Saturday, November 14, 2015

On a Dark Day

I saw the news scroll across the bottom of the television screen that hung above my friends’ heads – for whatever reason, the restaurant was playing the news in English. “100 hostages reported in Paris concert hall” and “40 dead” and “Explosions throughout the city.”

The number of dead and injured kept climbing on the ticker at the bottom of the screen – I couldn’t hear what the reporter was saying, but she stood on a dark street and the people running behind her looked afraid. After a few minutes, the channel changed to a soccer match and I turned back to my friends’ conversation.

That could be it. That could be my entire connection to the tragedy that is still unfolding. But it shook me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head all last night, this morning.

“Pain is one of the gifts God gives us.” From the back of my mind comes a lesson from my second or third-grade science book. I remember the picture of a girl with her hand outstretched, about to touch a hot stove. “Pain lets us know that there is a problem so that we can fix it,” and she pulls her hand back. The second picture shows her smiling, hand raised.

This morning I took a bus to a coffee shop so I could read the news – 129 dead in Paris; 352 injured, 99 in critical condition. I read friends’ posts that pointed out, rightly, that similar massacres occurred this week: in Beirut where 43 were killed and 239 injured, and in Baghdad, where 26 were killed and dozens injured.

I read posts criticizing the media for focusing on tragedies in wealthy, Western nations while ignoring these tragedies elsewhere. I remembered again that while the media runs on a news cycle, the world does not. Though I haven’t read about Syria in a few weeks, refugees still flee for their lives from the atrocities that continue to happen there. Somalian refugees still crowd into boats that cross the Mediterranean. Refugee camps in Nepal still host families who have been left stateless for two decades – the world has more or less forgotten them.

And why stop there? In Honduras more than a dozen people are murdered every day. In the United States, mass shootings erupt often enough to feel like a pattern. Around the world, violence and hatred against women and ethnic and religious minorities form a slower and subtler massacre that doesn’t prompt the same outpouring of support.

But compassion comes from a bottomless well. Praying for France does not detract from anyone’s prayers for these other tragedies; on the contrary, prayers nearly always prompt more and greater prayers, more and greater action.

Anger or judgment against those expressing pain, even if it's only changing a profile photo on Facebook, deadens our own feelings, holds our own hand to the fire.

“They can’t feel anything.” Now I remember the page in my Storybook Bible where Jesus heals the men with leprosy. They were wrapped up in bandages, almost like Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb a few pages later. “They have no feeling in their body,” I remember my mother explaining, “So when their foot gets hurt they keep walking on it and that makes the hurt worse. But then Jesus healed them and made them feel again.”

This violence is terrifying. This violence is senseless, and I use the word “senseless” as if any murder makes sense. These reports would be easier to read if my senses were deadened. They would be easier to ignore. If you feel nothing you can smile as your skin blisters, keep walking though every step cripples you more.

As a global body, we should welcome the pain we feel, knowing it is a signal to react as quickly and decisively as the girl pulls her hand from the stove. 

It is empathy, feeling others' pain, that should compel us to donate talents and time and money to counter hate and violence from our immediate neighborhoods all the way to our extremities on other parts of the globe. But more than that, it is love.

It takes a brave love to withstand this pain day after day, to resolve to not let ourselves become numb to it. We will be exhausted by this. There will be days where we think that we cannot continue.

But feeling, even pain, especially pain, is what it means to be healed.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Justice Looks Like Paperwork

It’s the end of the month, so I’m going over my budget and making sure everything is accounted for. Every purchase I’ve made all month is meticulously recorded, receipts are duly labeled, photographed, and filed in a manila folder. It’s tedious work. My spreadsheet rarely comes out right. I don’t like doing this.

My friends, family, and church donated generously through Mennonite Central Committee so that I could work here at the Association for a More Just Society, and through MCC all my expenses are paid – rent, food, transportation – as long as they’re all properly documented in my Excel sheet. Sometimes I wonder, when I enter my daily fifty-cent bus fare, whether this is all a little bit much.

But there is a reason for this sort of attentiveness, however time-consuming. In fact, I’m becoming convinced that these are the details that matter about an organization, that these records and audits and due process, as unsexy as they might seem, are actively bringing about justice.

“Transparency” and “accountability” are the mantras here in an organization that spends most of its time making sure that the government works as it’s supposed to.  It’s an uphill battle. No one thinks that they’re a crook, especially not people who have been unchallenged their whole lives. No one thinks they need the sort of accountability that exhaustive documentation provides.

