Desalojo (Eviction)

Written by SALTer, Benjamin Kreider, working with the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita in San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Posted on March 8, 2016 on his personal blog.

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Community members helping distribute rolls of plastic to construct temporary shelters.

The past week and a half at work we have not been in our normal rhythm of running kids activities in the bordos or holding meetings with parents. Instead we have been accompanying a group of folks who have been kicked out of their homes and have no where to go.

A week and a half ago on Wednesday a desalojo (eviction, removal) was issued for a people living in a piece of land next to one of Bordo Pedregal/Santa Ana. The Universidad Autonoma de Honduras en la Valle de Sula (UNAH-vS) through a court process, secured a police eviction notice, as they hold papers to the land. The university is planning on building a couple million-dollar complex for the engineering department.

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A bulldozer about to knock down a house, note the possessions piled up outside. Each bulldozer has an armed guard.

The complex part of all of this is that folks have lived on this land for decades – some over forty or fifty years. A couple generations of folks have lived on this little piece of land – and now they were given notice that they needed to go. Those with options left first – maybe they had an apartment or family members elsewhere in the city, maybe they went to their pueblos of origin in other parts of the country – but those with means left. Others stayed back to wait and fight for the land and see what would happen. These were the folks without as many options. Eventually the police along with private security entered the community along with bulldozers (guarded by police). The bulldozers began to raze the houses of folks in the community. And so those left behind hurriedly were dismantling their houses – to save pieces of tin, wood-siding, electrical wire and their possessions. It was chaos with each person and family trying to save what they have. In end, with all the houses leveled by bulldozers, first the police in riot gear and later private security offices guarded the perimeter of the property so folks couldn’t reenter. Those without a place to go moved their possessions to the other side of the street, along the road.

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After the land was cleared it was guarded by police and security guards.

So CASM as one of, possibly the only, group that works directly with in the bordos, needed to help and walk alongside these folks. Initially we provided large rolls of plastic sheeting to construct temporary shelters to protect from rain, we brought water and food. The situation is difficult and complex – folks are caught in the middle of a crisis. Families are living in make-shift shelters in the open air, ranging from babies as young as 10-days to elderly grandparents. With all the uncertainty folks can’t return to jobs with their family in crisis, kids haven’t been able to go to school. This community and each family is waiting, looking for other options, connections, a place to move, a piece of land.

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I had an interesting conversation with this police officer- while he has orders to push out the families he identifies with the people, as he too grew up poor.

Directly next-door to the evicted land, or to be fair right on the other side of a high concrete-barb-wired wall, lies a wealthy neighborhood, big houses individually walled off and guarded. Just down the road from this land stands a high-rise luxury-condo, with another in progress. The disparities of wealth sit side-by-side here.

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My coworker, Luisa Santos, distributing food and hygiene bags.

I was moved by the resiliency and spirit of this community that had just passed through something so traumatic – their status without homes, their houses destroyed, without a place to go. People go on with normal things – kids play soccer, electrical lines are rigged up to power fans and radios, someone strings up clotheslines to dry clothes, others make tortillas over makeshift wood stoves and cook meals to share communally, and everyone set to work building temporary shelters out of salvaged materials. People shared with me their faith and trust in God through this time – that God would provide, that they had hope that things would work out. My mind and heart couldn’t help but make the connection to scripture where God walks with people in similar situations – makeshift tents in the desert after an exodus, a young refugee couple fleeing to a foreign land with their son the Messiah, who as an adult had no where to lay his head. I pray that God continues to walk with God’s people.

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Daily life resumes in a makeshift way.

All Photos by Benjamin Kreider.

Understanding International Anti-Corruption Measures in Honduras

Monday, December 21, 2015

By Katerina Parsons, SALT with ASJ, Republished with permission from her blog

photo courtesy flickr user rbreve

photo courtesy flickr user rbreve

They called themselves the Indignados, “The Outraged,” and they took to Honduras’ streets by the thousands in June of 2015 when it became clear that the current President’s campaign had received funds stolen from the Honduran state.

The funds came from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), an entity charged with providing public health in Honduras. As much as $330 million was pilfered by corrupt officials, Insight Crime reported, who used back-room deals, overvalued contracts, and political maneuvering to steal desperately-needed money while Honduran people died in hospitals for lack of medicines and equipment.

The fact that the corrupt companies donated $150,000 of the stolen money to Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez’s political campaign in 2013 further enraged the Indignados, who called for his impeachment. Hernandez denied any knowledge of the source of the funds, and promised to return the money, but this did little to garner trust with the protesting groups.

His political party, the Nationalists, had taken power from the opposition in 2009 in a military coup, and for some people, marching in the streets became a way to protest this, to protest the unthinkably high levels of violence and drug activity in Honduras, to protest the rampant corruption that made theft on such a grand level possible.

