Our present administration has shut the government down over a contrived crisis. Now, both sides are dug in and innocent people are being hurt. All over what to do about immigrants and border security. Let me give you a likely scenario of why Hondurans risk their lives to come to the states illegally, and what happens when they get deported.
Before I write about the problems in Honduras, I want to tall you about its beauty. Honduras is a magnificent country. It is the most mountainous country in all of Central America. Its natural scenery is breathtaking. The country borders both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Her islands are extraordinary and the waters off the coast offer some of the best scuba diving in all the world. The country has a plethora of natural resources, but most of it has been taken from them and is controlled by foreign companies, especially countries in the United States. Their biggest exports are bananas and coffee. Their biggest import is the U.S. dollar.
The people of Honduras are beautiful. They are kind, loving, and gentle. Their smiles are contagious and their faith is inspirational. They love their country. They love their families. They love their God. I have been extremely blessed to call many Hondurans my friends. My life is richer because of them and their country. Simply put, I love Honduras and I love the people of Honduras. My heart breaks for what they are going through and my anger boils over how I see people in my country treat them. They are not evil, and neither are they political pawns. They are people created in the image of God. The vast majority of them, including those in the caravan, are not rapists and killers and drug dealers and bad people. Most of them are doing what they think they need to do to survive and to make a better life for their children. They simply want to provide for their families and live in safety.
I do not claim to be an expert on all things Honduras, and I readily admit that immigration and border security are extremely complex topics. What I can tell you is that over the last 15 years I have travelled to Honduras over 30 times. In the capital of Tegucigalpa, I have been in most of the poor neighborhoods in that city. I have preached in over 100 churches in that city. Most of those churches have been located in poor neighborhoods. I have had to be escorted into and out of some of these neighborhoods to insure protection from the gangs. Many of the pastors of the churches are former gang leaders. I have learned more from the pastors in these difficult neighborhoods then I have taught them. They have greatly influenced my life and my philosophy of ministry. I aspire to be more like them. They are my heroes. I have also visited and preached 3 prisons. One prison I have been to multiple times. I have had long conversations with gang members and key gang leaders and crime lords. I have spoken with people who have illegally travelled to the USA and been deported. I have spoken with many other who have tried to get to the USA, but did not make it and were seriously injured, losing eyes and limbs, in their attempts to get to our country. I have cried with mothers and grandmothers who have lost children to gang violence. I have seen dead bodies lying in the streets. I have personally witnessed one murder. So, I am not an expert, but I do know something of the situation in Honduras.
Based on multiple conversations I have had with Hondurans, and using my imagination based on what I know and have heard, I can recreate a probable scenario of why people risk their lives to come to the United States, and what happens to many of them when they are deported.
The impetus for this post was an article I read a week or so ago about a 28 year old Honduran who followed the caravan to our border and then entered our country and then was deported back to his neighborhood in Tegucigalpa. Within a couple of days of returning he was shot 15 times. More than likely the gang in control of that neighborhood killed him and made an example out of him. (Here is that article.) What is sad, is that this type of thing has been going on for a while. (Check out this article.)
Honduras is riddled with corruption and overrun with gangs. The two main gangs are MS-13 and 18th Street, also known as Bario 18. Interestingly enough, both of these gangs started, not in Honduras or El Salvador or any Central American country, but in Los Angelos, California. We exported the gang to them, not the other way around. Most Hondurans, however, will tell you the biggest and baddest gang is the Honduran police.
In my conversations with many Hondurans, here is why they are willing to risk everything to come to our country:
The United States Embassy is located in Tegucigalpa. On many occasions I have driven by this embassy, before it opens, and have seen long lines of Hondurans standing in line, hoping to get in, hoping to make an appointment to come back and stand in another line, hoping to get an interview for the slim possibility of being granted a visa to travel to the USA. Most Hondurans cannot afford the expense of obtaining a visa, and if they could, the odds are against them ever receiving one.
Another way they could come to the USA is by paying a “coyote” (a human smuggler) to get them to the States. This is also financially out of reach for most Hondurans. the coyotes are controlled by the cartels. The cartels are worse than the gangs. For a certain price (in the thousands of dollars) the coyotes will guarantee your safe arrival to the US border. For a higher price, they will guarantee your safe arrival across the border. For an an even higher price (in the tens of thousands of dollars) you can give them an address anywhere in the USA, and they will guarantee your safe arrival to that address. Getting into Central America from middle-eastern countries is not that complicated. Thus, it is through the coyotes that terrorists come to our country, not through caravans. The vast, vast majority of people in the caravans live on less than two-dollars a day. The caravans are a cheaper, and safer way to get to the States.
Every poor neighborhood in Honduras is controlled by gangs. Every business in these neighborhoods (in fact, most businesses throughout Honduras) are also controlled by gangs. These businesses must pay the gangs a “war tax” (extortion) or be killed. Gangs even control the city dump where the poorest of the poor live and work! Most kids who grow up in these poor neighborhoods (both boys and girls) join the gangs as young teenagers. Some join by force, some join for personal protection, some join by choice. Because so many young adults are in gangs, it should go without saying there are gang members in the caravans. But being a gang member does not mean you are a “gang-banger.” People do what they have to do to survive.
