Notes from Away: Compañeros de Alma
Thursday, July 28, 2016 11:03 AM
He must have been conspicuous, 36 years ago, in the fall of 1980 when he arrived in El Progreso, Honduras, and even when he left nine months later, the gringo, the young American, riding his bicycle or walking the unnamed, unpaved, sun-bleached streets of this city of a few dozen thousand souls: all of them, especially the campesinos working in the banana and palm fields across the river, very poor.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching for part of each year in China, and home for the summer.
Shopkeepers praised his rapidly improving Spanish. Celebrants at the colorful and chaotic hours-long masses at Iglesia de las Mercedes knew him by sight. He attended religiously, in many senses. He certainly learned there the phrase in the title above, which means “companions of the soul.”
In his Kansas City, Missouri, upbringing — his mother a home economics teacher and his father a welder and owner of a small metalworking shop — being Catholic had been important. That meant church every Sunday, and prayers before meals, and his parents’ saying: “Preach the Gospel, by words if necessary.”
It also meant an all-boys high school run by the Jesuits. In a recent interview on C-Span he said: “I loved learning. The best education is self-education, especially reading. I always had my nose in a book. The main thing I remember about high school is taking off intellectually and seeing the big wide world. The Jesuit order has twin traditions of intellectual rigor and social justice.”
After three years at University of Missouri, he started at Harvard Law. But then, youngest in his class and uncertain of his vocation, he took a year off to volunteer at the Jesuit mission in El Progreso. At the vocational school established by the Jesuits there, he used what he had learned from his father. And so he spent nine months recruiting more students and finding the words in Spanish to teach them some skills in working with wood and metal that might help them become less poor.
A young intellectual person, alone in a foreign country, has time to read and listen to the stories of others. Honduras was then under military rule, though transitioning to popular elections, with support from the US Ambassador John Negroponte, and the largest Peace Corps contingent in the world. During these Cold War years, its position bordering Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala ensured keen interest from the CIA. There were stories of political killings by the government. The Jesuits, taking the side of the poor, were often at odds with the military. How much of this did the young man consider and discuss with others? And did he read Green’s “The Ugly American” or Conrad’s “Nostromo” on the disillusion of Yanquis in Latin America?
His time in El Progreso done, he returned to finish his law degree at Harvard, met there and soon married his wife, the daughter of the first Republican governor of Virginia — who desegregated the schools of Richmond and sent his daughters to the predominantly black public schools. He moved to Virginia, practiced civil rights law, was elected Richmond city councilor, then lieutenant governor, then governor, then senator. His wife is currently Secretary of Education in Virginia. One of their three children is a Marine based in Europe. This week, as these words go to press, he became the Democratic nominee for vice president.
So the years since his year abroad have been eventful. Yet several years ago, as a new senator, he affirmed: “I think of El Progreso every day. Those people, aside from my family, are the most important thing in shaping who I am today.”
In the recent interview mentioned above he said: “I don’t think you can fully understand the things about your own culture till you step outside of it. Because you take things for granted and you think everybody lives that way, and then you realize they don’t. It really made a believer in me about our system. That the rule of law is a whole lot better than the iron fist that a lot of people still live under all over the world.”
He continued: he had learned that “happiness is not that correlated with wealth. Happiness is really correlated with whether you are a giving person or not. Many destitute people were giving people and were happy. Happiness is spread around the human condition.”
Tim Kaine, as he now steps into the arena, to be encircled by a cloud of witnesses, angry and fearful, in our country and in others, might care to know these lines from a poet who lived through an earlier age of anxiety:
O every day in sleep and labor
Our life and death are with our neighbor,
And love illuminates again
The city and the lion’s den,
The world’s great rage, the travel of young men.