The marches were unavoidably political. Mel Zelaya, the president who had been ousted and would later become a de facto leader of the new leftist “LIBRE” party, was seen marching in the rallies. Popular sportscaster-turned-politician Salvador Nasralla, who ran against Hernandez in 2013 for the new Anti-Corruption Party, would become a vocal supporter of the marchers’ demands.

Besides the removal of the president, the Indignados had a specific request. On signs held up in protests or words spray-painted onto walls, they claimed, “We want the CICIH”.

What they wanted was a CICIG, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad Guatemala(International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) – but in Honduras.

CICIG was created in 2006 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. Funded through U.N. partner states, the independent, international entity supports state institutions by investigating emblematic cases of corruption, filing criminal complaints, and joining criminal proceedings as a private prosecutor[1].

At the same time as the Honduran IHSS case was unfolding, the CICIG was filing cases in Guatemala against their current political regime. These cases implicated dozens of officials up to and including the president and vice-president for involvement in a huge corruption ring out of the tax and customs department.

Protests also broke out in the streets of Guatemala, calling for the resignation of the political leaders. In May, 2015, Vice-president Roxana Baldetti stepped down under pressure from the CICIG and the Attorney General’s office. In August, Baldetti was sought for arrest, and the President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, was sought for impeachment. He was impeached on September 1st, resigned rather than face an impeachment trial, and was immediately taken into custody to face charges.

People in Honduras were looking for similarly dramatic results.

By September, the torchlight marches had waned, and the Indignados movement began to fade. Progress was moving slowly on the IHSS case – out of 40 charged, only one had reached a conviction. In October, José Ramón Bertetty, the financial manager of IHSS, was charged on one of his multiple counts of abuse of authority, fraud, and misuse of public funds. The Director of IHSS, along with other high-ranking officials, are still awaiting trial.

Observers would have liked swifter, more decisive convictions, but even this much rule of law was unprecedented. The accusations followed a string of high-profile arrests. Reports by Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) exposed corruption in medical purchasing and warehousing that led to then-vice-president of Congress Lena Gutierrez being charged with corruption, along with her politically powerful family. Ten Honduran nationals were extradited to the United States to face charges for drug trafficking. Honduran ex-President Rafael Callejas was extradited to stand trial for corruption related to FIFA.

The increasing will of the Honduran Public Ministry to process corruption cases, however, is limited by inadequate budgets, historically inefficient management, and other procedural difficulties. A “CICIH” could potentially offer the support, independent investigation, and oversight that the Public Ministry needs to process the cases that are coming to light.

But creating a copy of CICIG in Honduras would be difficult. CICIG had been working in Guatemala for nine years before it won the emblematic victory against the president and vice-president.  It is also a particularly expensive program, ranging from $12 to 15 million per year. Protesters demanding a copy of CICIG for Honduras, but also hoping for decisive and immediate results in the lack of a clear funding source, were bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, many observers say that a CICIG-equivalent, instead of strengthening the legal institutions of Honduras, could actually create dependency on a foreign unit of investigators and lawyers.

Another proposal emerged. At the end of September, the secretary general of the Organization for American States (OAS) announced a new initiative – MACCIH, La Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras).

The announcement of the initiative, made in Washington D.C. with President Hernandez in attendance, showed the real will of international organizations to partner with Honduras against corruption. It was also notably different from the CICIG.

The initial proposal for the creation of the MACCIH gave it a limited scope in the prosecution of specific cases, instead installing it in a supporting role for the Honduran justice system. An international body would, like the CICIG, support in the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases. Unlike the CICIG, this body would be composed of both national and international actors. The MACCIH would also create a “diagnosis” of the state of the justice system in partnership with the Center for the Study of Justice in Americas (CEJA), first offering recommendations for improvement, and then acting as an international observer for their implementation[2].

Proponents of the draft praised a proposal that could support the Attorney General’s office in obtaining immediate results, and for a much lower price than the CICIG ($1-2 million per year). Opponents called the MACCIH a face-saving effort of the President to get out of a stricter CICIG- like proposal.

The Alliance for Peace and Justice (APJ) sees the MACCIH as an overall positive movement, as long as it has real autonomy and access to government information – provisions that are left vague in the current draft. Statements published by organizations including APJ, the Wilson Center, and representatives of the Indignados movement requested that a final draft contain language that explicitly grants the MACCIH independence in its investigations and full access to government information and personnel, as well as specifies that MACCIH be led by a Head of Mission above reproach and with real authority.

“To squander this opportunity by failing to put in place a meaningful body with teeth would be a mistake,” wrote Eric L. Olsen and Katherine Hyde in a report for the Wilson Center, “Simply signing a vague agreement in the hope of some future payoff is no longer a viable alternative.”

The MACCIH proposal has been through various revisions as OAS delegates met with various stakeholders in the Honduran government and civil society. Nonetheless, a scheduled December 10thsigning of the agreement – set to happen in Washington – was abruptly canceled to a later date in January.

This could be a sign of political “cold feet” or the workings of further revision processes, but civil society has committed to not letting the Mission be forgotten. By continuing to discuss the needs of the Honduran people, there is hope that a proposal could further the work that has already begun of chipping away the corruption within Honduran systems.

