SAN PEDRO SULA, Hondruas — Pastor Porfirio Zelaya Rubio gestured to the street outside the front door of Iglesia Menonita Sion (Zion Mennonite Church). He spoke in a quiet voice, not wanting to draw the attention of neighborhood children eating sweetbreads in the congregation’s tutoring center.

Nearly four years ago, two teen males from the church were killed in front of those doors. Gang members forced the two to lie on the ground and shot them in the head at 3 in the afternoon. A crowd of children watched.

“The big challenge is poverty, violence,” Rubio said. “That’s just how it is.”

Pastor Porfirio Zelaya Rubio in Iglesia Menonita Sion.MWR photo/Tim Huber

“We have some mothers in our church who lost their sons because of the violence. But we continue to pray. We continue to serve the Lord where God allows us to be.”

Rubio’s neighborhood of 6 de Mayo is one of the most violent parts of San Pedro Sula, considered the “murder capital of the world” until early 2016 when Caracas, Venezuela, surpassed it. In 2013, the city’s homicide rate was 187 per 100,000 residents — compared to 4.5 that year for the U.S.

The children who come to the church’s classroom and library for tutoring and peace workshops learn from workers with Acción Cristiana Educativa Menonita (Christian Action for Education of the Mennonite Church).

ACEM, as it is known, is a project of Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Hondureña (Honduran Evangelical Mennonite Church), with origins in a partnership with Franconia Mennonite Conference that stretches back 25 years. Mennonite Central Committee and IEMH work in partnership.

Proyecto MAMA was renamed ACEM at the beginning of 2016 to reflect a shift in strategy to a greater focus on development and capacity building and less on “handouts” of relief and school supplies.

ACEM executive director Denia Flores talks to children at a tutoring center next to Iglesia Menonita Sion in a suburb of San Pedro Sula.MWR photo/Tim Huber

“Needs are evolving, so we have to change,” said Denia Flores, ACEM’s former executive director, who worked to build stronger families and peace through health and education programs. “We want to strengthen a new generation of leaders so they can be their own promotors of development, not waiting on institutions.”

Honduran schools struggle with few teachers, truancy and government corruption. ACEM workers say one in 10 children has a learning disability, and schools don’t have staff or money.

Cycles of violence and income inequality get exacerbated when there is a lack of education. ACEM hopes it can step into the gap and make a difference.

“There are 40 to 50 kids in a class, and the government won’t help with these kids, and some of them have violent behavior,” Flores said. “Children have seen their parents killed, or their parents migrated away.”

Christian Education for Mennonite Action executive director Denia Flores, right, talks with psychologist and tutor Lucia Pineda outside the program’s office at Central Mennonite Church in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.MWR photo/Tim Huber

ACEM psychologist and tutor Lucia Pineda echoed those thoughts, recalling one boy’s parents who died on a bus that was burned by a gang for extortion money.

“He grew up with a lack of love and affection,” she said. “That manifests itself in learning difficulties and poor behavior.”

ACEM — which gets a significant chunk of its funding from MCC — helps with tutoring centers like the one at Pastor Rubio’s church, and also in public schools. Workers conduct psychological tests to help teachers and distribute MCC school kits.

The school kits have significant value, not just to students but ACEM staff as well. Their work takes them from one gang’s territory to the next, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and hostility. Workers tell of having guns put to their head, with stacks of the kits the only proof of their education intentions.

“We had problems with children not participating,” said teacher Eluvina Tinoco at the tutoring center, which used to have 100 students but now serves less than half that. She lowered her voice as older children in the street looked through the open window. “They’ve stopped coming because of the gangs. Parents are afraid something will happen to their children if they send them off.”

ACEM works in 10 communities, often partnering with local Mennonite congregations, and it hopes to expand.

“There is much to do in God’s name,” Rubio said. “There’s a lot of work with ACEM. And it opens the eyes of the church to the needs around it.”

Associate editor of the Mennonite World Review Tim Huber participated in an MCC learning tour to Honduras in November 2016. This article was originally published in the Jan. 2, 2017 issue of the publication and has been reviewed recently to confirm timeliness and accuracy.

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