I’m the pastor at Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Menonita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church) in Chamelecón, a neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
My family moved to Chamelecón when I was 14 from downtown San Pedro Sula.
It was a completely different community at that time. Today it’s known as a community with a lot of violence and development problems. At that time it had a lot of prospects.
I’ve been married almost 17 years to Lidis Lemus. When my family first moved here, her mother rented an apartment to my family. Her mother was the person who told my father that he should get to know God. We joined the church later that year, and that’s where I met Lidis.
In 1995, I graduated from a technical institute and then worked as a mechanic for 10 years before I got the calling to become a pastor. In 2005 our pastor resigned, and at that point I had received training from a biblical institute and was preaching. The church called me to be part of a team leading the church, and in 2006 this group asked me to take the lead as pastor.
It was hard to assume the role as a pastor while working 15 to 16 hours a day as a mechanic. Lidis and I needed to ask God for direction. Together we accepted a faith challenge. I quit my full-time job as a mechanic to work in the church.
The context has changed here. It was a gradual process beginning around 1995.
Although the population was increasing, the number of schools, health centers and public spaces for families decreased. There were no opportunities for young people, and the gangs began to recruit. When I remember my childhood, many of those friends became gang members. The gangs offered everything young people wanted: belonging, respect, resources.
From 2007, drug trafficking grew to a much higher level. There were more territorial fights that were much more intense, until the place turned into a war zone.
Some brothers and sisters couldn’t come to church anymore because they lived in another sector that was controlled by another gang; they would have had to cross from one territory to another one, which was too dangerous.
"The church is called to be salt and light and there are certain contexts which provide an opportunity to be that more strongly."
– José Fernández
Our church felt the calling to see God’s work in this difficult context. We held services in public spaces, prayer campaigns, shared food with the community and families, and we started working with the children of families of gang members — just to show that there is still life in the church.
In 2013, the police came to my house to question me about the death of three women. We had former gang members in our church and the police suspected that they were connected to the murders. The police threatened me and then hit me. They wanted me to kneel down at the fence but I said, I only kneel down before God. It was a very hard experience to realize that our lives were basically in their hands.
After this, Lidis and I decided we would stay but our children would leave. But our daughter Andrea said the children had decided something already — “What we have to pass through we have to pass through as a family.” We received this conviction from our children as a sign that God wanted us to stay.
There is a moment where people start to see you as a symbol of God. A lot of people came in the middle of the night to our house asking for prayers. So we as a pastoral family represented sort of the hope that God will do something.
If we would have left, our exit would have meant the loss of a great part of their hope that they had.
It’s like being in a boat and then the storm starts. You remember the story where Jesus woke up in the middle of the storm? He didn’t leave the boat in the middle of the storm, right? But he asked the Father that the storm would calm down. We felt definitely that that was the role and the responsibility for us to stay.
But there have been moments I came home and thought, what did we just do? Why do we run such risks?
For example we had a prayer session out in the street at night — about 300 feet away was an armed group of gang members, 300 feet on the other side was the other gang. They threatened to start shooting at each other, but we were in the middle praying.
We felt anything could happen at this moment, but actually it didn’t really matter because we’re God’s people and God says I want you to be at peace.
When we finished the prayer campaign, we put all our equipment back in the church, and they started to shoot at each other one by one. Some of our brothers and sisters had not even reached their homes when the confrontation started.
I don’t think our church has done something that is special or out of the ordinary. I just think the church had the opportunity to play its role.
The church is called to be salt and light and there are certain contexts which provide an opportunity to be that more strongly. We still have a lot of dreams that we want to fulfill as a faith community — the work is just started.
José Fernández is pastor of Vida en Abundancia Iglesia Evangélica Menonita (Life in Abundance Evangelical Mennonite Church), which supplies volunteers for a peacebuilding program of MCC and Proyecto Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Project or PPJ), an organization of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Honduras.