”When I was 13 years old, my aunt and uncle, Tom and Judy Camp, approached my parents and said, ‘Why don’t you let Michael go with us on our church mission trip to Honduras?’ When I got back 10 days later and my folks picked me up at the airport, they were asking me all kinds of questions about the place. And finally my 13-year-old brain just gave up and told them, “I can’t describe it. You have to go see it for yourself.’”
Which they proceeded to do. “My stepdad has gone nearly every year since,” says Franklin. “My mom only quit going a couple of years ago and she’s still active here, on the domestic side of the mission work.” Michael — a high-school teacher, by trade — has been back at least once a year with the exception of 2009 when the country overthrew its president and, as a precaution, foreign travel became a temporary no-no.
Though it’s surrounded by jungle, there’s nothing remote about La Ceiba [pronounced SAY-buh] itself. It’s a bustling city with roughly the same population as Birmingham, and takes its name from a local variety of giant tree colloquially known as kapok whose cotton-like seed pods are prized for their fire-retardant qualities and were used in millions of airplane-seat life preservers, before being mostly replaced by cheaper synthetics.
But the church missions’ main focus is a community at the edge of town named Los Laureles, which shares its name with a popular Mariachi love song from the 1920s, most recently recorded by Linda Ronstadt. The lyrical name belies the fact that the community straddles a sprawling garbage dump, which many residents scavenge for their daily sustenance — items ranging from cast-off building materials to food.
How has such a level of poverty come about? “Honduras is a young country that has never had much in the way of natural infrastructure like the United States has,” Franklin says. “But traditionally there’s been a lot of exploitation, largely from American businesses. Much of the land is owned by just three or four companies, and you can drive for miles and miles and see nothing but palm plantations. ”Even when I was a kid coming here, I’d think, ‘Now, wait a minute. We’ve come from Alabama bringing food with us, and there’s all this farmland right here, and the palms are being grown for...what purpose, exactly?’ But as it is, people building homes out of the trash dump and eating food out of the trash dump is very common.”
The umbrella group for the mission’s work is known as AHMEN, for Alabama/Honduras Medical Education Network (honduranmissions.com). Franklin, along with many other of the mission group’s members, attends Jasper’s Christ United Methodist Church. But any evangelizing takes a back seat to helping Los Laureles residents receive much-needed medical care, ensure safe drinking water, and learn ways to better their economic condition within very limited alternatives. One example of the latter is the community’s “Jewelry School,” a group of women who’ve developed their own business by taking old jewelry, jewelry-making equipment, beading supplies, belts, and purses and repurposing them into new products they can sell locally and online. Technically, such an entrepreneurial effort is known in the U.S. as “micro-enterprise,” but it’s far from microscopic for the local women involved, for whom it’s becoming a source of both income and self-esteem.
Another project in the works, by partner organization SIFAT (Servants in Faith and Technology), is establishing beekeeping in the village. The multiple benefits will include better crop yields from the bees’ pollinating abilities, and an income source from the honey, beeswax, and propolis — a natural glue-like resin — that are by-products of the hive.
Like most enterprises, Franklin says, the Honduran missions groups have progressed by trial and error over the years.
One early effort, a water filtration system, was plagued by glitches: volunteers would sell the filtered water instead of distributing it free to villagers who most needed it, or would sell off parts from the filtration device to other towns. One volunteer decided not to put purifying chemicals in the water because he liked the taste better without them. The problem was solved, says Franklin, by putting women, rather than men, in charge of Los Laureles’ water filtration. The solution is ironic, considering that in addition to his History degree from Millsaps College in Mississippi, he has a degree in Women’s Studies from Texas Woman’s University — which is obviously co-ed.
“I believe what made the difference by putting women in charge,” he says, “is that when a woman has a baby she’s very invested in keeping that baby alive. And when we teach them why their babies are getting sick—why the moms are getting sick, for that matter — and present that knowledge alongside the filter system, it’s a very convincing argument for the moms, and grandmothers, for using the filter the way it’s supposed to be used.”
A word that appears often in the AHMEN and SIFAT communications, and in Franklin’s blog “Michael’s Missions Musings” is “sustainability.” While periodic medical clinics, and seasonal efforts such as a truckload of contributed shoes during the holidays for youngsters who would otherwise have no Christmas gift, are vital and satisfying parts of the groups’ work, they believe the most lasting effects are the ones that come from empowering the residents toward self-sufficiency.
As the AHMEN mission statement puts it, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he feeds himself for a lifetime. Teach a man to make a fishing pole and he changes a village.” Below it is the tag, “Striving to demonstrate the love of God through action.”
Franklin says he enjoys speaking to church groups about his experiences in mission work, and that recruiting new donors and volunteers with their own enthusiasms and expertise helps keep fresh, and ongoing, a process that can occasionally wear on one’s soul.
“There are so many health and education issues here in our own country,” he says, “But we’ve never experienced political instability on the scale that Honduras has. We can drink the water that comes out of our taps and not fear for our lives. And our doctors, nurses, teachers, and police do get paid regularly. ”But with so much needing to be done in La Ceiba, the people there don’t give up. They don’t panic. They just ‘keep on truckin’, as the old saying goes. Any notion of ‘despair’ is from visitors, not from Hondurans themselves. They’re some of the most creative, resilient, and innovative people I’ve ever met. “The way I see it, each one of us has only so much time on this earth. And the promise of everlasting life is only good to those who use this one so that subsequent generations have a chance to escape sickness, starvation, and selfishness. It doesn’t matter where a person volunteers in the service of others—just so it gets done. Just so we make a difference, while we’re here, in other peoples’ lives.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org