 
"Chol" means "people of corn" -- deep roots of Mayan culture.  Image is framed picture in parish office area.

A Zapatista sympathetic community, they had known hardship, but were committed to preserving the beauty of their way of life.  Improvements were coming slowly, and with bad mistakes, as the government cut a new road through their area.  The trip to Tila now took only over an hour, where it had been many hours.  But the resultant drainage problems made horrible ruts and sludge pools in their hillsides. 

Challenged as to how fast everyone could make it up some of the steep slopes, most of our group had trouble keeping up with the Jolja children, yet D.J. [perhaps from years scrambling on hockey rinks up north] distinguished himself by keeping up with the young men.  For this he was re-christened, Comandante Ti Che [D.J., Chol pronunciation].  The clinic which we thought would only be for part of the afternoon, stretched well into the evening.  The people kept coming, so we opened up the door of our improvised care center, which was Rogelio’s parents simple sleeping space/living room, to more patients for half the following day.  The family had moved out to stay with others, so we could sleep there, that night in between.  With Rogelio his Dad translating, and Andrea who’s a nurse helping at times, we saw some 60 patients.  Many had routine complaints that could be addressed by advice, and some basic medicines we distributed.  Three children had chronic debilitating illness.  We emphasized with the patients’ families the important task of pursuing public health assistance.  Their names were referred back to our church clinic in Tila doctor, so hopefully they can make connection with ongoing health care.  It is too easy for people to fall between the cracks in these mountainous remote areas. 
Waiting outside improvised cinderblock home clinic in Jolja

When we returned to Tila, quickly and gladly we were re-directed to another rural community in the opposite direction down the mountains towards Tabasco, to pray with those who’ve re-opened their church, after years of it having been boarded up by the local government.

The village of Nuevo Limar had been a bad place to be a Catholic.  The 16 year old health promoter that I’d worked with ten years ago at the Tila clinic, was a refugee from this community who, at ten, had been beaten mercilessly by his Nuevo Limar public school teacher--for being a Catholic of the San Cristobal diocese. Returning this year with our small group of young people, we visited Jose now 26, and the father of two children, who now operates a medical clinic openly out of his own home.  We attended a prayer service presided over by his father, at the Catholic chapel which has re-opened in his village.  At the same time Padre BaldemarChol community, said mass in a neighboring town. This is happening in the same Zona Baja region of the diocese, so hostile that paramilitaries there {they go by the misnomer, Paz y Justicia} had ambushed the bishops’ & catechists’ caravan when they attempted to bring the celebration of mass nine years ago.
Jose Inez on left had been my translator 10 yrs ago- now has his own clinic in Nuevo Limar

The transformation has been remarkable.  Free to practice their religion publicly in this area, there was participation from all assembled [not as many as usual because some had gone over to the next town for Padre Baldemar’s mass].  Many young people did attend, and the scripture readings, homily discussion, and music were their responsibility, and done well.  Bridget worked hard to tune an infrequently played violin, Andrea played guitar, and with an enthusiastic youth choir, they all together made a joyful sound. 

                                                                          eturning again to Tila, we arranged the next day for Cassie, who is a teacher in Chicago’s school system, to visit fifth grade classes in a Tila neighborhood school.  Don Ramon was our contact person.  I’d known him as one of the few active Catholics who’d been able to persist as a teacher in Tila’s public schools, very prejudiced against San Mateo parish.  He was now the principal of this public school – a tribute to his dedication in the cause of faith and education.  The children and staff welcomed Cassie, who could take in just a little of their lesson content with her beginning Spanish.  But she was impressed with their behavior, and they with her tall basketball & soccer skills.  Earlier that morning we’d all helped served these kids at a San Mateo daily breakfast program up a long cliff-side staircase from the grade school.

