Leanne Talen Geisterfer, Rev. David Domingues and a few others climbed carefully down the slippery side of a hill in Nueva Suyapa, Honduras, using old tires placed in the ground as steps to reach the bottom where a stream, strewn with refuse, meandered along.
Geisterfer is Latin America team leader for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and was taking the opportunity on this sunny day in January to visit projects that CRWRC helps support through its partners, including the Stewardship of Christian Ministries (MCM), which was born out of the Brethren churches in Honduras. Rev. Domingues is a Brethren pastor and one of the driving forces behind MCM, which is Ministerios Cristianos de Mayordomia in Spanish.
“I came to this community many years ago and it was a terrible place to live then,” said Domingues as the group began walking up a stony path toward the top of a hill. “We started with medical teams and then got involved in education, starting with one grade in a grade school. Now we have a grade school and a high school.”
The neighborhood in which the group was walking was located near what had once been the city dump for Tegucigalpa. Once a place of scattered, poorly built homes and a climbing crime rate, the area started its transformation a few years after families were re-located here from the low-lying river area in Tegucigalpa in the aftermath of Hurricane Fifi, which swept through the country in 1974. More people then came to the area following Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
With the help of CRWRC, Christian Reformed World Missions, their partners, and others, it has been a slow transition, which is ongoing, to make Nueva Suyapa safe. “We and others have been reaching out in God’s name to people who are struggling with poverty, hunger, disasters and injustice to help them find lasting ways to improve their lives,” said Leanne Geisterfer.
Backed by CRWRC and other groups, ministries have been working here for about 20 years on various projects, including one that has helped teach women in the community savings and small business skills. The group planned to visit two of the women later.
“I think it is fantastic. The community is different in so many ways since we first got here,” said Domingues, pastor of the local Brethren church. “There used to be a big gang problem up here, but that isn’t so bad anymore.” He credits the government, CRWRC, the Association for a more Just Society, and others for helping turn things around.
“I’m very excited about what the Lord has done in Nueva Suyapa,” said Domingues. “He has performed miracle after miracle to make this a better and safer neighborhood.” He especially thanked CRWRC for the work it has done.
The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) has worked in Honduras since 1974 and currently has four Christian partners there in addition to the Association for a More Just Society (AJS). These partners minister to more than 17,500 people in 63 of the country’s most impoverished communities.
CRWRC’s work in Honduras focuses on developing poor communities through integrated programs that improve people’s standard of living. This includes programs such as agriculture training for farmers; small business investment and savings projects for urban women; financial education; Christian leadership training; adult literacy; health programs in nutrition, sanitation, and growth monitoring for children; and community-based savings and loan groups.
AJS, whose work includes training in Christian values, labor and land rights, and women’s rights, is one of the ministries that CRWRC partners with in Honduras, contributing to its programs of community justice clinics and community transformation.
Visiting the Gardeners
On this day, Domingues and Geisterfer were leading the group to the top of the hill to show off a gardening project involving community members. The project began last year.
“We’ve long built relationships with people. We know Don David (Domingues) and know we can trust him and the Brethren church. It is a partnership. Their work is our work,” said Caspar Geisterfer, Leanne's husband and a missionary with Christian Reformed World Missions, as the group reached the top and could see about 20 women and a few young men hard at work in the community garden.
Up here, the sky was a vast, overarching blue and the city of Tegucigalpa spread and sprawled colorfully in nearly all directions. Sunshine bathed the garden plots and the sound of women digging dirt with shovels filled the air.
Two Calvin Theological Seminary students and representatives from the Christian Reformed Church were part of the crowd that climbed up the hill to learn more about the project.
The plan, one of the women gardeners said, is to grow this garden to the point where they can open a fruit and vegetable stand to help support themselves. Having learned gardening techniques and having received seeds from CRWRC and others, the women are also starting to growing produce in their yards.
About 90 women in all rotate through, working certain days in the garden. Sandra Salazar, coordinator of the women’s group, says that everything that they do is done “to give honor and glory to God. We see the hands of God in this project that has had such a surprising positive impact on the women.”
