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Honduran sewing factory helps men and women living with HIV/AIDS

Posted on: March 7, 2011 9:35 AM
Related Categories: hivaids, Honduras

Project embodies Province IX sustainability conference themes

By Lynette Wilson, Episcopal News Service

In a sewing factory in San Pedro Sula men and women infected with HIV/AIDS sew T-shirts, tote bags, school uniforms and other items for both in-country and export sale. In exchange for labor the workers receive a fair wage -- $250 a month (the Honduran minimum wage), medical care at a clinic operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras and funded by the factory's profits, and a flexible work schedule that allows workers to keep their medical appointments.

"It [the factory] is a way to keep HIV-positive men and women employed," said Jose Alvarado, the factory's director. "This is a way they can keep their health and work to clothe and feed their children."

Today, Ministerio Episcopal en VIH/Sida (VIYDA)/Siempre unidos – a partnership between the diocese and TCH Manufacturing, a private company, embodies living out the church's mission through entrepreneurial leadership and self-sufficiency – the main theme that has been discussed during the Feb. 27 - March 5 Province IX sustainability conference here on the northern coast of Honduras.

More than 75 people are attending the conference, aimed at training clergy and lay leaders to carry out strategic planning that will assist in developing resources toward long-term financial self-sustainability.

Even though it is against the law to discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS in Honduras, employers can make it difficult for infected employees to take time off for regular clinic visits, sometimes forcing them to quit, or showing favoritism to non-infected employees by giving them better work assignments. It was this that in 2005 prompted a priest in the diocese to begin the sewing ministry.

"Anything that needs sewing, we can do it," Alvarado said, adding that the hope is to grow from 20 employees to 60 by the end of the year. At present, the workers can sew 8,000 T-shirts and 3,000 bags per month. "We're not looking for donations, we're looking for work.

"It is a beautiful way to incorporate private business with social benefit."

Honduras is the third-largest exporter of T-shirts to the United States, said Alvarado, who has a background in economics and finance, and previously managed an industrial free trade zone. The Central American country is a three-day journey by cargo ship from the United States; companies like Fruit of the Loom, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and others have factories here.

Alvarado is a member of St. John's Episcopal Church in Cortez and came to partner with the diocese on this project by way of his involvement with his daughter's Episcopal School and his relationship with the Rt. Rev. Lloyd Allen, the bishop of Honduras.

The diocese used to subsidize the sewing factory, but not any more, Allen said. The Diocese of Honduras, with 156 churches, the largest in the province, has a revolving fund that provides congregations with $5,000 in seed money to start sustainable businesses.

"We are not just giving free money," Allen said, adding that the only condition he has is that "the project comes from the people."

Each Province IX diocese – Honduras, the host diocese, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador Litoral, Central Ecuador and Colombia – is represented at the conference by a five-member team, including bishops, clergy and lay leaders. (Recognizing the role the laity plays in the church, the teams were weighted 60 percent lay representation.) In addition, Cuba, Brazil, Panama, Mexico and Guatemala are represented.

With the exception of Puerto Rico, all the dioceses of Province IX, plus Mexico, Cuba, and the other Central American churches, which are organized as the Iglesia Anglicana de la Region Central de America (IARCA), receive subsidies in varying amounts from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. (Offshore dioceses in Provinces II and VIII also receive grants.)

In addition to workshops aimed at strategic planning, entrepreneurial leadership and economic self-sufficiency, the prime bishop and counsel from the Episcopal Church of the Philippines March 1 talked conference attendees through their journey to financial independence and autonomy, and the Rt. Rev. Meshack Mabuza, bishop of Swaziland, and the Rt. Rev. David Njovu, bishop of Lusaka in Zambia, from the Anglican Provinces of South and Central Africa, respectively, spoke about successful agriculture, forestry, social and medical service, capital building and other projects across Africa.

Taking stock

In 2008-09, the bishops said, Trinity Wall Street held consultations across the Anglican Communion in Africa to discuss local opportunities and challenges and to identify specific areas for financial support, engaging in the kind of work Province IX is now beginning.

Finding income-generating projects can be as simple as turning the church parking lot into a pay-to-park lot during the week in busy commercial areas, Mabuza said.

Njovu emphasized the importance of having a well-thought plan, with room for adjustment.

The stories from the Philippines and Africa were inspiring, said the Rev. Patricia Coller, executive vice president and chief ecclesiastical officer of the Church Pension Group.

