Finding shade under the tree

Living in Honduras for the past few months has felt especially difficult and intense. What started as a labor dispute between teachers’ and doctors’ unions and the government has become a multi-sector agitation against government corruption and economic desperation.

Classrooms from elementary to university have been closed at various times, and public hospitals have not been attending patients. Taxi and bus drivers have been occasionally involved in blocking streets and shutting down cities. University students, some of whom graduated in early June with little hope for finding jobs, have marched. Military police have shot at student protests. Commercial trucks have parked outside cities, refusing to enter, and some trucks have been burned during protests. The U.S. Embassy was vandalized and has been partially closed.

A tree at the center of a village built in partnership with Presbyterians near Trinidad de Copan, Honduras.

It is difficult for me to see God in this environment. If God is in the rule of law, there is little of that. If God is in social and economic justice, there is even less. If God is in peace, compromise and goodwill, there is almost none.

Some days I have had to look very closely for the smallest sign of God’s presence. Mark’s gospel gives me an image that I can hold onto: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (4:30-32). What can I take from this seemingly simple image? The kingdom of God is very small. It is planted in earthly soil. It doesn’t necessarily put an end to the burning, life-threatening sun scorching the earth. But it does provide shade, a sanctuary, open for all.

I recently accompanied a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is completing a General Assembly directive to write a comprehensive study of Central America. In Honduras, we visited a government reception center for migrants deported from North America, heard from individuals and families directly affected by the push and pull factors of the immigration process, and interviewed international officials and organizations working in anti-corruption and social justice.We heard from Joana, a Scalabrinian nun, an immigrant from Brazil herself, who serves migrants at the Honduras government center, which receives up to 10,000 deportees weekly from the United States and Mexico. She and her team of volunteers were once up for four days straight receiving flights of 250 passengers each that arrived at all hours of day and night. Her message as 150 young men and women disembarked wearing U.S. Customs Enforcement-issued gray sweats and white T-shirts, their possessions in garbage bags? “God loves you. I love you. You are worthy of love.” And she gave them coffee, a little food, and a smile.

We witnessed the secondary trauma of a Mennonite social services agency worker who had accompanied October’s much-publicized caravan of migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border. She had walked alongside mothers with babies and people with amputated legs, trying to find them strollers or wheelchairs to replace the ones that had fallen apart after days of constant use. She had tried to provide a little solace for families, making ad-hoc playgrounds for kids while parents looked for a phone, or water, or transportation. She shared a picture of a five year old taking a broom to sweep the dust off the tarp on the ground where her siblings were sleeping while their mother was taking care of errands and gathering food. “The first loss is dignity,” Yanina Romero said.

As I wrote this, my friend and colleague, a Honduras church leader and theological student, was in Mexico. He left Honduras in March, looking for work because low coffee prices left his farm in debt he can’t pay. He was away from his wife’s side for the first time in their marriage. Traveling with a guide he trusted but who was extorting his family for more money for “safe passage” to the United States, my friend was in what seemed to me a hopeless situation. Each day he weighed the risks and rewards of continuing his attempt or returning home. “God is with us, God is here, sister Dori,” he told me on the phone. “I have my Bible with me. The word of God is here among us, and I’m able to share it with lots of people here with me. I have faith.”

A couple of weeks later, my friend’s wife called me with “the best news ever.” Her husband was on his way home. For him, crossing the border was a failed attempt, a financial loss. For her, success was the reunification of her family. “Pray for a job for him,” she said.

The kingdom of God is so much more complex than we imagine. In a bleak and hopeless landscape, we find little spots of light. Amid oppression and desperation, we find the hope cultivated by family connection. We find dignity — shady spots for our nests — under the tree of God’s presence in our created world.

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On the caravan and those left behind

In last half of the month of October, I passed not a day without hearing conversations about “la caravana” that is making its way from Honduras towards the United States. Sometimes I was part of the conversation; friends and acquaintances would ask me, the only U.S. citizen in the room, what I thought about the caravan, whether I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how I would change migration laws in the United States if I could. Many in Honduras are divided about the caravan. Mothers express heartbreak and judgment about parents who are carrying toddlers and babies on the dangerous journey, or the same about parents who left their toddlers and babies behind. Young people debate whether they would have gone, given the chance, or express either relief or regret that they didn’t take the chance.

