January at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan is blustery, grey, and more often than not, freezing. However, the weather does not deter the large crowds that gather for the January Series, Calvin’s annual conference of speakers who share their knowledge of and research on a wide variety of topics, including race, justice, autism, creativity, journalism, technological security, poverty, and God’s call for privileged people.
On January 22nd, Kurt Ver Beek, a Calvin alumni who has spent over twenty five years living in Honduras with his wife, Jo Ann, spoke about the justice work in which they have invested. With a Ph.D. in development sociology, Kurt has always been determined to better the lives of the poor. However, when he and Jo Ann attempted to enrich their communities through development, they were confronted with the vicious violence that tore families apart and the pervasive corruption that threatened the wellbeing of their neighborhood. Kurt and Jo Ann became convinced that Honduras’ systems had to be altered for its citizens to live safe lives.
Comprehending the difference between charity, development, and justice is central to Kurt’s thesis about the importance of security. Charity is the short-term alleviation of hunger or cold, and is necessary for immediate aid after disaster has struck. Development, however, entails long-term betterment and investment in a system. Many development organizations provide education, skills, and business loans for those in poverty. Kurt and Jo Ann were aware of the benefits of development over charity, but as they watched hopelessly as friends were gunned down by drug lords and corrupt policemen, they realized that beyond development, justice must be secured for Hondurans. Justice is the ultimate righting of systems. It is the all-encompassing healing of wrongs, and overcomes the fear brought about by violence.
Kurt and Jo Ann began to enact justice by pursuing security and founding the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. AJS hired Honduran investigators who took on the dangerous task of looking into homicides and uncovering the antics of corrupt policemen. Slowly, homicide rates dropped as Kurt and Jo Ann’s neighbors began putting their trust in AJS and testifying as witnesses in court. Despite the risk to their own lives and a few tragic causalities to Hondurans within AJS, sections of Tegucigalpa became safer. One of these sections includes Nueva Suyapa, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and Kurt and Jo Ann’s home.
Along with seven other Calvin students, I studied in Honduras from January to May 2015. Our host families lived in a beautiful mountain town called Santa Lucia that overlooked Tegucigalpa, which sprawled below. Perched in our lofty mountain home, we would venture into Tegus for school, after a forty-five minute ride on an old, rusty school bus that chugged its way up and down the steep slopes. During some of these visits, we would attend a class taught by Kurt and Jo Ann, entitled “Poverty and Development (or more accurately, Justice).” Kurt and Jo Ann used their extensive knowledge of Honduras and its people to describe the economic and political state of the country. We learned about the messy stuff, the hidden stuff, the mundane, and the dirty. We studied food distribution, immigration, the impact of policy, orphanages, maquilas (loosely translated as “sweatshops”), waste management (sewage, basically), and the influence the States wields in Honduras.
Kurt and Jo Ann’s class was one of the highlights of the semester not only because of the content, but mostly due to the sense of justice that roused our spirits every time we had class. Kurt and Jo Ann’s lectures exuded genuine compassion for their fellow Hondurans. Not only did we learn about the many obstacles Honduras faces; we were also set afire with passion for justice work in the United States. We focused on the inequitable American education system that supports some in success while allowing other students to drop through the cracks. One of the classes permanently etched in my mind was when we wrote down all of the social issues we cared about, and formulated steps to address them. As I fervently wrote mine down, I realized the scope of my social concern was too broad, and that I’d have to simplify so that I didn’t get overwhelmed and lose all hope. The classes inspired and united us as young students, still inexperienced but nonetheless determined join the pursuit of justice.
My seven Calvin peers and I were drawn together over discussions about social justice. We shared our individual passions, delighted when they coincided and willing to learn from each other when they didn’t. Of course, simply discussing issues was not always enough; once, when we were in Nicaragua, I broke down and bawled, in front of several perplexed onlookers, over the weight of injustice and my inability to solve it. My Calvin friends were gracious, comforting me and listening to my weepy ranting. Justice isn’t always about doing; it often involves dwelling in pain over the situation, and oftentimes, only the support of your friends allows you to grasp at hope.
Over a year has passed since my group and I arrived in Honduras. When we heard that Kurt was coming to Grand Rapids, we made plans to attend his talk together. We joined a mass of Kurt and Jo Ann’s students, who wore AJS tee-shirts and cheered loudly when he walked on stage, one of my friends waving a gigantic Honduran flag. The small, fiery community of Calvin students who had spent time with Kurt and Jo Ann in Honduras represents the young people who have been set aflame with passion for justice. We are united by a force that encompasses the pain, hope, indignation, guilt, joy, weariness, and communal spirit of justice work. Although we cannot save the world, we have been seized by a thirst for justice, like Kurt and Jo Ann, and the hope that we can start to make a dent in the wrongs that plague our societies.