[Episcopal News Service] What does it mean to be the church in Honduras?
It’s a question Bishop Lloyd Allen and others in the Diocese of Honduras have begun asking themselves as they fine-tune their 2019 self-sustainability plan and move away from more than 150 years of dependency.
Although financial independence and self-sustainability may sound like invigorating concepts to North Americans, moving away from a century and a half of dependence — needs influenced and met by outside support — doesn’t come easy in Honduras, or more broadly in Latin America, where a deeply embedded culture of dependence dates back to the Spanish occupation, and in the church to when Anglicans established their first colonial mission outposts.
“Like it or not, as difficult as this may seem, I think it’s time for the diocese to begin to walk away from that legacy of dependency,” said Allen in a 2012 address to the Diocese of Central Florida’s convention, echoing words he’d spoken a year earlier during his own diocese’s annual meeting.
In Central Florida, a longtime companion diocese, the crowd applauded Allen’s words. Back in Honduras, however, his proclamation had not been as well received. “I may not be the most popular person in the Diocese of Honduras now,” he said.
Moving away from dependency, Allen soon realized, would require changing a deeply held mindset, and wasn’t something that could be accomplished by inviting in consultants and conducting workshops.
“We are on the road; I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” he said. “ … we’re on our way, cost us what it may. Growth doesn’t come easy.”
At the center of that growth is a complete overhaul of the relationship between the diocese and its missions and preaching stations. As it is and has always been, money flows from the diocese to the 124 congregations. The flow must be reversed; when that’s accomplished, the diocese can begin to send its support to the Episcopal Church, reversing that longstanding relationship of dependency.
“That’s a real change in dynamics,” said the Rev. Canon Lura Kaval, the diocese’s development officer and an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary based in San Pedro Sula.
In addition to the $227,000 the diocese receives from the Episcopal Church, the diocese operates seven, bilingual schools, a conference center, a warehouse and EpiscoTours, which handles the travel arrangements and itineraries for mission teams, all of which generate revenue. The diocese also has incorporated a nonprofit organization in the United States, the Honduras Development Network, to raise funds.
The Church of England transferred jurisdiction of the missionary outposts in Central America and the Caribbean to the U.S.-based Episcopal Church following World War II. Two decades later in the 1960s, the trend across the Anglican Communion was to examine the church’s missionary work in a post-colonial world, moving away from “paternalistic treatment of the overseas ‘missionary districts,’ ” according to archived documents.
The 1964 General Convention established Province IX “to foster relationships among districts in Latin America that would lead toward self-support.”
Honduras is the only Episcopal diocese in Central American belonging to Province IX; the others — El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua — belong to the Anglican Churches in Central America, or IARCA its Spanish acronym, a province of the Anglican Communion.
The other Province IX churches include, in South America, Ecuador Central, Ecuador Litoral, Colombia, and Venezuela, and in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
In February, on the recommendation of the Second Mark of Mission working group, a group convened by the staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council agreed to an 18-year plan for “self-sufficiency,” to move to sustainable mission and ministry in Province IX
The Episcopal Church historically has supported the Province IX churches through a block grant program, which provides the dioceses with operating funds amounting to $2.9 million in the current triennium. The triennial budget also included an additional $1 million for Province IX with the goal of “strengthening the province for sustainable mission.” This money will be made available to the dioceses to further their progress toward self-sustainability.
In 2009 the General Convention budget slashed the block grant program, decreasing the amount dioceses received by a third; although the abrupt cuts came as a surprise, they weren’t totally unexpected.
In the first years of his episcopacy, Allen served on the church’s Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance and “saw the writing on the wall,” he said.
“I would come home and share my thoughts and concerns with the clergy, and I would say we need to look forward and try to walk away from dependency.”
Ordained and consecrated in 2001, Allen hired an outside consultant to assist the diocese in creating a strategic plan, the first of which was introduced in 2004 and updated in 2007; the 2019 plan for self-sufficiency builds on those previous plans.
Following Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5 hurricane that killed more than 7,000 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage when it hit Honduras in late October 1998, billions of dollars in international aid money poured in and teams of volunteers began arriving to help in the rebuilding of the Central American country.
In development terms, the country’s then-president said Mitch set back Honduras 50 years; Mitch also marked a turning point in which Honduras’ gangs became better organized and the country’s security situation began to deteriorate.
Eventually, the media coverage and the outpouring of funds and assistance dwindled. Yet the Episcopal Church remained, and began to retool and to grow, and the 2019 plan, “Come and see the new Honduras,” took shape.
Fast-forward to March 2014 and a daylong parochial report conference held at Iglesia de Espiritu Santo in Santa Rita de Copán, where 60 leaders gathered from 26 of some 30 missions and preaching stations in the Copán and Maya deaneries covering the country’s far southwest.
