June 3, 2020
It’s raining in Honduras. Not big news for most of you, but here, where we haven’t seen a drop of rain since January and the skies have been thick with smoke, it feels like a miracle. Kurt and I keep marveling at how green everything looks and how the clear sky goes for miles. It’s a well-timed reminder that no situation is permanent and that God continues to refresh and renew.
These last two months quarantining in Honduras have been challenging. We have been forced to think hard about what doing justice in Honduras looks like during this COVID-19 crisis.
The hard fact is that 80% of Hondurans use only government hospitals and clinics when they are sick. That means fighting the COVID-19 epidemic must focus on strengthening the national health system – something AJS-Honduras has been working at for almost 20 years. When the Honduran government asked AJS to monitor its COVID-19 purchases – ventilators, mobile hospitals, and test kits – we realized it was one of the best ways we could do justice for Honduras’ most vulnerable people.
Last week, after hundreds of hours of investigation, we held a virtual press conference, and over 600 people tuned in to hear what we had found. We reported the good news – that the government had purchased good-quality test kits and ventilators at a good price. But, we also reported the bad news – that the lack of a strategic plan to distribute, install, and use those test kits and equipment threatened to put all Hondurans at risk.
We are hopeful that our report pointing out the gaps in the government’s response, along with clear recommendations for how to address those problems, will lead to corrections that will save the lives of vulnerable people. And that feels like what justice looks like during this crisis.
But, justice is also about seeing the needs of your neighbors close at hand. When the quarantine started, AJS staff was immediately concerned that the hundreds of at-risk families in our Impact Clubs and Strong Families program would no longer have a way to put food on the table. So they immediately started checking in with the parents and kids in our programs and delivering cash and groceries to make sure no one would go hungry.
Those two examples – showing up at the door of at-risk families with food and sitting down with the President of Honduras to tell him where things are going wrong – are good examples of how AJS sees its mission: being brave Christians doing justice for the most vulnerable.
I started writing this letter last week from my home in Tegucigalpa – focused on what doing justice in Honduras looks like in this moment of crisis. I am finishing it today in Grand Rapids, Michigan, heartsick at the scenes of rage and conflict playing out in cities all around the U.S. this past week. The reaction we are seeing is a clear sign that something is very wrong and, much as we might like to, we may not turn our backs on the problem. Long decades of injustice and racism in our society and in our criminal justice system have led to this place.
Today, I think we have to figure out what doing justice looks like in Grand Rapids and in our cities in this moment. It is helpful to clean up broken glass on our city streets, but it must go beyond that. We need to find ways to strengthen systems in the U.S., to hold police accountable when they break the law, and to root out structural racism where we find it. We are not experts (although AJS staff in Honduras successfully led police reform there), so we must learn from those organizations who have worked long years to understand and find solutions to these problems. These issues are complex but we have no choice but to fix them and that requires that we really ask ourselves how God is calling us to do justice in this moment. Kurt and I and AJS-US are committed to doing that, and we hope that you will join us.
Jo Ann Van Engen
AJS Co-Founder (along with her husband, Kurt Ver Beek)