Lessons from Honduras: Justice and the Community

This is part two in a series on justice in Honduras. To read part one, click here

Last month I reflected on my time in Honduras and explored the importance of solidarity with those facing injustice. This week, I will examine this idea further, moving away from the importance of empathy to a closely related topic: justice and the importance of the community.

The importance of listening to the community in development work has been a theme more widely discussed in recent years. Books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity have argued persuasively that the West’s efforts to address poverty globally often fail to take into account the communities they seek to target by providing undesired solutions or unsustainable answers for the people that that development projects seek to aid. Sadly, the Church often faces equal culpability in such matters, adopting models of aid that fail to properly address the needs the church is rightfully seeking to meet.

This lesson was reinforced repeatedly during the two years I spent working with the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) in Honduras, whose work focuses on matters of violence and corruption. While I knew it in theory before arriving, my work in a predominantly Honduran organization and my life among average Hondurans in an impoverished community revealed this very truthjustice and its work cannot be separated from the community that it targets. Those who suffer oppression, violence, and disregard from the wealthy or powerful know firsthand what is wrong—and consequently know what needs to happen to right the wrongs they endure.

“Justice and its work cannot be separated from the community that it targets.”

This reality of justice became evident in two different ways throughout my two years in Honduras. First, I lived in a community that many would deem as both impoverished and exceptionally violent (at least, by U.S. standards). The community was the center of my life: I went to church there, slept there, and made friends with my family there. I tried to stay indoors when it got dark, and I befriended taxi drivers who were willing to brave returning to the community at 10 p.m. I came to learn about why people got killed, and I watched as elections appeared to influence the construction of a road. I listened to my host family opine about politics and the corruption and violence that daily flooded their television screen. Without those experiences, I would have been far less fit to analyze and undertake my work. Yet the connection to those suffering from problems of injustice prepared me—and motivated me—to help as effectively as I could.

Second, I was consistently reminded of Hondurans’ own ability to remedy and fight the injustice they faced as I worked alongside them at AJS. The vast majority of my coworkers were Hondurans, and I learned more from them than I gave back. I quickly learned that Hondurans better understood the injustices they faced, and were better equipped to offer the solutions and toil needed to right the wrongs they encountered. My role became what it should be: one of support to the Hondurans leading and championing their just crusades to end violence and tackle corruption, acknowledging that those who best understand a situation of injustice and the solutions to it are the ones facing and living it.

Back in the comfort of my U.S. life, this lesson of acknowledging the fundamental role those facing injustice play in ensuring justice strikes me as paramount. Once again, the Catholic concept of solidarity can inform my own reflections and our understanding of this truth. By becoming intimately acquainted with the lives of the Hondurans around me, I came to better understand the difficulties that they face, and thus better prepared to offer support in their cause. And yet, the Hondurans always led the way. It’s important to affirm that the results are dramatic—justice is being done, by Hondurans, and for Hondurans.

This brings us back to the same demands I discussed and suggested in the first article: as Christians, justice means that we know, listen to, and accompany those confronting injustice. Without doing so, our hearts will harden and our seeds of justice will fall on rocky or hard soil, estranged from the communities whose insight and leadership is indispensable to pursuing and doing justice.

 - Aaron Korthuis is currently a student at Yale Law School and prior to that worked for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. Photo via Nan Palmero.