Tegucigalpa, Honduras -- On any given Saturday in June or July, it's easy to spot the short-term missions teams in the Atlanta airport waiting for their flights to Tegucigalpa, Honduras; just read the T-shirts. There's First Baptist in purple "Fulfilling His Mission," Emmanuel Church in lime green, Good Samaritan in orange, and half dozen other variations of blue, pink and gray covering teens, children, grandfathers, youth leaders and mothers. Some say they go every summer for a week; others admit this is their first trip. But all feel compelled to go and do, to build houses, visit orphanages or run Vacation Bible Schools.
That they go at all is no small thing considering the United Nations' 2011 report on crime and drugs ranked Honduras with the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. In January 2012, the Peace Corps pulled out its volunteers as it reviewed security and safety issues here. More than 20 journalists and 36 lawyers have been murdered in the past three years. Yet more than 1 million individuals from across the U.S. travel here each summer on some sort of short-term mission trip. With so much good will happening, why haven't crime rates decreased?
Never far from security teams and bodyguards, participants from around the world recently addressed that question during a two-week seminar, co-sponsored by the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) and its local partner affiliate, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ). More than 25 Christian practitioners, scholars and pastors from Ecuador, Romania, Cambodia, Canada, Peru, Guatemala, Nigeria, the Philippines and the U.S. gathered June 18-29 in Tegucigalpa to examine the issues behind the symptomatic problems most short-term missions teams come to address. They explored long-term strategies for confronting corrupt governments in their respective countries while also learning from each other and from lectures by Yale scholar and writer Nicholas Wolterstorff, 80, who traveled here with his wife and 15-year old granddaughter.
The seminar, "Justice: Theory Meets Practice" was the brain child, in part, of Kurt Ver Beek, a U.S. sociologist affiliated with Calvin College in Michigan. Co-director of AJS, Ver Beek has lived with his family in Tegucigalpa for the past 25 years and writes often about short-term missions. He and ASJ co-director Carlos Hernandez, along with their mostly Honduran staff and partner agencies, hosted the twelve-day seminar, often in offices surrounded by barbed wire fences with security guards nearby. Because the ASJ investigates, exposes and sometimes prosecutes corrupt officials around labor, education and land rights, Ver Beek, Hernandez and their team view daily precautions as routine.
Nonetheless, the hundreds of young people and adults who travel for short-term missions here, Ver Beek said, don't always understand what they're walking into. He believes they genuinely want to be "agents of change," but too often overlook the reasons behind a country's systemic problems in the first place. "Justice: Theory Meets Practice," a seminar he'd dreamt of for several years, was designed specifically to address the larger questions behind such troubles, those that triggered unjust and dangerous situations.
"This group (seminar) is different," Ver Beek said. "We're wanting to make lasting change for Honduras and as a result help these international participants do the same."
Despite the potential risks, Abram Huyser Honig, AJS's director of operations, called the two-week gathering, "probably the best opportunity we've had to spark and contribute to justice efforts beyond Honduras. At the same time, we've learned a lot that is applicable in Honduras from Dr. Wolterstorff and our participants."
Seminar participants themselves were no strangers to equally dangerous scenarios. Whether assisting children escaping sexual slavery or abuse in Peru, sheltering women from violent husbands in Guatemala and Ecuador, or devising youth programs to curb corruption in Romania, several of the seminar's practitioners said security issues often accompany their work for justice.
The challenges aren't easily avoided, especially in Honduras where the discrepancy is extreme, Wolterstorff said. "There are good laws (here) but they don't make a difference because they don't kick in," he said. "AJS does its best to remind the government and police of those good laws, which must be implemented. But that's risky."
Wolterstorff, whose most recent book is "Justice in Love," provided his own challenge for the practitioners, most of who had not heard the scholar before and who called his talks "essential" in reframing their own work. Over the course of six lectures, Wolterstorff explored such inherent themes as human rights and dignity, the distinctions between forgiveness/punishment and benevolence/charity, the role of the imagination in building social movements that confront injustice, and the biblical arguments behind each.
"To speak against social injustice is to observe as the (Old Testament) prophets did and assume that things can be different," he said. "Movements combined with the prophetic in a civil society awaken people to injustice. And part of waking them up is enabling them to imagine a better alternative."
In addition to hearing from Wolterstorff, as well as local lawyers, journalists, social workers, government officials and counselors about their work, the group exchanged academic papers while practitioners relayed success stories, ministry models and training tools. They also heard how local workers in Honduran agencies are providing information and online access to mobilize grass roots efforts. The group even witnessed the historic signing of a formal agreement to work together between the ASJ and the National Evangelical Association, an alliance of more than 300 Protestant churches and member organizations in Honduras, including Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and other denominations.
"With so much building to do in my country because of so much trauma, I sometimes don't know where to start," said Navy Chann, who attended the seminar because of her work as director of Genesis Community of Transformation (GCT) in Cambodia. Chann, who escaped the Khmer Rouge, directed Christian Reformed World Relief Committee in Cambodia for 10 years before founding GCT. "But hearing Dr. Nick and the others reminding us of what it means to seek justice, I have a renewed hope."
That was the point, Ver Beek said. "Too often short term missions have become the equivalent of reading the newspaper and feeling overwhelmed by too many voices and too much information," he said. "They often have no framework for processing the experience. This (seminar) provides that."
As Wolterstorff observed, "Charity is not enough," he said. "We have to ask the why behind the injustice; if we don't, we do another injustice."