Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The View from Kelsea - Traveling During Lockdown, WITHOUT a Salvoconducto. Here's how that went . . .

Having lived here in Honduras for a little over two years, I can say that there have been times when I’ve felt I was living in a movie.  Sometimes it’s something as simple as witnessing the beautiful mountains and sapphire blue skies from the bed of a truck, other times it’s a string of unexpected events that happen to interrupt our well-laid plans throughout the day, and yet other times it’s the sweet moments that come from spending time with the children in our sponsorship programs.  That being said, our situation today felt a lot like something right off the big screen.

A little backstory: As a result of COVID-19 spreading throughout Honduras, a private chartered flight was made available to U.S. citizens and residents to return to the United States. It was made clear that this would be the last opportunity to leave the country for the foreseeable future, so we made a unanimous decision that our intern, Denise, should leave a couple weeks early in order to make this flight. On Saturday, we booked her a seat on the plane (leaving Monday), rearranged her connecting flights in the U.S. and submitted our travel information to the Honduran Police to try and get our drive to the airport approved. Unfortunately, because of the last minute timing, we were unable to get a “Salvoconducto” which is a necessary travel document that authorizes you to make it through the police checkpoints and on to your final destination. What could we do? There was no other way to get Denise on that flight.  So, we decided to go for it!

Monday at 3:00 A.M., we loaded Denise’s luggage into our Ford F150, we (Russell, Denise and I) climbed in, and we left the house. As we were leaving, we prayed together for safety and miraculously easy passage through the police stops. On our way through town, we swung by to pick up another missionary family who was also leaving on the same flight.

Some barricades use tractor trailers to block the road

We hit our first police checkpoint right as we left Gracias. When asked for our “Salvoconducto,” Russell had to explain the whole situation while we waited tensely to see if we would even be able to leave Gracias.  After what seemed like the longest 10 minutes of my life, the officer reluctantly allowed us to continue, but warned us that without the proper document, we probably wouldn’t get very far- and even if we did, we most likely would not be able to return.  Unwilling to turn back, we kept driving, hitting 4 more checkpoints before arriving at the airport. To each police officer, we explained the situation and they all let us pass…some a bit more hesitantly than others.

A blockade using a box truck, where the vehicles are all being sanitized

When we arrived at the airport, the parking lot felt so empty compared to how packed it usually is. We waited outside the airport in our protective masks for two hours with Denise while we waited for the medical examiners to begin letting passengers into the building. Each passenger had to submit to a short examination just to make sure they were not showing Coronavirus symptoms. Once we knew that Denise was safely on her way, Russell and I left San Pedro Sula to head back home.

A cooperative barricade run by police and the local community

We started to leave the way we came, but the police had blocked the entrance to the city while we were at the airport and we couldn’t get past the seemingly endless line of semi-trucks and trailers to reach our exit.  This forced us to take the long way back to Gracias, which we hoped wouldn’t be too blocked. To our surprise, we only encountered five check points, three of which were conducted jointly by the police, military, and civilians. At the last two checkpoints, the outside and inside of the car were thoroughly sprayed with some sort of vinegary disinfectant solution until they were dripping. The last checkpoint entering Gracias was the most difficult breach, but after calling to confirm that we do in fact live just outside of town and after scolding us for leaving the safety of our town, they let us through with orders to stay at home and not leave again. We agreed and were allowed to proceed. About 20 minutes later, we had arrived back home safely!

After hearing the stories of how difficult the drive would be and how unusually long it would take-especially without the “Salvoconducto” we were supposed to have on hand- we were surprised by how smoothly everything  went. I think it’s safe to say that the effectiveness and efficiency of our airport run today can be completely attributed to God’s hand over our travels. Denise is safely on her way to the states, we are home, and God is still working even in the midst of this crazy COVID-19 situation.

Want to know how this particular movie ends?  Family, coffee, and an early bed time!

