Last summer, in July, 2010, I visited Honduras with the Methodist group Sierra Service Project. We financed and helped build two homes in a slum on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa called Fuerzas Unidas, Spanish for United Forces. A year earlier, President Manuel Zelaya was exiled by the Military wing before a referendum on a constitutional convention could take place. When the people of Tegucigalpa rose up in protest, they were intimidated, beaten, imprisoned, or killed by government forces. Their state had been taken over by generals and businessmen who sought to further exploit the people of Honduras. And this is nothing new to the Honduran people.
Like so many other Latin American countries, Honduras’s history is scarred by U.S. intervention in their politics, government, and economy.
In the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration funded and trained a notorious Honduran death squad known as Battalion 316. They were headquartered at the U.S. military base located near the capital, where they tortured countless civilians before burying them in mass graves. All this was done to preserve the economic relationship between the United States and Honduras, one that benefits wealthy corporations at the cost of human rights and economic justice.
The Honduran people are exploited economically through the Central American Free Trade Agreement and strings attached to aid packages and government loans. The government can neither subsidize its own people’s crops nor collect tariffs on American goods. The unemployment rate hovers around 30%. The poverty rate stands at 69%. They have the highest murder rate in Central America and the second-lowest GDP per person.
The farmers feel the pain worst of all. Most of them work for American food or coffee corporations, picking fruit sixteen hours a day for less than three cents.
With all of this standing in their way, with all of this staring them down, they still have a deep faith in God. The churches stand as pillars of hope and community in these cities and slums and villages. The Methodist Church in Fuerzas Unidas was the safest place within miles, its high walls and tall, brick chapel, secure and sound amid the gangs and drugs and poverty, and it welcomed those who sought help and reached out to those most in need.
I couldn’t take from this experience a heightened faith in God, but I did take from it a heightened faith in the role religion can play in bettering the world. More so, I learned how connecting with people personally can change the way we identify with those in the third world.
When we were building one of these homes on the hillside, I talked with the family’s father, Juan. He had had a heart attack two years earlier, and arrived at the hospital an hour later without a pulse before he was resuscitated. I thought of my father, who had died from a heart attack years ago.
When I learned a few weeks ago that Juan had died on Christmas Eve from another heart attack, it reinforced in me the feeling that while we are worlds away from these people, we are incredibly similar. It’s who we are as human beings, we feel the same emotions and we have the same hopes and fears and wants. We want justice, peace, democracy, dignity.
And the first step in bringing all of this to Honduras and to the world is to be in solidarity with them. When enough people identify themselves as supporters of the poor, it is suddenly easier to lift them from poverty. We must use the political and spiritual power we have to motivate our leaders for change, for Honduras and for ourselves, and implore them to spread hope instead of fear, justice instead of exploitation, and faith instead of poverty.