[1] Wilson Center report

[2] InSight Crime

When Justice Looks Like Paperwork

Written by Katerina Parsons (SALTer working in Tegucigalpa with MCC Partner, Asociación para una Sociedad Más Justa)

November 7, 2015

PMR

It’s the end of the month, so I’m going over my budget and making sure everything is accounted for. Every purchase I’ve made all month is meticulously recorded, receipts are duly labeled, photographed, and filed in a manila folder. It’s tedious work. My spreadsheet rarely comes out right. I don’t like doing this.

My friends, family, and church donated generously through Mennonite Central Committee so that I could work here at the Association for a More Just Society, and through MCC all my expenses are paid – rent, food, transportation – as long as they’re all properly documented in my Excel sheet. Sometimes I wonder, when I enter my daily fifty-cent bus fare, whether this is all a little bit much.

But there is a reason for this sort of attentiveness, however time-consuming. In fact, I’m becoming convinced that these are the details that matter about an organization, that these records and audits and due process, as unsexy as they might seem, are actively bringing about justice.

“Transparency” and “accountability” are the mantras here in an organization that spends most of its time making sure that the government works as it’s supposed to.  It’s an uphill battle. No one thinks that they’re a crook, especially not people who have been unchallenged their whole lives. No one thinks they need the sort of accountability that exhaustive documentation provides.

Certainly a few corrupt people exploit regulatory gaps to steal millions of dollars or threaten others’ lives. But most people’s corruption looks a lot more tame. It’s clocking in twenty minutes before you actually start to work. It’s failing to get a signature. It’s signing off on something you didn’t actually do, because you’ll get to it eventually.

It’s not that any of those minor infractions breaks a system, but the culture it creates, the balance of risks and rewards it shifts, starts to strain a system to its breaking point.

The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is Transparency International’s local chapter here, and last year signed a landmark agreement with the Honduran government that charged them, as civil society, with monitoring the transparency and anti-corruption efforts of major government ministries.

That’s how I found myself from the first day elbows deep in the Honduran Education System’s Purchasing and Contracts protocols. I translated graphs of compliance percentages and documentation delivered and began to realize why people say that the Devil’s in the details.

You can’t talk about justice on a big scale without talking about justice on a small scale. You can’t talk about education reform without making sure that it’s recorded whether your teachers actually show up to teach their classes.

Take health – Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America, and approximately 70% of its population depend on publicly-funded hospitals for all their medical care. Yet too often they’re sent home without desperately-needed medicine to treat illnesses from heart disease to schizophrenia because the hospitals don’t have the necessary medicines in stock. When I visited the hospital, doctors talked about buying extra sutures with their own money for the times when the dispensary ran out mid-surgery.

There are two ways to respond to this system that isn’t working as it should. One could create supplemental medical brigades, donate medicines from abroad and send foreign doctors, form health nonprofits or give low-interests loans to purchase medicines on the private market. Or one could go to the source, the Ministry of Health itself, and start to ask questions about why it isn’t working like it should.

Transformemos Honduras, a program of AJS, did the latter, sending request after request for the sort of official documentation that would help them see how medicine purchasing was being managed. Though Honduran law says the information should be delivered within ten days, they waited six months, during which time these justice fighters probably didn’t feel very much like heroes.

When what documentation there was began to come together, it told a bleak story. The Ministry of Health wasn’t analyzing the market to see how much medicines should cost, and it wasn’t following the purchase contract process in the way the law laid out. That meant it was paying double, triple, even seven times as much for medicines as it should. What’s worse, the companies themselves were involved in writing the purchase orders, telling the Ministry of Health what medicines it should purchase instead of the other way around.

The already-strained Ministry of Health was overpaying for medicines that weren’t even necessarily the ones that were needed. Even worse, some of these medicines were never delivered, while others were delivered in unacceptable quality – after audits started, auditors found some medicines infected with bacteria, while others were delivered with only four of their 11 essential ingredients.

The story gets even worse – the warehousing government medicines was run by a woman who appeared to use the stash as her personal piggybank, forging medicine orders and selling the excess, mismanaging the disorganized warehouse so that expensive pills were left to spoil while people in hospitals died for lack of drugs.

In 2013, Transformemos Honduras presented their report, which was numbers and percentages and all the little pieces of methodology that sometimes seem unimportant. The effect was electric. The Honduran government immediately removed the director from her position. She, along with other wealthy, powerful people would eventually face consequences — caught in their corruption by a missing trail of paperwork.

It’s not always fun or exciting to sift through hundreds of spreadsheets or file the government forms that will give you access to hundreds more. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. We need to realize that investment in “unsexy” work like social audits and performance reviews is foundational to creating systems that serve the most vulnerable well, and that transparency and accountability aren’t just buzzwords, they’re building blocks to better systems.