"Moving from a mindset of dependency to one of recognizing resources available in your own environment and leveraging them in order to not only become financially self-sustainable but also to affect the environment for the church is a real change for many," Coller said. "And yet it is clear that in dioceses across the church it is time to approach the church's mission in a new way."

In addition to provincial representation, conference observers include staff from the Episcopal Church Center, Church Pension Group, Episcopal Relief & Development, Trinity Wall Street and the Episcopal Church Foundation.

Church Pension Group, Trinity Wall Street, Province IX and an Episcopal Church Constable Grant, which also will fund ongoing developmental work throughout the province over the next two years, supported the conference.

The start of the conference focused on problems, their causes and analysis, and quickly moved to action, with each diocese sharing its stories and talking about its assets, which reflects the Asset Based Community Development work now taking shape throughout the Episcopal Church.

"The ability to see assets is the gift of ABCD," said the Rev. Christopher Johnson, the Episcopal Church's officer of social and economic justice. "It depends upon relating to other individuals … we don't see assets until everyone gets together and sees what is around them."

Even though the dioceses of Province IX share a common language, some are well established, some new; in Puerto Rico, the diocese operates a large hospital system; in Venezuela, which officially became a diocese of the Episcopal Church in 2006, infrastructure is lacking but the church is growing. Still each can learn from the other.

"What happening here, the focus has shifted to the capacity to act … that invites us to see ourselves as empowered people, not people in need," Johnson said.

The importance of strong, visionary leadership underscored the conference. From the beginning and throughout the 2.5 years of planning that went into the conference Bishop Julio César Holguin of the Dominican Republic, played an important role.

Since Holguin became bishop in 1991, the diocese has gone from 85-90 percent dependence on the subsidy from the U.S.-based Episcopal Church to about 20 percent; from seven schools to 25, and from 24 congregations to 70. It also has established the Dominican Development Group, a U.S.-based 501(C)(3) entity that has helped to raise $9.5 million in 12 years for the diocese's development and endowment, in its advance toward self-sufficiency.

"I have a great passion for mission," Holguin said, adding that he believes the church exists to live out mission, when asked about his leadership style. "I've tried to present this using the image of a dove. The bird needs its two wings to fly."

The church's two "wings" for mission are proclaiming the gospel and service, he added.

"To arrive at where we are right now began with spiritual renewal, priests and laity and beginning with the bishop," Holguin said.

One of the challenges the conference explored was fear and opposition to change, an element of human nature, and something almost all dioceses and organizations face.

In the Dominican Republic it was less opposition than passive resistance, Holguin said.

The first thing Holguin did when he became bishop, he said, was take the clergy on a three-day mountain retreat to evaluate the state of the diocese – from Christian education to stewardship.

"People came down with a vision of where we needed to go," he said, adding that clergy continue to meet three to five times a year, sometime for spiritual renewal, other times for business.

Going forward, it's Holguin's hope that the province will commit to a 15-year plan to become more united and stronger and reduce or eliminate its economic dependency on the Episcopal Church's subsidy.

"I am satisfied in the way that each diocese has contributed here," he said.

Next steps

Leaving here, "the first thing that all the dioceses are going to do is assess the resources that they have and look at how they can be of better use," said the Rt. Rev. Francisco Duque-Gomez, bishop of the Diocese of Colombia and president of Province IX.

"We all have resources, human resources … and many of us have infrastructure resources."

With a resource inventory and a vision toward advancing the mission of the diocese(s), and with an eye toward self-sufficiency, the next step will be to network and find partnership, either through organizations like the Episcopal Church Foundation, Church Pension Group, Episcopal Relief & Development, companion dioceses or private companies that can help realize that vision.

"It is the responsibility of the province to make sure that the dioceses are moving forward in this effort," added Duque-Gomez.

Funding from the Episcopal Church's Constable Grant provides for the conference's three facilitators -- the Rev. Milton Amparo, a priest from the Dominican Republic and a strategic planning consultant; Humberto Shikiya, the director of the Centro Regional Ecuménico de Asesoría y Servicio (CREAS), a financial self-sufficiency consultancy; and Victor A. Feliberty, a transformational leadership consultant and dean of administration at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico – to continue to work with the dioceses for two years.

"Hopefully a support team will emerge so that each team chooses someone to represent the group to move the work forward," said Bishop Wilfrido Ramos-Orench, the Episcopal Church's Province IX officer.

David Alvarado of Ministerio Episcopal en VIH/Sida (VIYDA)/Siempre unidos can be reached at jrajeffre@hotmail.com.