Ten Things I’ve Learned in Honduras

  1. The Beatles sing, “You say good bye and I say hello.    Hello.”  Don and I like to walk and every day we walk a mile and a half to work.  People are very friendly and it is unheard of not to greet someone as you pass by.  Que le vaya bien, go well.   Dios te bendiga, God bless you.  Some try their English on me and say, Hi, or Thank you.  However, another typical greeting is, adios, goodbye.   Did I hear that right? Or are they saying, a Dios, with God?  No, they are definitely saying goodbye.  Someone explained that it seems natural to say goodbye since you are just passing and not stopping to talk.  It doesn’t seem natural to me, I would say, hello.  I have gotten used to the greeting, but I still can’t bring myself to say it, so I say, buenos dias, or simply buenas.  But the Beatles sing in my head each time I hear, adios.



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Tossing Starfish; The Rest of the Story
Maryjane Westra
9 July 2015

It’s hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don’t have any boots. Minnesota Senator Al Franken.
“Give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach man a to fish and he eats for life.” Anne Isabella Ritchie, Britain, mid-19th Century.
Give a woman money and she will buy what she needs to support her family. Maryjane Westra

A boy from Minnesota along with his grandpa were vacationing in Florida enjoying a walk on the beach. They came across thousands of starfish drying and dying on the hot sand. The little boy was picking them up and tossing them back into the sea, one by one. The old man asked, why are you spending your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? “ The boy replied, “The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back they will die.” The grandfather said, “There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference in the starfish community.” The wise lad replied, “I can make a difference to this one. And he gave it a toss.” 1
The starfish was so happy with a new lease on life. He swam back to his Echinoderm buddies and said, “ I have a new friend who saved my life. I will never have to worry about anything again. If I get in trouble my friend will be there to save me. “ He stopped worrying about the future. His tube feet got soft. He didn’t bother cracking open clams for dinner, because he knew his friend would be there for him if he got hungry. Wearing the new shades over the five eye spots at the end of his arms, a gift from his new friend, he began strutting his stuff. He lazed around on the bottom of the ocean while mussels and snails strode by him with little fear.
The other starfish in his community were jealous and began making fun of him. They grew tired of his lazy ways, his fancy clothes and constant bragging. They cast him out of their village. One day, a storm came up. His village friends huddled together and, using their tube feet, pushed valiantly out to sea, but the starfish’s skills had grown dull. He was washed onto the beach. He floundered in the sand, calling out to his friend to throw him back to the sea. But, you guessed it, the little boy had returned to Minnesota.
How many times have we heard this story? Many aid organizations use it as their motto, their inspiration. Changing the world one person at a time, they say. But have we stopped to examine what happens after we leave? Have we thought about the unintended consequences of our actions?
After nearly a century of providing aid relief to developing countries, hunger, disease and poverty rates are alarmingly increasing. There are some successful programs, but few have relieved poverty in the way they had hoped. Initiatives come and go. Micro-financing has shown anecdotal evidence of success but very little has been said about the consequences in real life to people whose businesses fail and they can’t repay the loan. 2.
Cash transfers, money that goes directly to the poor, is the new generation of aid, and has shown positive impacts in terms of education levels, nutrition, long term financial security and, interestingly, mental health, in some 40 countries around the world. This concept flies in the face of traditional aid agencies who believe that the poor will squander the money on alcohol or other items of immediate gratification. Proponents of these programs say, with a carefully designed system of giving, they are seeing success in alleviating generational poverty. Indeed, in Brazil, where 53 million families have received monthly cash transfers since 2003, extreme poverty has been reduced from 22% to 7%. These numbers far outshine the United States’ efforts to reduce poverty in the same time period. Cash transfers, in their simplicity, have the added benefit of reducing administrative overhead and eliminating corruption. Personally, I am not a believer in quick fixes and miracle cures for poverty, but I am impressed by how the concept of giving-money-to-the-poor enables individual preference and choice, thereby fostering trust and independence. I will be watching these ideas closely in the future.
The Common Board of Global Ministries adheres to a partnership concept in which international agencies join CBGM in mutual trust and respect. Projects are not thrust upon our international partners, rather the requests for projects are initiated by the partners. There is an expectation of mutuality.