I learned later from my daughter Bridget, that she’d been offended by the commercialization of the feast day of Corpus Christi in Tila.  There were wall-to-wall booths filling all city streets, selling CD’s, candles, an assortment of religious objects to fit all pocketbooks, as well as everything you’d find at a county fair market day, engulfing the whole town and overwhelming the parish at its center.   There was even an electric light trimmed Ferris wheel jammed into the municipal plaza across the street from the church. 

The pastor Padre Heriberto was more directly affronted, I told her.  At a major afternoon mass he preached against those in the town who, most of the year, called the Sanctuary Nuestro Senor de Tila, and the faith of its people, a sham, a fairy tale.  Now those same local critics had become merchants-- selling religious articles, food and lodging to the pilgrims—and praising the miraculous blessings to be received.  The words of his homily challenged the hypocrisy--boomed out from the church loudspeakers, through the stalls in the streets into market, restaurant, and rooming house for all ears to hear.  It was a moment that profiled pastoral prophetic courage, especially with the history of town government hostility towards the parish community.  I wished that our young adult companions had been able to appreciate the Spanish clarity of the message.   In translation, I informed them that concern for a simple true faith, not to be cashed in on, was the unmistakable message from the pulpit.
Then, after a week in Tila, we were sailing down the mountain roads again, four hours starting in the dark mists of pre-dawn, under the guidance of the fast stop & go parish chauffeur towards Villahermosa, Tabasco and our airplane home.  This time I rode in the back bed of the large pickup, open to the “cloudforest” elements.  [Parts of this tropical/temperate high altitude area are an international nature reserve.] On the way up late at night, D.J. had been the open-air rider of these speedy switchback roads.  One had to keep well down on the foam mats provided, to stay stable and to ward off chill from the high altitude breeze, a little cold even in this state at the southernmost border of Mexico, in June.

Two flights later, having regained U.S. soil at the airport hub in Atlanta, where we were subjected to an astonishing run-with-your-bags helter skelter customs process, we rested in a not-so-fast food restaurant, and briefly reviewed our time in Tila.  Bridget, Cassie and D.J. concluded they’d been overwhelmed by crowds & language, sometimes bored, at times over-regulated by yours truly, and wished they’d been capable of acting on their own more independently.  Yet they were glad to have taken this first step, gone to meet these people in this far away land, especially those befriended in the community of Jolja, and learned something of their way of life.  Andrea and I were gratified we’d been able to help this happen, and hope that more connections like this, between first and third world young adults, can be arranged in the future--to nurture a faith that transcends borders, and trust in God who calls us all to be peacemakers.  At the recommendation of Padre Heriberto, and by our own good intuition, this won’t again be during the busy days of Corpus Christi celebrations.

                    Prayer to Our Lord of Tila

           Christ crucified, Lord of Tila,

          In this blessed image, made new 300 years ago, you have shown to all those who come confidently to You, the merciful love of God the Father.

          We give You thanks, and through You we give glory to the Heavenly Father, for all wondrous deeds realized and benefits received.

          You who said, “Come to me all you who are tired and overburdened, and I will give you rest,” look upon us with kindness.  As you already know our sufferings, and have invited us to ask confidently in your name for what we need, I ask you to hear me and grant my supplication…..{here add your petition}.

          As you allow me only what is for my good, enlighten me to discover and know the benefits that your love has conferred on me, to understand sharing the anguish and sufferings of my brothers, and sisters, and all who work for your kingdom, struggling for truth, justice, and peace.

                                                          By Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera

Illumination by Kathy Brahney

Monday, June 20, 2011


Background on our history with Chiapas, from 2009 visit (first of two parts).
Tila in the mountain cloud cover--photo from bus on first visit 1998.  We could not enter the town due to military checkpoints.

           The crush of the crowds--pilgrims coming to make their yearly promises to Nuestro Senor de Tila--was exhausting parish staff.  Pastor Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera and assistants were stretched to the limit meeting the needs of throngs of visitors, as this Chiapas Mexico mountaintop city of 7000 swelled to more than 30,000.  Our mission group of five coming from Port Huron Michigan jumped in to lend a hand filling small bottles of olive oil that the faithful would use throughout the next year as a chrism of blessings back in their remote villages, and in the cities of the neighboring state of Tabasco.

