Many Latin American churches are struggling to address the criminal violence challenging their societies – and are finding new ways of promoting peace in ways reflecting each country’s different conditions. As part of American University’s multi-year project (click here) on religious responses to violence in Latin America, 40 grassroots activists representing two-dozen faith-based ministries in seven countries gathered in Guatemala City in mid-July to share experiences ministering to victims of the region’s rampant violence.* Their ministries in Mexico, Central America and Colombia ranged from programs for at-risk youth, to rehabilitation centers for former gang members, to shelters for Central American migrants crossing through Mexico. Just as they developed a range of responses to the threats posed by authoritarian governments in the past, religion-based activists today are adapting strategies to a wave of “new” violence, a battery of social ills that includes gang violence, gender-based violence, and violence against migrants, as well as the persistent violence in states that have formally democratized but failed to deliver basic security.
Conflicting interpretations of the Church’s message of peace affect how churches define victims, how they emphasize or downplay the structural causes of violence, and how they respond to human suffering. Thus, while many of the participants characterized the current crisis in terms of structural or institutional violence, such convictions were not always reflected in churches’ proposed solutions to the crises facing their communities. There was no consensus, for example, on how faith-based organizations can effectively engage state institutions and policies, particularly where governments are perceived as corrupt and ineffective: some participants believe the church’s role is to condemn corruption, while others saw no alternative to holding elected and appointed authorities accountable by pressing them to deliver justice. One of the participating ministries based in Honduras, for example, provides legal aid for victims and their families, encouraging them to press charges, provide testimony, and follow-up with police and courts until they obtain a conviction.
For many of those in attendance, the ecumenical meeting was a first – in the words of a Mexican participant, “historic” – by offering a unique opportunity for religious practitioners to learn about the realities of neighboring countries, exchange ideas about best practices responding to violence, and discuss possible means of collaboration across borders. Despite diverse traditions and circumstances, the churches are becoming a more visible and potentially more unified force in the struggle against violence in Latin America. In a region marked by ecclesiastical competition, they are challenging traditional understandings of “accompaniment” and are recognizing their shared responsibility to respond to violence with concrete action. Indifference, passivity, fear, and silence received the greatest condemnation from the meeting’s participants. These churches are realizing that their diverse activities are in fact complementary, and that they have a critical role to play – both to mitigate existing suffering and to eradicate root causes of violence.
*The seminar “The Role of the Church in the Face of Violence in Mesoamerica: Models and Experiences of Peace in Contexts of Conflict and Violence” was co-organized by AU’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA) based in Guatemala City.