When Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in as the new president of Honduras in January 2014, he told Yolani Batres, his new minister of health, to call the folks at the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (Association for a More Just Society, or AJS) to determine how to best purchase and distribute medicine in the country.

Hernández wanted her to meet with AJS founders Kurt Ver Beek, Jo Ann Van Engen (both 1986 Calvin grads) and Carlos Hernández because he knew the group could help him accomplish things or make life tougher for his administration.

Success stories

AJS had previously exposed how the country’s pharmaceutical companies and government often worked together to hide low-quality medication and steal good-quality medication for a profit, an investigation that led to six people being arrested and garnered nationwide media coverage.

Hernández didn’t want a repeat of that. Indeed in addition to sending his new minister to meet with the AJS leadership, he also promised AJS complete access to documents and staff at the Ministry of Health so that AJS investigators and lawyers could ensure that the Honduran government was buying quality medications and that those medicines were actually making their way to the people. And he signed a letter of intent with AJS and Transparency International dedicated to fighting corruption in Honduras. (AJS is Transparency International’s chapter in Honduras; the highly regarded global organization heard about the association’s work and asked it to be their local representative.)

Just three months later a 1,200-word New York Times story profiled the work of AJS and its investigators in helping solve the murder of Joselin Palma, who was killed with machetes the day before she turned 18.

Wrote reporter Nicholas Phillips: “The investigators are part of an experiment in Nueva Suyapa that shows how the cycle of violence and impunity can be broken when middlemen do the work that the police and prosecutors either cannot or will not, tracking down witnesses, gaining their trust and persuading them to cooperate with the authorities.”

And last fall when parents in the small town of Guadalupe, Honduras, grew frustrated with a teacher who never showed up to instruct their children, and a school district that ignored their complaints, they called an AJS community worker who connected the parents with lawyers from the AJS Advocacy and Legal Advice Center (ALAC).

The AJS lawyers did their homework and contacted national public education authorities who came to Guadalupe to investigate. The result: The teacher was fired, a reliable teacher was hired and the children in Guadalupe were able to continue their education.

AJS beginnings

These success stories were significant markers in the history of AJS, an organization that began in 1998 thanks to the efforts of Ver Beek, Van Engen and Hernandez, but actually had its genesis a couple of years earlier when Ver Beek and Van Engen welcomed their first Calvin students to Honduras for a semester abroad program on community development.

Ver Beek recalled those early days during a summer 2014 visit to Grand Rapids for AJS’ U.S. board meetings.

“We were in the classroom that first year, and we were discussing micro and macro issues in Honduras with regards to poverty, enterprise, health problems, violence and immigration,” said Ver Beek. “When we were discussing topics like microenterprises, community health and education programs we could come up with dozens, even hundreds of examples. When we got to the macro stuff we would talk about violence, immigration. What organizations are working on the problem of corruption in Honduras? The students could come up with zero. I could come up with one or two but no NGOs and no Christian organizations. So we started a Christian organization to focus on some of those macro issues.”

It’s notable, said Ver Beek, that when he and Van Engen arrived in Honduras in 1988, perhaps 5 percent of the population was Protestant or evangelical Christian, a number that rose steadily in the ensuing two-plus decades to 40 percent. At the same time, the country’s Catholic Church also experienced a revival, and, he added, there was a surge in short-term missions trips to Honduras from U.S. churches.

In the midst of this, however, things in Honduras got worse, not better. The country remained near the bottom of western hemisphere literacy, life expectancy, per-capita income and infant mortality lists, but near the top of worldwide murder and corruption rates, to name just two dubious categories. Something about the church’s response in Honduras was misfiring, and it was into this breach that AJS stepped in 1998. From those humble beginnings it has grown into a lean NGO with an outsized influence that now works in two key areas for the betterment of Honduran society: peace/public security and anti-corruption.

It continues to do so in a setting that is among the toughest in the world.

Calvin students on the semester program in Honduras pose for a picture on stone steps.

Tough setting

“Honduras closed 2013 with the highest homicide rate in the world,” said Ver Beek. “That was the third year in a row. Hondurans were murdered at a rate of near 80 per 100,000—triple the rate of carnage in Mexico or Iraq.”