Certainly a few corrupt people exploit regulatory gaps to steal millions of dollars or threaten others’ lives. But most people’s corruption looks a lot more tame. It’s clocking in twenty minutes before you actually start to work. It’s failing to get a signature. It’s signing off on something you didn’t actually do, because you’ll get to it eventually.

It’s not that any of those minor infractions breaks a system, but the culture it creates, the balance of risks and rewards it shifts, starts to strain a system to its breaking point.

The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is Transparency International’s local chapter here, and last year signed a landmark agreement with the Honduran government that charged them, as civil society, with monitoring the transparency and anti-corruption efforts of major government ministries.

That’s how I found myself from the first day elbows deep in the Honduran Education System’s Purchasing and Contracts protocols. I translated graphs of compliance percentages and documentation delivered and began to realize why people say that the Devil’s in the details.

You can’t talk about justice on a big scale without talking about justice on a small scale. You can’t talk about education reform without making sure that it’s recorded whether your teachers actually show up to teach their classes.

Take health – Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America, and approximately 70% of its population depend on publicly-funded hospitals for all their medical care. Yet too often they’re sent home without desperately-needed medicine to treat illnesses from heart disease to schizophrenia because the hospitals don’t have the necessary medicines in stock. When I visited the hospital, doctors talked about buying extra sutures with their own money for the times when the dispensary ran out mid-surgery.

There are two ways to respond to this system that isn’t working as it should. One could create supplemental medical brigades, donate medicines from abroad and send foreign doctors, form health nonprofits or give low-interests loans to purchase medicines on the private market. Or one could go to the source, the Ministry of Health itself, and start to ask questions about why it isn’t working like it should.

Transformemos Honduras, a program of AJS, did the latter, sending request after request for the sort of official documentation that would help them see how medicine purchasing was being managed. Though Honduran law says the information should be delivered within ten days, they waited six months, during which time these justice fighters probably didn’t feel very much like heroes.

When what documentation there was began to come together, it told a bleak story. The Ministry of Health wasn’t analyzing the market to see how much medicines should cost, and it wasn’t following the purchase contract process in the way the law laid out. That meant it was paying double, triple, even seven times as much for medicines as it should. What’s worse, the companies themselves were involved in writing the purchase orders, telling the Ministry of Health what medicines it should purchase instead of the other way around.

The already-strained Ministry of Health was overpaying for medicines that weren’t even necessarily the ones that were needed. Even worse, some of these medicines were never delivered, while others were delivered in unacceptable quality – after audits started, auditors found some medicines infected with bacteria, while others were delivered with only four of their 11 essential ingredients.

The story gets even worse – the warehousing government medicines was run by a woman who appeared to use the stash as her personal piggybank, forging medicine orders and selling the excess, mismanaging the disorganized warehouse so that expensive pills were left to spoil while people in hospitals died for lack of drugs.

In 2013, Transformemos Honduras presented their report, which was numbers and percentages and all the little pieces of methodology that sometimes seem unimportant. The effect was electric. The Honduran government immediately removed the director from her position. She, along with other wealthy, powerful people would eventually face consequences -- caught in their corruption by a missing trail of paperwork.

It’s not always fun or exciting to sift through hundreds of spreadsheets or file the government forms that will give you access to hundreds more. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. We need to realize that investment in “unsexy” work like social audits and performance reviews is foundational to creating systems that serve the most vulnerable well, and that transparency and accountability aren’t just buzzwords, they’re building blocks to better systems.

Working at AJS, I’m empowered to be a part of civil society’s oversight of government systems. But transparency and accountability touch my own life as well. It matters that I account for the money I spend, that I’m willing to be as open with my use of others’ funds as I want the government to be with their’s.

So I stare at the expense column in front of me. I write my daily 50 cents under the appropriate column in my expense spreadsheet, hit save, and then hit send. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why I Don’t Recycle


I used to recycle religiously. My environmental-scientist roommate helped me learn how to twist off caps, tear off labels, and flatten plastic cartons. We kept our recycling in a big wicker basket, and every other week we would empty the paper and bottles into a bin and drag it to the curb to be picked up, trucked off, sorted, and crushed – remade.

I don’t do that anymore. I throw plastic bottles in with cardboard in with banana peels almost like I don’t believe that the damage we are doing to our planet is irreversible. It’s not that I don’t believe in recycling and not that I don’t want to do it – but the systems that are in place around me simply aren’t set up in a way that makes it possible.

