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Interview: Ivan Monzon, missionary

18 May 2018

‘Young people respond when a church opens its doors with love’

Margaret Chandler/Tearfund

After more than 12 years working with young people in Latin America and the Caribbean, I concluded that youth ministry is not only about hosting youth services and events at churches — it’s about saving young lives from violence, drugs, and suicide.

I started a programme in 2016 in Guatemala’s cities, where crime rates are very high, working with local churches to try and stop young people from being killed in the violence.

I want to make churches aware of how to do preventative work with young people living in urban slums. God is lifting churches taking this risky step with us, not just opening the church for some occasional community service, but fishing for fishes where they really live.

I founded the programme with no funding, under the institutional support of the Doulos Foundation. We started with prayer support from more than 700 believers and pastors from different churches worldwide, and that’s how God opened some doors.

We support 150 partial scholarships for urban youth living in poverty, and who are at risk, and we are trying to better understand the challenges. We’ve trained more than 300 church leaders in violence-prevention, risk-detection, healing, counselling, and effective youth ministry. And we support other government organisations and Christian NGOs to do more effective work in preventing violence.

I was raised in a poor neighbourhood in Guatemala City. I decided to study psychology at the public university after my family was seriously affected by the internal armed conflict. I worked as a youth pastor, and served with a faith-based organisation in Haiti. That’s where God confirmed in me my calling to work with urban youth. It was a long path for me to discover this calling.

The most amazing thing I discovered isn’t the level of violence young people suffer, but the capacity of resilience they have in the middle of these “urban wars”. When you see a teenager, abandoned by his or her father, with a sick mother, living in an informal house without basic services, seldom eating twice a day, hardly attending school with only casual work for income, perhaps suffering physical or sexual violence, or suffering bullying because of their Mayan background, it’s not difficult to understand why they have anger-management problems or depression, are on the edge of suicide, or getting involved in gangs and drug-taking. What’s surprising is how these same young people respond when they start to interact with someone who really cares about them, and how they change from the inside when a church close to them opens its doors with love.

Sadly, some churches in Guatemala are just focused on their planned events and the people that attend formal church services. They’re used to seeing missions as very far-away adventures.

Studying psychology helped me to understand, in a practical manner, how to work away from violent patterns, trauma, and adverse experiences. I’ve had the opportunity to give and supervise therapy for more than 100 people at risk over the past two years. I don’t focus only on clinical psychology, but also on the social understanding of attitudes, values, beliefs, and social systems in the Church and the community.

Even though I’m not a Quaker but, rather, an Evangelical Christian, during my time in Haiti I worked with Quakers, and discovered the values and practices of peace-building and justice of Quakers worldwide. I worked with American Friends Service Committee creating trauma-healing groups and local peace networks in internally displaced persons’ camps, where there were more than 15,000 people living in very poor conditions. Their principles of non-violence will be with me for the rest of my life.

The roots of violence here come from a culture of authoritarianism and corruption. From the Spanish colonies to the military governments in the 20th century, Guatemala has suffered political violence, and this created systems — including in the Churches — that are based more on behavioural and social control than on spiritual healing and reconciliation. This is a sad legacy that still needs to be transformed. If you ask me how we can do this, I’d say by going back to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his deep and simple teachings about loving our neighbours.

I learned about the gospel through my grandparents, but my first spiritual moment of awareness was when I was seven years old, in a summer camp at my Presbyterian school. There, I understood the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for me personally, and my need of redemption.

My neighbourhood in Guatemala City started to change because of criminal violence in the 1980s. My father was an atheist, and my mother was the daughter of an ex-pastor who had abandoned his family, leaving behind a long list of tragic consequences. I was born in one of the neighbourhoods where some of the first gangs started to appear in Guatemala City. I watched the war between gangs, and between gangs and the police, from the window of my old house on several nights.

In the middle of the internal armed conflict, I witnessed the weak transition into a pseudo-democratic system in a very fragile economy where drug cartels started to control the neighbourhoods.

My family had a middle-class background, but they became poor in the ’80s after a series of violent incidents, compounded by the effects of an earthquake, alcohol dependence, my mother’s cancer, family violence, imprisonment, and political repression.

My parents, despite their problems, were very sensitive and kind with me, and they stimulated my creativity and sense of hope. This encouraged me to take a different way, attending my local church, receiving counselling and being involved in youth groups; so God was able to make a difference in my story.

Now, I’m married to a wonderful missionary child, and I have a stable family with four kids. They’re great travellers, and they have missionary hearts as well.

We have a piano at home, and we enjoy playing music, singing, cooking, and doing fun things together. My kids love arts, sports, food, and travelling, and we have a very social life with our supportive community and friends.

People lying make me angry.

I’m happiest when I see teenagers full of thankfulness and recovering their dreams.

I pray most for integrity. I want God to help me to keep my integrity and coherence with his call.

If I was locked in a church, I’d love to spend a few hours talking with Hegel.

Ivan Monzon was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. He is one of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals: people from around the world who are aspiring to live like Jesus in their communities.


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