But, the trained sociologist added, the debate about causes and solutions has been muddled.

“A narrative identifying the 2009 coup that deposed Manual Zelaya as the cause of Honduras’ present violence has dominated discussion in academic and foreign policy circles,” he said. “But this is simplistic. A more balanced analysis suggests that today’s violence and the 2009 coup both are symptoms of the weakness and vulnerability to corruption of Honduras’ government institutions.”

In Honduras, Ver Beek said, the brutality and economic clout of drug traffickers and other organized criminal groups often overwhelms the government institutions. But in the face of that he believes that assistance efforts, including U.S. foreign policy, should focus on strengthening the Honduran state and making it more transparent, especially in the area of security and justice.

Indeed the security and justice component is a critical part of AJS’ current work in Honduras.

Van Engen said that when she and Kurt first started working in Central America for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew), they had a pretty strong community building focus to their work. The idea, she and Kurt noted, was the old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But, she said, what they came to understand in a place like Honduras was how many barriers could be set up to prevent people from ever fishing in the first place.

“What happens when someone builds a fence around the pond and says nobody can fish?” said Van Engen. “The proverb doesn’t work quite as well then. We came to realize that often people were poor because they were denied access to justice, and that’s why we started AJS.”

The work is not easy in a country where corruption often seems embedded in the very systems that are meant to ensure justice, due in large part to Honduras’ central role in the movement of drugs, especially cocaine, to North America.

During the mid-2000s, drug trafficking organizations increasingly shifted their operations from the Caribbean and Mexico to Central America as the first point of entry to the North American continent for cocaine headed north, due to increased enforcement in these other areas. Honduras became an ideal new hub for the drug trade, and a flood of societal problems ensued.

Calvin’s AJS connections

Jill Van Beek is the AJS-U.S. director of operations. She has worked for the organization since graduating from Calvin in 2009 after completing a six-month internship, and she’s one of four AJS-U.S. employees (three paid and one volunteer), all of whom are Calvin grads. And while she is quick to note that “the work being carried out in Honduras is mostly done by 80 brave Hondurans,” Kurt Ver Beek and Jo Ann Van Engen are equally quick to praise the work being done stateside by their team of four and by their North American board, and volunteers—many of whom also have a Calvin connection.

Van Beek was an international development studies major at Calvin and has lived and worked in Honduras. Now she and volunteer executive director Richard Bandstra ’72, U.S. director of communications Elise Ditta ’10 and U.S. administrative assistant Alison DeRooy ’11 support AJS’ work from their base in Grand Rapids.

Also long part of the AJS team is Abe Huyser-Honig '04, who moved to Honduras in 2006, soon after his graduation from Calvin, and served first as director of operations and then as coordinator of research and investigations, in the latter capacity leading the team that unmasked the corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. In the summer of 2014 Huyser-Honig moved back to the U.S. with his Honduran wife and two children to pursue a master's degree in public policy at Michigan State, while continuing to work 25 percent time for AJS from his base in West Michigan.

For the U.S. team, the AJS focus on justice is a key motivator.

Said Van Beek: “While at Calvin I studied and critically analyzed a lot of theories about various approaches to international development work. In critically analyzing the work of AJS and the theory behind the work, I can honestly say I have never seen another organization that more aligns with how I think Christians should effectively approach alleviating poverty and injustice.”

For U.S. staff, volunteers, board members and donors, the powerful stories of native Hondurans who are both working for justice alongside AJS and receiving justice are moving. “The best part of our work,” said Van Beek, “is seeing the faces and hearing the stories of those who experience justice.”

But there is also much work yet to be done.

“The most difficult thing about this work is being exposed to the raw brokenness of the world,” Van Beek said. “In order to work in this field you must have your eyes wide open and try to understand a situation of injustice to be able to work to right that wrong. In addition, although the work of AJS is bringing incredible change in Honduras, it takes time to see those changes occur. We often say that this work needs ‘long obedience in the same direction.’ Perseverance is hard work.”

A catalyst

In taking on systemic corruption, the increased drug-related violence, the cracks in the country’s health care system, educational deficiencies and more, AJS realized it could not go it alone.

