Friday, September 15, 2017

Reflections of Mission Trip to El Salvador

We are heading back to Los Angeles as I start to write this reflection on our trip to El Salvador as a delegation from the Catholic Missionary group known as Maryknoll. We are not part of Maryknoll, but they were the ones who sponsored the trip. It might be a bit early to start unpacking this trip, but I want to get some of my initial feelings down and then expand on those later.

This was our first trip to El Salvador, the smallest of all the countries in Central America and probably the one most dependent on the American Dollar, since they use the dollar as their currency. The only other country that we have traveled in that does that is Zimbabwe in Africa. We have a connection to El Salvador in that our daughter in law is from here, and we used this opportunity to arrive ahead of our mission group and rent a car to drive to her home town in order to meet her Mom and brother.

As we arrived in the country, my first impression was that it was so green and tropical (which of course I thought it would be) but it seemed to be a deeper green than what I have encountered in other tropical locations I have visited, such as Cancun or Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was almost like the trees and vegetation wanted to cover the wounds that have been inflicted on this area since the time of the Conquistadores. For indeed this country has a very painful history, a history that many do not want to remember, nor do they want to dialogue about in order to change for the better, to heal the more recent wounds of El Salvador that occurred during the 1930’s and then again in the 1960’s through the 1990’s when so many innocent people were killed, in order for a few to remain in power. The history of El Salvador is a history of oppression and repression of the human spirit in order for the elite to keep their lifestyle on the back of the indígenas through a slave labor type of economy.

We had an opportunity to meet and get to know our daughter-in-law’s mother and other brother. We rented a car to drive the two and half hour drive to La Unión near the Honduran border. We ate lunch at a seaside restaurant and had a wonderful time. Our daughter-in-law has a very nice family. One of the things that I have noticed in our travels is that whatever country we have been in, they all share the same treasure, that is, their people; not their governments, not their political parties, not their religious affiliation, but their people.

We were privileged to have met and talked with many of the treasures of El Salvador. One such person, named Marbel, was on our home visitation list. We arrived at her home (government housing for the poor, what we call “the projects” here in the states), and we were warmly greeted. Her wonderful smile belied the fact that she has breast cancer and because of the lack of proper medical care, probably won’t be here this time next year. She was incredibly upbeat about her life, very proud of her family and how they had survived all the hardship that had befallen her country in the last few decades. Here was a woman who understood that faith is what sustains us, faith that keeps us from falling into depression, faith that ultimately saves us. Her testimony was very humbling to my whole view on life. We went there to visit and to pray for and over her, for her healing and to impart God’s blessings for her and her family. What happened was that I was so moved, that after we prayed, I asked her for a blessing for me. She looked at me like she didn’t understand the petition. I speak Spanish, so I knew she heard what I had said, she couldn’t comprehend that someone, a complete stranger, would ask her to bless them. So I rephrased the petition by asking her to bless me as a mother would bless her son. I could see her eyes start to get that moisture that one gets before the tears start to flow and she gladly fulfilled my request. It was at that moment, receiving a blessing from one of the poorest of the poor, that I realized that Monseñor Oscar Romero is still alive, indeed has Risen in the Salvadoran people, just as he said he would.

One cannot travel to El Salvador without being reminded of the civil conflict that had happened here. How does a government named their International Airport after a Bishop that was killed by a paramilitary sniper because he was a thorn in the government’s side? Archbishop Oscar Romero is a national hero, the people’s hero, and even though the government eventually won a peace accord with the FMLN (who are now part of the government as a political party), they were wise to not forget from whom the people drew their inspiration from.

There were so many stories of inspiration that came about from the Church during this difficult and troubled times. Unfortunately, too many of those stories are stories of martyrdom, being killed because of preaching, or in some cases, just living the Gospel message of Liberation that is found in Christ. We visited the wall of remembrance in San Salvador, where there are 30,000 names of those innocents who were killed during the conflict, and the one plaque that was for the unknowns who were killed and could not be identified. The memorial may not “look” as impressive as the memorials that we have here in the US, but it makes as much or more of an impression on the soul when one considers that these were unarmed, civilian non-combatants who were killed. Every government has some type of genocide in their history, this was El Salvador’s, and hopefully with this memorial, they will not repeat it again.

We also visited the memorial for the four US women who were kidnapped, raped and murdered in December of 1980, the same year when a snipers bullet took the life of Oscar Romero. Three of the women were religious sisters, two from the Maryknoll order, the other was an Ursuline Sister, the forth was a lay missionary with Maryknoll named Jean Donovan. The short documentary, Roses in December, reminds us that following the commands of Jesus just might cost us everything, but Jesus himself said, “If you lose your life for my sake, you will find it”. Six Jesuit priests would find their lives nine years later on the night of November 16, 1989, along with a housekeeper and her 15 year old daughter (because the soldiers were given orders to leave no witnesses in order to blame the FMLN).