The fact is that recycling as I thought of it in Michigan doesn’t really exist in Honduras. There are no wicker baskets, and definitely no curb-side bins. Instead, at the end of the week, my host dad will drive our bags of trash to the single dumpster that serves our entire hillside community. 

For people who don’t have a vehicle and can’t make the walk down the steep hill with their bags of trash, the street has to do. Throwing garbage in the streets is not a good thing – but for many it’s the only real option. Throwing things away, let alone recycling, isn’t a moral decision, it’s a practical one.

It’s impossible to understand individual behavior without understanding the systems that provoke it, the balance of costs and benefits that always lead people to consider or decline actions.

In the United States, I didn’t recycle because I was a better person than the people who live here in Honduras – I recycled because it was easy, because single-stream recycling and curb-side pick-up tipped the balance of costs and benefits so far towards recycling that one would have to be actively against recycling not to do it.

I could judge Hondurans for not making the same decisions I used to make in the United States – but that would be ignoring the fact that our decisions aren’t actually the same at all.

I don’t recycle here because I can’t recycle here. Because of the lack of any recycling system, because of the way that materials are reused in different ways, no one would blame me. As I realized this, I started to think about other systems, how decisions I think people should be making may not actually be a meaningful option for them.


In Honduras, about 4% of murders result in an arrest, leaving an astonishing 96% impunity rate for homicides. Victims of crimes don’t always report them to the police, witnesses of crimes don’t testify, and dangerous criminals are left on the street.

The answer to this seems obvious – people should report crimes, lawyers should prosecute them, and judges should punish them. Yet Honduras’s justice system is riddled with roadblocks and dangers that generally mean involvement carries a much higher cost than benefit.

How could I tell people here that they need to cooperate with the justice system when doing so means risking death threats for themselves and their families? Witnesses have been shot for cooperating, their names revealed by corrupt police officers. Lawyers have been assassinated for standing up to the wrong people. Bribes and rampant bias mean that the wealthy and powerful are far less likely to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted of it, while the poor have none of these protections.

The fact that Hondurans don’t often bring cases to be prosecuted is not a problem of apathy, of laziness, or of disinterest – it is a structural problem that keeps everyone from equal access to justice. The balance of costs and benefits is warped – the choice to trust a broken system isn’t a meaningful choice.

It works the other way too – the costs of standing up against corruption are high, but the costs of corruption itself might be quite low. Without justice systems that regularly prosecute corruption, the scales are tipped again, leading people who in other situations would follow the rules to decide the benefits of crime are too attractive to ignore.

Context matters. Attaching moral significance to systemic failures too often blames the most vulnerable for their own problems. In the United States, it’s easy to feel moral superiority for doing things – recycling, eating organic, getting a college education, even trusting police officers – that simply aren’t meaningful choices for others.

These decisions aren’t always up to individuals. If we believe that eating organic is important, we need to do more than tell people to do so, we need to invest in making this food cheaper and more accessible. Valuing higher education means changing patterns of costs and benefits so that it’s a real option for students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. Increasing trust in police means ensuring that their interactions with people of all backgrounds are equally above reproach.

People aren’t always going to make the same decisions as me. Sometimes this is because they disagree with me – they don’t think recycling is important, they’re attracted by the corruption’s apparent benefits. But more often than I realize, there is no real decision for them to make.

I don’t want to say that what is good or what is right should be easy. But what is good should be possible, and it should be possible for everyone. Individual choices matter, but what matters more is the existence of choice in the first place.

That is part of why I get so excited about the work we do here. It is more than throwing a single can in a recycling bin. It is more than throwing a single person in prison. It is a fundamental readjustment of entire systems of benefits and costs, making it easier to do what is good and harder to break the rules – giving everyone the real opportunity to make choices that are better for them and better for our world..  

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Bodies We're In

Back before I cared about pesky things like brushing my hair or ever changing out of my favorite t-shirt
“You’re only 21?” the teenage girl asked, her eyes sliding up and down me. She barely came up to my shoulder – I could have closed my fingers around her slender arms. “American vitamins,” she marveled under her breath.

I am tall here in Honduras, and not just tall, big. Hondurans, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s a common occurrence for me to look eye-to-eye with men and tower a full head over other women.

Hondurans aren’t shy, either, about calling attention to size. “Gordita,” or chubby, is tossed around affectionately. I knew a stout little boy called “Gordo.”

“But what do you really want to be called?” I asked him.

“Gordo,” he said, looking at me oddly.

