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June 10, 2002

A kingdom far away

Amy Lippoldt is a graduate student in the Candler School of Theology.

We prepared for months, gathering as a class to learn about the people and land of Central America. We prepared history lessons for one another, studied geography and explored the practices of Roman Catholicism. We tackled the complexities of global capitalism and scrutinized U.S. foreign policy in Central America. We read firsthand accounts about the trials of land acquisition, the benefits of organic farming and the horrors of human rights abuses.We were well educated and well sensitized—committed to making change and eager to work.

We were well prepared. Well prepared to spend a week in El Limón, Honduras, during Spring Break. Well prepared to dig trenches for water pipes, mix mud for an adobe house, learn to make tortillas from ground corn and explain the dosage for parasite and pain medication.

What is the connection between discussing the impact of U.S. businesses on Central America and spending a week mixing mud? Thirteen students from the Candler School of Theology, including me, discovered an essential connection between the two, a connection that goes to the heart of what it means to build up the kingdom of God.

The 13 of us, along with two doctors, a pharmacist and two former employees of Christian Commission for Development, spent 10 days of March in Honduras sponsored by the Heifer Project International. We were hosted by the village of El Limón, a community of 241 people in the region of Santa Barbara.

Because of the medical personnel on our team and donations from U.S. drug companies, we were able to offer a temporary medical clinic for the people of El Limón and the surrounding villages. The doctors spent the week examining close to 600 adults and children, dispensing medication for afflictions ranging from parasites and scabies to headaches and athlete’s foot. Some villagers needed little more than a supply of vitamins to help counteract the limited nutrition available to them. But other health problems reached far beyond the scope of care our team could offer. Such cases crystallized for us the need in rural areas for long-term health care solutions.

The medical clinic also highlighted the extra demands placed on poor women. Women who visited the clinic invariably had multiple children in tow and looked years older and wearier than their ages. A majority of our class was female, and we all felt the sharp contrast between our lives as graduate students and the lives of these Honduran women who worked the longest and the hardest to feed and care for the large number of children their bodies bore.

Contrasts in material wealth between our lives and the lives of those in El Limón were also apparent. They benefited from none of the government-sponsored infrastructure we take for granted: no electricity, no phones, no sewers. Only a dirt road less than 10 years old connected El Limón to the political life of Honduras.

However, we found that while the families of El Limón lacked material resources, they did not lack in organization. In the late 1980s a group of men from the village squatted on nearby land unused by its owner. Land reform legislation had declared that unused land could be taken over by rural families (campesinos) so that they might feed themselves. Hondurans have suffered because almost all farmable land is owned by a handful of rich families, the national government or U.S. banana companies. Though the leaders of the campesino organization endured harassment and multiple imprisonments, they prevailed and gained fields on which to plant corn, beans and rice for the entire village.

After the success of the land project, the campesinos in El Limón turned their efforts toward a cattle project. The Heifer Project International loaned them cattle, and as the herd has produced offspring, the farmers are paying back Heifer with calves that can be loaned to other communities. The cattle have provided meat, milk and cheese to the community, as well as a future source of income so the campesino organization can continue to improve village life.

The campesino organization also made possible other projects we took part in, preparing to lay water pipes to new homes and constructing an adobe house in the cattle field so the herd can be guarded from thieves.

Telling others about our trip to El Limón, one of the first questions is always, “What did you do?” For me, the answer is an important commentary on the purpose and fruit of such a mission trip: I helped build an adobe house—meaning I spent a few days working in the sun with bricks the men had spent weeks making before we arrived. We added our labor to the project, and the foundation and three layers of bricks were placed by the end of the week, leaving a three-foot-high structure that needs much more work to become a house.

We were welcomed into the middle of this house-building project just like we were welcomed into the middle of the village’s life—into the middle of their story. We left nothing “finished” for them; we solved no problems. Instead we offered ourselves to learn from and work with them. We saw the benefits of community organization and received hospitality from this generous village.

We were all searching, I think, for solidarity. It is what all of our reading and learning had made me desire. In the middle of all the intricacies of the global economy and U.S. military policy, I went to Honduras praying to find something beyond what classroom discussion and analysis could provide. To be sure, the complexities of the world did not dissolve in the faces and lives of those in El Limón; if anything, my questions grew, and my unease with the world was made greater.

But alongside such unease came connections with real and wonderful people, the building of relationships and the creation of mutual concern. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It starts out as the smallest of all seeds but in time it grows into a bush so large that all can find their home inside (Mark 4:30-32).

I pray and seek to work for the coming of such a kingdom. I know the people of El Limón are praying and working for it as well. It is the knowledge that we are working together that will sustain my hope even as I see poverty, hunger, torture and greed. I pray that such a feeling of solidarity might bolster the hope of those in El Limón, as well. And I pray for you, too, that we all might become educated enough to mix mud and dig trenches,
for such is the work of the kingdom.