“Everything we need in the Diocese of Honduras God has given us,” said Kaval. “Part of this is to help the people see what we have.”
The four-page parochial report records demographics, revenue and expenses, clergy, baptism, confirmation and educational information, and is intended for mission planning. The diocese plans to use the information gathered by the parochial reports to apply the principals of asset-based community development to help its missions and preaching stations become self-sustaining. Additionally the Five Marks of Mission form an integral part of the diocese’s self-sustainability plan; they provide a road map to determine what it means to be the church in Honduras and as the basis for leadership development and stewardship.
The 2019 self-sustainability plan, Venga y ver la nueva Honduras, or “Come and see the new Honduras,” begins with empowering the clergy and laity. In the spring of 2013, the diocese formed lay leaderships teams providing them with the Five Marks of Mission and the diocese’s goals for financial independence and self-sustainability, with the intention being that the clergy and lay leaders would hold each other accountable.
From scarcity to abundance
In a country where 60 percent of 7.9 million people live in poverty, Copán is the third poorest department in the country, which in land area is about the size of Kentucky. Still, the 46 missions in the Copán and Maya deaneries are some of the most resourceful and least dependent on the diocese.
“These two are way ahead on stewardship, and they are building their own churches,” said Allen, adding that they’re a model for the other deaneries. “There’s very little that we [the diocese] do for them.”
An hours’ drive up the mountain from La Entrada, a literal fork in the road in southwest Honduras that in one direction leads to the Mayan ruins in Copán, sits La Misión San José, a relatively new mission of the Diocese of Honduras, but one that grew March 9 when 11 people were confirmed and 13 received into the Episcopal Church.
Allen preached and presided at the service that day, the first Sunday of Lent, where parishioners had hung balloons and scattered purple and white flower petals down the aisle. Allen recently asked the congregation, now officially a mission, to look to the Book of Common Prayer, the saints and feasts, to choose a name. They chose San José.
Misión San José is led by Yolanda Portillo, a lay leader who has grown the church.
“I’m a firm believer in women’s ministry; she has turned the church around,” said Allen, on the drive to La Cedral, where 2,500 people live in and around the community, largely employed in the coffee industry.
The church has grown, Portillo said, through preaching the Gospel door-to-door.
At the start of Allen’s episcopacy, the diocese had 87 congregations served by 22 priests, almost half of them foreign. Over a two-day period in 2005, he ordained 25 deacons. Today the diocese has 156 missions served by 56 priests and 16 deacons, the majority of them Hondurans. The number of Episcopalians has reached 65,000.
Examples of congregational growth, self-sustainability and community outreach can be seen throughout the diocese. Another example is Parroquia Manos de Dios in Danlí, a town 60 miles southeast of Tegucigalpa, the capital, near the border with Nicaragua.
Led by Victor Manuel Velasquez, Manos de Dios began as a house church in 2000, but with the help of the Anglican Agency for Development in Honduras, or Aanglidesh as it is called, and its partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development, has grown to include a large facility with a community center, space for workshops, a computer lab and an income-generating store that sells supplies to students attending a nearby technical school.
It’s that kind of entrepreneurship that Allen says serves as a model for other congregations in the diocese, and one that the Rev. Roberto Martinez Amengual, Aanglidesh’s administrator, said demonstrates the power of partnerships.
Manos de Dios also provides space for a savings and loan program and microcredit serving women and families in Danlí.
“Our partnership with Aanglidesh in rural Honduras is a strong example of the asset-based approach we promote throughout our work worldwide,” said Kirsten Laursen Muth, Episcopal Relief & Development’s senior director of international programs.
On a tour of Manos de Dios, Velasquez explained that a $5,000 revolving loan, along with the help of mission teams from the United States, made the building possible.
“You can see where the investment went,” he said. “We will become a parish really soon.”
The diocese already has moved four missions to parish status: St. Mary’s in Tegucigalpa, Holy Trinity in La Ceiba, Good Shepherd in San Pedro Sula and Holy Spirit in Tela. Thirteen of 156 missions have been identified for “supported-parish status,” meaning they’re close to being able to pay 50 percent of the clergy costs. Most of the diocese’s urban congregations have schools, and have realized they can support their own clergy, said Allen.
“There will be missions out in the rural areas that will never become (parishes); maybe two or three will have to come together,” said Allen.
Protestant and evangelical churches are gaining on the Roman Catholic Church in Honduras, where it’s not uncommon for a Roman Catholic priest to visit a parish once or twice a year, and when the priest does come, he must be paid, said Allen, explaining part of the reason for growth in his diocese. Additionally, as demonstrated in Danlí, Episcopal missions often address societal needs in the community. Still, Episcopal clergy aren’t always comfortable asking for support from their parishioners.
