The world needs ‘islands of mercy’

Published 10:19 am Friday, March 6, 2015

by Tim Kaine

When tens of thousands of unaccompanied children began arriving at America’s Southern border last summer, I felt as if I knew them. Many of these kids were coming from northern Honduras where I worked as the director of a Jesuit-run technical school 35 years ago. Last month, I went back to Honduras to visit my school and reconnect with the missionaries and young people who have played such a major role in my life.

I was a 21-year-old first-year student at Harvard Law School. I was racing through my studies with no clear thoughts about what to do. A “still small voice” urged me to take a year off to figure it out. I wrote a letter to Jesuits connected to my high school in Kansas City who were working as missionaries in Honduras and volunteered. Soon after, in September 1980, I arrived in the town of El Progreso.

At the time Honduras was, next to Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. But the people humbled me with their generous friendship and lives of deep faith. The 70 kids I taught at the Instituto Tecnico Loyola were like 14-year-olds anywhere — rambunctious, energetic and full of dreams for their futures. And the Jesuit missionaries I lived with — a group of Americans and Spaniards who had chosen to serve the poorest of the poor far from their homes — became my role models at a time when I needed direction. My 30-plus years as a civil rights lawyer and elected official have been built on the foundation of what I learned in Honduras.

On Ash Wednesday, as part of a week-long trip to Latin America with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, I arrived in El Progreso for 7 a.m. Mass at the Las Mercedes church across from the town square. As Mass began, I soon realized that the priests processing up the aisle included many of the Jesuits I worked with, now spread throughout Honduras and beyond, returning for a reunion to welcome me.

After Mass, I went back to my school, now a bustling campus of 300 young men and women learning welding, carpentry, culinary arts, electrical engineering and other professions. I toured the workshops and shared the story of the Instituto’s humble beginnings during a school-wide assembly. And just like when I taught there, I heard them talk about their hopes — bright and optimistic even in a still-poor country that now has the highest murder rate in the world. All of them know people who have fled the country to escape violence and lack of opportunity. But all want to build a future for themselves and their country — where escape is no longer necessary.

I later sat down with my Jesuit friends to trade stories about the past 35 years and joke about how much we have all aged. We discussed whether the new government will succeed in its earnest efforts to improve security, expand education and bring hope to a nation where 60 percent of the people are poor, most desperately so. And we talked about the role that the U.S. can play in such efforts, especially the current budget proposal to invest in the development of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as a means of curbing migration driven by violence and poverty. For too many Honduran families, putting a child in the hands of a smuggler is less dangerous than life in gang-controlled neighborhoods, where taking the wrong bus could end in death and forced initiation could mean being told you have to kill your own brother or sister.

After our visit, we gathered at the hillside cemetery for an impromptu service by the graves of missionaries who spent their whole lives serving this wonderful community in El Progreso. And my friends pointed out where they hoped to lie one day as good and faithful servants, finished with the good fight they have waged so long for Honduras.

The highlight of Ash Wednesday Mass was the homily that included a reading of a pastoral letter from Pope Francis, our Latin American Jesuit shepherd, challenging each community, parish and person “a ser islas de misericordia en medio de un mar de indiferencia” — to be islands of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference. There are so many reasons to succumb to indifference. But the world needs “islands of mercy” everywhere, from the poorest barrio, to the altars of our churches, to the halls of government. I celebrate my friends in El Progreso for teaching me, then and now, this simple and beautiful truth.

TIM KAINE is the junior United States Senator representing Virginia. This column first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.