Working at AJS, I’m empowered to be a part of civil society’s oversight of government systems. But transparency and accountability touch my own life as well. It matters that I account for the money I spend, that I’m willing to be as open with my use of others’ funds as I want the government to be with their’s.

So I stare at the expense column in front of me. I write my daily 50 cents under the appropriate column in my expense spreadsheet, hit save, and then hit send. 

Manos A La Tierra

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Merelin Amaya Ponce and Kenri Cardona work with their group to construct a paper house.

We were proud of the small house we had constructed. With only 10 minutes and scraps of paper, we had worked feverishly to create the most secure dwelling that we could, complete with a multi-colored ceiling of red, blue, green and orange strips, the design was tasteful and fun. We peered around at the work of the other groups (one with tall, fan-bent walls, another that just looked like a pile of crumpled recycling) and we smiled at each other knowingly. We were sure that we had won the contest. The facilitator, MCC Regional Worker, Elizabeth Scambler, gathered us all for a small vocabulary review game as we waited with anticipation to see which of our houses would win the “strength test”. We finished the game and laughing and excited, gathered back around the houses. Elizabeth looked around at the semi-circle of 20 expectant faces, smiling vaguely. Then without warning, wheeled around and jumped, full-committment with both feet on the fanned house. Before we could even be surprised, she proceeded on to the other, and then to ours. In less than a second, ruining the meticulous work that we had all done. Then she turned to us calmly, reading the shock on our faces:

“How do you feel?”

Shouts of “Betrayed!”, “Violated”, “Disappointed”, “Angry!”, “Sad!” rang out through the crowd.

And when they died down into sullen silence, she took a moment of silence and then said: “Remember how this feels. Remember that sometimes the greatest trauma of a disaster is the emotional one. Psychology is sometimes the most neglected and yet takes the greatest hit in a loss.”

There was a communal dawning of understanding. And then people began to share…

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MCC Worker Elizabeth Scambler and participant Jhony Pavon demonstrate the risk of disasters when natural phenomenons affect a vulnerable population.

It was a new pilot project in Honduras this year: a service weekend locally for Honduran Mennonite youth with our partner, Comité de Acción Social Menonita in the mountainous region of Copan. 18 young people from many regions of Honduras had been selected by their congregations to come as delegates and learn about “Disaster Preparedness and the Local Church” and serve with their hands, planting peach trees for slope stabilization and food security in the years to come. For urban youth, the novelty of digging in the dirt and growing food was eye-opening to the work involved and built connections between the supermarket and the earth. And the learning about Disaster Preparedness was a practical and helpful topic in a region plagued by floods and hurricanes, droughts and the occasional earthquake.

11828628_10155926563110694_1284769220940096140_n Belkin Santos, Merelin Amaya Ponce, Donis Maradiega Hernandez and Darwin Hernandez with their peach tree.

Donis Maradiega Hernandez said “It just feels so good to plant something that you know will provide for people for many years to come. I’ve never planted trees before. Now I know how much work it is just to begin after digging the huge holes. I never really thought about how much work it was to grow food: it’s always just been from the supermarket.”

At the end of the weekend, we all sat in a circle, thinking back on the previous hours, wondering how so much could have been packed into such a short time, especially when our bus had broken down en route to the retreat center and we had lost 3 hours sitting in the hot sun, waiting for another bus to come. And we went around the circle, sharing something that we had learned, something that we would take with us, some way that we wanted to continue to live out our new learnings.

Darwin Hernandez said “I now see my community through different eyes. I see the risks involved in living where we do (near the river that sometimes overruns its banks), but I also see the resources that we have to mitigate the risks. If we have a plan, we have more hope and organization in the face of a disaster.”

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Participant Doris Sabillon pastes ideas on the Risk Management/Disaster Cycle.

Clivia Avila, a Chemistry major at the university said “They don’t teach us this in school. After all my years of university, I now realize how important this is, these are things worth learning. Things that matter for us here in Honduras. Now, I feel like I am empowered to actually do something in the face of a disaster.”

It was a fun and successful weekend of learning and working and growing together.

And in spite of the challenges, “I wish the weekend could have been longer” said Linda Medina, as we waited on our bunk beds in a half-constructed retreat center. The men didn’t have any showers, as they were sleeping in tents, so out of the mercy of our hearts, we women were letting them use ours and were waiting our turn, still with dirt under our manicured fingernails and crusted sweat in our eyebrows.

“I hope this event continues every year,” said Linda, “But not only that, I hope that I can find everyday ways to serve in my own community as well. I have learned lots and I want to share it.”

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Most of the  group with the workers from CASM Copan after planting peach trees.

How it works: Developing a peace program in Honduras

Republished from A Common Place, Summer 2015

July 3, 2015 – Emily Loewen

MCC photo/Nina Linton

Belinda Rodriguez is the director of Proyecto Paz y Justicia, an MCC partner in Honduras. 

Around the world, partnerships with local organizations shape our work. In Honduras, where gangs and drug trafficking often lead to violence, MCC supports the local Mennonite organization Proyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project or PPJ) in its efforts to create a more peaceful future.

