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 CNS Story:

HONDURAS-GANGS Jun-13-2007 (1,260 words) With photos. xxxi

Maryknoll missionary sows hope in Honduran gang neighborhood

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (CNS) -- Hours after his arrival in the humid shantytown of Chamelecon, Maryknoll Father Thomas Goekler was celebrating an evening Mass when a shootout between rival youth gangs broke out in the dirt street in front of the chapel.

Father Goekler remembers church members taking cover under the pews and crossing themselves, but he said he was more angry than frightened.

"I said, 'I'm not going to put up with this.' I stormed out of the church, and with my white alb and stole on I must have looked like a ghost. I walked out into the night, into the middle of the street, and I yelled, 'Stop!' The kids stopped shooting. And they all looked at me. Trouble was, I didn't have another line. Once they stopped shooting, I didn't know what to say next," Father Goekler said.

In the years since his tumultuous arrival in 1999, Father Goekler's ministry among the hemisphere's most violent gangs has been marked by a quest for what to say and do next. He has sought alternatives for those caught up in the maelstrom of violence that is robbing Central America's youth of a future.

Chamelecon -- carved out of the jungle and sugar cane plantations on the edge of the commercial capital, San Pedro Sula -- is a parallel universe of 130,000 people living in grim poverty on the margins of Honduran society.

Scattered throughout the threadbare homes and shacks are huge pumps where water is sucked from the ground and piped to the wealthy neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula, but Chamelecon's families often go for days with no water at all. Teeming with frustration and desperation, it's a natural seedbed for the youth gangs that have flourished in postwar Central America.

Encouraging education and using home construction as a way to build families, Father Goekler believes he has altered the bleak landscape.

"This was the most violent area of Chamelecon," he said. "When I got here, I was burying one to two kids a week. Now there are no murders, or maybe just one every three or four months. The gangs are still here but they no longer control the streets. We've taken back the neighborhood."

The priest added: "Kids are studying today. When I got here, no one knew what a book was. They knew what guns were, what drugs were, what condoms were. But books were off the chart. Now kids want to study. That's a big change."

Father Goekler arrived a few months after Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, leaving most homes in Chamelecon either destroyed or heavily damaged.

He rejected alliances with Habitat for Humanity, which he said demanded clear property titles and other requisites that made it impossible for the poorest to participate, and with Food for the Poor, which he said wanted to leave participants out of the decision-making process. He started his own housing project, leading the community in eventually building or rehabilitating 350 houses.

The neighborhood youths did the work, learning marketable construction skills in the process.

While some of the beneficiaries symbolically pay off the building costs with monthly payments of up to $3, a significant number repay the church's assistance by going to school. Their sweat equity is time spent studying. More than 120 adults and youths in the neighborhood have scholarships for classes ranging from primary school through university studies.

Father Goekler, 65, a native of New Haven, Conn., who worked with inner-city youths in the Archdiocese of Hartford before missionary assignments in Nicaragua and China, claims his version of tough love has literally saved lives.

Father Goekler told CNS: "I have a tendency to raise my voice and set limits. The kids here, at least the boys, had never heard the word 'no.' They thought it was an English word. They called me 'Padre No.'

"But they live in a situation where if they step across the line they get murdered. This isn't the suburbs where you get another chance. You only get one chance here, and if you lose it you die. So limits are extremely important," he said.

"I'm not very romantic. I'm old, I'm not a teenager, and I don't have very long to live. I don't want to be them, I want to save them. So no hand signs, no guns. I don't do the elaborate handshakes for 14 minutes," Father Goekler said. "And it's worked. Kids have done very well. Once they realized that someone was on their side, they blossomed."

Virginia Alfaro, a Vincentian lay missionary from Spain who heads the prison ministry for the Archdiocese of San Pedro Sula, said Father Goekler's success in Chamelecon is due to his commitment to the kids for their own sake.

"To work with these youth you've got to be present in a way that they know you're not there because it's a project or a way to make money, but simply because you respect them as persons," she said. "The secret of this ministry is to be at their side, and when possible to enter their lives a bit. When it's not possible, you wait, but you remain at their side."

Besides the housing, job training and educational ministries, Father Goekler, who once worked with Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day, started a Catholic Worker house that provides hospitality to teens whose home environment does not support positive change.

He said the Christian faith is a critical element of the movement he's nurtured in Honduras.

"Everything we do is based in prayer. I get up at 4 a.m. to pray, so I've got most of the people covered by the time they show up," Father Goekler said.

Christian faith is also part of rebuilding broken lives.

"The whole system has taught them that they're losers, but deep down these youngsters are deeply faithful. Properly done, the church is a sanctuary for them. They have great respect for the church, and that enables them, little by little, to have respect for themselves," he said.

Yet not everyone in Chamelecon's Holy Trinity Parish, where Father Goekler is officially appointed, is thrilled about the priest's work. Wealthy parishioners have voted to keep him out of the pulpit.

"The padre (Father Goekler) took some of us gang members to church, but people were afraid of us. They said the padre would get them killed as well, so they closed the door of the church to us," said Hector Leiva, a 23-year-old former gang member that Father Goekler got into school after he got out of prison on drug-related charges. "That made the padre really mad. He said God came to help the sick, not the well."

Juan Carlos Aguilar, another young man who got out of the gangs with Father Goekler's help, said several women in the parish announced they would leave the church if the gang members entered.

"They accused the padre of being nothing more than a gang member himself," Aguilar said.

Father Goekler has faced death threats from angry gang members, but says that's nothing compared to the parish leadership.

"I've never been afraid of the gangs, but the Legion of Mary scares me to death," Father Goekler said.

The priest said his rejection by the parish leadership does not bother him.

"These kids need all my energy, and I'm getting too old to have any patience for anything else. And every time I walk down the street in my neighborhood, I'm preaching more loudly than I could from any pulpit," he said.


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