Monday, April 22, 2013

Christians experience threat, danger in one of the world's most violent cities

By Kenneth D. MacHarg
Special to ASSIST News Service

SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS (ANS) -- The large type, appropriately black, shouted the message across the front page of the newspaper. "12 More Bodies Found Dead in One Day."
Another vicious killing, this time at a soccer game where no one is safe in this city.

It was a typical, almost daily news bulletin in this second-largest Honduran city. With each passing day the death toll from the country's out-of-control violence mounts.

Everywhere one turns beefed-up security is visible: guards armed with machine guns outside of supermarkets and pharmacies; entrances to tranquil-appearing residential neighborhoods protected by three or four armed guards, vicious looking dogs and roads blocked by chains; electrically charged barbed wire atop walls surrounding houses; and people riding in bullet-proofed cars driven by heavily armed men.

Such is life in what has been termed the world's most violent city where drug-fueled gangs fight it out on city streets, feuds between Mexican drug cartels break out into violent conflict and innocent shoppers or church goers are victims of "express kidnappings" in which victims are driven to ATM machines and ordered to empty their accounts.

"Many people point to the irony that they have become prisoners (in their homes) while, because of the failures in the justice system, the criminals roam free," said Jill Powis, a Honduras-base human rights worker in an interview with the Guardian Weekly newspaper.
Pastor Misael Argeña and his wife

Even churches are not exempt from the violence. Pastor Misael Argeñal who heads Ministerio La Cosecha (Harvest Ministry), an international network of churches, from his soccer-stadium sized church in the city fled in mid March with his extended family to refuge in the United States after receiving death threats. The threatening messages followed the kidnapping of his wife at an upscale shopping mall, in which she was forced to empty her checking account and beaten before being freed.

Two weeks later in the coastal town of La Ceiba Pastor Dago Irias of the Iglesia Gran Comision (Great Commission Church) and his family went into hiding after an extortion attempt.

Both pastors returned to their places of service after those making the extortion threats were arrested.

"Most of the threats to pastors are for the extortion of money," explained independent missionary Terry Sorah.

Sorah said that he and his wife were robbed by armed gunmen but they considered the incident to be a "crime of opportunity." They believe that the thieves followed them home from a shopping center.
Man tries to save the life of a boy shooting victim ((AFP/Getty Images)

"Many churches here preach a prosperity gospel with an emphasis on health and wealth," explained Mark Hoff, a long-term missionary with Bajio Christian Mission in San Pedro Sula. "With that emphasis on money and the fact that pastors drive big cars they are often targeted for financial extortion."

Freddy Rodriguez, the associate pastor of the Iglesia Cristiana (Christian Church) in Buenos Aires (a San Pedro Sula neighborhood) says that some opposition is directed toward those who work with gang members or preach on issues that are important to organized crime.

"The message of God addresses injustice, immorality and sin," Rodriguez said. "Pastors who preach prophetically about those issues and the evil of sin are often opposed by the gangs and drug traffickers."

"The criminals attack what the pastors say is good," 
reported Jorge Garcia, a Honduran layman working with a mission agency. "Members of churches have died because they go to church and gangs stop people from attending church."

Garcia said that some pastors are preaching about themes they have never addressed before while others are intimidated and seldom address crucial issues.

By far most of the violence is attributed to the growing presence of gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha which began among El Salvadorian immigrants in Los Angeles, California and were transported back to Central America when they were deported.
Gangsters pose for the camera (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

As these lawless gangs vie for territory they usually settle disputes by murdering opponents, often with open battles on city streets that claim the lives not only of gang members but innocent bystanders including very young children.

Many churches are reaching out and programming to reach both gang members and young people before they are attracted into the gangs. Antonio Orellana pastors a church in a gang-infested neighborhood of San Pedro Sula. His church operates a clinic, a school and a counseling center to address the needs of unemployment and social turmoil.

"The youth of our community feel that they have no opportunities," Orellana said. "They have no confidence in authority, they experience corruption and unemployment and their family structure is absent.

The main reason young boys enter the gangs is because of the disintegration of the family," he said.

To prevent younger boys from being attracted to the gang life style in which they find authority that they can trust and an organization that cares for them while at the same time it is also exploiting them for economic gain and control over neighborhoods, Pastor Rodriguez said that his church is working to train parents about their proper role in raising children.

"We are teaching families to follow the biblical guidance of Proverbs 1:8," (Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching), he explained.

"We show them that the function of the father is to correct and discipline while the mother gives direction and counsel," he said. "When the two roles are applied they have positive results."

The problem, both pastors said, is that with the disintegration of the family most children grow up without at least one parent, usually the father. That is why they place so much emphasis on strengthening the families in their churches.