The project trains volunteers to make presentations in schools once a week on topics such as respect, forgiveness and conflict resolution. These lessons equip students to deal with the violence around them.

We sat down with Belinda Rodriguez, director of PPJ, to talk about the relationship between PPJ and MCC.

Where did the idea for this project come from?

All these ideas came from previous experiences from different Mennonite partners and churches in Central American and Latin American countries. Then we adopt these experiences into the context of Honduras.

For example, in Colombia they used the techniques of talking with students and teachers about conflict analysis or restoration.

What happened after you presented the project proposal to MCC? Did you have to make changes?

After presenting a proposal to MCC, the changes that we needed to make were just related to structure — for example, to give more information about what the impact is going to be or the objectives. The emphasis and the work itself hasn’t changed at all.

And the other changes they (MCC) sometimes have to do are related to the budget, because it’s a limited budget.

Do you remember how many meetings you had to have to make these changes? How many times did it go back and forth?

It’s been many meetings. It’s a consistent relationship between MCC and PPJ. At the beginning of the negotiation of a new project or proposal we meet between February and March. After the project is approved, we need to present progress reports, and MCC is monitoring and supervising. Sometimes they (MCC) hosts delegations that come from different countries to see the work that we’re doing here. It’s a consistent and very much reciprocal relationships that we have.

At the end of all the negotiations, do you still feel like it’s your project? The project you hoped for?

I feel like it’s my project or PPJ’s projectthe work and what the objectives are and the impact.

I feel very satisfied with the support I have been receiving through MCC. I know that MCC respects and listens. MCC requires reporting, but I understand that’s just part of the relationship between MCC and us as an association.

Other organizations come here to Honduras with strict regulations and requirements and that’s it. But MCC listens and has a close partnership, and I feel like MCC accompanies the partner here in Honduras.

What are some of the successes you’ve had with this project?

The positive outcomes are the changes that we can see in children — for example how their behavior is changed because of a talk that they received in the school. Sometimes we wonder, (when) we don’t get a chance to see this kid again, but we know that God will be working through that child just because of that talk they received that day at the school.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

First Person: José Fernández

Republished from A Common Place, Summer 2015

June 26, 2015 – As told to Emily Loewen

José Fernández sits in a courtyard smiling.
Nina Linton

José Fernández sits in a courtyard.

I’m the pastor at Vida en Abun­d­­ancia Iglesia Evangélica Men­onita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church) in Chamelecón, a neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

My family moved to Chamele­cón when I was 14 from downtown San Pedro Sula.

It was a completely different community at that time. Today it’s known as a community with a lot of violence and development problems. At that time it had a lot of prospects.

I’ve been married almost 17 years to Lidis Lemus. When my family first moved here, her mother rented an apartment to my family. Her mother was the person who told my father that he should get to know God. We joined the church later that year, and that’s where I met Lidis.

In 1995, I graduated from a technical institute and then worked as a mechanic for 10 years before I got the calling to become a pastor. In 2005 our pastor resigned, and at that point I had received training from a biblical institute and was preaching. The church called me to be part of a team leading the church, and in 2006 this group asked me to take the lead as pastor.

It was hard to assume the role as a pastor while working 15 to 16 hours a day as a mechanic. Lidis and I needed to ask God for direction. Together we accepted a faith challenge. I quit my full-time job as a mechanic to work in the church.

The context has changed here. It was a gradual process beginning around 1995.

Although the population was increasing, the number of schools, health centers and public spaces for families decreased. There were no opportunities for young people, and the gangs began to recruit. When I remember my childhood, many of those friends became gang members. The gangs offered everything young people wanted: belonging, respect, resources.

From 2007, drug trafficking grew to a much higher level. There were more territorial fights that were much more intense, until the place turned into a war zone.

Some brothers and sisters couldn’t come to church anymore because they lived in another sector that was controlled by another gang; they would have had to cross from one territory to another one, which was too dangerous.

Our church felt the calling to see God’s work in this difficult context. We held services in public spaces, prayer campaigns, shared food with the community and families, and we started working with the children of families of gang members — just to show that there is still life in the church.

In 2013, the police came to my house to question me about the death of three women. We had former gang members in our church and the police suspected that they were connected to the murders. The police threatened me and then hit me. They wanted me to kneel down at the fence but I said, I only kneel down before God. It was a very hard experience to realize that our lives were basically in their hands.

After this, Lidis and I decided we would stay but our children would leave. But our daughter Andrea said the children had decided something already — “What we have to pass through we have to pass through as a family.” We received this conviction from our children as a sign that God wanted us to stay.

There is a moment where people start to see you as a symbol of God. A lot of people came in the middle of the night to our house asking for prayers. So we as a pastoral family represented sort of the hope that God will do something.

If we would have left, our exit would have meant the loss of a great part of their hope that they had.

