A crowd of about 60 people sit scattered in the pews of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. They sing “Caminando” — translated as “Walking,” in English, a nod to the millions of Mexicans and Central Americans who have journeyed to the United States in search of better lives.
They’re here to see the 61-year-old Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno speak about the conditions that are pushing people out of his home country of Honduras, where he is is affectionately known as Padre Melo.
Earlier, he complained of tiredness brought on by medicine for the painful arthritis in his hands. But, now speaking about Honduras, his voice fills with energy.
“Honduras is the ‘etcetera’ country,” he says in Spanish — because it’s usually grouped with other Central American countries from which migrants flee to the U.S.
People know El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua from bloody civil wars in the 1980s, and the refugees who sought asylum then.
But Americans don’t know much about Honduras, nor the root causes of a crisis that is causing an exodus of many thousands in recent years.
Recently President Trump became enraged about a migrant caravan traveling through Mexico to the United States. Most of those migrants were from Honduras.
A coalition of Bay Area faith leaders, nonprofits and activists want Americans to better understand and bear witness to the country’s plight by hearing directly from people on the frontlines of human-rights work.
Speaking in Spanish, Padre Melo tells the crowd in Berkeley that Honduras has all of the natural resources it needs for its people to live in dignity today and in the future.
It has beautiful landscapes, water, and mineral wealth.
And yet, its people are among the poorest in the Americas.
World Bank data show that in 2014, almost a fifth of the country lived on less than $2 per day. Gang violence is brutal and widespread; its homicide rates rank among the worst in the world.
Padre Melo says the policies of President Juan Orlando Hernandez further widen the gap between rich and poor as mining and hydroelectric dams force rural communities off their land, and democratic norms erode.
Hernandez took power after a 2009 coup d’etat. His re-election in November 2017 was contested by the Organization of American States, which found widespread irregularities.
For speaking out against the government like this, Moreno’s life is at risk.
“We are concerned they might be targeting Padre Melo and his team, his human rights defenders,” says Jose Artiga, executive director of the Berkeley Share Foundation.
Share has supported El Salvadoran human rights for more than 35 years. Now along with a coalition of faith leaders and other nonprofits, it is also turning its attention toward Honduras.
The group is organizing delegations to visit the country. They also invited Padre Melo and five other Honduran human rights activists here, to raise their profiles and hopefully lend some protection.
Padre Melo has received death threats. His name has also appeared on propaganda leaflets that name him as a perpetrator of violence.
“So that’s a heavy duty accusation, with no proof, not nothing,” says Artiga. “[These are] very serious accusations that could end up in the assassination. The reason why we got concerned is it’s exactly what happened in El Salvador.”
In El Salvador, pro-government forces accused Archbishop Oscar Romero, of being a guerrilla. In 1980, the military assassinated him and his death helped to touch off a civil war.
“More than 100 years of being below the politics and economics of the United States government,” Melo says in Spanish.
It’s a century of political and economic subjugation, he says. And those United States policies are in large part responsible for the social conditions now pushing people out.
American dollars currently support harmful development projects, along with police and military aid for a government that has grown more authoritarian since the 2009 coup d’etat.
At the Berkeley church where Padre Melo speaks, Hondurans listening say he is speaking truth.
“Padre Melo [is] not only a symbol of hope, a human rights defender — but he’s really this alternative voice for us to understand what is happening in Honduras,” said Christopher Lopez, who is the child of a Honduran immigrant.
“For him to be here and directly communicate what’s not being covered in the mainstream media, it’s a breath of fresh air, and just this invigorating sense of hope knowing that the fight continues,” he says.
Back in the ‘80s, the Bay Area showed up in the fight for human rights in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Activists raised awareness, collected money and helped established the sanctuary church movement.
The hope is Padre Melo’s visit will establish a new level of engagement — this time with Honduras.
The church audience gathers to the stage to pray for Padre Melo’s protection.
In the reality that is Honduras, it feels hopeful, and also necessary.