Experiencing the Delegation from the Other Side

Rebekah Sears, MCC Colombia (Policy and Education)

Spring seems to be “Delegation Season” with MCC in Colombia with the three delegations planned for 2013 scheduled from March to June. Organizing all of the nit picky details takes much time and energy, and can be very overwhelming and frustrating at times.

Canadian MB group in front of the MCC office in Bogotá.

Canadian MB group in front of the MCC office in Bogotá.

But the real reward of this work shines through when the delegations are actually here in Colombia – especially with a group like these Mennonite Brethren pastors and leaders from Canada.

This has been the fourth delegation to visit Colombia and our partners’ work in the year and a month since I started my work in the MCC Colombia office. And we were all so impressed with the level of engagement and the determination on the part of delegates to learn about Colombia while building connections with Colombian Mennonite Brethren.

Early on, one of my colleagues asked me how it was going. “Well,” I said, “the only problem I can see right now is that group members are asking so many questions and engaging in the topics so much that we’re never able to stick directly to the schedule. We’re always running behind,” smiling, “But that’s a great ‘problem’ to have!”

A big part of my job is to connect visiting groups, mostly from Canada and the U.S., but also from other Latin American countries, to Colombians: MCC partner organizations, pastors and church representatives, and our friends. I love watching people build relationships and find common ground across cultures and national boundaries.

The Canadian group doubled in size as Colombian MB leaders and Colombian MCCers joined them. Here, we are visiting a MB / MCC community fish raising project.

The Canadian group doubled in size as Colombian MB leaders and MCCers joined them. Here we visit a MB/MCC community fish raising project.

From day one, delegates were asking each other, and the Colombians they were encountering, the tough questions – looking to discover Canada’s connections, both good and bad, to Colombia, as well as thinking constantly about how they could encourage and receive encouragement from our Colombian brothers and sisters in Christ.

This occurred in all spaces of the delegation as Colombians from across the country joined the group and walked along side them to visit various churches and projects.

And this was also evident in all places of the delegation – from the MCC office and the offices of MCC’s principle partners in Bogota, to the host family homes, to the slums of Cazucá just outside of the city and finally to the churches and communities along the San Juan River in Chocó.

As we all know, after a delegation like this, life can’t help but start up again, as normal. Family, church and work commitments take over and it would be impossible to maintain the same energy for promoting the work in Colombia.

DSC06893But I am confident the connections made and the stories shared, on this blog and in other spaces, will last a long time and will have a lasting impact on those involved.

So, on behalf of the MCC team and our Colombian friends and colleagues we want to thank this group of 9 people for taking time out of their lives to walk with us in Colombia for a time, and be open and willing to build connections and relationships. The enthusiasm and dedication were an inspiration to our team here in Colombia, as many of the reflections have been an encouragement to folks following along at home in Canada.

Gracias y Dios les bendiga! (Thanks and God bless you all!)

The author, apparently directing music on the bus! :-)

The author, apparently directing music on the bus! :-)

Clear and Present Danger: Day 10, post 12

By Ken Peters, pastor of Saanich Community Church (M.B.), near Victoria BC;               also on behalf of Gerald Hildebrand, Pastor of McIvor Avenue M.B. Church, Winnipeg,    and David Esau, pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship (MB) in Vancouver, BC

It is our last full day in Bogotá on the Colombia Learning Tour 2013; a country popularly described in Tom Clancy’s novel as a place of “Clear and Present Danger.”

marketA morning of debrief and strategic planning for our return to Canada will be followed by a few hours this afternoon in the City’s markets; a celebratory cap to an exhausting but exhilarating twelve days.

Twelve days is a fair amount of time to acquire a read on people and at this juncture of our journey, a fitting disclosure is appropriate.  The disclosure pertains to our sisters and brothers working in the MCC Colombia office, the Mennonite World Conference office and the network agencies personnel.

I speak confidently on behalf of the nine-person Canadian delegation that “our” MCC personnel, to a person, exhibit an exemplary demonstration of faithfulness to Jesus Christ IMG_9852and the Gospel in their professional responsibilities as well as their personal spirituality that has been infused into everything we have done on this trip.

We heard Colombian Church leaders comment repeatedly of MCC’s integral role in their church-planting, community building and leadership development efforts.

Being an Anabaptist follower of Jesus takes on accent and inflection in this environment.  I remember years ago living in Fresno for three years that that American experience heightened my awareness of what it meant to be Canadian.

For me this trip to Colombia has heightened my awareness of what it means to be an Anabaptist.

There are distinct characteristics of Anabaptism (I will not attempt to list them all here) that shine in this context.  Namely, there have been two that have surfaced for me:

  • a Christocentric orientation to life that refuses to separate theology/confession from one’s incarnational presence;
  • and second, an obstinate refusal, an inability to distance the authority of the Word of God from everyday decision-making in the face of state-sanctioned or state-ignored violence.

