When driving through the neighbourhood of Chamelecón, a suburb of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, it’s important to keep the car windows rolled down.
It’s not because of the heat, though Honduras is often hot and humid.
It’s a safety measure, allowing gangs in control of the area to see who’s in the car. Allaying suspicion, as residents like Merelyn Amaya know, can mean the difference between being shot at and quietly passing through.
In late 2014, this already tense neighbourhood became a war zone — with two gangs fighting each other for control.
The school where Amaya taught became a gang stronghold at night. In the mornings, teachers would sometimes find bullets in their classrooms, and once encountered gang members on the roof shooting at police below.
One day, when the bus service Amaya used stopped coming to Chamelecón because of the fighting, she tried to catch a bus on the other side of the territorial line.
She was forced back home at gunpoint. A gang member followed her and shot at her feet as she walked away. “I just started to cry and asked God to hold me in his hands,” she says. The gang member kept the gun pointed at her, telling her she should never come back.
I just started to cry and asked God to hold me in his hands.”
The terror is not hers alone. “All people here in this community could tell you one or another story that is pretty similar.”
It is in this context that Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Menonita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church) strives to bring hope and peace.
The congregation, which once drew some 200 people, now has about 70 in its services. Four members were among bystanders murdered in the conflict in the last two years; many others fled the area after being told by the gangs to leave or be killed.
Despite the violence, the church feels strongly it needs to stay, doing its best to improve the community. One strategy is participation in a program of MCC and Proyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project or PPJ), an organization of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Honduras.
The program trains volunteers to present in schools once a week, teaching fifth and sixth graders lessons on respect, forgiveness, self-esteem, education, human rights and conflict resolution. Students from those classes are chosen as mediators, teaching the same lessons to fourth graders.
By reminding children of these values, ideally they will be better equipped to deal with the violence around them — and more able to remember that they can choose to be different.
MCC supplies funding for the staff at PPJ and covers program costs such as stipends and transportation for the volunteers.
From 2012 to July 2015, MCC worker Héctor Mojica of Ponce, Puerto Rico, created educational material for the project and led trainings with volunteers and some of the lessons with students.
Amaya is project coordinator in Chamelecón and helps find the volunteers along with Vida en Abundancia pastor José Fernández. “The aim is to give students alternatives to violence, and to show them peace,” Fernández says.
That’s the hope not only in Chamelecón but also in other neighbourhoods of San Pedro Sula and in the cities of La Ceiba and Tocoa, where the program also operates.
While the context in Chamelecón is extreme, gang violence and drug trafficking are concerns in many areas of Honduras.
In Tocoa, for instance, parents are fearful enough for their children’s safety that they don’t go to the city’s free playgrounds, instead choosing to drive to a fenced playground with an armed guard where they have to pay admission.
That environment has clear effects on the children who grow up there. At one of PPJ’s workshops, when students were asked what they want to be when they grow up, one said a narcotics trafficker. Others said they want to be hit men.
For Nicolas Rosales, a regional coordinator for the Evangelical Mennonite Church, a board member of PPJ and father of a participant, the project is one way of contributing to a larger picture of peace. “It brings a lot of blessings to society,” he says. “Unfortunately a great part of society is suffering, and what we can do through the peace and justice projects is little. But I think with what we do, we make a difference.”
In Chamelecón, pastor Fernández (read more about him) says he’s noticed that in recent years gangs brought in new members from outside the community, and he suspects that’s because young people in Chamelecón aren’t as interested in gang life anymore.
“We want to really strongly work with children and young people . . . so that the moment comes when a young person says, ‘I don’t see the need to join these gangs,’” Fernández says. “That’s why it’s very important to strengthen the work in the schools and keep on working with the children of the community.”
It’s a struggle, though. In 2013 and 2014, massive numbers of people were forced out of Chamelecón, including at the end of 2014 all the volunteers of the peace program.
When a gang says it’s time to go, it’s not a simple phone call. It’s personal. Gang members show up at a person’s house, asking questions about family members they suspect are connected to the rival gang. They go through cell phone records and if there’s enough evidence of a connection, the family has 24 hours to leave.
By the time one gang was forced out of the community near the end of last year, stretches of four or five blocks had only one or two families left, and the level of confrontations and shootings was unprecedented.
But the church didn’t give up on the idea of bringing peace. “We never closed the door as the church. To the contrary we worked harder and more,” says Amaya. “God gave us the hope that this will stop. And if we would have stopped, it would have been shutting down the only light. We were a light of hope as a church.”
As 2015 began, Vida en Abundancia found new volunteers to continue the project. Despite the challenges, Fernández believes the work will pay off, giving young people a different mindset.
“To plant in them a desire to be more than what their past was . . . we think we’ll reach that and we will start to see this effect,” he says.
Emily Loewen is a writer for MCC Canada. Nina Linton is a photographer from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.