Small part of the processions, from an earlier visit.

              After a couple of days of this, all holy oil had been distributed and our little team was trying to decide what to do next.  We certainly hadn’t made much of a dent in the whirlwind of responsibilities surrounding us.  Everybody else in the parish was so busy, and while I, who’ve worked 30 years as a Physician Assistant, was slated to help in the clinic, the rest of us didn’t have enough Spanish to hold many independent conversations.  We went to the celebration of mass, but it was physically very difficult to find any place to wedge into the packed church, and that with three to five masses per day.  So my wife Andrea, daughter Bridget, and two young adult friends Cassie and D.J. {sister & brother} decided to fill some down hours by playing a good old Michigan card game--euchre.

  When they asked for playing cards they were met with blank stares, and “no hay,” “there are none.”  So, not to be deterred, they found a deck at the local merchants—different Mexican numbers / markings, but they managed.  Though it was satisfying to them to have something social to do in the midst of this huge congregation of people speaking two foreign languages, Spanish and indigenous Chol, it made me nervous to see them around the table.  I knew it would be a provocation to the frenetic activity and goal directed temperament of our host Padre Heriberto.
At rural village, child in arms treated for severe chronic epilepsy, with medicine from Port Huron Hospital--Padre Heriberto at center.
  And as soon as the high feast day of Corpus Christi had passed, he cornered me alone at the kitchen table, and demanded, “It’s a question of purpose, what will be the purpose?”  I’d told him in the midst of the hectic first days of our trip, that I thought it most important that we spend time out in the more rural communities.  He was testing that idea, and my response was-- a clinic that I’d hold for a couple of days bringing some medicines, and for my companions, sharing for a short time the life close to the land, very distant from our own but respected.  He, having known me for ten years, accepted my closing argument—we are not tourists.  His closer was, “I can’t stand to see people playing cards.  Go.  Go.”  So the next day we crammed into a compact taxi with Rogelio, a lay parish assistant, who’d helped manage our holy oil efforts, to travel up the mountain roads to Jolja, guests of his family and community.  More on this journey later.

            This was the first time in six visits, during ten years of trips to Chiapas that I’d been in Tila for the celebration of Corpus Christi, June 11 this year, always on a Thursday.  Many masses a day, a novena of days, the church bursting with thousands of worshipers and lines encircling the inside walls of the parish enclosure many times, and people standing moving slowly along night and day.  This movement was accompanied by an almost constant powerful broadcast of mariachi music, hymns, preaching, and praying, from the church loud speakers out across the town.

            I’d been in big crowds for the parish feast day of Nuestro Senor de Tila on January 15th before, but this Corpus Christi was flooding the town with people.    An inundation starting nine days before, reaching high water at the Thursday procession and vigil mass and slowly ebbing an octave of days later.  Six priests, including the visiting Archbishop Arizmendi at the zenith, were busy many hours straight hearing the people’s confessions.  A never ending stream of pilgrims passed up long stairs behind and above the altar inside the church, to touch the legs of the miraculous crucifix—an ebony black Jesus with dreadlock hair.

