A few weeks ago Manuel and I packed up our apartment with the help of my grandparents and sister, stored our stuff, packed our bags and headed north to Honduras with six other people on a mission to scout things out there and bring in new Vida220 students. We loved being there, and were always warmly welcomed despite a few warnings of “Honduras is dangerous,” “Be very careful!” and “Are you sure you really want to go there?” There my eyes were opened and my heart was touched by something totally new to me: gang activity.
Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are sadly known as some of the most violent countries in the world because of so many clashes and wars between opposing gangs as they try to gain territory and basically show each other who is boss. There are certain areas, cities and towns that are more “conflictive” than others. Therefore, outsiders fear to enter. They fear because of the stories they’ve been told and images they’ve seen of what goes on there. The whole world tells them that they should be very afraid. But what do you actually find when you set fear aside and go where no one else wants to go?
Chamelecón in San Pedro Sula, Honduras is one of those big, no-go zones. In the last ten years the town has suffered horrible violence at the hands of two opposing gangs. There was a kind of civil war between the two as one had control of a strategic territory (known there as a colony) beside the river and the other decided that they wanted to take over. Inside of that colony were dozens of innocent families who had nothing to do with any gang activities, others who had fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers connected to the gang that controlled the colony at that time, and right in the middle of it all is a Mennonite church.
We met with the pastor of this church multiple times over a few weeks. Each time he shares with us a different experience allowing us to understand the kind of things that have impacted his community, church and even his own family. But as we sat and listened to his stories far from Chamelecón, so many of the details were only left to each of our imaginations. It wasn’t until we actually visited the church one Sunday that we were able to understand, at least a bit better.
That Sunday we had planned to meet with the pastor in a gas station right inside of the main entrance into Chamelecón so that we could follow him to the church. He was running late so we sat in the van and observed what was around us. There were three or four heavily armed soldiers posted in the middle of the road to see who goes in and out, always ready to block off the road “if things get ugly down there.” Dozens of people drove and walked by. Some paid no attention to the strange van and others stared as they passed by. The pastor finally came and we followed him towards the church. We passed by people riding their bikes, couples walking hand in hand, people grocery shopping, and all looked pretty normal to me. There was almost no sign of the “war” that had torn so many lives apart only a few years ago.
It wasn’t until we got out of the cars at the church and followed the pastor on a small tour of the colony which had been forcibly taken over that we began to connect images with the story: a house that one of more than a dozen families from the church had to abandon as they either fled for their lives or were forced out because of connections to the opposing gang, a man whose elderly father-in-law was kidnapped and murdered because he didn’t seem to understand why he could no longer visit his friends in the neighboring colony, dozens of abandoned, gutted homes, and an empty lot right beside the street that divided the colonies of the opposing gangs where the church would meet to pray for peace knowing that at any moment guns could be fired and they would suddenly find themselves in the middle of a battle, but still they kept praying.
We returned to the church where the pastor had told us that we could expect to see a slightly more “expressive” congregation than in the other Mennonite churches we had visited. We all wondered what he meant by that, but we would soon find out. Songs and words take on a whole new meaning when in the midst of the violence God has truly been your only hope, your only safety, when His presence has literally been the only source of peace that you can possibly find. The commands to forgive and love your enemy no longer look the same when it means forgiving your father’s murderer, your husband’s kidnapper, and the people who tricked your son into believing that the gang would be good for him, that he would be taken care of and become rich and powerful, but now he’s gone. To still lift your hands in praise and give thanks can no longer be an empty, monotonous act. If you’ve been through any of that and have chosen to believe, to forgive, to have joy, you know that it comes from the deepest corner of a heart that only God in his grace could make well again.
These people do not deny the pain they have felt, nor do they deny the danger of being threatened and hurt all over again. But they don’t let it control them either. Some communities choose high walls and metal gates to try to keep the danger out, but that “security” still ceases to exist the moment they step outside of the gate and back into the real world. Others have chosen to face life head-on, recognizing and believing in a good and loving God who can still change even a gang leader’s heart, and make right the wrongs committed against them. These live in true faith, they know true joy not based on circumstances, and they experience a true kind of peace that only comes from God and is not wavered by the unrest that surrounds them.
My eyes have been opened, my heart has been touched, and I have been challenged once again to not allow myself to buy into the ideas that media and society are so good at selling. Don’t believe all of the stereotypes, don’t put a certain group of people in one big box just because of where they come from. The truth is that they’re not all the same. Go and see for yourself. Get to know a few people from a culture or place that you’ve only heard about on the news or read about in books. Be brave and step outside of your comfort zone. You might just be pleasantly surprised, even shocked, at what you find.
**If you like "Ted Talks" and have a few minutes to listen to one here is a really good one related to the last paragraph called The Danger of a Single Story.