But the civil war in El Salvador is not just a story of killing and of martyrdom, but of redemption and salvation too. I was given permission to share this story with the caveat of keeping the identity secret for fear of possible reprisal (there is still some persecution by those who carry a grudge). As a youth, Rafael (not his real name) experienced the war first hand. He was at the funeral of Monseñor Romero when the bombs went off and the snipers started firing from the top of the government building. I stood on the spot where many had been shot and the phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” describes perfectly the clean lines with which the snipers had in order to take advantage of the situation (100,000 people packed the plaza and the Church where the funeral was taking place). Rafael was also present at the massacre at the Church of the Rosary, where twenty one are buried inside the church, those killed by the violence that was tearing the country apart. There came a point in Rafael’s life where he had to make a decision; he saw what was happening in his country and did not like it one bit, but he did not want to take up arms against his countrymen. He confided that the “guerrillas” made it impossible to refuse their offer, so he joined. He says he hated America and Americans for their involvement and support of the Salvadoran government to be able to kill so many innocent people at will. But Rafael developed a medical condition so severe, that it needed to be attended to in America, so he was able to get an emergency visa to the US in order to be treated, and cured of his condition. It was during his life in the States where he met and married another immigrant from a different country and they began their life together. There is something about hate that tends to fester in the soul for so long, and it takes the surgeon’s scalpel to extract it. The surgeon, of course, is Jesus the Great Physician, and he was able to remove that cancer from Rafael’s soul. Rafael went on to become an ordained Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church in the US and I was honored to see his homecoming when he served as a deacon in a Mass in San Salvador for the first time in his life. This was redemption for Rafael, who never thought he would ever be able to come home and serve as a deacon, to share the love of Christ with his people and to be blessed by those with whom he visited. It was an honor and blessing for me to be able to pray, and weep with this brother. When we visited the Church of the Rosary, where the 21 innocents are buried, he was knelt in prayer at the marker inside the church where they are buried and he was sobbing, he was deeply moved by his remembrance of the events that he had witnessed. I could do nothing but go, kneel with him, put my arm over his shoulders and weep with him (blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted). Rafael received some sanctifying healing in his soul that day, healing that has been decades in the making and I am humbled to have been able to be a part of it.

The economic reality in El Salvador is that there are those who have money, and have a lot of it, and there are those who have no money. There is no middle working class, those fortunate enough to have jobs are the working poor, those who do not have jobs are just poor. Granted, there are many expats living here in the US who send money back home to help out family members, but from my conversations with both the missionaries and Salvadorans, there are many who go to the US and just forget their families back home. In fact, they just start new families here, which compounds the problems that both families now have. I recall driving up to see the Volcano that is right outside of San Salvador and seeing million dollar homes, with the barbed wire on top of the high brick walls and the armed guards keeping constant watch over the property and the owners, right next to hovels made of corrugated sheets and plywood that are so flimsy, I was surprised they did not fall during the short thunderstorm that we had that day. That, above anything else, showed to me that extreme economic divide that is still connected in this small Central American country. This reminds me of what St. Basil the Great said back in the fourth century, “When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

This is just a part of my reflection of our trip to El Salvador. I will be unpacking the memories of this mission for many months and pondering the ramifications of it in my life for years to come. Not only through the marriage of our son to a wonderful daughter of El Salvador is my life now connected to this country, but I am connected by my personal experience with this land and her people. May God continue to pour out his mercy and blessing on the people of El Salvador, the true treasure of the land.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comparison of a Safari

My wife and I took a 16 day trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe last year and we had daily Safari drives while in South Africa (Zimbabwe was the Victoria Falls trip). We came up close and personal with many wild animals, usually within 10 feet of lionesses and their cubs feeding on a fresh kill, elephants grazing, leopards lounging on a tree branch or Rhinos looking to charge the jeep (of course I made the joke about how to keep a Rhino from take away his credit card).

Yesterday, we went to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, renamed as Safari Park, which I hadn't been to since our kids were young (perhaps more than 15 years ago). I always enjoyed going there or the San Diego Zoo or Sea World because of the interaction, as it were, that one has with the animals. however, our trip with our grandson was a bit different, the feeling of being close to these untamed beasts was not the same for me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they are in enclosed spaces with nearly 0% possibility of getting out, as compared to our trip to Africa where there was nearly 0% of survival had these animals gotten spooked by something as we were parked just feet from where they were with no protection at all except our guide carried a rifle and a sidearm, but our jeep was open with just a rollover cage for "safety".

To give the reader an idea of the differences, I offer two pictures. The first is of our adventure in Africa, the second of our adventure in San Diego.

As you can see, the photo on top, which I named "The Body Guards" is a bit more fear inducing than the picture below it, which was taken from the absolute safety of the Safari Tram. The first picture I took with my Olympus E-3 with a 45-150 zoom, the second, with my iPhone. We were so close to some of the animals, that I could not use my DSLR, but had to use the camera on my phone.