 - posted by Kelsea

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Covid-19: More suffering throughout the country

By this point, we’re all pretty well-educated about what it means to “flatten the curve”. We’ve seen the scary graphs that look like we are on a rollercoaster, slowly (or not so slowly) inching our way to the top of the biggest hill. The people of Honduras are also on a ride of their own. When Trish posted the last blog post about how Covid-19 is affecting Honduras, there were 52 confirmed cases. Ten days later, that number has jumped to 268 confirmed cases. Obviously, that’s a very concerning rise.

Family in very small home in Lempira

This week has also brought the number of Covid-19 related deaths in Honduras to 22. That number includes quite a few people who got sick and died and home, and then were tested for the virus post-mortem. Many Hondurans don't go to the doctor when they get sick, because that's not something they can afford.

As mentioned last week, there is an expectation for the death toll percentage to be quite high. The hospitals are already overwhelmed. Many patients with less severe symptoms are being asked to isolate at home. According to an article in the Honduran newspaper, El Heraldo, the most recent Honduras census indicates that a third of Honduran homes have one or fewer bedrooms (with families ranging in size from 2 to 11 people in those homes). This means that many Hondurans with Covid-19 who are sent home will almost certainly infect their families, as there isn't a separate room in the home for them to be isolated.

In Lepaera Lempira, a church has been converted to an isolation zone, so those with suspected
cases can be separated from their families and the rest of the community.
Photo from GRT Honduras FB page

Trish reported that they are probably getting more specific information about each infected person than we are in the U.S. Unlike the States, Honduras isn’t as concerned with HIPAA laws and patient's privacy rights. They are getting a lot of information regarding underlying conditions, and recent travel histories.

The first confirmed case was in a woman who came into the country from the US. Upon arriving in Honduras, she traveled across the country by car, to an area near Trujillo (on the north coast). She began to feel ill a couple of days after arriving at her destination. She visited a doctor, who sent her home with cold medications. When she didn’t improve after a few more days, she went to a local hospital. They sent her to be tested for Coronavirus at another medical facility. During the course of this, three doctors were infected with the virus. There simply aren’t procedures in place to keep medical personnel safe. The news is reporting that two doctors in Honduras have already died from the virus.

Countrywide, people are still on lockdown, with orders to stay home for everything except medical care or grocery shopping. There is a plan in place for when you can go out. All adults in Honduras have numbered identity cards; the final digit of your card determines if you shop on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. Previously, there was one day of shopping for everyone, which did nothing to help with social distancing. Iris went shopping in Gracias this past Wednesday, and found that the stores were well stocked with food.

Food distribution in Lempira
photo from GRT Honduras FB page
Local communities still have blockades, which they are responsible for monitoring. These local roadblocks are far different from the normal checkpoints operated by police and the military. The local blockades involve a way of physically blocking the road. The Sowerses are prevented from taking their normal route to go to town (by a deep and wide ditch, and trees down across the road), but they can still get out in another direction by going through a military checkpoint.  There is a growing problem of vigilantes running the local roadblocks. In the larger cities, there have been instances of people setting up roadblocks to stop cars, and then stealing their food after their shopping trips. As people get hungrier and more desperate, this kind of problem is expected to become worse.

As is to be expected, there are people who are going hungry, during this extended time of lockdown. The people who work on farms or have their own private gardens are getting by. Those who work at a job outside of their home are severely impacted. In the best of circumstances, many families eat or don't eat based on their earnings of that day. Now, they are unable to work and unable to purchase anything. The government is assisting by handing out packages containing items like rice, beans, and oil. Many missionaries have put together plans to help people in their communities. Trish has also heard about some local businesses in Gracias that have been helping with food handouts. At this point, it’s important to figure out who needs help the most right now, to make the best use of limited resources - since there's currently no end in sight to the lockdowns.

Click on the map to see a larger version.
The department of Lempira is on the western side of Honduras. The Sowers4Pastors sponsorship centers are located roughly in a circle around the city of Gracias. Until recently, the confirmed cases in the area had all been in the city of La Union, in the north east part of Lempira, along the border between the departments of Lempira and Santa Barbara. As Trish said, it was neither super close nor super far from the communities with sponsorship centers, however there are regular feeding centers in that area. On March 31, a new coronavirus case was diagnosed in a different location within Lempira - along the south eastern border with the department of Intibuca. While that’s not especially close to Gracias, having a new case pop up in a completely different location after two weeks of quarantine is concerning.

