Friday, 23 November 2018

Many crazy people

‘There are many crazy people around the world’.  Martinez, Kristel and Sheryl* are some of them.  Martinez looks like a world famous football player but tells me he’s not actually good at football.  

He’s 18 years old and has an engaging smile and light in his eyes.  ‘Many things churches do are just sticking plasters.  But following the Transforma Joven (Transforming Youth) workshops we decided to do more.  We developed an initiative called ‘playing for peace’. It was aimed at preventing kids from joining the maras (gangs).  Every week for 3 months we’d play 2O minutes of football then have a short reflection time and something to eat and then play football again.  It gave the young people an alternative.

Three churches from different denominations joined in but some pastors said they didn’t want to be involved.  God was faithful and He supported us. The next year we shared this vision with others. The results were very good.  With a group of friends we have now decided to bring food and supplies to people in hospital.

My area is one of the two most dangerous in the city.  People are used to seeing lots of guns, gangs and violence.  It’s not easy. Last year I was persecuted. One day the maras came into my house.  Sometimes I’m afraid. But people are now realizing that change can happen’.

The Transforma Joven movement ‘helps us to do mission in our context.  It is a space to train young people to live out the fullness of God’s good news, to find local resources, develop initiatives and plans and lobby for change’.

Kristel and Sheryl, two sisters with beautiful long black hair, join in the conversation.  Kristel says ‘the challenge after we complete the training is to develop an initiative in our communities.  We don’t need a lot of resources. We have resources in our churches. We just need to work as a team.  My brother (in Christ) has this skill and I have another. I believe at the end of this training we’ll be like dynamite!’

‘I just finished the training last month’ says Sheryl.  ‘I really liked that it brought together people from different denominations.  It empowered 16 year olds like me to share ideas about what we can do to transform our communities and country.  We need to be salt and light (Matthew 4v13-16).

‘We are working on a process for recycling and we want to avoid using styrofoam’.  Styrofoam is the ‘disposable’ white plastic that takes 500+ years to degrade and is used everywhere in Honduras (and the US).  ‘We plan to share environmental awareness in our city.  We want to reach 150 teenagers in our church. It’s small steps but so exciting’.

God brings hope for this nation through young people like this.
*Names changed for privacy and safety.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

'Never go in alone'

'Never go in alone.  We lobbied to improve conditions for guards and cleaners.  They are some of the most vulnerable people in Honduras. But one of our staff was killed and another was kidnapped so we had to stop.  Now we always go in to challenge injustice in alliance with others: universities, other Christian organisations, churches etc'. Angely and Lizzy* inspire me.  We are talking over breakfast on a sunlit terrace.

Angely and Lizzy are part of Transparency International in Honduras.  Our vision is to be brave Christians to make the government system function for the most vulnerable groups'.  Brave is highly appropriate for this work.  'We have martyrs.  We have many threats.  The Directors have bodyguards'.

I am very impressed by how much has been achieved in this context.  For example, the organization has been a key part of the ‘Transform Honduras’ movement of 50,000 volunteers.  This movement carried out a survey of all the schools and health centers in selected parts of the country.  ‘We now know why many schools and health centers do not function effectively’.  The organization is part of two government commissions who will monitor the implementation of mandatory improvement plans.  And the commissions have even higher authority than government ministries.
Some of the work is directly practical.  They’ve been involved in helping provide three link people to substantially improve cooperation between communities and police in the roughest neighbourhoods.  This has been instrumental in reductions in crime of up to 50%. And they’re planning to train pastors on security. Gangs can feel threatened by church leaders and have assassinated 35 pastors in recent years.  ‘Sometimes pastors have so much love for communities that when they are threatened they just pray and carry on but then get killed’.

For the future ‘we need the biggest churches to get involved in issues of justice.  You need one who is brave enough to go first. Church leaders don’t have the bodyguards but the bodyguards wouldn’t be able to protect them anyway’.  The good news is that some of the biggest denominations are now waking up.  ‘In one denomination 35,000 youth are planning to carry out acts of justice.  We couldn’t even have dreamed about this before’.