There is a certain adrenaline rush to being so close to danger, not that one should seek out danger without precautions, that would be foolish, but you get a sense of your place in the world when you understand the raw power of these animals and their instinct to defend themselves and theirs. I just don't get that same feeling when I go to a zoo. I hope that one day, our Grandson can experience the beauty and the power of animals in the wild. Until then, I guess it is trips to the Safari Park and the Zoo and let him imagine and dream.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent Homily: Second Sunday Year A. Dec. 4, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A Dec. 4, 2016.
          Advent is a time of preparation in anticipation of the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. When we read the readings in advent, they don’t seem to look forward to a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They seem to speak of the coming of a King, a Judge, of a kingdom that will have no end. What do the readings say to us today? For Scripture is a living word, speaking to our desires, problems and wishes and wants as much as it spoke to those same desires to the peoples it was originally written to.
          Isaiah preaches to the people of Judah and gives them hope, that message gives us hope today also. The tree of Jesse, the father of King David, had been cut down, meaning that the monarchy had been conquered. This was a truth that Judah knew too well, yet from that stump a shoot would sprout. This is not a new plant, because the roots are that of Jesse, but it is a renewing of the kingdom promise by god to his people. There are 7 gifts attributed to the messianic king: The Spirit of Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord. These 7 gifts are also given to us at Confirmation. We may not use these in the same way as a monarch would, but they are indispensable to living a life that is pleasing to God. And indeed, they help us in our daily journey towards God.
          So Isaiah shows us the Messianic King and what his kingdom will eventually look like, “In that Day”. It will be a kingdom of unsurpassable peace in the world. Even in the animal world, there will be peace among all. The image of the messianic king has been fulfilled in Jesus, but it is offered to us to use as a model after which we pattern our lives.
          Paul calls us all to live in harmony with one another, because there is no more division in the body of Christ, there is no more Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but all one body, one voice of Christ to the glory of God the Father. The invitation is given to us, we are expected to extend that invitation to others and to minister to them in their needs, whatever those needs may be. We need to see Jesus in others, because when we see Jesus in others, we treat them in the manner we would, or should treat Jesus. How do we prepare for the coming of our Lord? Do we do works that produce good fruit, like John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees to do in order to repent? Do we live a life free from presumption?, in other words, we don’t think that just because we have the name “Catholic”, that we have it made and can get in the kingdom just by wearing a title. The Pharisees thought that because they were children of Abraham, and that was enough. Many today think the same way; I am a good person, I haven’t killed anybody, I haven’t cheated on my spouse, etc… Yet, we have the attitude that being a Catholic is enough. It is not. We are called to a deeper understanding of our lives, we are called to a deeper conversion of heart and mind, called to a deeper service to others. Don’t get me wrong. This community of St. Frances of Rome does some incredible work in the communities of Lake Elsinore and Wildomar; from the daily soup kitchen and food pantry, to the Elsinore Valley Pregnancy Center where they help young women to choose life and give them direction and assistance beyond the birth of their child, to the ministries of visiting the sick and elderly in the hospitals and homes. In these, and in many other ministries, we show our love for our neighbor and for God. But we sometimes become complacent in our walk, so I urge you to reflect this Advent on your life, as I will reflect on mine too. How can I serve God in a new, different and better way through my life? I would like to share a story that was shared by a priest in Africa on this same Liturgical Sunday a few years ago.

Many years ago, there lived a great and holy teacher called Rabbi Saadiah. He had hundreds of pupils, and all of them had a great thirst to learn. One winter morning, two of his pupils who happened to be walking in the mountains, while approaching its summit, saw to their great surprise, their master sitting on the snow covered ground, weeping, praying and engaging in other acts of penitence. This beat their imagination and they wondered: “What could such a perfectly righteous person as their teacher possibly need to repent of? Could he have committed some sins, God forbid? They hurriedly departed from that place. Later that day, they asked their teacher what the scene they witnessed was all about. “I do that every day,” he said to them. “Every day I repent and plead with God to forgive my shortcomings and failings in my service of Him.” “Of what failings do you speak?” They asked him. Then the Rabbi told them this story: “One day an old inn keeper received and served me so well without realizing who I was. When I left the next morning someone told him: ‘That was Rabbi Saadiah.’ Immediately, he came after and in search of me. When he caught up with me, he jumped from his carriage and fell at my feet, weeping: ‘Please forgive me! Please forgive me!! I did not know that it was you!’ I made him stand up, and then said to him: But my dear friend, you treated me very well, you were very kind and hospitable. Why are you so sorry? You have nothing to apologize for. ‘No, no, Rabbi,’ he replied. ‘If I had known you were the one, I would have served you in a completely different manner!’ Suddenly I realized that this man was teaching me a very important lesson in the service of God. I thanked and blessed him, and returned home.” “Since then” the Rabbi concluded, “every evening when I say the prayer before sleeping, I go over in my mind how I served God that day. Then I think of that old innkeeper, and say to myself, Oh! If I had known about God in the beginning of the day the way I know him now, I would have served Him in a completely different manner! And that is what I was repenting for this morning.” This is what we must do every day this season of Advent and beyond. Nothing must be taken for granted if we must be ready to welcome Jesus when he comes.

