What encouragement or advice do you have as we seek to do good in places that have systemic obstacles to sustainable development?

Hi Rachel,

What encouragement or advice do you have as we seek to do good in places that have systemic obstacles to sustainable development? It seems to me that so much of the opportunities or approaches that are highlighted in the United States have to do with helping an individual or what an individual can do to help. For many projects and needs, this makes sense.

However, for instance, these reports from the New York Times were quite challenging to absorb:

In Honduras, warring gang factions have plunged the country into a state of crisis. Groups like the Mara Salvatrucha — or MS-13 — and the 18th Street Gang, which both originated in the United States, have laid siege to communities. They govern much of daily life for residents living in their areas of control, stand-ins for a corrupt and ineffectual government.

I wanted to capture just how inescapable the violence was — to show readers what it really felt like.

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All three had been members of the 18th Street gang, but were sickened by the cadence of murder, extortion and robbery of their neighbors, the people they had known all their lives. Seeking redemption, they kicked the gang out of the neighborhood, vowing never to allow another back in.

Now, they were being hunted — by their former comrades in 18th Street, and by MS-13, which wanted their territory.

And so the young men doubled down for their own protection, transforming back into the thing they hated most: a gang.

These stories bring to mind Proverbs 13:23, “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

What does it look like to seek to do good in a place where any gains or developments will, in all likelihood, be absorbed by a gang or corrupt government officials?

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Carson,

Thank you for your thoughtful question. I read through both stories you sent and found the stories gripping. As I read them, I was drawn in by the story of the Pastor who the journalist was staying with who was risking his life to work for peace. He was getting to know these young men and entering into places where others wouldn’t go. That to me in the middle of this heart-wrenching situation is the hope in these stories. That is where we find Christ.

I think we are so drawn to humanitarian stories that have powerful impact and redemption. And yet anyone who has worked in this field knows that the death, violence, bad decisions, turning back to drugs, prostitution, domestic violence, etc. is often the norm more than the exception.

I remember when I was working daily in a safehouse for women in the sex industry, the heaviness was tangible. A therapist came and did a group session with our staff. She asked if we had still had hope for the women. Could we hold hope for them even when it all felt hopeless. Could we hold hope for them when they couldn’t see it for themselves? Those words have stuck with me for years. I think that is what we have to do in situations like the stories you shared-find and hold the hope even when it looks hopeless.

Father Greg Boyle is a priest I deeply respect who has worked with gangs in LA since the 1980s. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries (homeboyindustries.org), the largest gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. In his book “Tattoos on the heart: the power of boundless compassion”(which I highly recommend), he talks a lot about compassion. He has several quotes that I find fitting to your question:

“Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified — whichever came first.”

“Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes) — that didn’t end in the Cross — but he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity that the one he embraced”

In his words, I see that we have to redefine success. We have to be okay with stories that don’t have happy endings. We have to sit with people in their suffering and be with them.

I do strongly believe that change does need to happen on both the micro and macro level: each individual life matters, but systems and structures matter too. In the examples you gave, I think the long-term approach for humanitarian work is needed from the macro level, but in the meantime, we cannot lose sight of the one. We cannot walk away from a situation because it all feels hopeless.

What I see in the story you shared is pastor is standing with people. That gives me hope-that is where we find Christ. As a partner of an organization that Wellspring supports often says, “we may not see the full redemption on this side of eternity, but one day we will.” And in the meantime, we will hold the hope.

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