Emily Bowman is the Connecting Peoples Coordinator with MCC Honduras.
“And so we went on hunger strike,” says Pastor Pedro Calix to a hushed roomful of Honduran Mennonite young adults.
“We had explored our other options, we were already camped outside the legislative buildings, and they were still refusing to hear our case. It was the hunger strike that finally got their attention. We would sing hymns and change the lyrics to talk about justice and peace and the crowds would gather. We joined with other civil society groups and marched through the streets. Finally, the bill was heard and passed. Conscientious Objector status and alternative service was now an option for all Hondurans.”
He picks up a guitar and strums a lively rhythm. The youth clap along while he sings one of their marching songs with a big smile on his face.
“But the journey isn’t over yet,” cautions Pastor Calix to the young adults. “We were able to achieve that Conscientious Objector status was an option for Hondurans in peacetime, but there is still a clause in the Honduran Constitution that states that ‘in the time of war, all citizens are soldiers’. We leave it to you, the next generation, to change it.”
In a weekend of early November, eleven young people gathered in Valle de Angeles, Honduras to try to answer the question: What is the role of the Honduran Mennonite youth and their churches in being advocates for justice in their communities, in politics, economics and the world outside of their church buildings?
The event was the second in a new series of encounters, called Manos a la Tierra: Hands to the Earth, organized by MCC, for Honduran Mennonite youth from different regions and churches to meet, connect with local work in their country and learn about a justice topic that isn’t normally explored in the church context. The workshops were facilitated by Anna Vogt, the Regional Advocacy Analyst for MCC.
Throughout the course of the weekend, participants wrestled with Biblical texts about engaging in justice for the most vulnerable in society, unpacked the layers of challenges facing their communities and the ways in which they have a voice to intervene, learned about MCC partner Association for a More Just Society (AJS) and their work to combat corruption, impunity and injustice, and visited a community where youth were empowered through after school programming for violence prevention and values-training.
During the visit to ASJ, the participants learned about their work for education reform and the clean-up of the National Police force. The youth were inspired by the work of these brave Christians for justice. However, the group was sobered when they asked what role churches played in the work of ASJ. “Churches don’t tend to work with us,” commented Blanca Munguia, the director of Transformemos Honduras, part of ASJ, “individuals from the churches help us and believe in justice, but we have yet to partner with a church that wants to fully commit to justice in the society. Maybe you young people are our connection?”
In Honduras, acting for social justice can sometimes have dangerous ramifications. According to Global Witness, since the political coup of 2009, more than 123 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras alone. It one of the most dangerous countries in the world per capita to be an activist. The majority of assassinations have happened with complete impunity. The most famous incident was the killing of globally renowned indigenous land defender, Berta Cáceres, in March of 2016. Her case has yet to lead to any real prosecution and the investigation has been fraught with corruption. Being a human rights defender in Honduras can put a target on your back. However, that does not stop the need for justice and for courageous voices to speak up against abuse of power, corruption and inequality.
The Manos a la Tierra workshops were designed to try to help the youth build connections with local Honduran organizations that are already experienced in doing this important work and to gain tools to develop their own projects in a safe and responsible way.
Anna challenged the young people to think about their own networks and connections, the resources present in their communities for facing social issues, and to brainstorm creative solutions. The weekend was full of music, laughter and enthusiasm. In facing heavy issues of social justice, the energy and excitement of the youth was electric. At the end of the weekend, the youth worked together to draw a problem/solution tree, examining the roots of violence in their society as well as the potential solutions. Then they all traced their hands on colored paper, wrote out their hopes and added them as leaves to the tree.
One participant, Mario Hernandez, stated at the end of the weekend:
“We need more of this kind of event. I have learned that you can be a Christian and an activist. Jesus was political to bring about justice. I can and should be an activist for justice to follow in his steps.”