How can you and I respond to this?  Please join me in praying for ongoing wisdom, protection and success for Angely and Lizzy and this inspiring organization and consider supporting them (Transparency International Honduras).

I am also challenged about how willing I am to challenge injustice in my society. There are, for instance, unacceptable delays in benefit payments to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK.  These delays can plunge them into spiraling debt and force them into having to rely on handouts to feed their families. What are the justice issues in your context? I wonder how willing you might be to bravely tackle them in the company of others and with wisdom.

‘Seek first the kingdom and [God’s] justice** and all these things will be added unto you.’  Matthew 6v33.
*Names changed for privacy and safety. Angely was supported by Tearfund as an 'inspired individual' for 3 years.

**  The word ‘justice’ here is often translated as ‘righteousness’ in English.  However the original Hebrew words for justice and righteousness mean essentially the same thing.  They are sometimes used together to reinforce a point (eg Isaiah 11v4), as there was no underlining or bold in oral culture.


Saturday, 17 November 2018

I was very lost

I'd be very scared to be here after dusk.  It's partly the narrow alley and the dark looks from some of the men, who may or may not be on drugs.  But it is more because of the haunting stories from today.  This morning I listened to Mario*, a 22 year old young man with a smiling bright-eyed face.  'I came from a struggling family.  My Mum had to be both Mum and Dad for me.  She worked very long hours as a nurse.  At secondary school I got involved in gangs.  In my district there was lots of killing and I was part of this.  I was becoming someone I didn't want to be, an animal.  I killed a person.  I was very lost in drugs and alcohol'.

Many people tried to help Mario.  'My elder brother's big mission in life was to rescue me.  I was in a drug rehabilitation center but not for long... I was in many homes and a psychiatric center...But I arrived home full of drugs and I hit my Mum in the face.  My Mum never stopped loving me.  She said 'with God we will find a way'.  As Lucila* hears again the story of her son she hides her face behind her hand, deep distress in her eyes.

Eventually the times of hope start to get more and the relapses less frequent.  'I arrived at my brother's home to live and had an encounter with Jesus and myself.  I decided to go to drug rehabilitation.  I am a person who can testify that God is real.  Many times I was close to death.  I ask God for perseverance'.

Mario will graduate tomorrow from a vocational center that is run by inspiring people from the Catholic Salesian movement.  'The Salesians work with the poorest people in the poorest countries of the world.  And amongst the poorest we work with those with the most urgent needs' says Santiago* the Center Director.  

Mario has been studying industrial mechanics and also attending drug rehabilitation run by a ACAB, a Christian association.  'I'd like a stable job.  I dream of being able to support my children.  I am just a biological dad, the kids live with their mothers.  I want to meet others to testify to a real God, He is the only one who can change lives.  I want to tell them about drugs, to help young people to clean their minds and break with drugs.  We need to show these young people that they are valuable.'

Mario still faces major challenges.  He may have to deal all his life with the temptation to return to drugs.  'I need to keep away from a lot of my old friends'.  And 'there are very few jobs', even for graduates from the vocational center.  

I am deeply impressed by Mario's perseverance, by his Mum's total commitment and the deep care of the Salesian staff.  But my heart joins the cry of most Hondurans that deep change is needed in this country.  Change so that people in such dangerous cities will have a better life.

*Name changed for privacy.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Two girls and big business

Two girls walk with their mother down to the river's edge.  The girls are wearing pretty school dresses and long white socks.  What happens next provides a clue to what is going on here.  Their mother takes her shoes off, lifts one girl onto her back and wades across the shallow water to the far side.  She then does the same for her other daughter.

'The mother is sacrificing herself' says my friend Antonio* as we watch this happen.  When I find out about the water that she's wading through I understand what Antonio is saying.  This is no ordinary river water.  It's full of chemical pollution from the city morgue, an international fizzy drinks company and a meat processing factory.  Plastic rubbish floats in the water and you have to be careful not to step on syringes used to inject drugs.

