Guns, violence and prayers for peace in Honduras

Open air school at an elementary school operated by Pastor Antonio Orellana and the church he serves (Photo: Kenneth D MacHarg)

After several decades in Latin America, we thought we were used to the sight of guns. After all, you see armed guards not only outside of banks but also supermarkets, shopping malls, office buildings and occasionally gas stations in most Latin countries.

But the sight of guns and security everywhere and the constant drumbeat in Honduran newspapers and conversation about murders, kidnappings and robberies gives one much to consider.and fear.

Over four years ago, when my wife and I first went to Honduras to serve an interim pastorate at the English-speaking international church in San Pedro Sula, we were quickly struck by the general atmosphere of fear in everyone's conversation. So much so that I changed my first sermon to the topic of fear as discussed in Philippians 4: 6-7 (Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus).

Today it is even worse. A shootout between three men and a lone victim just a block from where we used to live; the kidnapping of a prominent pastor's wife in the parking mall directly in front of our house; the death threat against another pastor in La Ceiba - all occurred within a week or two of our arrival or during our first weekend here on a return trip several months ago.

It's the number one topic of conversation, yet people experience tragedy, bury their loved ones, grieve and move on.

"It's just a way of life" one missionary told me. "Maybe it's because they are fatalistic. They are able to regroup and move on quickly."

Another commented that there is so much violence all around that people must continue with their lives or they would become immobilized.

Take Pastor Antonio Orellana. He and his family, including several children, live here in Ocotillo, a town about 30 minutes outside of San Pedro Sula that, until recently, was controlled by gangs. Those roving bands of young men roamed the streets demanding bribes from merchants and local residents. Some of them forced families out of their houses because they wanted to take them over. They controlled the activities and, in spite of their criminal activity, provided a system of law and order.

Several months ago the military moved in and the heavily-tattooed gangsters fled the town. During a recent visit we saw nearly 50 heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the streets, manning a road block and keeping peace.

In the midst of this chaos Pastor Orellana heads a church of several hundred people. He also directs a 500-student elementary and high school and operates a clinic complete with a doctor and dentist who treat around 25 patients a day.

The root of gang membership and its resulting violence is the breakdown of the family, Orellana told me as he sat drinking a soft drink at the small store on the church property. Children from the school who had just finished a day of testing stopped by to chat with him or receive a hug. His own son came by to beg a few coins from his father to buy his own drink.

He knows from experience that if he can prevent young people from joining a gang that he will protect them from a violent, early death and form them as contributing members of society.

Behind him the school is full of children learning to read and write, do math and operate computers. Signs posted around the treed campus remind students to protect the environment and live according to Christian values.

Eventually he hopes to build a university where those now in his school can train further and gain the skills necessary to contribute to the community as Christians.

He is not the only one. Other pastors told me of their desire to provide work skills to young men and women so that they can obtain a job in a country full of people with no training or hope and a jobless rate of over 50 per cent.

Pastor Orellana said that while he appreciates the disappearance of gang members, the militarization of the community has brought its own problems. He told of women and girls being forced into relationships with police officers and military troops.

His prayer is that the 500 children in his school, 300 of which attend Sunday School each weekend, will be able to grow up in a community and society where they can move about peacefully without the fear of robbery, rape, kidnapping and murder.

That's going to take some time. Bill Hoff, a veteran missionary in the country, told me that peace will not come until the people rise up and object and say they won't put up with it any more.

Shari Sorah, another missionary, said that it will take the coming together of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals uniting to pray and march and demand that the government, which they consider to be corrupt, act. That, she says, will finally bring peace to this troubled land.

The largest church in the country, whose pastor and family fled the country under a death threat, held a massive evangelistic campaign in a football stadium where they prayed for peace and call for justice.

I pray that soon all of the churches here will join in this call and that peace will reign.

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