What most everyone agrees is that back here in Honduras, there is very little opportunity for jobs, education, improvement. Two-thirds of people are underemployed. Two-thirds of people live under the poverty line.

The most heartbreaking part of this “caravan” of migrants for me is to see the level to which politicians, governments, media and the powerful are using the “plight” of migrants to amplify their own interests and messaging. The timing of the caravan is no accident, but it is not the first, nor is it a sudden trend or surge. Migration between Central America and the U.S. has been a steady trend since the 1980s, and actually in recent years has decreased, for various reasons.

The media in Honduras, all of which is quite politically biased, is playing the caravan of migrants to either right- or left-wing advantage. The left-wing media is following the caravan daily and blaming the current government for the economic hardship and violence that the migrants are “fleeing.” The right-wing media, in support of the current government, is playing up the difficulty of the journey and the U.S. government’s opposition and threats to cut off U.S. AID and military funding, on which Honduras is dependent. They’re attempting to guilt and shame migrants by saying their choice is harming Honduras. They have arrested at least one caravan organizer, accusing him of being a “coyote” and making false promises to migrants.

Meanwhile, the congresses in both countries are using the caravan as a red herring to divert attention from their activities. In Honduras’s congress last month, a motion was passed to protect the identities of arrested suspects, supposedly in order to protect the suspects’ human rights, but which journalists believe will allow officials to avoid reporting the identities of the targets of corruption investigations. In the United States, several states have passed voter suppression laws while those in office rail against the threats of illegal immigrants attempting to vote.

Immigrants are easy targets. They are exercising their human rights to move in order to improve their opportunities and safety. They are making a gigantic sacrifice—leaving citizenship behind—in the hopes of a brighter future for their families.

What makes me the saddest is the characterization of Honduras as a bleak, hopeless place, the vulnerability of communities and families who lose parents and leaders to the ambition of arriving in the north, and the indifference of church communities who don’t use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power despite the danger of sounding “too political.” There are many problems and difficulties in Honduras, but it is also a beautiful, hospitable, resourceful place to live. Many communities, some of which include Presbyterian churches, are harmed by the exodus of migrants. In Puerto Grande on the southern coast, for example, there is really not a single household that doesn’t have someone “in the north,” usually a parent or both parents, leaving children to be raised by grandparents. The person might send back $200 or $300 a month to support their family, an amount that can buy a lot in Puerto Grande, but it also creates a sense of dependence and idleness. Young people who stay behind have few job prospects, little incentive for education, and lots of opportunity to become involved in delinquent activity.

The trends of violence and economic dependence are exports from the United States. Before mass deportations of imprisoned gang members in the 1980s and 1990s, gangs existed in Honduras, but not nearly to the organized and terrifying level that they exist today. Agricultural subsidies, free trade agreements, and neo-colonial economic policies of the United States have made entrepreneurship and development driven by Hondurans virtually impossible. Unbridled corruption in the government of Honduras rewards connections to the U.S. and compliance with U.S. policies over justice and self-development of the people. It’s said, “When Heidi Fulton says ‘frog,’ Honduran officials say ‘jump.’” (Fulton is the U.S. charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

As for the caravan itself, what few people in the U.S. understand is that there is no “line” for migrants to get into. It is next-to-impossible for Central Americans to get an immigrant visa, and the wait is upwards of 15 years long. Tourist visas are denied more often than not, and they cost $160 per application, whether they are denied or not. In order to apply for asylum, a person legally has to be physically in the country they are asking for asylum, and to apply for refugee status, they must not be physically in their home country.

The “irregular” migration road to the United States is extremely dangerous. I have met people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, wounded, and maimed on the road. I have met the families of those who died. The caravan is partly timed as a political demonstration aimed at politicians in both Honduras and in the U.S., and we think that most Hondurans who joined the caravan did it not as a political statement but as an attempt at more visibility and therefore more security—safety in numbers and in media interest.

I am glad that the Presbyterian Church-USA has spoken about the question of irregular migration and the inhumane policies and rhetoric of the United States government. I am glad that Presbyterians in the United States are responding to the current caravan. I hope and pray that in the election Tuesday, the values of hospitality, compassion, and global citizenship are reflected.