Stephanie's Story: Part 3

It's been a while since I shared about the young lady from El Salvador who came undocumented into the United States seeking refuge from violence in her country. In the last installment of this story, our son had started calling her and carrying on long conversations over the phone. They lived about 60 miles apart, he in Riverside County and she, in Los Angeles County. The love blossomed, they started courting and as young love often does, they decided to marry.

Usually, when one hears about an undocumented immigrant marries a citizen of this country, there is a credibility issue. Accusations of "convenience" is bantered about because of the history in this country of such things actually happening. This was not the case with Stephanie, that I can guarantee.

They married in Vegas (civilly) and then married in the Catholic Church in December of last year. I am happy to say they became pregnant a month or so after their marriage in Vegas and as of May of 2016, we are proud grandparents.

We are now closing in on their first anniversary of being married in the Church and our grandson is 6 months old and a joy to take care of. He makes us laugh with his antics and facial expressions, and I believe he will run before he is able to crawl.

Stephanie's story is far from over, in reality, it is just beginning. She has permission to be here, US government issued ID and such, but her objective is Resident Alien then perhaps US citizen. Pray for her as she, Raymond and Christopher travel this incredible journey of love and family together.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reflections on our trip to South Africa

 Our Trip to South Africa:
Last year, my wife and I attended an end of year fundraiser for the Catholic School that our niece attends in Temecula, California. And as fundraisers go, they had both silent and active auctions. Many of the items up for bid were the usual fare; golf outings, weekends at the beach or the local mountains, season seats at the Catholic School’s theater (where they have impressive performances) and other items that were given by local residents and businesses. However, one item caught our attention: An all expense week at a game Reserve in South Africa. We have never been to Africa, and thought this would be a great “bucket list” item to do, so we placed our bid, and we had counter bids, we countered those bids until we were the last couple standing. The group that provided the trip mentioned that they could do one more trip for the same price, so my brother in law said he would take it.

Now this trip was one week, expenses paid, at Zulu Nyala game Reserve in northeast South Africa. We would, however, have to pay for our airfare to and from Africa (almost as much as we spent for the week). My brother-in-law, who is probably the most traveled in our family, mentioned that it seems silly to travel 2 days to and 2 days back just to spend 6 days at one place, so he suggested we add to our excursion and expand both the time we are in Africa and the places we see. To this, we agreed. We added a trip to another reserve and to Victoria Falls, in neighboring Zimbabwe. As I write this, we are all in a plane heading to Johannesburg from our connecting flight in Frankfurt, Germany.

Our flight from Los Angeles started out as a normal day at LAX, my wife and I arrived a few hours before boarding and got our boarding passes and passed through TSA rather quickly (a total of about 40 minutes from the time we got in line to get our boarding passes to the time we actually passed through security clearance. My brother-in-law was not so lucky. They arrived after we did, and during their check in, the attendant seems a bit nervous, and gave them their boarding passes, but failed to give them their baggage claim tickets (a fact that my brother-in-law just now realized on our flight from Germany!). TSA decided to do a “random” check on not one, not two, but all three of his family (they brought along their daughter for the adventure). They were subjected to a full revision of their clothes, their bodies, they were interrogated beyond one would consider “normal”. Remember that I said he is the most traveled of our family? Well, a few years ago, they were in India and purchased a root, like a ginger root, or what call in Mexico “uña de gato” that is used in herbal/homemade remedies and they were told, by the person selling it that it was OK to take back to the US. It was not OK to bring back to the US, and it was confiscated by customs agents. So now, we don’t know if the US Government has listed them as potential smugglers, or other Travelers to “watch”. All I know is that when they do a random check, they usually pick one person out of a line (usually a 5 year old child who doesn’t know what’s going on and gets frightened because he’s traveling with grandma and is suddenly taken away from her), they normally don’t take an entire family out of line.

The flight from LAX left at 7:30 pm., and I basically did what I normally do on a weekday evening, watch a couple of movies, eat a dinner of pasta that I end up dropping on my white shirt, and falling asleep past midnight (this is nothing like what I do on a weekday evening, I’m usually in bed by 10). We arrive at Frankfurt at 3 in the afternoon) local time) the next day, 6 in the morning on the West Coast. Our flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg will take about the same time as our flight from LAX to Frankfurt did, but they are in the same time zone, so we won’t be affected as much from Jet Lag, just affected from trying to sleep in crowded conditions in an airplane (although our flight from Frankfurt is not even half full, Martha and I have a row of four seats to ourselves). It is time to relax and try to get some sleep, it looks to be a full day tomorrow. Arrive at Johannesburg at 6, connect with the smaller “puddle jumper” airlines (think WINGS from T.V.) and to our primary destination at Zulu Nyala, where we hope to see the big 5 and not get eaten by any of them.