Thanks so much for your prayers! Please keep them coming because this is a wild ride.

 - posted by Christi

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Pastors in a Pandemic

If you've ever wondered why the ministry is called Sowers4Pastors instead of Sowers4SomethingElse, the current state of affairs in Honduras sums up the answer perfectly. The latest situation with Covid-19 is a poignant example of why the Sowers family firmly believes in supporting pastors, which allows the pastors, in turn, to support their communities.

Pastors attending the training school

Allen pointed out, "At this time, we are totally blocked off from all but about five of our churches. If we were trying to work in the communities personally, it would be impossible for us to get to most of them."

The current situation with the sponsorship centers reinforces the importance of having Sunday school teachers and pastors right there with boots on the ground. When they hear about someone in need in their area, they are right there to help. This goes beyond offering meals to malnourished children. If someone needs to get into a hospital, for instance, the pastors will be there to help find a way.

The pastors are also able to offer comfort to people at this time. If people are seeking an eternal solution, neither Allen nor Russell could get to them. The indigenous pastors are able to fulfill their roles and lead people to hope in Christ. This is the reason for the Sowerses' desire to equip the indigenous pastors.

Some of the pastors involved with the feeding centers have received special permission to send uncooked food home with kids, for their families to use in their homes, because they can't hold large gatherings. This works because the pastors have relationships with the families, and know which ones have the most pressing needs. The places that are able to feed kids are doing so in small, makeshift feeding areas.

Sowers4Pastors was fortunate to have been given a large quantity of anti-diarrhea food and baby formula recently, which they have distributed through the pastors. In a lot of places, people don't have the capacity to get baby formula from the store now. Pastors are steeping in to help. Remember that many of the pastors have been equipped with motorcycles - meaning that they are better able to serve their congregations during this time.

On Friday of this week, a pastor showed up at the Sowerses' property, to pick up food for his feeding center in Nueva Esperanza. This was the first time a pastor has come since the quarantine began, and it was an encouraging sign, that he was able to make it to them.

It is exciting to see how God has prepared these provisions for his people! Please continue to pray for Sowers4Pastors, and the people of Honduras.

 - posted by Christi

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Covid-19: The Ministry Work Continues, But Not Unimpeded

You would be hard-pressed to find someone completely unaffected by Covid-19. This is to update you on how it is affecting the Sowers4Pastors ministry.

You might recall that Allen and Russell were busy with a big church construction project in Quelecasque. There was already a time crunch because the church has no place to meet until the project is completed. Even though they are not allowed to hold church services until the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, they are looking forward to a time when they will be able to meet again. The pastor is hoping that the project will continue, but at this point, they are in need of lumber. Sowers4Pastors has already purchased the lumber. It has been cut and is just waiting for someone to transport it to the church site. However, thanks to the new travel restrictions, that is not possible. This is rough lumber needed for things like making support posts, scaffolding, etc. The guys are at a point where they cannot continue beyond this week until they get the necessary supplies. To quote Trish, “In the course of people dying, it’s not the biggest thing. But it’s a thing.”

Much of the food from Allen’s birthday fundraiser had already arrived in Honduras, prior to Covid-19’s appearance on the scene. Sowers4Pastors has always relied on the pastors to tell them when they need more food for each feeding center. A surprising number of calls came in shortly before the virus altered life as we knew it. While it was a head-scratcher at the time, it can now be seen as purely providential. Most of the pastors collected a normal 3-month supply shortly before the country’s new restrictions.

Since there is now a restriction on the amount of people who can gather in one place, the pastors are not able to operate the feeding centers in the same manner as before. There’s a chance that the supply will last a little longer. It is up to each pastor to distribute the food as he sees fit. That may mean feeding only the neediest. Or it could mean that pastors will continue to feed each child enrolled in the program. The Sowerses believe in the competency and the heart of each pastor with a feeding center. They are praying that each pastor will hear God’s direction in how to best distribute the food. Allen, Russell, and Trish also think it is possible that the government will give them special permission to meet pastors at a drop-off point to replenish their supply of food.