It’s like being in a boat and then the storm starts. You remember the story where Jesus woke up in the middle of the storm? He didn’t leave the boat in the middle of the storm, right? But he asked the Father that the storm would calm down. We felt definitely that that was the role and the responsibility for us to stay.

But there have been moments I came home and thought, what did we just do? Why do we run such risks?

For example we had a prayer session out in the street at night — about 300 feet away was an armed group of gang members, 300 feet on the other side was the other gang. They threatened to start shooting at each other, but we were in the middle praying.

We felt anything could happen at this moment, but actually it didn’t really matter because we’re God’s people and God says I want you to be at peace.

When we finished the prayer campaign, we put all our equipment back in the church, and they started to shoot at each other one by one. Some of our brothers and sisters had not even reached their homes when the confrontation started.

I don’t think our church has done something that is special or out of the ordinary. I just think the church had the opportunity to play its role.

The church is called to be salt and light and there are certain contexts which provide an opportunity to be that more strongly. We still have a lot of dreams that we want to fulfill as a faith community — the work is just started.

José Fernández is pastor of Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Men­onita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church), which supplies volunteers for a peacebuilding program of MCC and Proyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project or PPJ), an organization of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Honduras.

Working for peace in the midst of violence

Republished from A Common Place, Summer 2015

June 26, 2015 – Emily Loewen

A group of children and adults stand outside a church highlighted by street and outdoor lights.
Photographs by Nina Linton

Members of Vida en Abundancia, an Evangelical Mennonite Church in Chamelecón, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, greet each other after an evening service.

When driving through the neighborhood of Chamelecón, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, it’s important to keep the car windows rolled down.

It’s not because of the heat, though Honduras is often hot and humid.

It’s a safety measure, allowing gangs in control of the area to see who’s in the car. Allaying suspicion, as residents like Merelyn Amaya know, can mean the difference between being shot at and quietly passing through.

In late 2014, this already tense neighborhood became a war zone — with two gangs fighting each other for control.

A women stands in shabby empty class room looking out of window.Merelyn Amaya stands in an empty classroom in the school where she once taught. The school was closed after too many students had to leave the community because of fighting between rival gangs.

The school where Amaya taught became a gang stronghold at night. In the mornings, teachers would sometimes find bullets in their classrooms, and once encountered gang members on the roof shooting at police below.

One day, when the bus service Amaya used stopped coming to Chamelecón because of the fighting, she tried to catch a bus on the other side of the territorial line.

She was forced back home at gunpoint. A gang member followed her and shot at her feet as she walked away. “I just started to cry and asked God to hold me in his hands,” she says. The gang member kept the gun pointed at her, telling her she should never come back.

The terror is not hers alone. “All people here in this community could tell you one or another story that is pretty similar.”

A congregation participate in worship with children at the frontFor Vida en Abundancia, an Evangelical Mennonite Church, increasing gang violence has meant a dramatic loss of membership. The church has chosen to remain and be involved in the community to provide a beacon of hope.

It is in this context that Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Menonita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church) strives to bring hope and peace.

The congregation, which once drew some 200 people, now has about 70 in its services. Four members were among bystanders murdered in the conflict in the last two years; many others fled the area after being told by the gangs to leave or be killed.

Despite the violence, the church feels strongly it needs to stay, doing its best to improve the community. One strategy is participation in a program of MCC andProyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project or PPJ), an organization of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Honduras.

The program trains volunteers to present in schools once a week, teaching fifth and sixth graders lessons on respect, forgiveness, self-esteem, education, human rights and conflict resolution. Students from those classes are chosen as mediators, teaching the same lessons to fourth graders.

By reminding children of these values, ideally they will be better equipped to deal with the violence around them — and more able to remember that they can choose to be different.

MCC supplies funding for the staff at PPJ and covers program costs such as stipends and transportation for the volunteers.

A group standing in a circle throw thin strips of plastic in the air.MCC worker Héctor Mojica, right, demonstrates a game using thin strips of a grocery bag during a training for volunteers, from left, Doris Bautista, Luis Salinas, Merelyn Amaya, Maricella Mayorga Diaz and Alexis Cruz.

From 2012 to July 2015, MCC worker Héctor Mojica of Ponce, Puerto Rico, created educational material for the project and led trainings with volunteers and some of the lessons with students.

Amaya is project coordinator in Chamelecón and helps find the volunteers along with Vida en Abundancia pastor José Fernández. “The aim is to give students alternatives to violence, and to show them peace,” Fernández says.

That’s the hope not only in Chamelecón but also in other neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula and in the cities of La Ceiba and Tocoa, where the program also operates.

While the context in Chamelecón is extreme, gang violence and drug trafficking are concerns in many areas of Honduras.

In Tocoa, for instance, parents are fearful enough for their children’s safety that they don’t go to the city’s free playgrounds, instead choosing to drive to a fenced playground with an armed guard where they have to pay admission.

That environment has clear effects on the children who grow up there. At one of PPJ’s workshops, when students were asked what they want to be when they grow up, one said a narcotics trafficker. Others said they want to be hit men.