            These lines circling the hilltop sanctuary leading to Jesus—with their promised prayer requests honored to last a year—have been treading their determined holy pace for 300 years.  The sanctuary’s fame began with a sadly neglected church crucifix at Tila made miraculously new, overnight, in 1693.  Healings increased the faith attributed to Nuestro Senor de Tila.  Faith and courage sustained the indigenous Chol communities in this area through centuries of exploitation by large landowners.  The title of their land was taken by outsiders who then made the Chol people work as servants and peasants on what had been their own.
            But their belief in their own dignity and way of life continued, nourished by a faith in Jesus united with ancient Mayan tradition.    The church was under siege in the state of Tabasco, as in other regions of Mexico.  To be a Catholic then was to face prison and death.
Novel based on events of that time
            The church had not always been the friend of the poor indigenous in early colonial days, but it again offered support—the preferential option for the poor—when there was much aggression against them in all of Central America from the 1960’s on.  The Latin American bishops met in Medellin proclaiming words of hope.  Chiapas and the diocese of San Cristobal became [with Bishop Samuel Ruiz’ presence] a major center of relief and welcome for refugees from the violence, much of it spilling over the border from civil war in Guatemala.  Many courageous priests and nuns went out into remote areas to accompany and minister to the needs of the people.  One of these was, and still remains, Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz:  November 3, 1924 -- January 24, 2011
            Together with the local communities they started coffee cooperatives [before the term fair-trade coffee was coined] to try to win a more just share of earnings for the peasant workers.  When the Zapatistas rose up in rebellion January 1, 2004 on the day of enactment against unfair aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would take the little communal land they had left, the diocese of San Cristobal called for justice, indigenous rights, and a negotiated settlement.  Again the repression was cruel.  One half of the Mexican army was sent to be garrisoned in this one of 29 Mexican states.  Troops were stationed in small villages across Chiapas.  The town of Tila, population 7000, merited three military encampments—two out on the main road at either entrance to the city, and one taking up the courthouse plaza, stationed directly across from the church’s front doors. 
Family at clinic--with cards giving pertinent Chol-Spanish translations taped to wall.

When I first went to work in the small church clinic, El Dispensario Chol, for three weeks in January 1999, San Mateo’s staff didn’t want me going outside the church area’s gates for fear I’d walk into the arms of the soldiers, and be arrested.  Their town was in a restricted area in Chiapas since the Zapatista rebellion, those three weeks in January 1994, when 40 towns had been taken over by the peasant revolutionaries, who then receded back into the countryside, with the onslaught of a massive military presence.  In an unfortunate and unpublicized way, the U.S. made the Mexican military response over the ensuing years more brutal, providing 70 helicopter gunships and special-forces tactical training.

In another part of Chiapas near San Cristobal, diocesan center, troops and village women struggle for the land they live on.  1998 photo by Pedro Valtierra
  I first came to know of Tila in the mountains of the Zona Norte, when our Michigan Peace Team had traveled with the buses from the Chol region in a caravan of 29 buses from Chiapas, on pilgrimage to the shrine of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City 500 miles away, and back.  The year was 1998.  In another part of the diocese, Totzil indigenous Catholic men, women and children had been massacred by government supported paramilitaries.  There was some threat of further violence so our MPT group of four accompanied them on their journey of prayer and supplication.  We stopped in all the large cities on the way to the Basilica of La Virgen.

here were chants of “No estan solos,” [You are not alone] greeting the indigenous pilgrims, masses celebrated open air and late into the night, with cries of lamentation, and songs in many tongues at once.  It was uplifting and tragic.  Padre Heriberto was in charge of our bus.  We weathered some misunderstandings together.  Our group met the people of Tila on a long and bumpy bus ride.  The army and its restrictions on foreigners made it impossible for us to cross down into Tila when we pulled up outside of town accompanying them back deep into Chiapas, so we said our goodbyes on the perimeter road near the garrison’s barbed wire.

  With time and the invitation of the parish of San Mateo [the only parish for the whole municipio=county, of Tila], we penetrated the garrisoned barriers.  Fr. Peter Dougherty and Fr. Fred Thelan have returned to say mass in mountain communities where a priest only comes once a year if that.  Fr. Fred established an ongoing sister parish relationship between his Lansing, Michigan Cristo Rey parish and San Mateo.  I have worked in their clinics five different times since.
Part two to follow next week.

Illumination by Kathy Brahney

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Pentecost, June 12, 2011
Today an announcement.