Everyone needs some good news, so here’s your daily dose. Kim & Jonathan Hall, along with their kids, were able to return to Honduras. They were in the U.S. when the borders were closed. Since that time, the government had only been arranging flights for people who were visiting Honduras to return home. This week, they also arranged a few flights for people wanting to return home to Honduras. That is how the Hall family was able to travel. They will be in three weeks of intense quarantine.

There is more good news associated with the Hall family’s travel adventures. They went to the U.S. loaded down with letters the sponsored kids had written to their sponsors. Those letters were translated and distributed. They were also able to fly back to Honduras with 250 pounds of letters from sponsors to their kids. Normally, the letters would have been sent with a visiting team, but… With things as they are, the letters would likely have been stranded in the U.S. for a long time. Since more teams will probably have to cancel their scheduled trips, Manna 4 Lempira will be switching to email correspondence from sponsors for the foreseeable future. Transporting the letters was a great personal sacrifice for the Halls. 250 pounds of letters meant that they couldn’t bring many kinds of foods they would have liked to take with them.

Thank you for your prayers for matters big and small!

 - posted by Christi

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Covid 19: Honduras at its Breaking Point

Patient on ventilator in Honduran Hospital
photo from El Heraldo website
It seems like you can check your favorite news site any given hour and receive brand new Covid-19 statistics from the U.S. and key European and Asian countries. Yet, you’re probably not finding much about Honduras. There have been many requests for updates, so Trish and Allen have provided some new numbers and information for us.

Since we last spoke, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Honduras has risen to 52. Now, that may not sound like much to your media overloaded eyes and ears, so let’s consider the facts. The Honduran Health Department speculated that 32 serious cases would overwhelm the country’s healthcare system.

According to the Honduran newspaper, El Heraldo, there are currently 103 ventilators in the entire country and 90% of those are already in use by other patients. That leaves 10 ventilators for Coronavirus patients. Let that soak in for a second. This isn’t a matter of evaluating each case to determine who is given life-saving medical treatment. There is simply nothing to do.

Ward set up for Coronavirus patients, in Honduran hospital
Photo from El Heraldo website

Trish said, “We are going to be desperate for a lot of prayer very soon.”

So, while we all have our own personal concerns, we need to remember the bigger picture, too. One of the confirmed cases was in the department of Lempira, and several other individuals in the area are currently suspected of having the virus, after having contact with the confirmed patient. Because of this, Lempira is now under the country’s most severe restrictions (along with several other locations).

While stores that sell food are allowed to be open, people are not supposed to go out and get food. They are supposed to use the sort of delivery system that, while common in big cities, is practically unheard of in Lempira. (Even in the capital, Tegucigalpa, Rachel said the delivery apps are too overwhelmed to keep up with the demand.) Some days ago, Russell went to Gracias for groceries. Even though the store was open, he had to call from the parking lot, place an order, and have it delivered to his vehicle.

To give you a better idea of the scope, Allen said that Honduras is divided up into 18 departments. The department of Lempira compares in size to roughly four U.S. counties. Each department is divided into municipalities, and Lempira has 28 municipalities.

Example of road blocked by local community, in Lempira Department
Photo from GRT Honduras Facebook page
After the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Lempira, each municipality in Lempira has been given the responsibility of closing itself off from the rest of the world. That means that communities are putting up fences, felling trees, and pouring truckloads of dirt and rocks to block roads. When the government puts up roadblocks, they close the main roads, with a checkpoint, and they allow people to pass through with the appropriate permissions in place. When the people of a community close a road, they block off all of the side paths.

Officially, citizens are not supposed to leave their own property without one of the authorized reasons. Most places will have certain days when the banks will be open, and individuals will be allowed to visit the banks, with specific days for seniors only. Lempira is not “most places” since the area is under an extra lockdown; the banks are not opening in Lempira.

The Sowers' home and ministry center is located just inside the municipality of Gracias, which extends beyond the city of Gracias. When the roads into the city were shut down, that left the Sowerses on the other side of the roadblocks. No one can travel from one sector to the next without special permission.