In my years of pastoral ministry within the Canadian MB family, including my time serving on the Board of Faith and Life, I came across those who freely offered criticism of MCC, its programs and personnel.  Accusations and complaints were volleyed at safe distance from real life interaction.  MCC has consistently turned the cheek and engaged critique with an open heart to act in concert with MB concerns.

In our life and work we often search out and stumble upon people and organizations that inspire us – we are drawn to admire and even more to emulate them.  In Colombia we found examples to model our own life after: to follow them as they follow Christ.

So I invite both MCC Canada and the Canadian Conference of MB Churches in Canada to consider an opportunity to pattern our institutional relationships after what we have observed in Colombia.  Christ remains the centre around which all relationships flow.  Let us move towards a level of cooperation and intimate synergy witnessed in Colombia.

Naive Wandering: Day 8, post 11

By Gerald Hildebrand, Pastor – McIvor Avenue M.B. Church, Winnipeg

The regional and national Colombian M.B. Church leaders gathered at the Jerusalem M.B. Church in Istmina, Chocó at the the time that our Canadian contingent visited Chocó. Istmina is the location of the oldest Mennonite Brethren church in Colombia, founded in 1946.

IMG_9433There appears to be a renewed commitment of the urban church leaders to walk more closely with the oft-forgotten Chocoan Christians. One Cali pastor commented that it was her personal desire to vitalize the relationship and engagement with our brothers and sisters.

Why is this so important?

Washing clothes and bathing in river polluted by mega-mining.

Washing clothes and bathing in river polluted by mega-mining.

It is evident that the Chocoan people feel marginalized – geographically, politically, socially, economically and religiously. They have experienced the terror of displacement, the environmental destruction of their lands and rivers through abusive resource extraction practices, the near absence of social services, the indignity of poverty and isolation from Christian sisters and brothers.

Yet, their churches are filled with hopeful, motivated people who love God and each other. Although most Chocoans have never have traveled outside of their immediate community, they long for a vital connection with the global church.

Zion MB congregationThey feel neglected and forgotten.

Some of the first missionaries to Colombia came from Saskatchewan Canada, yet the Chocoan churches have not experienced a visit from Canadian M.B. church leaders in some 20 years, even years before the last expatriate M.B. missionaries left Cali in 1998.

They lament this loss of relationship. We were humbled by the warm welcome we received and the keen interest they expressed in our lives.

IMG_1175It was late afternoon when I, together with two other team members, naively wandered down Istmina’s Main Street. Only a half block from our hotel, we set out to view the merchandise from wide assortment of small shops that crowded both sides of the narrow street.

Apparently we wandered too far, crossing the invisible line into territory that was unsafe for tall, pale foreigners. We had passed the first foot bridge and entered into a sector where the para-militaries were known to live.

Unaware to us, several M.B. Church members spotted us and they sounded the alert through their Christian network. The appearance of our camera only heightened their discomfort. In their concern for our safety and well-being, they contacted a Jerusalem M.B. Church member, who works in the neighbourhood. He quickly located us and, without alarm, casually escorted us back into safer territory.

MB Pastor Rutilio with author Gerald Hildebrand

MB Pastor Rutilio Rivas, Regional Chair of the Chocó MB churches, with author Gerald Hildebrand

We are often naively unaware of the danger we may be in when we wander in isolation from relationships with our global sisters and brothers. They desire relationship with us, but in our independence we are ignorant of the protective presence they afford. Suffering people are often more aware of the need for connection with the global community of believers.

We also need our global sisters and brothers to help us understand what it means to be devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We can’t do this alone. We are part of their Christian family, as they are of ours.

Weaving Hope: Day 7, post 10

By Dan Siebert, Saskatchewan farmer and member of MB Church at Main Centre

 and David Esau, pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship (MB) in BC

boat2This morning we left Istmina by boat, heading through the jungle on the San Juan River to a place where the Mennonite Brethren churches have partnered with MCC in an exciting agricultural and community development venture.

What you need to know is that it’s virtually impossible to make a living as an honest campesino (small-scale, subsistence farmer) in Chocó.  While years ago growing coca (for cocaine) was localized to mainly one area in Colombia that is no longer the case.

When the Colombian and USA governments decided to take care of the problem with aerial spraying, coca growing spread throughout the country, especially to the isolated jungle areas of Chocó where a number of our MB churches are located.

IMG_9609Honest farmers in the church suddenly found themselves unable to survive due to the soaring cost of living; those growing coca inflated the cost of most goods because they had extra money and because growing food crops went down.