I have done my share of traveling in my lifetime. I have traveled more than I ever thought I would as a kid growing up in a middle class family in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I love to travel and see new places, experience new foods, cultures, languages and people, and I usually fly really well. When I say that I fly well,  I mean that it doesn’t bother me to be in a pressurized cylinder at 40,000 feet going at speeds up to 600 mph. I learned to fly airplanes when I was in college,  not the jets mind you, but small single engine planes… the concept is the same. So when I board a jet,  I usually get comfortable I my seat and if the flight is three hours or less,  I am asleep by the time the plane reaches altitude to the time it touches down at our destination. On longer flights, like the one I am on now, the process is a little different. There’s food involved, and I never sleep through a meal (my growing belt line will tell you that), there is also usually a movie or two (on our flight from LA to Frankfurt, Lufthansa had personal monitors at every seat and a large variety of entertainment available) so there is more to distract oneself on longer flights, but I still manage to get a few hours of sleep. Tonight’s flight to Johannesburg is different; I have struggled to fall asleep and I don’t know why. There is another two hours a left in this flight and sleep has avoided me. It seems that I’m the only one awake, well, me and a three year old child who is playing on an iPad with her father. So here I sit, typing away my thoughts while listening to Third Day, Don Francisco, Tigres del Norte and other artists on my Playlist.

On this particular flight, however, I have done something I have never done before: I have crossed into the Southern Hemisphere of our planet. I have been in the eastern and of course I live in the western hemisphere, but I have never been South of the Equator. God has been good to us in giving us the ability and opportunity to travel, and I hope to be able to share his love wherever I find myself, this of course, is our mission as followers of Jesus Christ. As Catholic clergy, we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which are the prayers of the Church for the world. As a Deacon, I pray the morning and evening prayers out of all the Hours we pray as a church; Invitatory, Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midmorning Prayers, Afternoon Prayers, Midafternoon Prayers, Evening Prayer and Night Prayers. We Catholics pray. A lot. Most of us now, rely on our phones or tablets in order to pray the hours (like they say, there’s an app for that) and the app I use is Divine Office (there are many others available), but the problem with relying on you phone or tablet when you’re traveling is the lack of Internet connection to be able to download the prayers.  Divine Office will download three days at a time if you set it up in the settings (I have) but I didn’t have Internet connection in my flights and it didn’t download the next three days while we were in Frankfurt, so here I sit without my Office to pray: Lesson learned: take your book with you when you travel. Another lesson learned: check your phone,  I had today and tomorrow’s Hours on my phone.

We arrived at our destination about 5 in the afternoon, got checked in and was able to shower and shave (that felt really good). We are sitting outside the office, since this is where the Internet connection is, listening to the water running in the fountain. We have already seen crocodiles and bats, and hope to see many more animals tomorrow on our guided outing starting at 6 in the morning.  

This morning found us taking a two hours game drive. We saw a lot, I mean A LOT of warthogs,  wildebeests and impalas, and even a few elephants, a number of giraffes and one cheetah. The cheetah was very accommodating for us in that she turned her head this way and that, got up moved around so we could get different angles of shots, even climbed up into a tree to make some more interesting shots. At the end of the drive,  we had breakfast and I was reviewing my camera and surprised myself that I took over 200 pictures, not all will make it onto the album, but a few might get enlarged and framed. The pace of life here is slow, it should be, since we are in the back country of South Africa. There are a number of workers toiling away in the main reception office, looks like they are perhaps remodeling for some type of curio shop. The Zulu people here are known for their bead workings, our guide told us that the wood carvers are farther North. He also explained that they are in the worst drought to hit SA in more than 35 years. One would not know it by the amount of green that is still here. When drought hits in Southern California, everything turns brown, but then again, everything is brown in SoCal during the summer months. Here in SA it is winter, but they get their rains in their summer months. The weather is cooler than I expected, we may go into town to buy a jacket since we only brought light sweaters. The daytime temps are very pleasing, I am writing this in the shade of some trees in the outdoor garden area, there is a slight breeze and the sound of the running water in the fountain would almost be enough to lull one to sleep if it weren’t for the constant pounding of hammers on concrete in the office they are working on.

In Africa, there are what is called the big five; these are the animals which hunters have said are the most difficult to hunt on foot and are the most dangerous, calling them the big five has nothing to do with their size. They are, in no order of importance, the lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo and rhino. I asked our guide, why is it that the water buffalo are considered in the big five? I mean, to me, they look like domesticated cows with horns, Texas Longhorns look more ferocious than a water buffalo. But our guides response was that the water buffalo are the most difficult to hunt down, and they would kill you without giving it a second thought (to which my mind went into overdrive thinking, do any animals give a second thought to anything they do?) I also learned that the warthog is one of the most respected animals in the Savanah, even the lions give way to them. Seeing them more closely, and not relying on Disney for my image, the warthog reminds me of an Arkansas Razorback. We have seen three of the big five, tomorrow we look for the lion  and leopard to complete our search.