1. Adapted from original text by Loren Eisley

2. In Mozambique micro-financing enterprises are known as the ‘furniture takers.’


Some times the best help is not helping


Subirana Clinic, Subirana, Yoro, Honduras.

Yesterday Don and I participated in a medical brigade that traveled to a small clinic in an indigenous community Subirana.  The clinic was originated by North American Missionary Dr. Joyce Baker and built mostly with funds from a United Church of Christ church in Connecticut, Greenwich Congregational Church.  No, this brigade was not from the United States or Canada.  This brigade of 4 doctors was from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, three hours away. It was completely organized by the local community and the Evangelical and Reformed Church of Honduras.

Our participation was observation, encouragement and an occasional cheer of support.  The doctors and pharmacist assistants (aka doctor’s wives) served 200 patients with various ailments including asthma, rash, pre-natal exams, fever, stomach ailments and chikungunya virus. The pharmacy was well stocked with common remedies such as pain relief, salves and various anti-biotics.  Some of the medications were donated and some were purchased by the church.

OK, so the amazing thing is not that this brigade was organized and funded completely through local efforts.  The amazing thing is that many North Americans think that that’s amazing.  Let me explain.  Honduras is overrun with people who want to help.  Of course, Don and I are two of those people and that irony is not lost on me.  However, the problem comes in when trying to understand what is helpful and what is not.  Most aid organizations want to give “stuff,” often their worn out items.  The thinking goes like this; This item is old and I need a new one.  I can’t sell it because no one would want it.  But I could send it to some needy soul in a developing nation.  They have nothing and this item has lots of useful months left, so they won’t mind my old, worn out item.  Since I am donating the item, and cost of shipping, the least they can do is buy the parts necessary to fix it.  

Replacement parts are impossible to order or pay for, so often the item sits idle or breaks down often.  Developing nations someday will be overrun with storage rooms full of old donated hulks that receiving organizations don’t dare dispose of for fear of offending their donor.  Besides, there are no sanitary landfills, so where would it go?  My suggestion is, the next time you get the urge to donate an item that is nearing the end of its life cycle, consider buying a new item and donating that.  Afte rall, if you can afford a new item, you can afford the repair parts for the old item and the gift would be so much more useful.

So back to the clinic.  Hondurans are intelligent, capable people with a heart of improving their communities.  Money is extremely limited, but much can be done with little.  They are experts at negotiation and improvisation.


Sick little boy waiting to see the doctor. In the background, Don found a friend. An engineering student studying in the U.S.

So, how can caring people make a difference?

1.  Start by recognizing the capabilities of the population you want to serve.  Listen to the presenting problem from the local perspective and ask for ideas and solutions.  You may be surprised at the answer.

2.  Try to resist proposing solutions until you fully understand all the local challenges.  Get to know the culture you are working with.

3.  Have confidence in the people you are working with.  Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme, a lawyer and journalist from Camaroon, said of the Live Aid Concert, “they still believe us to be children that they must save” with “their willingness to propose solutions on our behalf.”  Try to put yourself in the place of the people you want to serve.

4.  In general, helping systems  such as schools, churches and communities, is more beneficial than helping individuals.  Giving money to individuals can create dependence, bitterness, helplessness and isolation from their community and family.

5.  Ask yourself, how is this project sustainable in the long term?  If I died tomorrow, does this project have an exit strategy?  Sometimes your project is a one time gift; tools for a vocational school, for example.  However, if you are involved in building a church or school, does the local community have the ability to pay the taxes, the electricity, the salaries?


People getting registered for the clinic. Each adult paid $1. The dog was free.

6.  Ask yourself, do they want this project?  I have seen donors ask, “You need a new well at this school, right?”  Try asking, “If I had $20,000 to give to this school, how would you spend it?”  I have seen many well funded, well intentioned projects ripen on the vine because the local people are unfamiliar with it or do not see the benefit.  There was a group that came to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch to rebuild homes.  They built hundreds of identical, 500 square foot block homes, all in a straight row on a plot of donated land far from a city.  Far from jobs, far from commerce and transportation.  The houses were never used.  The attraction of a house was not enough to lure people away from their communities.