For Nicolas Rosales, a regional coordinator for the Evangelical Mennonite Church, a board member of PPJ and father of a participant, the project is one way of contributing to a larger picture of peace. “It brings a lot of blessings to society,” he says. “Unfortunately a great part of society is suffering, and what we can do through the peace and justice projects is little. But I think with what we do, we make a difference.”

Nicolas Rosales sits in his living room, one of his daughters walks through in the background.For Nicolas Rosales, father of project participant Heidy Rosales, and a regional coordinator for the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the project provides a way to contribute to a larger picture of peace.

In Chamelecón, pastor Fernández says he’s noticed that in recent years gangs brought in new members from outside the community, and he suspects that’s because young people in Chamelecón aren’t as interested in gang life anymore.

“We want to really strongly work with children and young people . . . so that the moment comes when a young person says, ‘I don’t see the need to join these gangs,’” Fernández says. “That’s why it’s very important to strengthen the work in the schools and keep on working with the children of the community.”

A group of students present at the front of a crowded class room.Institucion Evangélica Bilingüe Menonita students (left to right) Reynaldo Monge, Jorge Bonilla, Karol Calidonio and Ashley Gonzales teach self-esteem, peacebuilding, mediation and conflict resolution principles to children at Escuela Esteban Guardiola, a school in Tocoa, Honduras.

It’s a struggle, though. In 2013 and 2014, massive numbers of people were forced out of Chamelecón, including at the end of 2014 all the volunteers of the peace program.

When a gang says it’s time to go, it’s not a simple phone call. It’s personal. Gang members show up at a person’s house, asking questions about family members they suspect are connected to the rival gang. They go through cell phone records and if there’s enough evidence of a connection, the family has 24 hours to leave.

By the time one gang was forced out of the community near the end of last year, stretches of four or five blocks had only one or two families left, and the level of confrontations and shootings was unprecedented.

But the church didn’t give up on the idea of bringing peace. “We never closed the door as the church. To the contrary we worked harder and more,” says Amaya. “God gave us the hope that this will stop. And if we would have stopped, it would have been shutting down the only light. We were a light of hope as a church.”

As 2015 began, Vida en Abundancia found new volunteers to continue the project. Despite the challenges, Fernández believes the work will pay off, giving young people a different mindset.

“To plant in them a desire to be more than what their past was . . . we think we’ll reach that and we will start to see this effect,” he says.

Emily Loewen is a writer for MCC Canada. Nina Linton is a photographer from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

A Reflection on Solidarity

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Edder Mecón (in white) is an MCC service worker from Colombia serving in Honduras. He shares a reflection on the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia that he participated in with a Mennonite congregation in Tegucigalpa, Honduras:

Being part of Mennonite Central Committee motivates me to participate in the opportunities and activities developed by the wider, active and powerful Anabaptist community. Praying for Colombia while living abroad helps me reflect on my commitment to respond to the needs of my compatriots who have suffered the pain and trauma of a war that is felt beyond its borders; joining with other sisters and brothers from Honduras and around the world to lift a prayer to God: a prayer full of compassion, mercy and love and ultimately identifying as part of a unique Anabaptist family that shares as one community of faith.

Nevertheless, this is not a one day’s work. That is the reason I want to keep on this journey with Jesus Christ and my community of faith. I want to support them from my position in church, work and my personal time of prayer and reflection. Today, some of the Mennonite Central Committee Honduras team and members of the Mennonite Church of Honduras in Tegucigalpa have prayed together to accompany our Colombian sisters and brothers because we believe in the power of a praying community, the truth of our faith in Christ and the voice of advocacy.

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Accompanying Edder in the pictures above: Ilich Aviles (Service Worker from Nicaragua), Alejandra Albornoz (YAMEN participant from Colombia), Elisa Dominguez (YAMEN participant from Mexico), Emily Bowman (Connecting Peoples Coordinator), all serving with MCC Honduras.

En Español:

Edder Mecón (la camisa blanca) es Colombiano y trabaja con CCM en Honduras. Él comparte una reflexión sobre los días de oración y acción para Colombia en que participo con una iglesia menonita en Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Ser parte del Comité Central Menonita me hace sentir un gran llamado a participar de las actividades que hacen que este ministerio anabautista siempre esté acDSC08354tivo y constante. Orar por Colombia desde otro país me hace reflexionar en mi compromiso por responder a las necesidades de mis compatriotas que por muchos años hemos sufrido el dolor y trauma de una guerra que trasciende fronteras; de unirme con otras hermanas y hermanos desde Honduras y otras partes del mundo para elevar una oración a Dios llena de compasión, misericordia y amor; y finalmente de sentirme parte de una sola familia anabautista que con certeza se interesa por compartir como una sola comunidad de fe.