Today’s drive paid off. It was windy and cold, and the guides said we shouldn’t get our hopes up to seeing much of anything, yet we felt confident. Our hope was rewarded when we were able to see two lioness and her cubs. The lions had just finished eating a portion of a Nyala (close to an Impala) so the two were not so interested in us as they were interested in laying down to rest. Our guide got us thisclose to the lioness and cubs that I was a bit worried, along with the rest of the group as to how close we were. Honestly, had those cats decided we were a threat, we would have been on the lunch menu.

We came back to our game Lodge, and our guide, Mark, suggested that we meet at 3 this afternoon to see whether or not we will go out on an afternoon drive. When it is this windy and cold and starting to rain, the animals seek shelter and are not out in the open. To be honest,  I would appreciate an afternoon off in order to renew and refresh, collect my thoughts and to put my thoughts down on the tablet.

Sunday came, and we had a trip to St. Lucia scheduled. The estuary at St. Lucia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that it is protected by international rules because of its unique contribution to world culture and or significance to the environment. The riverboat captain told me that St. Lucia has been without water for a year and a half. Water is pumped in from a neighboring village and if the politics go against them, they are cut off. South Africa is going through a drought of 7 years. Being from Southern California, I understand drought. It was in the estuary where we got some of our most impressive pictures to date. I was able to catch a male Hippo in full yawn, head completely out of the water, mouth wide open, teeth showing, the whole nine yards. It is the shot of the vacation, so far. We returned in the afternoon, and being Sunday, we had wanted to go to Mass, but there is no Catholic Church in the area. There is a retreat house in St. Lucia, but we could not find it, so after dinner, we had a Liturgy of the Word (this is completely licit when you make a concerted effort or have a true desire to go to Mass, but for circumstances not under your control, you cannot go). We read the Mass readings for the day, reflected a bit on them within our small group, prayed intercessory prayer, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and left with the sign of peace and the dismissal.

Monday found us deciding not to go on the morning game drive. Martha slept in and I did some more photo editing on my tablet. (it was more of deleting double and triple pics and some blurry ones that were of animals moving too fast for the camera to catch with the settings I had on my camera). After lunch, we set out again with our guide and we’re not expecting to see anything new, or gnu if you’re in SA, but we found a group of baboons in a clearing. Now a group of baboons are called a Congress of baboons (draw your own conclusions). They were not very accommodating with the cameras because they started to move off as soon as we showed up. So on our last day in Zulu Nyala, we saw another first, baboons; and not one politician among them.

Tuesday is the start of our second leg of our trip. We left Zulu Nyala early in the morning to travel back to Johannesburg and transfer to a flight that will take us to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, another country, another stamp in our passport. We have a helicopter sightseeing ride scheduled and an elephant encounter. I do not know how our accommodations will be, but I think we are going back in time a bit with this trip. We shall see.

We landed in Zimbabwe about 1 in the afternoon, and after passing through immigration, our driver met us to take us to the resort. A resort is not what I would call this place. Let me set the scene: we drive down what our driver, Richman, says is the main road in Victoria Falls and turn off onto a dirt road. OK, so far, par for the course, we have been on dirt roads all week, no big deal, but the vegetation is different here, the climate too, is warmer, even if it is only an hour or so North from Johannesburg by jet. So we are driving down this dirt road, with a lot of dry plants and trees and a lot of dirt (it is winter here and not the rainy season so one would expect it to be somewhat dry). Then we get to the gate of the compound and drive through to the drop off for the guests. There is so much green around that I think I feel through the looking glass and now I am in the Wonderland. What a stark difference to what is on the outside of this place. We register and are shown around a bit, when we get to the bar/dinning room, I am literally taken aback. I cannot believe my eyes. This resort/paradise sits right at the edge of the Zambezi River Gorge, downstream from Victoria Falls, 600 feet above the river. The views are something to behold. The owners, Chris and Debbie, treat you like their own family, letting you know that you are at home. You feel at ease immediately when you hear how all the staff address you, talk with you and treat you. We rested for the rest of the day, walked around the compound a bit to get the feel of it and to take in the beautiful sights of the Gorge.

The next morning, we left early to go on an elephant adventure, an hour ride on the backs on these magnificent animals that God in his wisdom had created. Afterward, we headed toward the helipad to take a 15 minute flight over Victoria Falls. To see the Falls from the air is truly a sight to behold. To see this might river flowing and just drop off into a Gorge and then continue flowing down the gorge is a marvel. It is like someone cut into the earth and made a irrigation ditch for the water to flow through. I have been to Niagara Falls, and while impressive, they don’t stand up to the majesty of these falls.

