Corn – egie Hall *

Today, Susan studied at the apron of the Master.
After we finished early in the NPH clinic, she decided to offer assistance at the tortilla hut.    Like most others – a building of brick and tile, located near the center of the Ranch – the tortilla hut stands out only by its adjacent, open-air, wood-fired, smoke-belching black cauldron……   and by its delicious and enticing fragrance.
Doña Gloria directs the daily orchestration of stoking the fire, boiling the thick, yellow maize, adding the lye, and stirring with her squat wooden baton until the kernels are softened to her exacting standard. 
The second movement brings large amounts of the boiled concoction through a funnel/grinder apparatus, to produce the malleable, doughy masa, which finds itself formed into uniform, flat discs by the hand-cranked “tortillero”.
At the large, black stovetop, Doña Gloria performs her grand finale of cooking the tortillas to a spottily-browned, slightly crisp perfection.  Her spatula effortlessly flips and rearranges the notes on her page, while towers of finished product rise to her right.  Her accompanist shuttles the aromatic, freshly-made tortillas to a large, draped washbasin, used to transport the precious contents to the insulated termos, and then on to the hogars for lunch.  Spectators are graced with samples that – with a pinch of salt in the smoky tortilla air – complete the experience of ecstasy.
While the floor of her chamber is swept, and the instruments are cleaned for another day’s performance, Doña Gloria sits and wipes her damp brow.  With the face of someone much younger than her 69 years, her smile reveals a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.  A stout and solid woman, her dimensions trend toward those of her perfectly-round works of art.  Hands grown strong and tough through years of hard work smooth back feathery gray hair beneath a well-worn baseball cap.  Work is finished until starting up again before tomorrow’s dawn.
 Doña Gloria makes 2,000 tortillas daily for all those who live and work at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos.  Conservatively estimating that one half million tortillas kiss her griddle every year, in her 50-year career, Doña Gloria would have produced enough tortillas that if placed end-to-end, would form a ribbon of corn around the circumference of Dallas, Texas…….  68 times.
 If tomorrow morning, one is fortunate enough to be cutting across the Ranch, he should be prepared to experience a whiff of the work of a virtuoso.

*The Stavinohas have now temporarily returned to the US.  Appearing in Neighbors Far Away will be essays from their previous visits to NPH Honduras.


Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.

This saying – attributed to the spirit imparted by St. Francis of Assisi – is but one of many ways to express that our actions speak louder than our words.

A daily reminder of this truth is painted on the side of the church building which we pass on the way to the clinic at NPH Honduras.  There, a father lion gives advice to his lion cub, telling his little one to be careful about where he steps.  “Watch your own steps, then,” chides the youngster, “because they are the ones that I am following”.

Aren’t we always challenged to practice what we preach?

Here, we have repeatedly witnessed the active embrace of human dignity expressed in so many ways by ordinary people with extraordinary love and respect for one another.  Their example impacts us much more dramatically than does the painted reminder.

Ramon* – who is himself disabled – took special care with his newly-arrived, wheelchair-bound brother, who needed some extra attention at the water park.

Recently, Tia Nena* came to our clinic, suffering from a distressing infection.  After receiving medication, rehydration fluid and advice that she rest, she headed back to Hogar San Francisco.  That night, however, at the dinner/rosary/movie night, who but Tia Nena was working hard to make sure that her children were clean, fed and put to bed?

Jesus was explicit and plain in telling Peter how to follow Him (Jn 21):

Feed my lambs.
Tend my sheep.
Feed my sheep.

The Feeding and the Tending are more important than the Philosophy and the Terminology.  How often do we – while distracted by our attempts to find the right words – walk past the lambs and the sheep on our very own trail?

Too often.

May we all quietly put our feet on the path illuminated by our Lord, walk the walk, and put our trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us along.

*Names changed. 


Our patient was suffering.

Beatrice*, a 45 year-old woman with metastatic cancer lie in bed in her simple home in La Venta, Honduras.  Though chemotherapy had smoothed her head, several tiny new hairs had pushed their way out for a look at the world.  Beatrice’s face revealed a consuming discomfort caused by her tumor.  Even small movements resulted in penetrating pain.  She often worked hard to breathe. 

In addition to our routine of working in the clinics at NPH Honduras, occasionally we have been asked to aid persons in the community.  Beatrice was such a person.  We would catch a ride, visit regularly, and attempt to relieve Beatrice’s pain and suffering.

As with much of our work in this country, limited resources dictate the appearance of the medical care we can give.  It is always challenging to care for a patient’s physical ailments, and at the same time maintain respect for his autonomy and dignity.  How often we are redirected to the essential premises and basic promises of our medical profession.

While we would sit at Beatrice’s bedside, within our control was the ability to  a) make no improvement in her acute suffering,  b) relieve Beatrice’s pain and breathing difficulty, temporarily replacing it with peaceful sleep, or  c) watch as Beatrice’s breathing slowed and ceased. 