Celery, tomatoes, beets, lettuce, cucumbers, beans, radishes and onions fill the plots of turned-up soil. “This is like a school, a farming internship,” says one of the women who help spearhead the project. “We started out with common knowledge and then contacted others for technical advice. Before this, we had no experience in organized planting.”
Only a few months before this had been a bare, scrubby plot of land owned by a local family who has allowed them to plant and harvest here, says one of the women, Gloria Flores.
A trip to Another Garden
Soon, the CRC group retraced its steps, got in a van and drove to the site of another garden, this one in the shadow of the high school that the Brethren church has helped to construct. Since it was vacation, the school yard was empty.
But nearby, just beyond a makeshift fence, more women were tending to their produce. A few of them were at work fastening a large white tarp to the ground. This space will likely be used as a greenhouse.
Besides planting and tending the food, the women helped to put in drains and pathways for gray (dirty) water from nearby buildings to travel to and be filtered before pooling in collection spots. Clean water is trucked to a large cement cistern to be used to water the crops.
Dania Chamale, one of the gardeners, says that “this is a real dream come true for us. We started with nothing but faith in God. We knew it would be hard work, especially breaking up the soil. But we knew we could do it, because we are strong women.”
When she said that, many of the women smiled and raised their arms in triumph, showing that indeed they were strong, resilient and committed to growing their own food.
Another woman said that they were involved in “an urgent project. Many of us have four or five children. We can’t wait for others. We have to do this work.”
Another of the women gave credit to CRWRC and MCM as having been “a fortress for us. They have helped to make our neighborhood so much better. They have given us hope.”
An additional and very active ministry in this area is Diaconia Nacional, which is an outreach of the Christian Reformed Church in Honduras.
With help from other partners, Diaconia Nacional has been developing literacy projects, health programs and assisting improve nutrition and sanitation in areas across the country. They also help work groups from churches that travel to Honduras to assist in certain projects.
“We believe that the local church should be a bridge to the whole community. Churches are encouraged to start and support ministries that maintain and improve the health of people and help them build better lives,” says Reyna Velasquez, coordinator of Diaconia Nacional, which owns the building in which CRWRC and CRWM are located. Also at work in Honduras is Worldwide Christian Schools, as well as Partners Worldwide, a business-creation ministry.
All of the various partners work together on a wide range of projects.
New Life with Two Businesses
After visiting the community gardens, the CRC group visited two women who have been helped by training and loans to operate their own businesses in Nueva Suyapa, a community of about 30,000 people.
Sandra Rodriguez, a member of the Catholic Church, lives in a small home set along one of the twisting dirt roads in the community. With help from CRWRC, its partner Dicaonia Nacional and severance pay she received from a job doing day care, she has been able to open a small grocery store in the front of her home.
The television in her home showed cartoons and her daughter stood close to her mother as the group entered her home. Rodriguez said there was a time, not too long ago, when she would not have been able to open the grocery, since the gang violence and robberies were so bad. Today, a delivery truck pulls up to drop off foodstuffs outside. An armed guard rides along, making sure that the deliveries are made.
Helping to bring a level of peace to the neighborhood, says Rodriguez, have been the churches.
“The Catholic Church got together with other churches awhile ago and we marched for peace in our community,” she said. “We sang together and prayed together.”
Now, the neighborhood has some paved streets, street lights, some sewage facilities and occasional water coming up from the municipal water plant in the Tegucigalpa.
“I get up at 5 a.m. every day to work,” says Rodriguiez. “We just need the opportunity to work. I was helped with a loan from Diaconia Nacional.”
As the conversation turned to the health of her children, she broke out in tears, telling the group that her oldest’s son’s grandfather paid for him to go to high school in the United States. She says she loves her son very much and hopes he returns home after school, although job opportunities in that area could be scarce for her son.
The final stop was at the home of a woman whom Diaconia Nacional has helped to start a thriving sewing business in her home. “I’ve been a member of the Christian Reformed Church here. I joined when I was 11 and now I’m 25,” she said. “The church has been a big support helping me deal with the challenges of my life … I met my husband there. Knowing the Lord has helped me and been very important in my life.”