Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is a Christian organization that, as a result of its fearless efforts to stand up for victims of violence, labor- and land-rights abuses, and government corruption in Honduras, is increasingly being recognized – both by Christian groups and secular agencies such as Transparency International and the United Nations—as a pioneer in the practice of achieving justice for the poor. AJS faithfully works in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and in the last 8 years has witnessed the crime rate decrease by over 75%. In addition to working to fight against soaring crime in neighborhoods, AJS is taking steps towards peace and public security on a national level through a public security reform process.
KW: What led you to establish the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) in Honduras?
As newlyweds and recent-college grads, my wife Jo Ann Van Engen and I moved to Honduras to work with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew). I had studied Spanish in high school, and Jo Ann had studied German, but we ended up in the same beginner Spanish class. We had a lot to learn!
After 5 years in Honduras, we returned to the United States to continue our studies. When I finished my PhD, our dream was to start a study abroad program in Honduras to teach students all the things about international development that we wished we had known when we began working in Honduras.
During the first semester, we talked about the challenges Honduras faces, including low quality education and health care, violence, corruption, and many more. One question my students asked me was, “What organizations are working to improve education?” I could give them a whole list…World Vision, Compassion International, World Renew.
Then they asked “What organizations are working to improve health care?” Once again, I could list a whole bunch of private clinics and organizations that send medical brigades to Honduras.
But, then they asked me, “What are organizations are working to stop violence in Honduras?” Silence. I couldn’t think of any organization. “And which organizations are working to stop corruption?” Silence. Another blank.
My students made me realize that there were hardly any organizations in Honduras working on the issues of violence and corruption—the two big issues facing my adopted country.
It got me thinking, and Jo Ann and I met with six Honduran friends to talk about what we could do. A few months later we took money out of our own pockets and a big leap of faith and hired a half-time person to serve as coordinator for our new organization.
Now, 16 years later, the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) has more than 70 employees, and we’re working at both the community and government level on issues of violence and corruption. There is a lot to do but we are excited about how far we have come.
KW: What are some of the biggest issues in Honduras and how do they compare to other countries?
If you’ve heard anything about Honduras, you’ve probably heard that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. This is obviously a huge problem with real human consequences, but in a lot of ways, I think it is just a symptom of the larger issues of a weak government and lack of citizen trust. Let me explain with an example:
A few years ago, my friend and neighbor Doña Raquel’s son was murdered. Neighbors saw the murder, and lots of people knew who did it. But, no one wanted to come forward. They were afraid a corrupt police officer would tip off the murderer about who had testified and he would come after them next. And, they knew that even if they did testify, there was a small chance of getting a verdict—only 2% of cases in Honduras end in a sentence, meaning most crimes are consequence-free.
Raquel’s case is far too common in Honduras. A combination of weak government institutions and lack of citizen trust make a perfect environment for individuals to get away both with violent crime, and also with corruption in neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals across the country.
AJS is trying to change this situation by helping government officials do their job and by building trust between citizens and the government. In Raquel’s case, our lawyers and investigators worked with her and honest police officers to arrest her son’s murderer by assuring both sides that the other could be trusted. By building this bridge of trust we’ve decreased murders in my neighborhood by 75% in the past eight years.
KW: What do you want Christians in America to know about your work and about justice in Honduras?
The panorama I have described is pretty dismal, but I want people to know that there is hope. There are many brave Christian Hondurans working for peace and justice. Often they risk their lives and their reputations in order to expose corruption and achieve justice for victims of violent crime. You don’t know their names or faces, but when I think of Luis, or Karla or Joel or Betsabe, and their step of faith to fight injustice, my heart is filled with hope.
At a community level these brave justice workers have helped achieve justice in 110 cases of violent crime and have an 86% success rate in court, compared to the only 2% of cases that result in convictions in general in Honduras. And at a structural level, our staff and partners have worked tirelessly to achieve the firing of a security minister who didn’t even know how many police officers were working in the country. With a little pressure from us, the new security minister did a census of the police force, and has already fired 2000 police officers who were on the payroll, but weren’t on the job.
It’s been a long process, and there have been a lot of detours and failures along the way, but I am convinced that there is hope for Honduras, and we see evidence of it every day.
KW: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?
Living in Honduras can be a roller coaster ride. Most of the people in my neighborhood live under the poverty line. One of the hardest parts of our work is when our friends and neighbors are hurt by violence and corruption. When their sons and daughters are murdered. When they can’t get medication in a public hospital. When there is no teacher for their school. Their personal stories are what make me cry, but also what makes me get up in the morning to keep working.
The best part of my job is when I can see the current system WORK for my neighbors, after years of efforts on our part. Knowing that the Raquel’s of the world can begin to trust the police. That her children and grandchildren can actually get an education at public schools. That her daughter can safely give birth in a public hospital. That’s what fills me with joy and gratitude for God’s faithfulness.
KW: What encouraging trends, if any, do you see in the Christian/faith community in Honduras and its engagement with the poor and vulnerable?
I think churches all around the world focus a lot on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son…” That is, they focus on typical evangelism. But if we look at the lives of the prophets and of Jesus, we see that fighting injustice is part of a Christian call. Take a look at 1 John 3:16 “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Congregations are often afraid to step outside of their doors and work for justice, because it means challenging powerful, sometimes dangerous people, but that is exactly our call.
At the beginning of our time as an organization, we tried to engage with churches, but it was quite difficult for most churches to see their place in that work. However, I’m beginning to see an awakening in the Honduran church. I think Hondurans are realizing that the problems faced by their nation can’t be solved without the involvement of the church. We now work closely in alliance with both the largest coalition of Protestant churches in the country, and the social arm of the Catholic church.
KW: What are some resources that would help Christians in other countries to study and learn about issues in Central America?
For Honduran and general Central American context, I would suggest: “Don’t Be Afraid Gringo” by Elvia Alvarado, “Banana” by Dan Koeppel and “Children of Cain” by Tina Rosenberg.