East Union members travel to Honduras

By Mary Marek
Posted 3/18/99

Last summer, when a group of people from East Union Mennonite Church signed up to travel to Honduras on a work mission in February, they expected to be doing regular maintenance and repairs at Shalom …

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East Union members travel to Honduras


Last summer, when a group of people from East Union Mennonite Church signed up to travel to Honduras on a work mission in February, they expected to be doing regular maintenance and repairs at Shalom Retreat Center in the capital city of Tegucigalpa. Knowing the economy of Honduras is poor, they anticipated rather rough conditions and were ready for some hard work. What they did not anticipate, though, was Hurricane Mitch. As one member of the party put it, “If I had known I would be doing hurricane clean-up, I’m not sure I would have gone.”

Mitch, called by U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger “the most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the Western Hemisphere,” struck Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala late last October, killing more than 9,000 people and leaving thousands more homeless. In Honduras, the torrential rains of October and November caused massive mudslides that washed out roads and bridges and buried homes.

Shalom, a place not unlike Crooked Creek Camp in Washington, is a retreat run by the Mennonite Church. It’s available for rent to families, businesses or church groups for meetings, retreats, reunions or other gatherings. In the immediate future, Shalom will house relief workers come to further repair the damage caused by the hurricane.

The East Union group arrived in Honduras Monday, February 8. Unfortunately, their luggage didn’t arrive until Thursday, February 11. Looking forward to warmer weather than they were leaving behind in Iowa, they were unprepared for the cool temperatures found at 5,000 feet above sea level. A trip to a second-hand clothing store provided some needed changes of clothing.

Living conditions at the retreat were cruder than the Iowans were used to. Rain water for bathing and other household use is collected in tanks on roof-tops and gravity-fed to the lower levels. Water for showers was heated by running it past a 220-volt electrical wire. A native woman was hired to do the laundry for the group, washing the clothes outdoors and scrubbing them by hand.

While the Honduran countryside is beautiful, abject poverty is everywhere. Sitting around a campfire with local church members during a power outage one evening,, the East Union contingent heard some sobering facts about the country. Six million people live in Honduras, most of them in the capital city. The illiteracy rate is almost 100 percent and four percent of the children die from malnutrition every year.

A poor country before Mitch blew in, the devastation left in his wake was tremendous. Bridges, roads and buildings were washed completely away by the flooding and mudslides. Floodwater left indelible marks on the sides of buildings as reminders of how deep it had been. Homes and other buildings left standing were filled with mud and debris.

A large part of Honduras’ economy is based on the export of bananas, coffee and other crops. The hurricane wiped out many of the banana trees, leaving the ground useless, because, the Iowans were told, where bananas have been planted, nothing else will grow.

Many of the native people make their living by growing vegetables and fruits and selling them on the streets of the cities. During Hurricane Mitch, several of these street vendors lost not only their homes in the rural areas, but the markets on the city streets where they sold their produce. The Hondurans are a resilient people, though, and street markets are being reestablished.

It will take many years for Honduras to rebuild what Hurricane Mitch destroyed in a few hours. Thirteen people from the Kalona area did their part last month to hurry the recovery along.