Sin embargo, este trabajo no es sólo de un día y es por esta razón quiero seguir caminando con Jesucristo y mi comunidad de fe, aportando desde mi posición en la iglesia, en mi trabajo y aun desde mi espacio más íntimo de oración. Hoy, algunas personas del equipo del Comité Central Menonita Honduras y la Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Hondureña de Tegucigalpa nos hemos unido para acompañar a nuestras hermanas y hermanos de Colombia porque creemos en el poder de la oración comunitaria, en la verdad de la fe en Cristo y en la voz de la incidencia.

Acompañando Edder en la foto arriba: Ilich Aviles (Service Worker de Nicaragua), Alejandra Albornoz (YAMEN de Colombia), Elisa Dominguez (YAMEN de Mexico), Emily Bowman (Connecting Peoples Coordinator); todos sirviendo con CCM Honduras.

Republished from the Washington Memo: http://washingtonmemo.org/2015/05/28/a-reflection-on-solidarity/

Acciones Justas = Buenas Relaciones

hectorpicJust Actions = Good Relationships

Acciones justas que nos llevan por buenas relaciones

Después de hacer un devocional individual que nos inspirara a realizar acciones justas, cada integrante del equipo del CCM Honduras planeo hacer una actividad a corto plazo para contribuir con un mundo mejor. Al final, tuvimos conclusiones personales que fueron compartidas en la última reunión de equipo. Aquí, compartimos la experiencia de Hector Mojica.

Just actions that lead us to better relationships

After having a personal devotional that inspire us to do just actions, each MCC Honduras team member planned to do a short term action to contribute with the building of a better world. At the end, there were some personal conclusions shared in the last team meeting. Here, we share Hector Mojica’s experience.

Miren la presentación de powerpoint aquí:
See the powerpoint presentation here (in English and in Spanish):

Principio 3 Hector

Funky Friday: Lluvia de peces! It’s Raining Fish!

FELIZ VIERNES! Happy Friday!

Cada viernes, estaremos posteando algo que sobresale de la sociedad y la cultura hondureña. Para hoy, compartimos un artículo con ustedes sobre la famosa Lluvia de Peces!

Every Friday, we will be posting something that stands out in Honduran culture. Today, we share with you an article about the famous Fish Rains!

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Foto de la página de Honduras Tips

Uno de los fenómenos culturalmente celebrado como folklore en el departamento de Yoro es la famosa “lluvia de peces,” donde caen peces con una tormenta. Supuestamente, este fenómeno pasó en esta semana en la comunidad Centro Poblado La Unión. La gente sale a buscar los peces después de la tormenta. Hay varias teorías de dónde vienen estos peces:

Pero otra teoría fue propuesta por un equipo de científicos de National Geographic que fue testigo de este acontecimiento mientras cumplía una misión de Yoro en la década de 1970. Tras señalar que los peces encontrados son completamente ciegos, los científicos concluyeron que los peces de Yoro no caen del cielo y presumen que las fuertes lluvias anteriores a su aparición probablemente obligan a los animalitos que viven en corrientes subterráneas a salir a la superficie.

Por otro lado, la leyenda local establece que la “lluvia de peces” es una bendición otorgada al pueblo de Yoro por el padre José Manuel Subirana, un misionero español que visitó la zona en 1860 y oró por los pobres de la región que padecían hambre, pidiendo a Dios que les proporcionara comida.

El cuerpo de Subirana se encuentra sepultado en la iglesia Santiago de Yoro.

Cualquiera que sea la explicación, la “lluvia de peces” es un hecho que llena de orgullo a los yoreños, ya que es parte de su historia y folclore.

-Miren el artículo completo aquí en Honduras Tips

Fascinante! Creerlo o no, es una parte muy interesante y divertida de la cultura de Yoro. El CCM Honduras apoya a proyectos en Yoro de nuestro asociado Proyecto MAMA.

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One of the cultural phenomenons celebrated as folklore in the department of Yoro is the famous “Fish Rain,” where fish fall from the sky when there is a big storm. Supposedly, this phenomenon happened again this week in the community Centro Poblado La Unión. People go out to look for the fish after the storm. There are several theories about where these fish come from:

Another theory proposed by a team of scientists of National Geographic that was witness to this event while they were doing research in Yoro in the 1970’s. Through showing that the fish are completely blind, the scientists concluded that the fish in Yoro do not fall from the sky and hypothesize that the strong rains before the appearance of the fish probably force the animals that live in the underground rivers to come to the surface.

On the other hand, a local legend establishes the fish rain as a blessing given to the people of Yoro by the priest José Manuel Subirana, a Spanish missionary who came to the region in 1860 and prayed for the poor people of the region who were hungry, asking God to give them food.

Whatever the explanation is, the “fish rain” is an event that fills the people of Yoro with pride, since it is part of their history and folklore.

-Article quotes and picture from Honduras Tips

Fascinating! Whether you believe it or not, this is a fun and interesting part of the culture of Yoro. MCC Honduras supports projects of our partner organization Proyecto MAMA that are located in Yoro.

A program of MCC Honduras