I have talked, and prayed, with many parents from these poor neighborhoods who have told me the local gangs have told them their teenage son or daughter will join the gang. If they don’t, the entire family will be killed. Thus, a significant portion of the people in the caravans are mothers, escaping gang violence with their kids. And you would do the same thing if you were in their situation! If the family stays in their neighborhood, their kids will join the gangs or they will be killed. If they leave that neighborhood to escape the gangs, they can never go back to that neighborhood. Returning home means certain death. Moving to a new neighborhood doesn’t work either. The gangs are well connected. They will find you.
The 28 year old man in the article cited above was named Nelson. More than likely, Nelson joined his neighborhood gang as a teenager. There is no telling the violence he saw and the violence he participated in. Twenty-eight years old is old for a gang member. Most die, or are incarcerated, before that age. I imagine, at 28 years of age, Nelson was ready to get out of the gang life. He was tired, and no longer wanted to be part of the violence. He wanted a better life for himself. But you just can’t leave the gangs. They will kill you if you desert them.
There are only two ways out of the gangs: First, is too convert to Christianity. More specifically, convert to evangelical Christianity. Gangs will not allow you to convert to Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, or Islam. They consider true followers of Christ to be evangelical (and charismatic) believers. However, once you commit your life to Christ, you must always follow Him. The gangs will watch you closely. They will follow you for years. If they ever consider that you have “backslid” they will kill you. I personally knew one person who left a gang to follow Jesus, but “backslid,” and was taken off a public bus and executed on the street in broad daylight.
A second way out is to escape the neighborhood and head to the States. Gangs are all throughout Central America and Mexico. Fleeing to another country will not protect you from retaliation. You have got to get to the States. And rest assured, if you are ever deported back home, you will be killed. And that is probably what happened to Nelson! He fled his gang, made it to the States, asked for asylum, was denied and sent back to his neighborhood. He told his family upon his return that he will be killed; it’s just a matter of time. Deportation, for most of these young adult men, is a death sentence. That’s just a fact!
Let me share with you some people I know in Honduras that would verify everything I have said. First is my good friend, and personal translator, Cesar. Cesar’s parents brought him to the states as a child. He grew up in Miami. In Miami, as a teenager, he joined a gang, got in trouble, was arrested, and deported back to Honduras. While in prison in Florida, Cesar gave his life to Christ and is now an Associate Pastor at Passion for Souls Church in Tegucigalpa. Cesar regularly ministers on the streets (to gang members, drug addicts, and prostitutes). He hosts a weekly Christian radio program on one of the largest radio stations in Honduras. It’s a secular radio station, and every week, at 6:00pm, he preaches the gospel. He also ministers in prisons and at the dump in Tegucigalpa. He is an incredible communicator and an outstanding person.
Jonathan also spent time in the States, was involved with gangs, and deported back to Honduras. He is an incredible translator and an expert carpenter. Now he has his own ministry in Tegucigalpa building homes for the poor. His heart and love for Jesus and his country is unmatched by anyone I know.
Noah’s Ark is a group of churches overseen by Pastors Luis and Reina. Pastor Reina, and her husband, pastor Noah’s Ark #1. Across the city of Tegucigalpa are at least 10 Noah’s Ark churches. I have told them I want my church to be Noah’s Ark #11. The mission of Noah’s Ark is to go into neighborhoods and plant churches that other organizations will not go into because of the danger. Noah’s Ark churches are in the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. As a result, many of their pastors are former
gang leaders. A few years ago, one of their pastors was shot and killed, walking from his home to the church. His wife now pastors the church. One of their leading pastors is Melvin, a former gang leader. His church purchased land and built a building (Jonathan helped build the building) on a hill that overlooks the city where his gang use to meet to plan their next attack on rival gangs.
Pastor Carlos is the lead pastor at Passion for Soul’s Church. An incredible church that has planted churches all throughout Honduras. Pastor Carlos spent time in the States (undocumented), was a gang
member, and was arrested and served time in a prison in New York before being deported. His church has an incredible ministry in the prisons and with people whom society has forgotten. Pastor Carlos is dynamic, a true visionary leader, and has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met.
Pastor Mayckol (pronounced “Michael”), and his wife, Mary Lou, pastor a thriving church as well. Mayckol was also a former gang member. He spent time in a prison in Honduras, and now goes back to that prison regularly to preach the gospel. I have gone to the prison with him. He and his wife are very dear to me and my church.
I could also tell you about Pastor Osmon and Pastor Dioniso, both former hit-men for gangs who are now serving long prison sentences, but are pastors of churches inside the prison that are sponsored by Passion of Souls Church.
The next time you hear of caravans and walls and “bad people” and gang members, remember these people and my all-too-real scenario, and remember that Jesus has told us that how we treat the “strangers among us” is not a political issue, or a safety and national security issue, it is a heaven or hell issue.
The next time you hear about the caravans, instead of being afraid, and building a wall, remember these people. Pray for them. Let God break your heart for what breaks His.