THE BREAD WE BREAK
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
April 8, 2018
Texts: Luke 24:13-35
The van traveled up through the mountains on an old excuse for a road – what appeared to be a gravel-covered single lane path. We always held our breaths when we went around a curve – hitting a cow would have tumbled us all into oblivion. Finally the road ended and we were faced with a small village with maybe about thirty families. “Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos compadres!” shouted a thin wiry man, as he and the children came running to the van. It had taken us almost two hours to go forty miles. Then we saw the truck and were amazed that the truck loaded with the supplies and equipment we had loaded on it the month before in Plainfield had actually made it up those mountain roads.
Leon, the man who had greeted us, apologized for the meager fare we would share that night. He put the plate of tortillas on the rough wooden tables, stretched out his arms and said a blessing. There weren’t enough tortillas to go around and so we had to break them. It was as if the risen Christ were in our midst. Indeed, that night, he was as we shared the tortillas one with another.
That March we worked on bringing in potable water, building a school, and donating the truck and medical supplies – it usually took two hours to the next village to get to a clinic. At that time without electricity, the only way to try to secure any emergency medical care was by short wave. One out of four children died from common childhood diseases within the first two years of life. Children were not vaccinated even at the clinic in San Jose Los Flores. You can’t even imagine how many children died from dysentery because of the polluted river.
By 2003, ten years later, the small village of Los Amates, two miles south of the Honduran border in Chalatenango, El Salvador, had running water, a school, small medical clinic, and even electricity – and one hundred more families. In addition, the people of this small community managed to purchase much of the land they farmed from the distant title holders back in San Salvador, members of the fourteen families who still hold economic power and who still take weekend shopping trips to Miami.
But now, more than twenty years later, much of the progress made by this small Central American country is threatened by the existence of transnational criminal organizations known as “maras,” the Spanish term for the gangs that terrorize much of the population, a catastrophic consequence of the civil war that destroyed much of the country from 1980 to 1992.
We’re hearing a lot about NAFTA and how it should be renegotiated to benefit the United States. What we do not hear about is the sister agreement called CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in 2005. This agreement was supported by big business looking for big profits. Under CAFTA, more than half of U.S. agricultural products are duty free, undercutting local production. When Jose can’t sell his frijoles in the market, he’ll join that stream of immigrants adversely impacted and looking for relief by coming across the border. In addition to duty free products, CAFTA has a policy of moving towards privatization of such essential services as water and electricity.
Unfortunately for El Salvador and the other countries of the region, their governments bought into a trade approach that increased poverty and led to an even greater exodus of people to the United States in search of economic survival. CAFTA’s major support continues to come from big business, including pharmaceutical, agricultural, and large manufacturing companies that own the maquilidoras, the large clothing factories in Central America. Rather than sharing the tortilla, they stacked them all on one plate – the plate of the rich.
Inequality in the Northern Triangle countries is related to two major factors: the first is the unbearably low wages in the maquilas; the second is the lack of lack of basic services that provide social stability. In addition, corruption in the police and the judicial system undermines any progress that has been made.
U.S. government policy in Central America has reflected American corporate interests including the coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Arbenz in Guatemala, supporting the right wing government in El Salvador, and destroying rainforests in Honduras. After the so-called peace treaties were signed, the U.S. basically abandoned the region except to support corporate interests.
Rather than seeing our Lord in the breaking of bread, we saw increased poverty and malnutrition, more people dying from AIDS, privatization of water and electricity and reduction in protections for labor. That was just on the Central American side. The elimination of tariffs in beet and cane sugar, controlled by U.S. business, has cost independent American sugar beet and cane farmers over $4 billion. Sugar costs less to produce in Central America where children as young as six are put to work in the cane fields because families need the meager income in order to subsist.
We in North America do not usually consider tortillas as a form of bread but that’s what it is. Although we see all kinds of large fancy tortillas, such as spinach or even kale tortillas in the supermarket, tortillas were originally made from corn. You can buy the corn flour in a Latino market, but in the back country the corn flour is made from crushing and rolling the corn into a lumpy flour that then is mixed with water and cooked on a flat type of griddle for only about 30 seconds.
In the cities, however, U.S. products such as processed vegetables and consumer ready foods and – believe it or not, corn, primarily for animal feed – are imported to the Northern Triangle counties. The average Salvadoran spends about 65% of household income on food alone, mostly from imported products.
Over the last twenty years, the population of the Northern Triangle has become more urban because of the growth of the maquilas. Although people in the cities may have access to electricity and some elementary sewage treatment, the cities are infested with the deadly maras known as MS-13 and Barrio 18. The “Alliance for Prosperity,” officially created by the three countries, has a regional development plan, primarily to foster U.S. economic interests.
Much of the development has destroyed local economies, not to mention rain forests in Guatemala and Honduras, the latter country for palm oil production. Look at a product you can find in any American supermarket made by Kellogg’s, Heinz, Kraft, or ConAgra, to name a few and you’ll see palm oil as an ingredient.
Walking along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his friend, the stranger interpreted the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and God’s call to create a just society. Following Jesus, Bertha Caceres took on large corporate interests such as Cargill and the corrupt government of Honduras, and like Jesus, she paid for it with her life. Following Jesus, Teresa Margarita Muñoz works to preserve the Guatemalan highlands from companies like Tahoe Resources who now operate strip mines leaving the hills bare and farmers unable to grow crops.
“Were not our hearts burning within us when he talked with us on the road, when he opened up the Scriptures?” Cleopas and his friend asked each other after they had experienced the risen Christ. Indeed, should our hearts not burn within us as we think about what it means to break bread with our brothers and sisters? It means more than handing out the crumbs from the table; it means creating an equitable world where people can feed their families on the sweat of their brow, where children do not die from simple childhood diseases for lack of vaccination and where trade is fair rather than just benefiting agribusiness, large corpor-ations, and their paid clients. As we break the bread of life Jesus, the risen Christ, offers us, we can support sustainable societies. It is only through sharing the bread we have broken that we can know the risen Christ.
Let us pray: Creator and Sustainer, help us to know the risen Christ in our lives every day as we break bread, share our resources with others, and work to enable your kingdom of righteousness. In the name of him who redeems us by his example, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.