On March 16 I gathered with 25 members of a delegation of Canadian and American Christians to bless the people of Mal Paso, Honduras—a village that Gracie and I have visited and cared for since 1983. Honduras is currently considered the most violent country in the world—and Mal Paso’s recent history reflects the complexity and nature of much of violence wracking this impoverished nation and our unique role.
For nearly five years Gracie and I rode our motorcycle from Tierra Nueva’s farm base in Minas de Oro down the steep mountain road into the dry, lowland foothills every Wednesday. One of the first couples we met were Teodoro and Chon, campesinos (peasants) in their mid-twenties (our same age at the time) who resided in front of a make-shift soccer field in the center of a village of scattered adobe houses.
They invited us in from the scorching sun to drink coffee under the veranda just off a courtyard that served as a holding pen for their small herd of cows. Other subsistence farmers gathered with us to learn about sustainable farming practices. Our group grew to include many of the village men and later the women– as Gracie worked with Chon, teaching them nutritious recipes, hygiene and nutrition.
At that time nobody was at all interested in Bible study—and we ourselves were more focused on trying to serve the people at their point of felt need– identified as increasing production of corn and beans, avoiding amoebic dysentery, a gravity-flow water system for the village, latrines and getting access to land for the many landless peasants. We worked with the people on these priorities, and grew close to many as production increased, water systems and latrines were installed and the village progressed. Teodoro and many other farmers experienced dramatic increases in their yields of corn and beans, and hope was on the rise.
One day the people came with reports that a little airplane had flown over their village and fields, dropping hundreds of little pieces of paper that warned that Jesus was coming soon and everyone who didn’t accept him before his arrival would be thrown into the lake of fire—so repent! The people were stirred up, and wondering what we thought. They asked us to lead them in a Bible study from then on at the start of every Wednesday agricultural committee gathering.
We watched many of Mal Paso’s residents become attracted to Jesus as we read and discussed together stories from the Gospels week after week. Leaders emerged out of this committee who became Tierra Nueva’s founding peasant promotores (village trainers).
Hard times followed, as US AID (United States Agency for International Development) funded a project that paid farmers we had trained and organized to leave our ministry and re-organize under Honduran government- controlled committees. US strategy at that time involved efforts to win Honduran hearts and minds as they recruited and trained peasants youth to fight the US’s battle against neighboring Nicaragua. Tierra Nueva lost many villagers who accepted the free handouts of chemical fertilizer, chicken wire and food for work in exchange for their allegiance and relationship with us.
Then NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came along, and US farmers were given the green light to sell heavily-subsidized American corn in Central American markets, causing local corn prices to drop below what peasants could produce it for. These happenings drove many to hit the road for El Norte (the US), a dangerous and expensive journey across Guatemala and Mexico into the USA.
Many young men left our region. Some became involved in drug dealing, gang activity & served prison sentences in the US, later to be deported back to Honduras. Many then became involved in drug trafficking (one of the reasons Honduras is so violent now).
While Teodoro had done well farming with Tierra Nueva, he, like many, got the “fever for the North.” He joined others from Mal Paso and surrounding villages to work in fields, construction sites and factories as an undocumented worker. Teodoro returned 7-8 years later wealthier and tougher, his values damaged by wholesale pursuit of the American Dream.
Two years ago jealousy was aroused by some of Mal Paso residents successes in the United States. A man who was successfully managing his immigrant brother’s affairs was falsely accused by family members. Things escalated a he was shot to death. This unleashed a wave of vengeance killings, as people hired assassins to shoot up whoever was next on the “kill list”. My old friend Teodoro was #9 of the ten who were killed. He was shot to death by submachine gun- bearing gunmen right there in his corridor where we’d started Tierra Nueva.
David, Tierra Nueva’s leader, was Teodoro’s next-door neighbor. He was awoken by the shots early one morning and heard Teodoro crying out to God “my God, my God” as he died. David had been first on the scene of most of the previous murders—and was traumatized. Though a gifted leader, peacemaker and pastor, David felt he had to move out of the village to protect his family. 60% of the people moved away. Not one of the murders has been investigated due a breakdown of law and order in much of the countryside.
For the past two years though David has been visiting those who remained in Mal Paso– some 150 people. Every week David visits people in their homes, leads Bible studies and prayers. We are working with him to seek employment solutions like raising chickens, pigs and purchasing abandoned land that once belonged to the victims.
Last week I accompanied him for several days of visits to Tierra Nueva’s families in other villages and was able to visit our coffee farm. Everywhere we went we found people hungry for Bible study and open to prayer. We saw many receive physical healing. On Saturday we hosted the Catch the Fire team from Toronto to bless the people of Mal Paso. Over 200 villagers came to receive medical consultations, medicine, beans and rice. Members of the mission group played with the kids, painted their faces, shampooed hair and combed out lice.
David and I gathered the entire community at the start and addressed them regarding their need to mourn, to forgive and to receive God’s comfort. Many acknowledged trauma, fear and ongoing nightmares. Many men, women and children came into the center of our gathering to receive prayer. People cried as hands were laid on them. Prayer teams prayed for peoples healing and a group of us took a long walk around the circumference of the village, interceding for peace.
Please pray for wisdom and strength for David. Pray too for peace in Mal Paso and for peace in troubled places like Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Israel/Palestine and beyond.
Recently I prepared a talk on Judges 19, which ends with a call to “consider, take counsel and speak up” about the victim—which in that case was a Levite’s concubine who had been raped and cut up into 12 pieces and distributed throughout Israel. Rather than responding as the men of Israel did—seeking to punish offenders in ways that unleash more violence, the text invites alternate ways—like the recent acts of kindness and solidarity offered to Mal Paso. I invite you to view my recent reflection on Judges 19 as you contemplate Jesus, the risen victim this week, available on YouTube at http://youtu.be/fkGDnmJWC4Q