By standing up for victims of violence, labor and land-rights abuse and government corruption in Honduras, organizations around the world, including Transparency International and the United Nations, are increasingly recognizing VerBeek, Association for a More Just Society (AJS) as a pioneer in achieving justice for the poor, said VerBeek, director of Calvin College's Justice Studies semester in Honduras and co-founder of the AJS, a Christian justice organization that focuses on Honduras. VerBeek recently spoke at Calvin College's January Series.
Dramatic drop in crime rate
AJS works in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, yet in the last eight years, has witnessed a drop of more than 75 percent in the neighborhood's crime rate, said VerBeek.
Crime and corruption was once so widespread in Honduras, people feared reporting the crimes they saw committed because it was difficult to know which police officers were crooked, said VerBeek. Without this knowledge, it was too risky to know which cops would let criminals know the names and addresses of witnesses, who in turn would go to their homes and intimate, harm or kill them before the lawbreakers could be identified in a line up and be brought to trial.
"In 2012, the United Nations said Honduras was on the verge of being a failed state," said VerBeek. "Violence, drug trafficking and corruption were rampant.
"By 2016, every one of these trends have changed."
Didn't know how to initially solve corruption
Seeking a more just society in Honduras required VerBeek to take stock of what conditions in the country were like.
"We couldn't trust the justice system that was there to protect us," said VerBeek, who arrived with his wife, Jo Ann, in Honduras in 1988 when about five percent of the population considered themselves to be Protestant or evangelical.
"It was a big issue but many didn't know how to solve it."
There was a time when VerBeek lacked solutions himself. He feared his staff might be harmed or killed if they got involved; knew there was a watered down justice system in Honduras; and believed any solutions were too hard and too political to achieve.
"Who wins? The corrupt and the criminals," said VerBeek.
Gradually, VerBeek and his AJS staff worked toward an equitable solution that didn't favor corrupt politicians and law enforcement officers.
It took courage and time — lots of courage and time — before appreciable differences were reached, VerBeek said, given the average lag time for a trial to start was 18 months after an arrest and a perpetrator were identified in a line up.
Confronted power abusers
In the end, it was all worth it, VerBeek said.
"We built bridges of trust and it worked," he said. "Violence in four years went down 88 percent. We confronted those abusing their power. Between 2005 and 2012, homicides have gone down 40 percent, saving 1,400 lives. People got mad but it didn't take long (to turn corruption around). Just three years."
Education system transformed
A similar transformation was reached in Honduras with its education system that spent 30 percent of its national budget on education, with little results to show for it.
The law, for instance, requires students to be educated 200 days in a calendar year but in fact they were often in school an average of 125 days.
Moreover, research showed that 26 percent of Honduran teachers – 15,000 of them — were on the payroll even though they did not show up to teach class, which VerBeek termed "ghost teachers."
As a result, Honduras scored academically 15th out of 15 Latin American countries, according to VerBeek.
A rare alliance between Protestants that included VerBeek's AJS, Catholics and World Vision and meetings with the president of Honduras changed the country's educational landscape.
Out with 'ghost teachers'
"We met with the president and got the minister of education fired and got a new one hired," VerBeek said. "From 2013 to 2015, Honduras now averages 218 days of classes. And the 'ghost teachers' went down from 26 percent to one percent."
As of October 2015, Honduras' scholastic ranking among Latin American countries jumped from 15th place to 10th place — an achievement reached in a three year span.
"There are 2.3 million kids in Honduran schools who are getting a much better education," said VerBeek. "I just feel so grateful for what God is doing through AJS."
VerBeek tempered his optimistic message with the reality that it takes time — often an average of 10 years — before real change can be noticed. The fact much of what was accomplished in Honduras was achieved in three years is the exception, not the norm.
Lest people assume the problem is primarily "over there" VerBeek encouraged his audience to understand the United States needs to take stock of itself, too.
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss., is a disquieting example of how "the neighbors don't trust the police and the police don't trust the neighbors," VerBeek said. "Maybe the U.S. could learn what we did in Honduras. Wouldn't that be cool?"
Reaching such praiseworthy goals means Christians especially need to ask themselves what's important.
Stop listening to culture's lie
"We've got to stop listening to the culture's lie that our safety and comfort is a top priority," said VerBeek. "For the life of Jesus and the prophets, the No. 1 priority was following God's call. That involved risk and making people mad.
"God calls us to enter places where violence and corruption have taken hold. And when we know God is calling us where there's violence and corruption, we need to show our children answering God's call is more important than maximizing our safety."