For instance, at San Bartolomé Apóstol in Siguatepeque, a small town in the Central Mountains on the main route between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the Rev. Vaike Madisson de Molina, the vicar, worked with the Ministry of Health to establish a nursing school and completed the coursework despite the fact that she’s too old to be licensed; yet when the topic of self-sustainability and asking for support from the congregation is broached, she becomes visibly uncomfortable.
Diocesan leaders say it’s this mindset that needs to change in order for the missions to become self-sustaining and to contribute money to the diocesan budget; clergy need to embrace stewardship, and begin asking their congregations for support.
“The clergy need to make people understand that they are the church … it’s not about going to church, it’s about being the church,” said Rick Harlow, the diocese’s project manager and an Episcopal Church-appointed missionary.
The diocese recently hosted a clergy conference focused on stewardship, where the Rev. Gary C. Hoag, co-author of “The Sower,” presented concepts and workshops aimed at “developing faithful stewards.”
At Misión San Fernando Rey in Omoa, where Ana Reid, a missionary serving in Honduras as part of the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders, or SAMS, stewardship, building on the local evangelical influence, is an integral component to rebuilding a mission station that had otherwise been neglected and gone to rack and ruin.
“In the evangelical church, it’s taught you need to give your 10 percent; it’s ingrained in you as a responsibility as a Christian,” said Reid, who is from Danvers, Massachusetts. “They are very strong on the teaching that through giving, you receive.”
For Reid, however, she continued, it’s all about education and training. For those who’ve come from the Roman Catholic Church, the practice has been to put small change in the offering plate because historically the priest was paid by someone else; parishioners were not required to participate in the life of the parish and support it financially. She says the Episcopal Church hasn’t been strong on teaching tithing, either.
“It’s a spiritual discipline,” she said, adding that there are clergy who themselves don’t tithe. “If they themselves are not doing it, they cannot preach it.”
In addition to teaching about stewardship in rebuilding San Fernando Rey, Reid has helped David Dominguez, the lay leader, to offer English classes at the parish, which is also planning to operate an Internet lab after conducting a market study to determine the need and the desire for one in the community. The parish also plans an outside café that will cater to tourists.
“I’m not the priest, I’m not the person in charge, I’m just here to help,” said Reid, adding that she’s not just telling the people what to do, but doing it herself. “I get my hands dirty.”
Ultimately, Reid’s plan is to empower lay leaders and work herself out of a job.
Back to the church’s beginnings
The Honduran government official recognized the Episcopal Church 150 years ago, however the Anglican-Episcopal presence in Honduras dates back 400 years to 1639, when buccaneers brought the Anglican Church to Roatán, the largest of Honduras’ bay islands, and established Emmanuel Anglican Church on Port Royal.
Allen sent the Rev. Nelson Mejia and his wife, the Rev. Kara Mejias, to Roatán to re-establish an Episcopal Church presence on the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, a 90-minute ferry ride from the mainland, which they’ve done already in an area called Brick Bay. A second church, made possible with a grant from church planting and ministry redevelopment, is in the first phases of construction.
The new church, which will be called Emmanuel for the church the buccaneers founded in 17th century, is planned for Coxen Hole, a growing community of 20,000 people. Construction began on the site in August 2014; before that the congregation met in homes and later rented a small room in town, said the Rev. Nelson Mejia.
The permanent building will be concrete with reinforced beams, and in addition to the sanctuary, there will also be a parish hall and a sewing room to support a micro-business.
For now, church takes place under a temporary, wood-framed shelter, a heavy tarpaulin serves as the roof; the floor is dirt. Bathrooms, needed for the church to host events, are off to the side, along with a storage shed where plastic chairs, the podium, a keyboard, projector and other supplies for the service and Sunday school are stored. Mejia and his family arrive a few minutes before the service to set up.
Companion relationships, mission teams
The 2019 plan also invites participation from North American partners, who are invited to join a mission team, share professional expertise or to support a clergy member through its Clergy Partnership Program.
The diocese began operating short-term mission trips in 1992 without incident. But the rise of gangs and international headlines portraying the violence have lead to an almost 50 percent drop in the number of mission teams in recent years.
“The increase in violence has really affected us greatly,” said Allen. “A lot of people ask me if [short-term missions] are still safe.” The diocese in Honduras provides mission teams with 24/7 guides and drivers, from arrival to departure.
Larry Tate, a member of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas, who over the years has led many short-term mission teams to Honduras, and who was in Honduras in March scouting his team’s next trip, said his No. 1 priority is keep team members safe.
“We won’t put people in danger,” he said, adding he keeps an eye on the news. “We listen to what the bishop tells us and we ask questions.”
— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.