7.  Ask yourself, who benefits from my donation?  And then honestly listen for the answer.  Is there a benefit for the donor in the terms of a tax write off, disposal of unwanted items, fame, recognition, guilt-reduction?

8.  Borrow something from the medical profession.  First, do no harm.  Analyze similar projects before yours and look for unintended consequences.  There are always unintended and often unpredicted consequences.  But are the consequences tolerable or avoidable?


Dra. Andrea Bustillo-Acosta

The clinic will be open for brigades once a month.  The brigades are volunteer doctors and medical students from Honduras.  The church partners with the Honduras Medical School and other NGO’s working locally.  There is a possibility to partner with Cuba, Europe and the United States for other medical personnel, brigades and specialty services.  Your participation would be more than welcome!  Don and I found that the most helpful thing we could do was to get out of the way and try not to look surprised. Our look was of admiration.

A Man and a Shovel

Yesterday I saw a man repairing the steep downhill path to his house. He was moving gravel from one area to another presumably to fill the holes and make walking easier. He was using a shovel that was about a third worn down in a ragged patterned edge. I doubt the shovel was sharp enough or big enough to scoop much gravel. He was filling a 5 gallon plastic bucket and carrying it uphill and dumping it on the path. It was very hot and I was dripping with sweat with just the effort of walking, slowly. This scene made me think. It made me think a lot. First of all, how difficult work is without the proper tools. And then, how difficult it is to have the proper tools when you live in a house accessible only by a steep gravel path. The scene also made me think about biases and stereotypes. This man was anything but the lazy, Hispanic man taking a siesta on a hot afternoon. What other stereotypes do we hold, overtly or covertly, about people of other cultures? When you think of Honduras, what do you think of? Do you think of poverty? Despair? Backwards? Honduras is considered the poorest nation in Central America and the least developed. Years of U.S. supported military rule and, more recently, U.S. ignored gang rule, has left the country in poverty and fear. Yet, the people are anything but desperate. They possess a graciousness and kindness that I seldom experience in the United States. This must be where the term “they’d give you the shirt off their backs” came from.
Last week my husband and I were looking for a translator. A man came to the office to meet us. His name is Rossel and he is the father of Rossel, Junior, a student at CEVER the vocational school where we work. He lived in the United States for 15 years and he understands all the idioms and nuances of the English language. Rossel sat in on a meeting with us to help us with some sensitive topics. When we were done, we said, how much do we owe you? He replied that his son is a student here and he wants to give what he can to help the school. He expects no payment. I don’t know anything about his financial situation, but I am sure he struggles to pay his daily expenses like most families.
What stereotypes do Hondurans hold about people from the United States? They believe that North Americans are rich, all of them. I can hardly argue with that stereotype because, by comparison, most North Americans enjoy a higher standard of living than the average rural Honduran. For example, even America’s poorest people have access to services such as homeless shelters, food shelves and emergency medical care. I tell people here that there are poor people in the U.S. There are homeless people and people with untreated physical and mental illness. Hondurans are surprised to hear that.
Honduras has an unemployment rate of around 40%. Do you remember when the U.S. unemployment rate was nearing double digit? Americans considered it a national crisis. Yet in Honduras it is the rare family that enjoys two incomes. Even people that have jobs often suffer months when their employer doesn’t pay or an illness prevents them from going to work, decimating any financial progress they may have enjoyed.
Yet I see a strong, resilient population. They make due. They don’t expect to be pampered and served. They are not materialistic and they don’t complain. Well, not many.
Seeing the man scooping up gravel to repair his walk made me wonder about his life, his family, his finances. And it made me wonder about mine.DSCN4069

