La Ceiba

October 1998

Last week a town that I used to call home, and many people in it that I knew and loved, died.

I lived in a sweet little seaport town called “La Ceiba,” on the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras. It is named after a tropical tree named the “Ceiba” which has huge branches which-according to the legend-hold down the earth and keep it secure. We had one Ceiba in town, and it was breath taking. It was in a park that I passed when I walked from my apartment to the beach. A friend of mine owned a small house on the beach and when I had free time I walked to her house and laid on the sand and listened to live reggae concerts in an outdoor cabana not far away. On the way, I would stop and admire the massive Ceiba tree, in all its glory, holding down the ground. It was so large that it was hard to imagine anything that could dislodge its hold on the earth.

My job in those days was doing research on the work of development agencies in Honduras for a masters thesis I was writing in economics. But in the process I met and loved, and now miss, an enormous number of people and places.

I lived in a tiny upstairs apartment on Colon Avenue, in a gorgeous old Spanish villa with terraces and patios and hanging plants. My landlord was Maurico Benza, a dignified Spaniard with a pencil thin black mustache and a wonderful bow tie. I loved him because he reminded me of all of the Hollywood movie depictions of old world Spanish aristocracy.

Next door was my barber, Alfonso, who was an immigrant from Italy. He and I got along great because neither of us knew enough Spanish to use big words.

Down the street from Alfonso was the Parque Infantil, the “Children’s Park.” When I would get home early, I liked to go by there and sit on a bench and watch the kids play while I fed the pigeons. And across the street from the park was my favorite lunch place, La Pizza Barrata, “The Cheap Pizza.”

Periodically a homeless man named Jorge would offer to sell me items that he had acquired in his travels, like maps, post cards, and movie tickets. One time he sold me a discount coupon at The Cheap Pizza. We shared the pizza and had a great time. I loaned him twenty Limpiras one time to buy a litter box for his cat. Months later I got a letter from him apologizing for the delay in repaying the loan. In the envelope was twenty Limpiras’ worth of discount pizza coupons.

Just outside of town was a clinic set up by Dr. Joyce Baker, a United Church of Christ missionary in Honduras. For thirty years she has lived, ministered, and raised her family among the poor in Honduras.

I also met a woman who hosts American doctors, as they come to give free medical help to the poor. And a man who came La Ceiba as a Peace Corp worker but stayed on to teach teaching poor kids how to start their own businesses. And a retired banker from Tegucigalpa who came to teach literature out on the islands. And a nurse from Maine who spent her vacations inoculating dogs from infectious diseases. And there were more. I met more good and wise people than I could ever remember. And they are all friends of mine who I miss.

On Monday, October 26, Hurricane Mitch ran over the top of Ceiba. It stalled for six days dropping as much as four inches of rain per hour. Fifty rivers over flowed their banks. Every building from the shore through the Parque Infantil were entirely covered by water. My friend’s home on the beach is gone. The villa is gone. The Dunkin Donuts is gone. The barber shop, Cheap Pizza, and the park are all gone. The mighty Ceiba, securing the earth, disappeared. The clinics, that Dr. Baker had labored to build for twenty years, are all gone. Destroyed.

On Saturday, the rain hit Tegucigalpa. It flooded the city, taking cars, trucks, trees, homes, roads, bridges, and dragged them all down through the water. Sky scrapers caved into the river. Super markets, office complexes, theaters, factories, hospitals, shopping malls, schools, and churches, all caved in. Homes with real people with real hopes and dreams, washed away. Farms, horses, animals, and bodies, all flowed down the river.

One out of every three buildings in the country no longer exist. Every major road is destroyed, Every airport. Every major power line. Seventy percent of the economic production is ruined. At least twelve thousand people, real people, so far have died, thirteen thousand people are unaccounted for, most of whom will eventually die. Over one million people are in shelters.

On Sunday a rain-filled crater lake in Nicaragua lake burst open causing mud slides that covered thirty-two square miles and destroyed four towns, killing thousands. Today the scene looks like the surface of the moon, with bodies sticking out of the mud and the sounds of babies crying. They found so many corpses that the government is burying them in the dozens with bulldozers.

One reason I retell this story is to grieve over the loss of a lot of friends who I will never see again. I can barely stand to think about them. The second is to say as a statement of faith, that God did not create Hurricane Mitch. There is a cruel theology that says that if someone dies it is because God did it, either to punish us, or to teach us a lesson. “God had a reason for ‘taking’ my mother” (or father or whoever). But that belief is wrong. God doesn’t kill people. Storms, accidents, and human sin kill people. God is not in the destruction, but in the healing. God is not in the destroying, but in the mending.

God did not cause a teenage drunken driver to kill my father, when he was with his bride to be on their way home from a party the day before their wedding. Nor did God cause my step-father to suffer a series of ghastly strokes that weakened him for five terrifying years until he could only die to find relief.

God is in the midst of suffering, but as its resolution, not its cause. God is in the relief workers, the doctors, the volunteers, and in the heroic acts of people who saved their neighbors and rescued survivors. God’s act of creation is for good, and when the creation falls, God is in the midst of the pain working for the best possible outcome of the destruction.

I’ve worried and cried for my friends. I’ve tried to contact them, but for an interminable time into the future there will be no phones and no mail. I’ve also prayed for them, not with anger, but with hope, that they can find God’s strength and experience courage in it, whether in this world or the next. Perhaps in one sense God is like the mighty Ceiba tree that has watched over the community for generations. News reports say that when the waters receded, they found it still there. Beaten, but still standing. A group of survivors cheered when they heard that. Perhaps in its own way it gave strength to the community because it stood for something larger and more majestic than individual lives and storms, In the end it was wounded right along side of them; it suffered in the midst of all of their suffering, but in the end, it never released its hold on the earth.