Once again this July 12 to 20th our faith community in Port Huron makes the connection with Tila, Chiapas, Mexico.  Since 1998 this will be the seventh trip up to this mountain Cloudforest area of indigenous Chol people and their parish church San Mateo which stretches from its center in the town of 7000,Tila, out into numerous remote villages, many reachable only by footpath.

An effort is being made this time to establish a week-long Spanish course to give focus to our outside visitors as they learn of these people’s way of life.   They are bi-lingual speaking from Chol to Spanish, and we can interface with better Spanish from English.   A teacher and coach from the Port Huron area, George Moger will help start this project.  We hope that others will follow, including seminary students from the Detroit diocese who would become involved in the pastoral ministry of the San Mateo team, learning from their faith, distant culturally and financially from ours, yet deeply interconnected.  I will spend time in the parish clinic, Dispensario Chol, and we hope to hold medical clinics in villages also, as before.
San Mateo parish team & vistors from Port Huron, June 2010, Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera at center.

Padre Heriberto Cruz Vera, pastor of San Mateo parish, has been celebrant for these faith communities for 20 years now.  They have encountered many problems of poverty, land grabs, injustice and violence.  But they have established medical clinics, coffee cooperatives, and built neighborhood chapels.  Paths of reconciliation and justice continue to emerge from their struggles.  The traditions and beliefs that sustain them, come from their Catholic faith, cultural roots deep from their Mayan ancestry, the miraculous crucifix of Nuestro Senor de Tila in its sanctuary of yearly pilgrimages, and their village life, moving with the seasons of the year, guided by well-prepared catechists.
Rogelio of Jolja with his village and small chapel/community center in valley below [he's also seen in above photo on far left]

May the Lord bless us from Port Huron to Tila with a good trip, and an increase in understanding of God’s plan for both rich and poor.   Please keep us all in your prayers, and consider any contribution you might make, and perhaps making such a journey in the future.  Si Dios quiere—Lord willing.

Pentecost by El Greco

Monday, June 6, 2011


3-17-2011---Kamisu Wind Farm 300 km from earthquake epicenter-- photo by Wind Power Ibaraki

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, with multiple meltdowns and radiation releases, there is little mention of the resilience of Japanese wind power. A major installation at Kamisu is on the same coast as the reactors, but withstood earthquake and tsunami with no apparent damage. According to an official of the Japan Wind Power Association, “...there has been no wind facility damage reported by any association members, from either the earthquake or the tsunami. Even the Kamisu semi-offshore wind farm, located about 300km from the epicenter of the quake, survived. Its anti-earthquake "battle proof design" came through with flying colors.” 1
The failsafes designed for General Electric’s Fukushima reactors failed. This was anticipated by some; at least four GE engineers had quit over their reactor vessel safety concerns [see references below]. GE did some retrofitting—but still lost tragically in its bid to “bring good things to light.” There are 23 nuclear power plants with these defects now operating in the United States. 2

Wind power has its problems, but miniscule compared with nuclear, and in Japan total wind power provides 1/2 of of the 4600 megawatts that Fukushima had been able to produce. Still that's only 5% of Japan's total megawatts from nuclear, so much more alternative power will be needed if they decide to eliminate nuclear plants altogether. Post disaster the Japanese government asked wind power companies to quickly come back on, as transmission lines were reestablished, to help mitigate the nuclear facilities disaster. 3-17-2011—Kagoshima Wind Farm in Japan—photo by Rjzii

Truly renewable environmentally friendly energy is the world’s ongoing quest. Part of the answer, is blowin’ in the wind. The U.S. has much to contribute to the green effort, if it can renounce its oil resource dependency wars. Our great lake and rivers St. Clair County can help in this conversion--one that technologically and spiritually befriends the earth. We are all called to be caretakers in God’s creation.

photo from St. Luke's Church, Diocese of York England webpage



Good resources on Fukusima nuclear disaster.

Best technical description---U of T, Anatomy of a (partial) meltdown- Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power

U.S. Was Warned on Vents Before Failure at Japan’s Plant

Fukushima Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist To Quit In Protest - ABC News