The force used to push the syringe would determine the result.  Unfortunately for us, no exact recipe would guide our finger in our endeavor to help Beatrice.

Scholars and Saints have given much attention to suffering.  Redemptive Suffering has been described as a good thing.  How, though, were we to know what kind of suffering Beatrice experienced?  And most importantly, what were we to do with the syringe?

As unequipped as we felt with our box of modest medicines and supplies, we felt even more unequipped to deal with the deeper and spiritual dynamic of Beatrice’s suffering.

Admittedly, suffering is involved in relationships as they change and grow.  Beatrice’s relationships may have been undergoing much-needed reconciliation in these waning moments of her life.  In their suffering, Beatrice and Christ may have been finding new union. 

How would we avoid getting between Beatrice and the One who calls her?

Ultimately, we aimed our efforts at relieving the pain placed before our eyes, while allowing God’s plan – on His time schedule – to unfold in the life of Beatrice.

Today, Beatrice died.

To say that she suffers no more is the easy and self-comforting refrain.   Perhaps, however, we should celebrate that her suffering has accompanied her through an important journey – one which may have seen important healing take place.

What a privilege our profession offers us – the invitation to be close to someone at their death, and to their intimate encounter with God.

*Name changed

Fun on the Ranch

We are definitely not suffering.

Lenten sacrifice  ….  

desert experience  ….    

doing without things  ….

None of those images seemed to inform the light and joyful atmosphere surrounding today’s breakfast.  Balloons and colorful hand-made posters covered the clinic walls, wishing Dr. Marta a happy birthday.  Welcomed by the aroma of rich “café de palo,” we sat down to authentic enchiladas and fresh cupcakes.

Being “grandparents-in-residence” to a wonderful group of children at Rancho Santa Fe turns out to be a dream realized.  Here, love is given freely, and received readily.  We are fortunate that the abilities we bring can be put to good use.  Our Spanish – though not excellent – is good enough for the shouted greetings across the courtyards, and for reassurance in the quiet moments with a frightened little one.

Playing hopscotch with an 8 year-old  …. 

hoola-hoop competition for prizes of cookies and candies  ….

indulging in a big bag of freshly-picked mandarin oranges  ….

Perhaps we are having more of a DESSERT experience.

NFA – A Leaky Roof

Last week, as I slept during a nighttime rainstorm here at NPH-Honduras, a repeated cold drip on my face broke my slumber. It brought to mind the proverb: “A leaky roof can fool the sun, but it cannot fool the rain.”

As I wiped my face, the truth of this saying became clear on many levels. Indeed, the imperfections atop our small casita allowed in the unwelcome precipitation. Similarly, in our personal lives, while the sun shines on our days, our defects and brokenness leave us to postpone needed repairs. However, with the arrival of the personal downpour of crisis, rejection or loss, we scramble for the basins and the mops.

Upon looking around this place, I see young lives which experience the brightest of sunny days – while having endured the blackest of thunderstorms. Only three years ago, Delia* – an engaging 16-year-old with a sparkling smile and quick wit – was abandoned by her family, while lying in a hospital bed, suffering from a life-threatening disease. Upon witnessing the love and support given to a hospital roommate, Delia appealed to join the NPH family as her own.

Now an NPH “Pequeña”, Delia is healthy, thriving and surrounded by unconditional love. She now helps at the home for her most disabled brothers and sisters, while proceeding through school to catch up to her age-appropriate grade level. She plans a teaching career for her future.

Delia’s story is but one of innumerable miracles we are privileged to witness in our time spent at NPH-Honduras. Working to be part of the patch for the leakiness in these children’s lives is a joy and an honor beyond measure.

Now, I gaze out the window, looking at the red-tile roofs of this loving place. Though the roofs may be in need of structural repair, they shelter children who are nurtured, prized and protected – regardless of the weather conditions.

How can we simplify our lives?  How can we continue to use our medical skills as we move toward retirement?  Can we enrich both our own lives and those of others?  Can we gain a better understanding of neighbor by living and working with him in community?

For us, these questions are being answered with the help of Mission Doctors Association (MDA).  Through MDA, we have volunteered our medical services yearly, and are now serving for five months at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) in Honduras, Central America.

At NPH Honduras, we live among many young Hondurans from disrupted homes, who grow up together in a setting of safety, security and love.  Each has the chance to advance educationally, to grow spiritually, and to know what it is to be family.  Surrounded by dedicated local adults and international staff and volunteers, these youth are given the opportunity to build new lives for themselves, and to make their country a better place.

On a typical day, we may start with Mass at the home for elderly residents, followed by a walk to the NPH community clinic to see patients in a primary care setting.  After a lunch of beans, bananas and rice with the Honduran staff and volunteer nurses, we may return to the two-room casita we call home.  The afternoon may find us playing games with the young children of Casa Suyapa, helping the surgical brigade in triage activities, or hiking together on a mountain trail lined by fragrant pines.

We invite you to join us on our journey at “Neighbors Far Away”, and to learn more about Mission Doctors Association.