A good cry, new connections with old friends, staying put are my best medicine

A whole lot has changed for me in a week. One week ago, I was sharing my last Girl Scout cookies with a group of fellow North American women who live in Tegucigalpa. We listened to this poetry reading and reflected on what we can praise in this expatriate life that is rather difficult. Later that evening, life suddenly got more difficult as Honduras closed its borders and mandated a curfew/quarantine for three cities, including Tegucigalpa, in order to try to contain the COVID 19 coronavirus.

Since late last Sunday, Ceiba, Choluteca and Tegucigalpa have been under police-enforced curfew, all businesses closed, and travel in and out of those cities is prohibited. Travel within the cities is limited to private cars, and two people per car. All public transport is prohibited. All schools are closed. All meetings or events of more than 50 people are canceled, but the business closures mean that even many smaller meetings and events are canceled. Police and military are on the streets enforcing curfews and travel bans.

Friday night, the government of Honduras announced the immediate expansion of quarantine/curfew measures to the entire country, beyond the four cities with coronavirus cases. All businesses are ordered closed, with the exception of pharmacies and supermarkets making home deliveries, and small neighborhood groceries (pulperías). Travel is prohibited without documented permission from the government, and police and military posts are enforcing cordons. The borders—air, land, and sea—remain closed to entries and departures. There are provisions for foreigners leaving, supposedly arranged through the foreigners’ embassies, but there is little reliable information about travel. The only thing we know for sure is that we are to stay in place to protect the health of ourselves and others.

I have been home all week. I’m in daily phone and Internet contact with my Honduras mission partners, as well as with my family in the United States. Last night I was on the best three-hour Zoom conference of my life, a 20-year reunion of the University of Missouri McDavid Hall FARC Spotlight open mike. I’m trading memes and tips with my Honduran and North American friends and colleagues who are stuck here. I’ve had movie nights and games with my neighbor bestie, and yesterday a lovely walk through our deserted neighborhood.

Social distance walking at sunset through my Tegucigalpa neighborhood.

This morning as I joined a U.S. colleague’s Facebook Live worship service, my friend during the pastoral prayer said “Lord, we are frightened…” and tears welled in my eyes. I realized that during this past week of absorbing information, counting bags of beans and bottles of water, deciding to stay or to go, and escaping via Netflix, I had not admitted to myself or anyone else that I feel frightened. I worry about my parents’ and grandmother’s health. I worry about how our world is changing and in crisis, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Some of the restrictions and measures (military on the streets) seem extreme and kind of scary to me. This is a country with a long and recent history of military coup and violence done to citizens in the name of national security. I have ministry colleagues in Choluteca, for example, who are monitoring police posts to attempt to keep police accountable in protecting human rights. But weighing all the factors, I think it was probably the right move to slow the spread of this virus in our country. Our infrastructure absolutely could not cope with this contagion unfettered.

Also Friday, the Presbyterian Mission Agency recalled all U.S.-based employees, and my employer World Mission gave non-U.S.-based folks the option of staying or returning. I have decided it is best for me to shelter in place in Honduras for the time being. I believe my risks are lower staying in Tegucigalpa than they are traveling and sheltering with my family in Salt Lake City, Utah. I believe I’ll be able to do the same amount of work from “home” in Tegucigalpa as from “home” in Salt Lake City, and I will have less chance of being shut out of Honduras after the borders start to open up again. The Honduras government has actually been equal to or ahead of the various U.S. governments in restricting movement and mandating “social distancing.”

This crisis has helped me assess my missionary life here in Honduras for the past two years. The truth is, my chosen community is here. I feel safe here. I feel cared for here. I feel committed to the Honduran people. My daily support network, colleagues and friends, whether Honduran or foreign, is local and is staying put. I feel safer in fact than I would feel traveling to the United States for an indefinite amount of time. I feel called to be here.

I am supplied with drinking water and food for the time being, and I expect to be able to resupply as needed. I canceled my birthday party I’d planned for next Sunday. I am privileged to be able to access medical care if needed, in a city with good quality hospitals that I can afford. Furthermore, I am not at high risk of needing medical care related to coronavirus, as I am under the age of 50, and I have no underlying medical conditions.

(I’m not alone. Some of my colleagues in Central America and the Caribbean are returning to the U.S., but I know of colleagues in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Costa Rica who are remaining in-country. Everyone’s situation is different.)

My mission partners of the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission of Honduras are in the same boat as everyone around the world, with fewer economic resources to cope. They also are not working, their employers, businesses, churches and organizations are closed. Some of our church leaders have had family worship daily, occasionally using Zoom to connect family members across three continents. Technology for that is more limited here than in other places.

The economic situation in this country is going to be very difficult over the next few months. Two-thirds of Hondurans already live below the poverty line, with one third in “extreme” poverty. Even those who are employed are likely to be under-employed or “under the table” employed, and therefore sometimes not eligible for certain government relief actions. It remains to be seen how this will directly affect the church. It certainly already is affecting the church families that many of my Presbyterian friends know. Some NGOs are already expecting donations and grants to be affected, so even charitable efforts will be cut, and organizations are deciding whether to lay people off now or later.

This is also a country whose health care system is in a shambles to begin with, and which could not cope with the numbers of patients that, say, Italy had to cope with last week. And, finally, this is a country whose economy is generally quite precarious, dependent on foreign remittances from families abroad, on foreign aid, and on external multi-national corporations. Local employees and business owners alike are bound to be in dire straits by the end of a country-wide closure.

So, this is a big deal, and the final results are unknown, and living day-to-day in that unknown is quite challenging. I’m a girl who likes to have a plan, and that just isn’t possible. I feel glad to be connected to you all through this. I know all of your lives and routines are being affected, too. Know that you remain in the hearts and prayers of your Honduran brothers and sisters, and we hope that we remain in yours.

Rethinking that mission trip to Guatemala: advocating for justice, especially in light of U.S. complicity

“There’s a way to go to Guatemala as a tourist and see beautiful places like Antigua and Tikal without ever knowing a genocide took place in that country in the 1980s and 90s and that still today indigenous Mayans face racism, discrimination, environmental degradation, forced disappearance and death.

U.S. intervention in Central Americacontributed to the conditions that have caused so many Guatemalans and Hondurans to leave their homes and travel toward the U.S. border, however unwelcome they are in the eyes of the Trump administration and many of its ardent supporters. Contemporary American, Canadian and European corporations continue to exploit Guatemala with hydroelectric dams, nickel and gold mines, and fruit and coffee companies. These operations take land away from indigenous subsistence farmers, poison the soil and water and impoverish many Mayans even as they enrich oligarchs, politicians and foreign corporations.

Source: Rethinking that mission trip to Guatemala: advocating for justice, especially in light of U.S. complicity

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.