The care and feeding of your missionary

October 24, 2014
The care and feeding of your missionary
Yes, your missionary. We work for you. You support us financially, spiritually and emotionally. However mission work isn’t something to which you can drop a few coins in the plate and forget. Missionaries live this life seven days a week. We live far away from our homes and family. Many of us live in dangerous or politically unstable counties. Yes. I’m having a pity party today.
Stress Reducers: Missionaries don’t enjoy the stress releasors commonly available at home. For example, in my past life, going for a walk or a run was a great stress reducer. In my current setting, running is hot and dangerous. It’s a dangerous practice to establish a regular running pattern; possibly inviting attack. Then there are the leg-breaking pot holes deceptively filled with water and the distasteful but less dangerous mountains riddled with horse droppings. I have a dear friend, a missionary, who was raped on her daily run. These things weigh heavy.
Another stress reducer is chatting with a friend. This is problematic due to the high cost of international calls and slow internet connection. In addition, it’s difficult to find a friend who truly understands why one would choose this life. (See my upcoming article in In Good Company magazine entitled, “Why would anyone want to live there?”) I am in the process of developing a local network of friends. However, due to language and cultural barriers it takes time to develop comfortable, trusted relationships let alone enjoy an intimate conversation. I used to enjoy singing in choir, ringing in bell choir and playing piano. Those activities are lost to me now. That leaves knitting (difficult because I must bring supplies to last a year), reading, watching movies (I wish Amazon had a missionary rate), drinking (not a good idea), aerobics with Richard Simmons (yawn) and playing my guitar. (I really suck at it.)
I haven’t seen a therapist in twenty years or so, unless you count the psychiatrist who evaluated our readiness for ministry before our first and second appointments. (He said we were normal. Take THAT, children!) Given the stressors of life abroad, it would be nice to have a therapist at hand. I’ve investigated on-line therapy and can see the advantages for missionaries, however, on-line therapy cost $100 per hour and they don’t take insurance. Not in a missionary budget. So, instead, I use the good will of my friends, some of whom are therapists. Some are even willing to read long, dry emails and respond with helpful words.
OK, I’ll end the pity party now. (Maybe)
What’s your point? Studies have shown there is a strong correlation between how mission personnel are treated by the home office and their longevity in the field. There is a huge upfront investment in interviewing, orientating, training and sending mission personnel overseas. The majority of mission personnel are deeply invested and don’t take their assignments lightly. Don and I originally intended to volunteer for one year, however, we recently completed our fifth year in the field. We enjoy a great deal of support and kind words from people in our congregation and people we have met while on intineration. We used to get occasional emails from a board member of our home agency, reminding us of her love, prayers and support. (I believe that person is no longer on the board. Dang, I miss those!) Those kind words and prayers from the people who are invested in us mean so much.
It has been said that it takes ten kind words to erase one harsh word. In my experience, that number is under reported. My less than scientific research shows the number closer to 100. One hundred kind words needed to erase one harsh word and, for especially sensitive people, the very sort of people we want in the mission field, after the erasing the word, a jagged scar remains. When a harsh word come from someone you trust to care for you or a person in a position of authority, the healing words needed are closer to 1,000. The concept is similar to the amount of healing needed when someone is abused by a trusted caregiver verses a stranger.
Back on topic, the care and feeding of your missionary.
Friends and family: Missionaries, and I think I can speak for all of us, love e-mail. Long, newsy chatty e-mails. You don’t have to tell us how wonderful, brave or faithful we are. Just tell us about your life, the weather, your grandkids and what you had for dinner. Truly, I’m interested. Let us live vicariously. In my setting (I can’t speak for everyone) it is dangerous to go out at night, so we have plenty of time to read and write long, mindless e-mails. Remind us that you think of us and pray for us.
Consider a small donation to Global Ministries to celebrate your birthday, our birthdays, Christmas, cleaning the garage, any reason to celebrate. The amount doesn’t matter. Nothing says support like cash.
Board members of Global Ministries. We’d sure like to hear from you! You can get a mass email list of mission personnel from Cathy Nichols. We work for you.
We can SKYPE. We’d love to talk to you in person.
Home office personnel. Respond to our e-mails. I realize you are frequently on the road and away from your desk, but an acknowledgement makes us feel affirmed and listened to. Ask your assistant to do the same. A little small talk is always nice. We are lonely!
Email is the primary method of communication between the missionary and the home office. Basic email courtesy should be practiced by all. For example, ALL CAPS are the email equivalent of yelling. Bullet lists are the equivalent of lecturing. Emoticons are a nice way express warm feelings. 🙂 😉 {{{{{hugs}}}}}
Misunderstandings and conflict are bound to come up. We are humans. So are you. Conflict and negative information should be done with a phone call or SKYPE call and should be prefaced and suffixed with kind words. (I know several missionaries who were fired by email.) Seek understanding. Seek resolution, rather than victory. Ask the missionary their point of view and listen. Focus on the relationship. The relationship is your tool.
I understand you are busy people. I know a lot is expected of you. I know you put out many fires in a single day. (And leap tall buildings….) But the people in the field are your eyes and ears, hands and feet, heart and soul.