I am gordita here. When I went looking for jeans, I picked out a pair in my size and could barely pull them over my thighs in the dressing room. I came out and asked my friend if it was possible they were mislabeled. “Well, they’re not American sizes,” she said, and I reddened at the implication.

I can’t help it. I know better, but I still wish I was small and thin like the women I see every day, more deft with makeup, more in tune with fashion, less mottled white by my sunburn’s uneven peeling.

It’s harder, too, because for the first time everyone’s eyes are on me. Men stare blatantly on the bus. “Chela,” they shout, which means white or pale, “Gringa,” “Hermosa,” or whatever English phrases they remember  – “I love you,” usually.

I wonder, helplessly, if I wore pants instead of skirts, tied my hair back tighter, wore clothes that were older or looser if the attention would lessen. This is exactly why I hate those catcalls so much; because they make me start thinking that they are somehow my own fault. 

And so I’m torn both ways, wanting to be thinner and prettier and more polished, and wanting to be plain enough to be invisible, to walk to work just one day without the being shouted at. Perhaps some of the things the men say are compliments, but they don’t feel like it. They just make me more conscious of the way my hair frizzes in the humidity, my freckled nose, the weight in my legs that wasn’t there when I started college.

I always write when I have a question – I write to arrive at an answer. The easy answer would be, but Kate, you are pretty, or but Kate, you’re not that big, absolving me of one or two fears and leaving the door open for one hundred more.

What I want to say instead is that others’ perception of the way my body looks doesn’t affect the way my body works. It doesn’t affect the writing I do at work or the friendships I cultivate afterwards. It doesn’t affect the miracle of sustaining life that my body manages to perform every day. Leave the question of whether I'm pretty or fat or neither or both aside – would it matter if I was?

Bodies are incredible. I marvel at the thousands of sequences of effortless movements logged in my muscle memory, the twisting of hair into a french braid, the tying of a shoelace, the way I grip a pencil. I marvel at the way my fingers curl around a guitar’s neck, the way I breathe without thinking about it, the way the scar on my knee turned pink and then white and then so smooth I can barely find it.

These are the bodies that we have; we fill them up with ourselves. Things like slenderness and prettiness, however that’s defined, certainly exist, but they’re only a piece of a marvelous whole. It’s the whole that matters, not the shout of a stranger on a crowded corner or a well-meaning joke from a friend.

Our bodies don’t make us remarkable – we make our bodies remarkable. And when I think of remarkable people, I think of every shape and size and color, every level of ability and disability.

It’s not that beauty or size isn’t a question – it’s just not half as interesting as the other question: Who cares how it looks, what are you going to do with it?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Beholden, Be Held!

When the world was created, God said, “Behold!” and we were beholden, forever unable to repay the debt. “It is very good,” he smiled nonetheless and he held it up to admire.


“Sit, Kati, I’ll bring you your breakfast,” Doña Juana says and I sit and watch her scramble eggs. She is blind in one eye and her legs are stiff. I jump up when she falters on the step but she does not spill even a drop of my coffee.

“Let me get it,” I beg her, though she always says no. I feel uncomfortable. After so much kindness I feel beholden, though I don’t know what to offer more than what I already pay in room and board.

I wonder what I should do, how I could uphold my side of the bargain. Should in Spanish is “debe,” from the Latin debere. Debe also means must and it also means owe though in terms of repayment my obligation falls somewhere debe and could if I wanted to – no one is really asking.

What is it I would have – equal acounts? Refusing those kindnesses I can’t repay? To let others serve you is itself a type of kindness, to refuse that help a type of pride. I don’t want to debe but I forget that there is no must attatched to receiving, that Doña Juana’s service is as free as grace and equally unearned.

When we eat together she talks about God’s faithfulness. He has given her more, she says, than she can ever repay. “He has sustained me,” she tells me, and the word she uses could also be translated held: “I only pray that he helps me to care for you and the other students well.”

It dawns on me like the dawn does here – I awake and there is light – that we are drawing from infinite accounts. Obligation turns sweet, from I should, I must to I may, I get to, our debts paradoxical: the easy burden, the light yoke.

Together we are beholden to each other, held up by each other’s service and fixed on each other’s needs. In my weakness I take freely; in my strength, then I will give.

Behold!” they will say, when they see this – “How beautiful it is!”

In the Strength You Have

“The angel of the LORD came down and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abierzrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.’”  – Judges 6:11-12

At the Association for a More Just Society where I work we’re exhorted to be “brave Christians” and to “love fearlessly,” with an active love. This ignites me but it also scares me a little because it’s hard to think of myself as valiant. If the angel of the LORD came down he’d know all the times I didn’t speak up when I should have; he’d know I climbed to the top of that cliff by the river and just stood and watched while everyone else dove in.