We were heading out to the city to do some sightseeing and I happen to be wearing a shirt from the Bishop’s Golf Classic that is held each year for the support of our Seminary and Catholic Schools, when the woman at the reception desk asked if I was Catholic? I told her yes and she replied that she too is Catholic. I found out our driver, her son, is also Catholic, so we asked about how the Church is here in Zimbabwe. He took us to the church where he was baptized, St. Kizito, a martyr of the African Church (at least that is what I suspect since he is depicted as being engulfed in flames). So after some “shopping”, we went on a riverboat cruise on the Zambezi. The Zambezi is the natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the river was hosting a number of craft of all sizes and designs (one even looked like someone had stolen one of the riverboats from the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland). This was a Sundowner cruise and the name did not disappoint, we were not only treated to sightings of hippos, crocodiles and elephants (again), but we had the most splendid sunset on the river, hues of gold and blues, of the sun shining off the water in a band of gold reflected from the sun. So ended our short trip to Victoria Falls. We returned to the lodge, ate dinner, had conversation with some of the other guests and then to bed. In the morning, we had a visit to a local village, their school and their people.
The children in the school were very nice, asking questions about our country and we in turn, asked about Zimbabwe. We showed them pictures of our home when it had snowed. To someone who has never experienced snow, it is difficult to conceptualize. The children learn religion in their school. They learn their African religion, they learn Christianity (there is a Catholic Church across the street from the school, however the teacher who was showing us around is Pentecostal), they learn Judaism, Islam and Hindu. The posters on the wall are of the ten commandments and of Jesus and his Apostles, so there is no question of which religion they are teaching the most. This is a village school, supported by the government.

I remember when I was in elementary school, we had religion classes, but they were off campus and after school by the time I was in High School, there was a definable line between state and religion. We had a prayer group that met at lunchtime and although it was led by the students, we had a custodian join us from time to time….until the Administration said he could no longer do so because it had the appearance of him leading it (which was not the case).

The villagers are, what we around call, the poorest of the poor, yet they live a happy life. They have a community water well and they do get some aid from USAID which is in the form of seed and corn. They survive, content to live off the land and the providence of God. It causes me to meditate on who is truly happy? It also causes me to realize that the poorest in our country have more than these will ever realize in their lifetime.

So what makes us happy?  Where do we find contentment in our lives? Is it from the newest iPhone or biggest computer or TV? Is it from having enough money in the bank? Or is the source of our contentment from something more basic, something more human? A mother’s touch, a father’s love for his family that he shows by providing for them, being there for them, by loving his children’s mother by supporting her in all she does. We are way too materialistic in this country, our god is stamped with the motto “In God we Trust” when in reality it is only in what that paper can buy us is really what we trust in.

Today, our quest to see and photograph the Big Five in Africa has come to an end. On this afternoons drive,  we finally saw our Leopard! A beautiful beast, well camouflaged in the bush,  but once we got our Land Cruiser in position, we had a good three to five minutes of viewing this magnificent animal that God had created in his wisdom. It is very odd in the bush that wild animals will continue to do their thing, what ever they are doing at the time, eating or sleeping or even doing the procreation thing, and not give the group viewing them not 10 feet away, a second thought. We were literally 5 feet away from a lioness and her 7 month old Cubs and they couldn’t care less about us, as long as we stayed seated and didn’t make any quick moves or loud noises. This was a completely foreign thing to me, being so close to wild animals and them hardly recognizing our existence.

Our experience here started by us staying in a very nice hotel, then we went to a game Reserve Lodge which was part of the same ownership as the hotel and it was somewhat of a hotel also, the rooms were connected to each other. Then we went to Victoria Falls where our accommodations were individual lodges, one room suites with a thatched roof and a private bath on a smaller property with more privacy (I’m not sure we were downgrading) and our final accommodations were at a private reserve on a larger game conservancy coalition. These were tents. Now when I say tents, I don’t mean Boy Scout pup tents, these were large tents on permanent foundations that had their own thatched roof and private bathroom, well semi private because the shower was actually outdoors! (and I’m still not convinced we were downgrading!) Every place we went had its own charm, it’s own positive points, it’s own distinct flavor. The closer I came to the basics of living, no TV, no radio, basic bed and daily food, the more serene my spirit became. I continued, of course, with my daily prayers (thankfully we had Internet in all the places so I could keep my Liturgy of the Hours app updated).

So I am finishing this before breakfast on the last day of our stay in South Africa. We have had a full adventure in our daily game drives in the bush, in our visits to Victoria Falls, Kruger National Park and St. Lucia, but we also have had a very restful time. I am feeling the need, and desire to head home, like Rafiki said in The Lion King when he learned that Simba was still alive and that Simba needed to return to his home and take his rightful place, “It is time.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

I tend to complain too much

I stay pretty busy as a deacon in my diocese. When I am not serving at my parish, I usually am serving somewhere else, or preaching the Mission Appeal for the Pontifical Mission Society through our diocese (I have 4 parish assignments per year, so I am preaching at least 4 times a year, multiply that by at least 6 masses a weekend and it adds up), not to mention all the other things I do with marriage preparation and annulments from marriages that were broken from before the beginning of the marriage, teaching RCIA, and doing various visitations for hospital or home visits. People even come up to me at parties and ask for prayers for their family members, this is how hurting our world is. I am blessed that they have the confidence to confide in me enough to ask for my prayers and counsel.