Drum lesson from Mrs. Bandama

Drum lesson from Mrs. Bandama

Naming the blog

My supervisor at Global Ministries for years has been encouraging me to write a blog about my thoughts and experiences as a Global Ministries Mission Personnel. I hesitated for many reasons; some legit, some not so. Will anyone read it? Will I find interesting things to write about? Will anyone read it? Will I enjoy it or will I find it a chore? Will I become blogged down (Ha! Laughing at my own pun) with concerns of grammer and speling? Will anyone read it? Will I say something offensive? (If no one reads it, then no problem? Right?) Will I use too many parenthesis? (Who’s counting?)
I am inspired by my fellow bloggers Claudia Fletcher, Tom Morse, Tom and Monica Liddle and Carolyn Tonneson.
My high school librarian and teacher said that I should be a writer. Her words ring in my ears 40 (or so) years later. She is still alive at age 95. Maybe she’s waiting for me to write. This is for you, Cleo Boger.
The first thing to do when starting a blog is to create a snappy title. Westras in Mission? Boring! Gimme Money? Too obvious. How about Walk Humbly? That has a nice ring for several reasons. First of all, it reflects my favorite Bible verse; “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” I love the King James Version. Maybe it’ a piece of my childhood. I don’t, however, like the exclusive, sexist reference and prefer the New International Version use of the term “O mortals.” Second; I really enjoy the mention of walking. Not only walking, but walking humbly. For those that know me first hand, you probably know that humility is not one of my strong attributes. So, this verse from Micah, helps remind me that God asks me to be humble. As a side note, I learned what little humility I have from my dear friend and mentor, Fern. But that is a topic for another blog. Third: I like to walk. No, I mean, I really like to walk. It’s my preferred method of transportation. If there is a choice of getting into a car or walking a reasonable distance, I will choose my feet every time. In 2008 I went on a personal mission to lose weight and get fit. I began by walking two miles each way to and from work. The first day, I came to work tired and sore and took a nap at my desk. The second day the same. The third day, again, although a little less sore. By the second week, I had picked up the pace a little and arrived at work feeling refreshed and strong. (And I don’t mean strong smelling.) After that, I woke up in the morning thinking about my walk to work. Who I would meet along the way? What new route I would explore? How strong I was becoming. A few weeks later I began running the two miles two and from work. I lost 45 pounds and began entering 5K and 10k races.
In Zimbabwe, I learned to appreciate walking as my primary means of transportation. Cars were expensive and unreliable. Roads were bumpy and uncomfortable. Time was abundant. I met many wonderful people on my daily walk to the phone signal and vegetable market. I even tried (and failed) to learn to carry packages on my head. They told me my hair was too slippery. African hair works like Velcro.
So, Walk Humbly is the name of my blog. Please note the command form I have used. This should remind me every day to walk (and get fit) and to go on a diet of humility.
Now for the disclaimer. These are my thoughts and mine alone. While I am an employee of Global Ministries and I work hard to reflect the mission and values of Global Ministries as well as the values and goals of good international development work, my thoughts come out fast and furious when I write. I will proof-read for tone, content and clarity, but the point of a blog is to write. Please be respectful of my efforts. Do not take offense. If I use a word or attitude that is questionable, please contact me privately for review or explanation.
Another disclaimer: I, like so many bloggers, get inspired by exciting or traumatic events. That’s when then write blogs. Then weeks and months will pass with no entries, no inspiration. A good writer will comment on the little things in life. A good writer will observe life around them and say, that would make a good story. I believe I’m a writer at heart. I often find myself saying, that will make a good story. Writing it down is another matter altogether. So, no promises. But I will try to comment on things grand and things small.
If you have any ideas for my blog, please let me know. I anticipate this blog will be a combination of social commentary and everyday life living abroad.
I have a sign over my desk; Writers write. I should add; writers do not surf, play games, peak at Face Book, text, answer the phone or throw in a load of laundry during a moment of writing inspiration. Pouring fresh coffee is acceptable however.