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Seeking Justice in the Conscience of Community

A Letter from Dori Hjalmarson, serving in Honduras

Spring 2021

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Dear friends,

In my work, I am usually the only North American. I have a U.S. passport and can travel without restriction to almost any country in the world. I have a U.S. professional’s salary in a country where the minimum wage is about $1.50 an hour, and most people make less than that. I live in a three-bedroom apartment with my cat, and when I have stayed in the Honduran countryside while visiting churches, I am often given hospitality in a home with one bed, and I am given the bed.

What am I doing here? What is that accomplishing?

I have felt this conflict for nearly four years as I accompany the people and the church in Honduras. For the first year, almost every time I visited a new church, trying to get to know people, someone, a church or community leader, would show me some project or idea that needed funding. They were hoping that with my connections and power, I could swoop in to “solve” many problems.

But that is not what I am called to do. I am not called to be a savior or a martyr. I am called to be a pastor. I am called to accompany.

A group of students in Puerto Grande, on the southern coast of Honduras, works on homework and the study of Ethics and Spirituality.

This past year, I stayed in Honduras even though the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) requested that deployed staff return to the U.S.. There were several reasons I stayed. One reason was that I felt safer in my Tegucigalpa house alone than I did with my senior parents and elderly grandmother. Another was that I felt a sense of responsibility to accompany our presbyterian partners here in Honduras. As the pandemic was becoming global, I wanted to stay out of love and a sense of call.

Mainly my work is facilitating theological education. I work with two other women to organize and teach classes among church leaders. Of course, because of the pandemic, our work has been largely stalled. We can’t gather, and most of our students are rural and have difficulty accessing the Internet and technology. To be honest, for years, I had been feeling stuck and stalled in this work, as I observed resistance among “old school” presbytery leaders to our “new school” of theology and biblical study. In five years, we graduated only 12 students from the program as it was initially designed. Those graduates sometimes struggle to gain footing as ordained leaders.

But the pandemic, while traumatizing and paralyzing, has also been an opportunity to reimagine our work.

In March, we started offering classes online. The first class was called Ethics and Spirituality, and as I was planning the class, I was trying to think of a good present-day ethical case study. Suddenly, all residents became eligible to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus in my home state of Utah, and I had my own ethical decision to make. Should I make a personal trip to the U.S. for the purpose of being vaccinated? Or should I wait in solidarity with my Honduran partners, continuing to maintain social distance, mask, and work online for possibly another year or more? Most people in Honduras don’t yet have access to a vaccine because large, rich countries have the clout to over-buy and hoard doses.

I believe the best way to care for my own health and the health of others is to be vaccinated. Everyone who has the chance, I believe, should be vaccinated. But as I presented this ethical dilemma to my class, a “hypothetical missionary” deciding whether to leave Honduras to be vaccinated, the decision became not so simple. The initial reaction from some of my students was that the hypothetical missionary should stay in Honduras “in solidarity” with Hondurans.

We started to analyze the many parties in this scenario: the missionary, her family, the U.S. church, the Honduran church, the U.S. government, the Honduran government, the multinational corporations that are producing and selling the vaccine, the trade organizations that protect those corporations’ profits, the missionary’s students. We also started to analyze the values at play. As my students listed values they saw as important, I had anticipated many of them: the missionary’s human rights, the health of the missionary and her contacts, the money involved in traveling, a sense of justice and injustice we all feel under the system we live in, equality, solidarity, accompaniment.

But one stopped me short: the conscience of the community. I’m used to my rugged individualism as a white North American, the ability to make decisions for myself. But I won’t be able to reason my way into the value of the community conscience. I will have to humble myself before the community. One duty the missionary certainly has, my students agreed, is to make the decision in concert with the most vulnerable people in the scenario: the Honduran church partners and students of the missionary’s classes, and any unvaccinated person the missionary comes in contact with, as well as the Honduran health care workers who have been the most at risk of infection and death. “Un caso menos,” one student said. “One case less.”

Ministry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Christian ethics must always happen in community, and if the community structures are unjust, we all are affected. To make a Christian decision, we must point to the most vulnerable among us and say, “this person’s dignity and autonomy matters just as much as or more than my own.” Yes, I could decide on my own to get myself to the U.S. to be vaccinated, and I think I could do so with reasoned ethical arguments. But I must then return to my community in Honduras, knowing that we all still swim in the same river of injustice and inequality.

A prophet Jesus often quoted says in Isaiah 58: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?” (Is 58:6-7)

I believe that Jesus’ ethics in preaching freedom and healing was an ethic of structural upheaval. It meant saving not only individual souls or bodies but all of creation, which means overturning structures of injustice, banding together as a community against machinations of evil that would keep us apart.

I have decided to travel to the U.S. to be vaccinated, and I did so after listening deeply to my ethics students, my family and friends, my supervisor, and our Honduran church partners. I am glad I didn’t make the decision alone.

Dori


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