Currently, there is no way for the Sowerses to get into the city of Gracias, for food, bottled water, or for any other reason, as the roads out from their home have been blocked by ditches and downed trees and such.

Government agencies, local businesses, organizations, and individuals, are distributing food
to the needier families in and around Gracias.
Photo from GRT Honduras Facebook page
The more well-to-do families in the area are dealing with the same situation as the Sowerses. Those with fewer resources, who still rely on purchasing food, are starting to struggle. Those who grow their own food are less affected, but they are a people on the edge in normal times, and getting hit with serious illness will cause severe problems.

To sum up the situation, Trish said, “If there is a major outbreak, there’s nothing Honduras can do about it. We’re already at the breaking point.”

Our prayer lists are long, but please add one more concern to yours. Like so many people in Honduras, the people at Sowers4Pastors are physically cut off from any medical help, should the need arise. This goes beyond one virus. If someone had an accident or a major health concern, there is already no way of getting to treatment, even before any serious cases of the virus have hit the area. Please also pray for the people of Honduras, who are facing even harder times than normal, in the coming weeks and months.

 - posted by Christi

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Covid 19: Whippersnappers and Geezers

We’ve talked about the effects of Covid-19 on Honduras in general, so now it’s time to narrow the focus and talk about how it is affecting the Sowerses and the Sowers4Pastors ministry. In the panoramic snapshot of family and people working with the ministry, the vast majority are young and healthy.

The whippersnappers of the group are not really feeling concerned for their own health and safety. While they are acting within the government’s restrictions, they are not feeling a need to change the way they interact with the world beyond that.

Here are a few specific updates:

  • The Hall family was in the middle of a trip to the U.S. when the borders closed. It is unknown when they will be able to return.
  • Sowers4Pastors was already in a season with no visiting teams, when the virus hit. While one team scheduled to arrive at the end of April has cancelled, others are taking a wait and see approach.
  • There is still plenty of work to do. Allen, Russell, and the crew continued working on the church construction project at Quelacasque, through Saturday 3/21, when restrictions on movement became tighter. Now all work is happening only on the property - and there are multiple projects in progress there. Lack of ability to purchase materials will be a nuisance, though.

You will notice that Allen was included among the people working at Quelacasque. That does not mean he is included in the “whippersnapper” category! Allen has a moderately higher risk of a dangerous case of Covid-19 based on his age and previous heart issues. Still, he doesn't intend to self-isolate for personal safety - he's just following the general guidelines.

One name that hasn’t been mentioned is Trish. While she still falls below the danger zone concerning age, she’s in a sort of grey area--too old to be a whippersnapper and too young to be geezer. Unfortunately, Trish’s asthma, high-blood pressure, and post-whippersnapper status place her in a very high-risk category. Since she would also face the certainty of seriously inadequate medical care, our friend Trish is now in quarantine.

The family already had a 2-level plan in place to keep Trish safe and healthy. Previously, she was already social-distancing, in a sort of pre-plan level, not leaving the family property. Trish was prepared for the eventuality of quarantine, but she wasn’t doing it yet. The first suspected case of Covid-19 in Gracias bumped things up to level 1 of quarantine status for Trish. That means that she has no contact with anyone other than Allen.

At this level, when Allen comes home, he enters through the outside door to his bedroom. He immediately showers and changes clothes. He does not enter into Trish’s designated area of the house until he is slathered in Germ-X and wearing a face mask.

If the virus spreads, Trish will enter into level 2 of quarantine status. This would mean that no one would enter the house at all.

Trish did point out that she can still open her bedroom window and talk to RJ and Abbey (and Ben, now that he's home from school) from a safe distance. She is also still able to work online. She wishes to extend her apologies because she has fallen a bit behind on responding to emails while preparing for her new solitary life.

It goes without saying that your prayers are appreciated!

 - posted by Christi

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Covid 19: Honduras Edition

Just when you thought you had read everything there is to read concerning Covid-19, it made its way to Honduras. The first cases were diagnosed on March 11 and when Trish and I spoke one short week later, the virus had turned the country on its ear. 

