Honduras

The Cross and the Crossfire

I am a sociologist. I’m also an Anabaptist. Two years ago, I began work on a dissertation motivated by a relatively straightforward research question: Why are so many members of the transnational gangs of Central America reportedly converting to evangelical Christianity?

The identity transformations required of a gang member who rejects the gang in favor of a teetotaling, tobacco-shunning, domestically oriented evangelical congregation seemed the perfect place to engage my sociological curiosity about religious conversion. But my motives were also personal. As an Anabaptist who’d spent several years working in peace education in Central America, I wondered if the conversionist religion of the conservative, largely Pentecostal evangelicals of Central America can have any this-worldly consequences for the peace so desperately needed in the region.

A wave of criminal violence has bedeviled Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador since the end of the civil wars. They are still among the most violent countries in the hemisphere. All of them have murder rates that approach or exceed 50 homicides a year per 100,000 inhabitants—more than seven times the murder rate in the United States. Many of these murders are carried out by members of the transnational gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara Dieciocho (M-18).

These gangs emerged in the Latino barrios of East Los Angeles as immigrant youth struggled to find jobs, housing, and a distinctive identity, often with an “illegal” status that made them outlaws in their own communities. With the crackdown on immigration in California in the 1990s, thousands of youth—especially Salvadorans who came to the U.S. with their parents as refugees from

El Salvador’s civil war—were rounded up and deported to their “home” country. Between 1994 and 1997, more than 150,000 Central Americans were forcefully deported from the U.S.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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Treating Systems, Not Symptoms

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. —Isaiah 41:17

Every Honduran in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and its surrounding communities pays at least $1.50 each month for a city water connection. But those living in the wealthy areas of the city receive water for up to 10 hours each day, while those living in the very poor communities of Nueva Suyapa and Villanueva only receive water once every 30 days. The residents of Villanueva may spend $26 each month, up to 20 percent of their already inadequate incomes, to buy often-contaminated water from a truck and carry it home. Yet there is hope.

In February 1998, a group of Honduran and U.S. Christians with many years of experience in community development in Honduras formed the Association for a More Just Society (AJS). They had seen that while most development organizations and government agencies focus on meeting immediate needs, these aid efforts often failed because many policies, laws, and unethical businesses don't respect the needs and rights of the poor. AJS knew that real justice in Honduras required work at the macro-level of government policy and legal matters.

In Nueva Suyapa AJS began locally, researching water issues and educating the residents. The community elected a new water board, repairs were made, and distribution was increased to a few hours once every 15 days. Then AJS turned to injustices of the broader system, organizing a delegation representing various segments of the community that went directly to the national water company, SANAA, to present a petition. After a year of negotiations, the national company has agreed to nearly all the proposals made by the community and AJS, including pumping more water to the area, improving the distribution network, and assigning a water engineer locally.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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A Statue for the Worm

Three months before Hurricane Mitch, the following story was related by pastoral social workers here in Honduras:

Once upon a time there was a village that eked out a meager living by subsistence farming. Then one year a plague of gusanos (worms) devoured the whole corn crop. Facing famine, the people held a village meeting, and after going around in circles with no solution in sight, Dona Tina spoke up: "Why not plant plantains and bananas?" And so they did, everyone working together from sunrise to sundown. The community prospered more than ever, selling the plantains and diversifying their activities. A year later when they gathered to evaluate the miracle, the mayor proposed erecting a statue of Do±a Tina whose creativity had saved the village. But a voice from behind proposed, "Why not erect a statue for the worm?"

Here in Tocoa, which means "place of water," our gusano is Mitch. We haven't seen the television images of Mitch's devastation, and we haven't been to Tegucigalpa, but we have been hungry, thirsty, up to our knees in mud or our chests in water, absolutely I-can't-go-another-step, respond-to-another-demand exhausted. And yet, in this parish on the northern coast of Honduras—which has given birth to a reconstruction and renovation program operating in 104 communities and neighborhoods and replicated throughout the diocese—while a statue has not been discussed, "Gusano Mitch" has been the opportunity for a real Jubilee.

At a glance Jubilee seems far away. The writing of this article has been delayed by the sixth tail of Mitch, which knocked out power for another five days. Families are still in shelters, the new corn crop (not the one destroyed by Mitch) has been lost in the valley, and you've read about the rest: deficit, disaster, and the traditionally excluded more excluded than ever. Mitch is the hurricane that won't go away.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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