Tearfund CEO Nigel Harris travels to the slums, known as bordos, in one of the most violent cities in the world. He finds the ‘voiceless’ poor of the bordos have started speaking up.
San Pedro Sula in Honduras was once known as the murder capital of the world. The murder rate has dropped a little in the last four years, although its poorest areas are still dominated by gang warfare.
The Central American city is on the drugs route between South America and the USA and it is that drugs connection that has fuelled so much extreme violence and wreaked such a terrible death rate. However, there are green shoots of hope growing and I’m here to seek them out.
Outwardly nowhere in San Pedro Sula seems terribly hope-filled, especially not the slum districts or bordos that we are visiting. Twenty-thousand families live along the riverbank in homes that are made of salvaged wood and plastic sheeting.
In spite of the conditions, I soon discovered that there was both hope and dignity in the bordos. In Tearfund’s Lent appeal, we showcased the work of CASM, a Tearfund partner working in this extreme environment. I have come to meet the men and women they are supporting.
As we drive into the bordos, the security preparations are fairly drastic. We have to drive with the windows down so it is clear who we are. And we need to wear a jacket with CASM’s name displayed clearly. Then when we reach our destination we are told on no account should we wander off. This is the front-line of the former ‘murder capital’, but I feel completely safe with our local partner and the community leaders, who clearly command respect locally.
Daring to dream
I meet Maria. She has lived in the bordos for all of her 37 years. She and her family live here illegally; there is no official recognition that anyone has a right to live in the bordos, but there aren’t really any other options anyway.
With great hospitality, she welcomes us into the tiny dwelling where she, her husband and their seven children are all trying to survive. She paid a large amount of money for this property but still has no legal title to it. I talk to her eldest daughter, who tells me of her dream to become a beautician. Even dreaming about something like this seems like an act of bravery in these conditions.
Before receiving help from CASM, the family had been separated. Maria suffered from severe drug and alcohol addiction; it’s a regular story in the bordos. Now she points out the local church where she’s a member. The family are back together. Maria now runs a pulperia, a tiny grocery store, out of her house. She also grows plantains and papaya in her tiny back yard.
Becoming who you're made to be
She is a respected community leader in the district now. I have the privilege of hearing her speak at a pastors’ meeting about how to combat drugs, violence and pollution in the bordos. Her self-esteem and confidence are growing all the time. Maria has grasped that she has been created in the image of God – and that changes everything.
In fact, her confidence has grown so much that she is standing up for the rights of her fellow bordos-dwellers. She tells me how she and other community leaders are meeting with the local government.
Maria has discovered a reserve of strength and hope that she wouldn’t have dreamed possible.
To fight more effectively for a change to the conditions, she says that the families living there need legal recognition for their homes. The conditions are indeed dire. Maria shows me the river that runs through the bordos; it’s filthy, contaminated with sewage. Heartbreakingly, her children have to wade across the river to get to school, and one has a worrying skin condition.
Change is happening though. Thanks to community leaders like Maria, a truck now comes twice a week to pick up rubbish. The community is educating people on the risks of dengue fever, chikungunya and zika and how they can be prevented. They’re also creating safe places for women to talk about the domestic violence that many of them still face.
Thanks to the intervention of CASM, Maria has discovered a reserve of strength and hope that she wouldn’t have dreamed possible. But it’s not just women like her that need support and encouragement…
Postcards to the edge
When Tearfund highlighted the work of CASM in the bordos for this year’s Lent appeal we asked for something more than money; we invited supporters to write a message of encouragement to the people living and working there.
I pay a visit to CASM’s office. There, all over the wall, are the Tearfund prayer cards, filled in by supporters like you and carried many thousands of miles to San Pedro Sula.
The work they are doing to influence lives like Maria’s is desperately hard and dangerous. Every day they are looking at these words of encouragement and drawing fresh strength. Strength to help more women to turn their lives around. Sometimes a few words of encouragement make all the difference.
Pray about this
- Pray for the men, women and children struggling to live in the bordos of San Pedro Sula.
- Ask God to support and keep safe the CASM workers as they continue to work in such a troubled environment.
- Pray for more men and women like Maria to be raised up to speak on behalf of their communities.