As of March 19, there are twelve diagnosed cases in the country. Three of those are people who came in from another country. The others are people who came in contact with them. It is important to remember that Honduras has a completely inadequate healthcare system in the best of times. These are not the best of times. They never have enough equipment, supplies, or adequately trained medical personnel. Trish pointed out that, if you are a regular blog reader, you already know that if the Sowers family is faced with a serious health need, they leave Gracias and go to a bigger city to find private healthcare. If Gracias is faced with a lot of people needing hospitalization, they will quickly be overwhelmed. The available private health care is quite limited, as well.

Being a poor country, Honduras normally receives help from other countries when there is a crisis. But this time, the world is a little preoccupied. People are overwhelmed and outside help cannot be expected. That’s one reason why the Honduran government is being incredibly proactive and trying to take into consideration the things that have been learned from the experiences of other countries.

Honduras has a few overpopulated cities, with the rest of the population scattered and rural. Approximately 90% of families do not own a vehicle. It is a country that relies on public transportation. Buses are not exactly great places to avoid close contact with other people.

On the positive side of things, the population of Honduras is extremely young. The median age is 24.3 years. Hopefully, this will help the country see fewer serious cases and deaths. Also, there is the yet unconfirmed possibility that the virus will decrease in hotter weather. Honduras is just about to enter the hottest season of the year.

On the downside, there don’t seem to be studies concerning the effects of malnutrition on this virus. As you know, much of the population of Honduras lives in a state of chronic malnourishment. A lot of people are living hand-to-mouth. The new restrictions being put in place will be very hard on people with and without the virus.

How has the government responded?

  • The day after the first cases were identified, they closed all schools for a two-week time period. The closures will likely be extended. 
  • Soon after the schools closed, the government closed the borders--allowing no flights or passenger boats in or out of the country. No vehicle crossings are allowed, with the exception of those carrying supplies in or out of the country.
  •  All non-essential businesses have closed. 
  • Perhaps the biggest hardship for citizens will be the closure of all public transportation. 
  • All gatherings of more than 50 people are banned. 
  • In the last couple of days, traffic in and out of the major cities with confirmed cases was closed. Only supplies can get in or out. This has left some people stuck on the wrong side of city limits. 
  • On March 17, police and soldiers joined forces to oversee an epidemiological seize in the country’s capital city. Armed men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and surrounded an entire neighborhood while medical staff went door-to-door checking for symptoms and asking about contact with infected people. These kinds of searches are likely to become more common.
  • There are checkpoints on the roads, with police confirming that people have an appropriate reason for traveling, even within the areas where roads are completely blocked off.
  • As of last night (3/18), the municipal area around the city of Gracias was blocked off. The Sowers ministry compound is within that area. Stores and pharmacies are still receiving supplies.

What does this mean for daily life? As a resident of Tegucigalpa, the hardest hit city, Rachel said she’s not supposed to go out and about unless she has a good reason. Gracias and other places have the same official restrictions, but they are not being as seriously enforced. Iris went into Gracias for groceries yesterday, and the stores were mostly well-stocked, with new deliveries arriving.

What about the kids in the sponsorship & feeding programs and their families? The kids are home from school and the people are technically under the same restrictions. In the Lempira area, most of the people who live hand-to-mouth are farmers. They are not particularly better or worse off right now. They have the food they were already growing. Most of these families already do without toilet paper. They weren’t expecting to be bringing in money right now, so life hasn’t changed much for them. There are expected to be some challenges since the buses aren’t running. If a farmer has produce to take to the market, he won’t have a way of getting it there. If a family does depend on a paying job, they are probably not working now. Each pastor will be making decisions for how to handle services, Sunday School, and feedings, based on the situation in his community.

Trish did have this to say, “Our model of ministry uses the local pastor as the vehicle through which the ministry work happens. In a time like this, when we’re forced to remain close to home, the ministry work goes on, through the pastors. They are able to continue to use the training and resources we’ve provided, to care for their flocks, during this time.”

Up through yesterday, pastors were still coming by and picking up food for their feeding centers. Please keep them in your prayers!

 - posted by Christi