These children and hundreds like them cross this stinking river at least twice a day to get to and from school.  If they don't cross here its a 5km round trip to use a bridge.  The water quality is so poor here that kids frequently catch serious skin infections and have to miss 2 to 3 months of schooling to recover.

The church and community are lobbying the local government to agree to the construction of a footbridge at this site.  The officials are unlikely to say yes as this would start to legalise the whole 'bordo' community who are living without official permission in the flood zone.

This is also about justice.  There are some environmental protection laws but they are not being enforced.  If local people challenge the polluting companies then they risk being sued.  And the big multi-nationals can threaten to cut jobs (ostensibly to release the money to raise their environmental standards) or even threaten to move to another location in Honduras or another country.  So the local government says nothing.

'The city is full of businessmen focused on making money.  The priority is never the environment'.  But does it have to remain this way?  I think Christians too often have a blind spot about business.  We think about changing civil society or maybe the government but rarely business.  And yet business has a huge influence on the lives of people and particularly the poorest.  Churches can respond with charity donations to respond to the symptoms but can also help bring justice within business to address this root cause.

Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World sets out an inspiring vision for renewed values in the business world.  The authors make the case that is practical as well as ethical for business to focus their core business on bringing social and environmental good as well as generating an appropriate profit.  I pray that churches will increasingly support people of integrity within businesses to bring transformation from within.  Heal business to heal the world.

*Name changed for privacy.  

Tuesday, 13 November 2018


Living in the flood zone
'My life was a total mess' shares Maria*.'My self esteem was very low and I did not know that I had any rights'.  Maria was brought up here in one of the 'bordo' areas of the city of San Pedro Sula.  The rough houses are built on a thin strip of flood bank, all of them without permission.  People come to live here because they are too poor to afford the cost of rent, electricity or water connections.  But such areas are the haunt of 'maras', the violent gangs that have made this city notorious for its murder rate.

The light shines brightest in the darkness.  'I took part in a training on countering violence run by CASM, a Christian organisation, and during it I experienced inner healing.  I don't have enough words to say how grateful I am, grateful to God.  I learned the value of being a woman and a mother.  I came back to the church and met a lot of good people'.

Maria is now a church leader and works with 40 kids from ages 5 to 12 helping them understand the Bible and their rights, to further their education and to avoid violence.  She also helps them develop practical livelihood skills such as making bracelets to sell.  All this is alongside raising her 7 kids.  'It's a lot of work!'  

Migrating north in search of a better life
However the story for Maria's sister, Ela*, has been much more difficult.    Recently the gangs tried to recruit her 18 year old son and also get him involved in drugs.  Desperate to avoid this Ela has left Honduras and is now part of a migrant caravan heading towards the US.  She had to leave behind Jennifer*, her 14 year old daughter.   

This distressing story is part of a vicious cycle of poverty that's causing the disintegration of many Honduran families.

Maria's dream is 'to reach families struggling with the same sort of problems I have faced.  I remain very poor and I live in the same place but I have re-encountered God.  I dream that the church grows in leaders and that children from the Bordo have a better and full life'.  

'The church has an important part to play in the community.  The gangs use many strategies to recruit kids and use many networks.  The church should also go and be out and use wise strategies.  We need to go and search just like the gangs go and search.  It all depends on who reaches them first: the gangs or the church'.  

*Names changed for privacy.

I don't see his face

I don't see his face.  I know he is wearing a blue shirt and shorts, I guess he is about 10 or 12 and I think he is thin.  Why do I know so little about him?  Because he is just in the edge of my vision.