So, two years ago AJS became a catalyst for a coming together of some of the country’s top NGOs, providing both space and money to harness the collective efforts of such organizations as:

* Caritas, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church in Honduras.

* the Evangelical Cofraternity in Honduras, the country’s largest coalition of Evangelical churches.

* the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).

* World Vision, a development-focused nonprofit that has a large child-sponsorship donor program.

* a variety of umbrella groups that includes large numbers of civil society organizations.

The resulting Alliance for Peace and Justice uses the offices of AJS-Honduras as its administrative and operational platform, while AJS is both a founding and leading member of the alliance and has played an integral role in defining and implementing its work. The alliance has attracted both national and international attention since being formed and is making a difference in Honduras, including getting a corrupt, inept attorney general fired and pursuing in-country research no one had ever done before.

Complementing the work of both AJS and the alliance on the ground in Honduras is an active North American presence for AJS, including four full-time employees and a dedicated board of directors. AJS works from North America to produce various online and print publications,

organizes events and presentations, and participates in conferences to raise consciousness about justice issues in Honduras and to inspire North American Christians to follow God’s call to do justice locally and globally (see accompanying article).

And, in just the last couple of years, Ver Beek and Van Engen have been more intentional about connecting the semester-long Calvin program in Honduras to the work of AJS.

They resisted for a time (Ver Beek jokes that he didn’t want to be like the professor who makes his students buy the textbook he wrote), but student questions about and interest in the work of AJS made them realize that the need was there for more overlap.

Justice Studies

They also note the strong connections between AJS’ approach and Calvin’s worldview, including the very basic starting point of seeing Hondurans as image bearers of God and using that as a key motivator in the day-to-day work of seeking justice for all people. They also see connections between the Calvin worldview and the idea that North American Christians have much to learn from their Honduran counterparts, including courage, standing up to injustice and giving more than simple charity to those in need.

As they considered more deeply these strong connections between what they had learned at Calvin, what they were teaching their Calvin students and what the AJS focus was, they decided to change the name of Calvin’s semester-long program from “Development Studies” to “Justice Studies” and to strengthen the AJS connections, something the first students on the newly named program noticed and appreciated.

Writing for Chimes, the Calvin student newspaper, this past spring, Kate Parsons ‘15 said this: “In Honduras, where 10 of us studied abroad last fall, nothing was like what we were used to. One day we dressed up for class at the U.S. embassy in Honduras, hearing from speakers about the political climate; the next, we visited rural farms where families could barely afford to buy school supplies for their children. Much in Honduras was a study in contrasts. A still-developing country, its streets host both beggars rattling cups for change and business people checking their iPhones.”

But, she added: “In sweatshops and toy factories, through hectic traffic and garbled Spanish, the 10 of us experienced a country in need of justice alongside those actively pursuing it.”

Such words are heartening for Ver Beek and Van Engen. The ability to touch the lives of students and to make a difference in Honduras in the lives of people they have come to know and love makes the work, which can often be both frustrating and dangerous, worthwhile.

In a recent e-mail to an AJS supporter, Ver Beek talked about personal connections and how they drive their organization’s work in Honduras and North America.

“A few weeks ago,” he wrote, “my friend and fellow founder of the Association for a More Just Society, Carlos Hernández, walked into my office with red, puffy eyes. He told me he had just gotten the latest update on one of our on-going investigations into corruption in government health care. These investigative reports aren’t anything unusual at AJS—we have a reputation for exposing corruption in the Honduran government—but I have never known one to make Carlos cry.”

The reason, he added, was that this particular report was about a blood-pressure medicine the government provided to its poor patients that was completely ineffective—and the government knew it. It is also a medicine Carlos’ mother takes.


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“Carlos pictured his mom’s face among the thousands of poor Hondurans who unsuspectingly took the public hospital’s worthless pills,” wrote Ver Beek. “He imagined them getting sicker and even dying, and not knowing why. He grieved.”

Said Ver Beek: “When we remember the faces of friends and family across Honduras who suffer because of corruption, we at AJS have no choice but to act.”

Phil de Haan is Calvin’s senior public relations specialist.