I get excited about justice in theory, but too often I’d rather thresh my wheat in a winepress where it’s safer, where I can hide my work until it’s finished and no one will come to challenge me, to threaten, to rob, or to steal.

“‘Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.’” – Judges 6:13

“You have to know something about Honduras,” my ten-year-old host brother tells me, “Don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk on your phone in the street. Don’t stop to count your money. Just keep walking.”

He and his brother watch television with passive curiosity as it shows another murder in the streets. The camera pans in close. Blood flows from the drug-runner’s hair onto the pavement as police circle around him. He was only a boy.

This doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like a twisted accident that I was born in health and safety that so many can only dream about. At night I hear the lusty voices of church members singing to Him who is “all-powerful, great, and majestic” and I wonder if He is there with them, and if so, why some of their children go to bed hungry.

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14

I forget how God works: that on earth his hands and feet and hearts and mouths are called to knit themselves together and to act.

I’m not here to save the world, I say, and sometimes smugly, because I perceive that condescending zeal in others. But, why am I here, then, if not to use what strength I have? Why am I here if not because I felt sent? Every day I read reports of corruption in Honduras’ Education System, Security System, Property Institute, and if my small notations and translations help to shake that it is good that I am here.

I have no delusions of being a savior; in fact, I am painfully aware of the harmfulness of that mindset. But servants, too, can be sent, in what strength they have.

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel?” My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  – Judges 6:15

Why choose me to do anything when better choices exist? There will always be others who are quicker and smarter than I. They will speak better Spanish, write better, and faster; they will be funnier, even, and know how to cook. Why do anything, then, if someone else could do it better?

Because others don’t do it and it needs to be done. This is how I found myself unexpectedly leading worship, writing editorials, teaching English. Skill matters, of course, but not nearly as much as willingness.

The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”  – Judges 6:16

We ask why injustice happens in this world and the answer isn’t an answer but a command – Go.

The least of us will lead the march, and the LORD will be with us, behind us, before us. And we march on with a promise – that it is justice that wins in the end. 

Speaking Spanish

“How’s your Spanish?,” friends ask me, “Are you getting fluent?,” and I don’t know how to answer because one minute I’m translating a dense legal document and the next I can’t understand someone asking me for the time.

There are things I love about Spanish, and in my best moments, it rolls out of my mouth. Most often, however, my speech is stilted and strange and scattered with, “Can you repeat that?”s, and strange Spanglish constructions like, “Fue como, like, supercool.”

I was excited, in the beginning, to be surrounded completely by the language I was learning. I spoke Spanish even with North American colleagues, stayed up late watching Spanish movies and listening to Spanish music and begged my housemates to teach me new Honduran slang.

It’s in the last week that I began to miss English fiercely. I crave its round sounds and ridiculous clusters of letters, its depth and delightful preciseness. I miss more than the ability to communicate – I miss the tools of my trade. I had always prided myself on writing and speaking well, and suddenly I was handed different tools to use; they felt cumbersome and did not fit well in my hands. 

I love Spanish in the mouths of other people, but in my mouth it still feels strange and ungainly. I know how words are supposed to sound, but I can’t quite form them. I forget important words just as I need to use them. I can ask directions and order food but I lack the words to express new insights, dreams, and passions – I still pray in English.

I have never been good at the sort of light small-talk one shares with coworkers and acquaintances, and in Spanish I am even worse. I can ask a specific question about a chart on a report, but my tongue goes into knots when someone asks about my weekend. I am quieter here.  

In English I was always the student in the front row with her hand up. If a thought came into my head, it would burn on my tongue until I had said it. I would fidget, sometimes, with the weight of my thoughts. It was as if they didn’t exist until I had spoken them aloud. I thought quickly, often out loud, talking over and around others and seizing on debates.

I can’t do that in Spanish. I listen more, nod in silence more, laugh more at other people’s jokes. I am in a position of learning, not sharing, and passive reception. I do not set the stage. This can be frustrating to me, maddening, even, but it is humbling, and that humbleness is good.

The other day I was speaking to a friend about my frustrations, and she said, in Spanish, “Don’t worry, you already speak bastante,” “Bastante” means “enough,” but also “more than enough, a lot,” and even in my worst moments that’s true. I don’t speak fluent Spanish or perfect Spanish, but I speak bastante Spanish, enough to understand and be understood – enough to start.