There is some success in working with gang members, but small in comparison to the thousands of young men entrapped by the criminal organizations. Pastor Orellana says that there are around nine former gang members attending his church.

The two pastors agreed that the only way out of a gang is either to be killed or to accept Christ and join an evangelical church.

Pastor Rodriguez said that a former leader of a gang is now a part of his fellowship. "But if a member is allowed to leave and join an evangelical congregation he had better not ever leave the church. If he does, he will be killed," he warned.

Another side of life in San Pedro Sula with U.S. fast food restaurants lining a busy street (Photo: Polly B. MacHargh)
Missionaries in the country confront the threat of violence regularly in their work and they deal with people who have suffered from the effects of the murder or robbery of a loved one.

"In our church, the pastor asked everyone who had been assaulted on the street to raise their hands" Latin America Mission (LAM) missionary Cindy Williamson reported. "Well over half the congregation did. We were the only ones in our area who had not been assaulted. We thank God for his protection! But every detailed story I know is a random act or a result of an unwise choice. I think if you asked a group of Hondurans anywhere the same question, you would get a similar response."

Cindy Williamson and her husband Wes serve in a camping ministry outside of San Pedro Sula but often attend a local Evangelical and Reformed church in the city.

Telling of an experience with the country's problems Williamson wrote in an email, "In 2010 a young friend of ours was shot and killed. He was out with two friends playing soccer and they were in a fender-bender on the way home. The driver of the other vehicle got angry and began to shoot them. Our friend was killed (buried on his 20th birthday) and the other two, also from church, were seriously injured. The violence struck hard in the youth group.

At Guillermo's funeral, we mourned the loss of a godly young man, a talented worship leader, someone willing to speak out for God. But at the same time, we rejoiced that he was in Heaven with Jesus, hearing, "Well done my good and faithful servant."

In the south of the country LAM missionaries Matthew and Jennifer Allen work at the Way of Life Christian Church in the capital city Tegucigalpa.

Violence is no stranger there either. "It makes us more aware of the fleeting nature of life, and therefore helps us to focus more on that which is of eternal value," Matthew said. "Since we have been here, we have gotten to know several young men who have been directly impacted by the untimely and seemingly needless death of a loved one."

Allen reports that churches struggle when someone is robbed, kidnapped or murdered. "In our churches, the response is mixed," he said. "Some are made stronger and have become more reliant on Scripture and prayer. Others have become cynical and fearful, wrongly fearing man and not God."

He added, "Through teaching God's Word, we pray to change the mentality of the church to make the most of every opportunity to live out the certainty of the Gospel in uncertain times."

Missionaries reflect that the on-going turmoil has become a part of daily life and goes well beyond that which is generated by gang or drug trafficking activity.

"The culture here is like the old west," explained one missionary who asked not to be quoted on the subject by name. "There is a lot of vigilante "justice" and retribution embedded in the Honduran culture. When we came, we were advised not to take sides on issues, not to talk about politics, and not to ask questions."

"So it seems to me that in our area the two things that expose you to violence are crossing someone or getting involved in a "feud" with them, and making unwise choices to travel at times and in places that are not safe," the missionary continued. "There are always a few cases of being caught in the crossfire of someone else's fight, but that is not the main problem in our area. We have made the choice not to travel at night."

Missionaries themselves must deal with the safety of their family. "We do feel confident that the Lord continues to call us here, and he has plans for us here," Cindy Williamson said.

"We want to walk in the path He has laid out for us, so we continue to stay. We feel a passion to carry out whatever plan God has for us here, but we are cautious to be sure we are not stubbornly staying where He placed us without confirming that we're still supposed to be here," she concluded.

Missionary Esther Bettney who, with her husband Dave, serves at a bilingual Christian School in Siguatepeque, Honduras said "We know of some missionaries who have left because of the violence when it has personally impacted or threatened their lives."

"At moments we have questioned our call to Honduras," she reflected. "But we always return to the truth that God is with us in all circumstances and that we will serve in Honduras until we feel God leads us elsewhere."

In the midst of daily chaos and uncertainty the church in Honduras is growing according to Assemblies of God missionary Dave Turner. "We have 1,300 churches in the country and are adding more each year," he said.

But in the midst of that growth there are challenges for the churches. "They must look at the condition of our cities and ask why," Turner commented. "Winning people to Christ is one thing but making them disciples is another."

Turner said that moving beyond the conversion experience and helping people to understand what the Gospel means in how they live their lives will be crucial to overcoming the country's problems. He said that living the Christian life is not so much what he called "religiosity" but "requires a change in how we do things."

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