Mercy Sisters Join Others Fighting Injustice In Honduras

Story By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photos by Jeremy Dickey, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Hearing horror stories about migration and human rights violations in Central American countries is one thing. Witnessing them is quite another.

In late March, an interfaith and international religious delegation of approximately 70 people from the United States spent eight days visiting several regions in Honduras, a country whose people are fleeing – traveling 1,700 miles to the U.S. border – because they have been forced off their land and subjected to violence and starvation, said Jean Stokan, a lay justice coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. 

It was a “reverse caravan,” of sorts, she said, sponsored mainly by  the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, SHARE and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Franciscan and Dominican sisters, and Sisters of the Sacred Heart also went. 

“It was called an interfaith pilgrimage to look at the root causes of migration,” Stokan said.

She said when people talk about root causes, they discuss poverty and violence.

“Our interest was to go deeper and see how U.S. policies might have contributed to poverty and violence.”

Locally, Mercy Sister Terri Bednarz, an assistant professor of New Testament Studies and director of the Italy Study Abroad program for Loyola University New Orleans, participated in the caravan.

“In addition to (the lack of) basic rights to safe food and water, we learned of mines poisoning rivers and mine companies seizing lands and rivers” for extractive mining, Sister Terri said.

First-hand information

In solidarity with those who are starving and impoverished, members walked the Stations of the Cross, with stops at government buildings and shopping malls. The stations were renamed from “Via Crucis” (Way of the Cross) to “Via Crisis” because of the “crisis” Honduras faces.

Sister Terri said Father Ismael Moreno, known as Father Melo, director of Jesuit-sponsored Radio Progreso, marched with them in honor of St. Oscar Romero, who fought for human rights. 

“We have grave concerns for his well-being,” Sister Terri said of Father Melo, since the radio station exposes human  rights abuses.

The delegation broke into three teams to visit vulnerable communities mostly in the northern part of the country around Santa Barbara, Bajo Aguan and San Pedro Sula. The pilgrims witnessed violence, organized crime and corruption, including how drug cartels and gangs control the countryside.

“The gangs come into a neighborhood and tell people they have to get out or they will harm them or make their sons join them,” Stokan said. “It is a futile exercise to go to the police. It is utter violence.”

They found that Hondurans often were hungry because the land they once farmed was being taken for a developmental project of growing mono-crops, which are then sold for export. The land also is being used for mining or hydro-electric projects.

“When people defend their lands, they are being jailed,” she said. “We met those people and took their testimony.” The delegation also stood with native people to defend their rights to their nearby waters. 

“The exchange was tense as the people insisted on their free use of the river,” Sister Terri said.

  They also met with Heide Fulton at the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to discuss concerns regarding the abuse of power and threats aimed at the indigenous people of Honduras, Sister Terri said. Several recounted their experiences to embassy officials.

“The Lenca people shared with our delegation that their land, rights and lives have been threatened,” Sister Terri said. “We know of persons who have been imprisoned and assassinated, and among these are journalists and environmentalists.” 

They also participated in a protest at the U.S. embassy of the suffering of the people, and completed the Stations of the Cross near Progresso.

Why did they go?

This was the first joint effort of the four groups in Honduras, Stokan said, brought on because the Sisters of Mercy have sent delegations to El Salvador for 35 years and began seeing the conditions in Honduras that were the same as in El Salvador in the 1980s, Stokan said. 

When one of the largest human caravans of a Central Americans arrived at the U.S. border in October 2018, most were Honduran, Stokan said. 

“People are just starving and hungry,” she said. “The stories are horrific. These are families.”

Participants in the trip sought, as a faith community, “to build solidarity with the communities at risk and threatened in their country,” Stokan said, “and to come back and influence U.S. policies that might contribute to this forced migration.

What can Americans do? 

Stokan said a recent bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to cut off military and police aid to the Honduran government. The delegation supports the bill due to what it considers to be rampant corruption at all levels. “We are enabling what the top military and police are doing against human rights,” Stokan said, advocating that the U.S. should withdraw its support to the Honduran government “until we can get action against human right violations.”

Stokan said the visit was fruitful and humanitarian since clothing and money was also distributed.

“We learned a lot and supported them by letting them know that someone was watching (what was going on),” Stokan said. “We will elevate their story (since returning) and work for a change of (U.S.) policy.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.