Faith leaders trek to Honduras

This story appears in the Pilgrimage to Honduras feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: From March 18 to 25, an interfaith group of about 75 people, including two dozen women religious, traveled to Honduras in a "reverse caravan" to see for themselves why tens of thousands of people have fled for their lives. Over the coming weeks, Global Sisters Report will feature columns from sisters who were part of the People of Faith Root Causes Delegation, which was sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women ReligiousSHARE el Salvador (Salvadoran Humanitarian Aid, Research and Education Foundation), the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

"What was from the beginning, what we have heard
What we have seen with our own eyes,
What we have looked upon and touched with our own hands concerns the Word of life" (1 Jn. 1-2).

A delegation of some 75 faith leaders recently went to Honduras on a "reverse caravan" pilgrimage (March 18-25) in order to examine root causes of the mounting migration caravan numbers. It included Jewish and Christian leaders from the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, representatives from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, and a number of other Catholic groups, as well as leaders representing other faith traditions. I was particularly happy to be part of the delegation since it meant a return to the country where I had ministered for almost 19 years.

Honduras is a country of fertile land, many rivers and much poverty, but most of the land is in the control of a few wealthy owners, and the water has now been contaminated by the efforts of other countries to mine its minerals. The country is like a volcano — seemingly peaceful on the surface but smoldering underneath. From time to time there are eruptions that are quickly put down (as happened in 2009 when there was a sudden, well-planned coup to displace then President Manuel Zelaya). The coup's new government was approved by the U.S.

I saw myself that grassroots organizations actively and peacefully protest but generally are powerless against the government's thoroughly militarized security operations. That repression is underwritten by the millions of dollars sent each year for security by the U.S. The history of the United States and Honduras illustrates a vertical relationship, rather than a horizontal one.

The U.S. has continued to support the governments that have succeeded the coup in Honduras, and continues to support the economic interests responsible for the coup. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández (a former military man), says that the drug trade and organized crime are responsible for all problems. Yet it is not crime but an economic crisis, corruption and the impunity that goes with it that is not being addressed.

Honduras (and most of Central America) has a long history of economic dependence on the U.S. since the 1900s and the banana industries of United Fruit Company and Dole. The coastland to the north of Honduras is also the land of thousands of indigenous peoples who have settled on the coast or in the mountains for hundreds of years. The government grants concessions to outside interests to occupy and mine this land and its rivers without prior consultation with the communities, as is required by law. This creates a large segment of rural Honduran society fighting for survival.

A climate of corruption and impunity, environmental degradation, repression of peaceful protest, a systemic abuse of human rights — it is no wonder that there is a grand exodus from Honduras. No work, no land, military rule, and military control of the streets, hospitals and schools make for political, economic and social control of the people, and make it impossible to live and work in community. Hondurans want to live in community, as family; they love their country. The largest amounts of money coming into Honduras are from those Hondurans who live in the U.S. and have not forgotten their home country.

We met with officials as well as grassroots and religious partners in order to understand better the regional causes of a migration that has moved increasing numbers to flee from Honduras. There are two Biblical verses that stay with me as each of the three sub-groups formed among the delegation spoke of the area that had been visited.

Psalm 137 says "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept." This describes well the community of Guapinol, whose members have been arrested for peacefully protesting the mining concession given to outside companies that contaminate the river which provides their drinking water. They are intimidated daily by the military stationed there. Over 100 community leaders have been murdered — including Berta Cáceres, a world-known Lenca environmental activist who was murdered in 2016. (Some wonderful news we received on returning home was that the "Berta Cáceres Human Rights Bill" was to be reintroduced in Congress.) The psalm also describes the women factory workers in San Pedro Sula and the Santa Barbara community protesting the opening of new mines.

On the other hand, Psalm 98 speaks of the water of life that the river can be. "Let the river clap their hands; let the mountains sing together for joy." We met a people who are basically joyful, musical and hopeful. I want to say Psalm 98 over and over again, but it is Psalm 137 that I experienced, as the military intimidated our delegation as they expressed nonviolent rituals for peace at the river.

As I sat outside the office of the investigatory branch of the police in Tocoa, a woman told me she was there to pick up the autopsy report for her husband, murdered in his own home by the police six weeks prior. I spoke with the authorities about her and was told it is impossible to do an autopsy there, and they didn't say a word about any investigation of the murder.

We met with a delegate of the word from the community of Guapinol. (He is the one who conducts a Sunday reading of the word for the community.) He was one of the leaders of a peaceful protest against the excavations of the river by an outside company. He was arrested and is now unable to return to his community. We asked to bring him to tell his story at the U.S. Embassy on the day of our appointment in Tegucigalpa. The embassy refused to allow him or a woman from Guapinol to enter, until we said that we would not keep our appointment unless the two were permitted to enter with us. The embassy relented. Both witnesses gave powerful testimony to what they had seen and heard, as we 75 also spoke of our experiences over the week. (The woman was intercepted by military security on her way home, her belongings were examined and she was told that photos were not allowed by law.)

On Sunday March 24 the Jesuit radio station Radio Progreso sponsored a Stations of the Cross march in honor of St. Óscar Romero; it ended with a Mass in the local Jesuit church. Radio Progreso had accompanied us for most of the visits to local sites. Padre Ismael Melo, Jesuit director of Radio Progresso, talked on "The Spirituality of San Óscar Romero" on Saturday, and led the Sunday march. There were seven stations, each beginning with a quote from Romero and followed by song and commentary as we marched. He quoted Romero: "In the name of God, stop the repression," and added:

"We call for the cessation of repression by the Honduran State against our brothers and sisters, defenders of human rights and our mother earth."

"We call for the resolution of the root causes of migration, so that our people may enjoy the right to stay and seek a decent life."

"We offer this message of peace, love and gratitude in the name of St. Óscar Romero, Berta Cáceres and all of the martyrs who shine upon us."

"We appeal to our brothers and sisters of the world to join the call for peace, justice, love and solidarity with the people of Honduras."

At the end of the march that Sunday, as we celebrated a Eucharist on the feast of San Romero that ended our pilgrimage to Honduras, we certainly felt we had "made a path by walking" —  a journey that will continue!

[Doris Regan is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace. With a graduate degree in Greek and Latin, she first ministered as a teacher and educational administrator. She spent 29 years as a missionary in Bolivia, Peru and Honduras, from 1987 to 2017, where her ministries included service to families with HIV, prisoners and teenagers at risk.]