By Jill Steinmetz, Digital Media Specialist with MCC’s SALT program in Honduras.
Sweet bread and hot coffee fueled discussions of peace and justice at a faith-based Partner Gathering in Valle de Ángeles, Honduras in September of this year. Each morning between enriching sessions, the meeting organizers created space for connection over coffee – a space where meaningful conversations could emerge between attendees coming from more than 20 different Christian organizations all over the country. The event was initiated by MCC Honduras and co-organized with Tearfund, World Renew and Resonate Global Mission. Though MCC Honduras hosts an annual partners meeting, this was the first year to also include partners from other international faith-based organizations. The 2018 Partner Gathering aimed to foster environments for exchange and support among those working for peace and justice around the country. “We believe that we are stronger when we are together. These Christian organizations enrich our MCC partners, the Mennonite perspective and the work that we do,” said Matthieu Dobler Paganoni, Co-Representative of MCC Honduras. The gathering stretched over a 4 day period and at its close on September 7, representatives left with stretched minds, new and fostered relationships and a collaborative official declaration of commitments to guide further action.
The topic chosen by the partners for this year was “Analysis of the Honduran Context.” In part because the extremely relevant work these organizations are doing today must be understood in relation to the recent political history of this country. The coup d’état of President Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009 sent the country into political crisis, highlighting the till-then latent partisanship of national politics. From this new political climate, Juan Orlando Hernandez emerged as a powerful congressional leader who then won the presidency in 2013 and again in 2017. His second presidency challenged the country’s constitution, which he had a hand in amending to allow for his reelection. A panel of supreme court justices appointed by Hernandez upheld the new law, while distrust and polarization continued to escalate. When election results were made public and declared fraudulent by international observers, protests broke out across the country for months. While the immediate causes of the protests have normalized, the situation has aggravated partisan tensions and contributed to police militarization and violence against protesters which has risen with the government’s investment in tough-on-crime and anti-corruption policies.
Meeting in the hills outside the capital, participants discussed how the current situation in the country relates to the work they do, brainstormed how to overcome political division and polarization, and reflected on how they could foster reconciliation as Christian organizations. “The need of the country right now is to form alliances and talk about new strategies,” said Adolfo Espinal as he reflected on the week spent in fellowship with representatives from other Christian ministries and organizations. “It was an invaluable time to meet together to find common ground, discuss strategy and share with one another – especially because we have these same day-to-day struggles working for peace and justice.”
Espinal directs the Social Development Committee (CODESO), an MCC partner of the Brethren in Christ Church in Honduras, where he also serves as pastor and denominational president. He traveled to the gathering with several co-workers from Choluteca, a department in southern Honduras. Though small, Orocuina often makes news for its active culture of political protest. Espinal described his hometown by saying that “while the rest of the population talks about the topic, Orocuina stays in the streets, protesting 2-3 times a week. The streets are packed with people.” Adolfo Espinal and many of the attendees came to the event asking what the church can do to address internal polarization and division. As the pastor of a church of about 200 families, his connections and visibility challenge him to navigate sensitive terrain that runs through family and congregation: “My cousin is running for the Liberal Party and the opposing candidate is also a member of my church congregation,” he said. “Another man in my church is running for mayor for the National Party.” Deep political and religious rifts affect daily life for Espinal and for many of MCC’s partners in Honduras. This shared reality of division brought them together in September.
The deep polarization impacting Honduras cuts across political, social and religious spheres. The merits of this meeting included the range of organizations and communities represented and the rich dialogue drawn from such diverse perspectives. Presenters shared thoughts, ideas, and research which provoked discussions among the larger group. Among the speakers were an economic expert, a social historian, and a Catholic priest. Dolores Martinez of MCC partner the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) felt intellectually engaged by the speakers as well as inspired to actively revitalize the local church. She hopes to continue working, moving, fighting actively for justice in her community. The overall integrity of the week was boosted by having both Evangelical and Catholic participants share and find common ground. Social activities, including an evening bonfire, provided opportunities to share stories from different backgrounds while morning worship sessions brought together those from many denominations to share songs in a time of praise.
One of these songs, based on Micah 6:8, highlighted the reason behind why these passionate and committed professionals work the way they do in these challenging issues. The song’s invocation, “to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God,” articulated a shared mission for many of these organizations. While strategies and organizational structures differed, participants found common ground and mutual support with one another this week. Marcia Gutierrez, from the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communication Foundation (ERIC), was grateful to MCC for holding the event. During a coffee break she reflected, “I found a diverse set of people here promoting healthy dialogue. This is an important step in the construction of peace and justice in a country that needs it desperately.” Participants hope to meet again next year and extend an even broader invitation to like-minded organizations. Perhaps by working together, they can offer a concrete alternative to the religious, social and political divisions so rife in the country.