So, as busy as I tend to get, it is a real treat for me to sometimes get the view from in front of the altar, instead of from behind it. This is what happened to me today, as I went to a neighboring parish to witness my niece receive her first Holy Communion. It was not held in the parish, instead, it was held outside at a popular venue in town (the owners are parishioners at this particular parish). The reason it was held outside was because the parish was finishing up their construction of their church and they didn't know if it would be ready in time for the children's first communion (it was, actually and the Bishop consecrated it later in the day, but the mass had already been scheduled and it would have been too late to change).

All this intro to get to my reflection: While it was outside, which the Bishop gives permission to do with extreme circumstances, it was not very hot, but it was very sunny. I have a bald spot on my head that looks like I should be a Franciscan Friar, and while it was not hot outside, the sun was still beating down on everybody at mass. (well, almost everybody, there were numerous shade trees where many took refuge). About three quarters of the way through the mass, I started to "feel" the burn, as it were, and it caused me to reflect. I noticed many around me were uncomfortable also, and I wondered how it is that we have come to expect an air conditioned worship experience? The early church survived without air conditioning, heck, the early church survived without running water and indoor plumbing (unless they were Romans who could afford it, and it wasn't the running water we are used to). There are places in this world today that do not have what we have here in the West, yet they survive, sometimes even thrive in their spiritual lives.

We in the West are living in the 1% of the world's wealth, resources and technology, yet we complain (even if to ourselves) when things aren't exactly "perfect". As Father Tom reminded us in his homily today, as the sun was beating down on my poor Franciscan Head, Jesus gave us three commandments to follow; 1: Love one another as I have loved you. This is hard because we don't want to love our enemies, but it is the self sacrificing love that leads to salvation. 2: Do this in memory of me, that is, Eucharist. Taking of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do this for our spiritual nourishment. 3: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Pretty straight forward commands from our Lord. Come to think about it, Jesus never said anything about having a nice cool, safe place to do this in. I think the next time I am able to go to an outdoor Mass, I will keep my eyes on the Son on the Altar and not worry about the sun in the sky.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Homily for Ash Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016
Here we are again, Ash Wednesday; the beginning of Lent. It is the season of  preparation for Easter, the most glorious event of the Christian calendar, when we give glory to God for his gift of eternal life through his Son,  Jesus Christ
But what do we need in order to celebrate? We need a time of reflecting on what we have and have not done throughout the year, how we have lived and how we can live better, to walk closer to our God and his people. Let us look at what today's readings are calling us to do:
1: God is calling us to Repentance; return to me with your whole heart says the Lord in Joel. We must be like the prodigal son, who after seeing his situation came to his senses and in humility returned to his father. It doesn't matter what kind of life you've been living, God is that Father in the story, always out on the road looking for his son to return home where he belongs. God is waiting for us to return home to him, where we belong.
2: God is calling us to Conversion; Paul is telling the Corinthians that they are ambassadors for Christ. There are always two types of ambassadors, the kind that push their own agenda and those who push the agenda of the one whom they are representing. Conversion comes from repentance and a determined will to change with the help of the Spirit of God. St. Paul says that today is the day for conversion. This is Lent's main message: today is the day to be reconciled to God,  before it's too late.
3: God gives us the plan on how to live this season (and all sesons); Jesus gives us the plan in today's Gospel. He says to live humbly, to live a life that is pleasing to God. During this season of Lent, we are called to Pray,  Fast, and give Alms. And as we do these, we are not to be like those of the world who shout from the mountaintops, as it were, in order that all might see their works and give them praise. We are to do these things humbly and without fanfare,  so that our Father in Heaven will see and he will give us our compensation.
Let me give you an example of this principle in action: In the Republican debates the other night, Donald Trump was not there to debate the issues. Why? Because he was out at a fundraiser for veterans. Now he made it perfectly clear to all who would listen about how great a guy he is because he was able to raise 6 million dollars for the veteran's organizations. He shouted from the rooftops about his generosity. I say to you that he has received his reward already (the applause of his supporters). Now there is a man in New York who works in a very uptown, very expensive hair salón. He is much in demand as a stylist and works 12 hours days, sometimes 6 days a week. He was photographed, by a passerby who happen to know who he was, cutting the hair of a homeless person on the streets of New York on his day off. Asked why he does this, his response was that these people deserve to be treated like people. He receives no money from the homeless for his services, just thanks and a smile. God sees those types of works with a totally different eye than the works that are touted and shouted from the rooftops of the city.  
Let us begin our Lent by receiving ashes on our forehead to remind us of our frailty and our dependence on God for all things. Let us all repent, convert, and live the life God is calling us to live.