I am walking quickly out of the shopping mall amidst a cloud of boys.  They are asking for dinero (money).  I am feeling stressed, are these guys genuine or were they sent out to beg by gang leaders?  Or is that just my excuse not to stop, to give, to get involved?  He isn't asking for money, just lying on the floor, perhaps the poorest of them all.  I don't know.
Shopping mall in San Pedro Sulas

I've just left a shopping mall in San Pedro Sula in Honduras.  It was all bright lights, expensive shops and too much choice for where to eat.  I could have chosen MacDonalds, Subway, Wendys ... so many US restaurant chains.  In fact the whole mall could have been in the States.

Latin America has been experiencing a major shift towards evangelical Christianity.  And San Pedro Sula has the highest proportion of evangelicals in Honduras, approximately half the population.  As Bible based churches you'd hope the churches would be heavily involved in addressing poverty and justice. There is plenty in God's book of life to encourage us to love everyone as ourselves and particularly those who are poor.  For example 'religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress' James 1v27.

But the stats show a much more troubling picture.  San Pedro Sula is the most unequal city in Honduras, has the highest rates of HIV/ AIDS and for many years had the highest murder rate in the world.  One reason there are so many people in the mall is that its a comparatively safe place to be in this dangerous city.

So what's gone wrong?  As I talk with Honduran colleagues a sad picture emerges of how many in God's church have believed falsehoods.  One of these is  the so called 'prosperity gospel' that says have Christianity makes you rich and calls, often poor, people to give sacrificially to make the pastor rich.  Another more subtle challenge is to focus just on the 'spiritual' (ie 'invisible' things like worship and prayer) but not embrace the fullness of God's good news which encompasses all of life.  This can lead us Christians to worship God on Sundays but live lives from Monday to Saturday that are not deeply transformed or life bringing. See Ruth Valerio's excellent reflection on The Gospel, the whole Gospel and nothing but the Gospel.    

I'm reading the book of Jeremiah at the moment.  It makes for uncomfortable reading.  In chapter 4v1-2 God says 'If you (ie God's people) put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear 'as surely as the LORD lives,' then the nations will be blessed by God'.  Idols are anything we put above God in our lives.  And I think all of us are drawn, at least at times, to putting security (wealth), soulmates (relationships) and significance (status/ power) above God.

It seems to me that parts of the church in Honduras need to repent and turn away from these false gods.  And the church in the UK and around the world.  And me.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Falling into a rubbish bin?

I've heard stories of old people falling into rubbish bins and not being able to get out again.  I could well understand this happening if the bins were as large as the one at breakfast today in Atlanta, USA.  As I walked into the room to eat my breakfast this morning the most visually dominant thing was a huge black bin.

I'm not surprised it was so large because so many of the things we were given for breakfast would soon wind up in there.  There were the flimsy disposable plates, knives and spoons, the single use plastic cups and the metal cans that the fruit juice came in.  There was no bin for recycling the cans separately.   

Later on, while waiting for the bus to the airport, I got chatting to Andrew and Laura*, two American Christians.  Andrew's right wrist was in green plaster from a skateboarding accident but he was full of dynamism.  When I mentioned that Tearfund are focusing on addressing the pressing environmental issues of our time they were much encouraged.  'We don't know of any American Christian 'not for profit' organisations focusing strongly on this and yet we need to look after God's creation.  As Christians we should be leading environmental action'.  

Laura* was already taking action, challenging a proposed development that threatened a water meadows conservation area near her city.  I joked that she would soon be chaining herself to a tree and she explained that that was pretty much what they would be doing.  They had discovered an ancient tree on the site and the need to protect it was forming the main part of their case against development. 

Many Christians know that 'God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life' John 3v16.  However many believe that 'the world' here means all people.  I used to believe this too.  However the Greek word here is 'cosmos' so this means that Jesus gave his life for all creation, not just people.  For more on the theology of creation care and useful practical ideas for action here is Ruth Valerio's inspiring website

Perhaps it's time for you and me to be more willing to follow Jesus' example.  Maybe we need to sacrifice more of ourselves and our wants to protect God's beautiful creation and the precious people who depend on it.  With the UN warning that we have just 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe I think it's high time.

*Names changed for privacy.