Your basic options: grow fruit that sells for $0.35/kg or coca that sells for $1000.00/kg.

What’s an honest farmer to do?

MB land with rice processing plant in background.

MB land with rice processing plant in background.

Enter project “Weaving Hope”.

As we climb out of the boat and onto the 3.5 hectare parcel of land, the first thing we see is a rice processing plant built on the tailings of a spent gold mine.  It looks more like a field of gravel than a field of dreams.

But on this plot of land the MB churches and MCC are weaving hope of a value added agricultural project.  By processing the rice for market themselves, the local farmers are able to sell directly to consumers.

Rice processing machine

Rice processing machine

This project, however, almost didn’t happen.  There were numerous obstacles along the way such as buying the land, getting power to the facility, and inspection approval.

But the biggest hurdle along the way was the local para-military group demanding money for protection – a security payment.  Known as a “vaccine”, every Colombian knows this is code language for “give us a significant cut.”

After much prayer, the key church leaders went to meet with the para-military commander. They underlined that this project was owned and operated by and for the community.  As leaders of MB churches they repeatedly emphasized how they could not and would not support any armed group, period.

Pastor Rutilio said “Mennonite churches have been committed to nonviolence and peace-building for centuries.  We will not support any armed groups, not even the State Armed Forces.… We will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”

Pastor Rutilio telling us the story of confronting the para-military commander.

Pastor Rutilio telling us the story of confronting the para-military commander.

After tense negotiations broke off, the pastors prayed yet again. 15 minutes later they received a call from “the boss” that they and the community were free to proceed with their project.  “Thanks be to God!”

In addition to the rice processing plant, we toured their small fish farm and their growing nursery of cacao trees (for coco/chocolate) that will be transplanted on farms in local communities.

With 80% of the beneficiaries being outside of the church, the MB churches and MCC are weaving hope for honest farmers in the Chocó.

The Lord Reigns in Istmina: Day 6, post 9

By Ken Peters, Pastor of Saanich Community Church (MB), near Victoria, British Columbia

istmina streetThis evening we shlopped through wet muddy streets, our pathway illumined by the strobe of bouncing headlights from motorcycles and moto-ratones (motor-mice), the small three wheel taxis that weave their way through the alleys with grace and agility.

Did I mention it’s pouring out? Rain – beautiful really, taking the edge off the humidity and heat.

We are en route to Celia’s and Carolina’s, MCC SEED workers here in the Chocó; they are hosting us this evening in their apartment.  They’ve prepared for us a small feast of croissant, cold cuts, cheese, fresh papaya, coconut and pear.  But first we have some debriefing to do and how very important these moments are.

We are reconvening from a day of ministry in the area churches.  When I say “we”, I mean our Canadian MB delegation of nine has been enhanced by:

  • IMG_9326MCC staff from the Bogota’ office,
  • Colombian MB pastors,
  • Mennonite World Conference staff and
  • MCC SEED workers from the Chocó’.

At times, we are up to 18 people – strong, gifted, passionate followers of Jesus.  We are fast becoming good friends.

Zion MB congregation

Zion MB church

We listened to the humour of translation faux pauxs, stories of Chocóan worship practice: boisterous singing, perseverance in prayer and long sermons.  A number of us preached one-hour messages with translation.  Others provided testimonies to complement the sermons.

Zion MB church

Zion MB church

A few of the churches in the outlying regions were only accessible through rough roads.  Vehicles broke down.  Motorcycles were dispatched in relief but not before one group of four had to walk down jungle paths in an area where armed combatants have been known to disappear the vulnerable.

Three different ministry groups spoke of the sobering reality of life in the villages:

  • dilapidated housing,
  • extreme poverty,
  • ecological devastation of pristine jungles and polluted rivers clogged with toxins – all from Canadian Mining firms operating in the area.
Washing clothes and bathing in polluted river

Washing clothes and bathing in polluted river

Some churches are the residue of displaced communities forced out by guerrilla and paramilitary operations linked to the mining; others, internally displaced and fearful fractions of families whose fathers’ and sons’ bones litter the jungle floor.

Any one of these stories is enough to break the heart.  When piled up on each other in one sitting it shatters what’s left.

To comprehend our complicity as a Canadian in these people’s misery is a hard reality to accept. The last word, however, is not despair but praise.

To suggest the Chocóan MBs are resilient is an understatement.  Their creativity and hope enables them to eke out lives of dignity contrary to all powers working against them.

Jerusalén MB church in Istmina, founded in 1946

Jerusalén MB church in Istmina, founded in 1946

Here in the city of Istmina, David Esau and I preached to a church of 200 faithful who have organized a plethora of social programs in the void of government support.  It is one of 10 MB churches in the area with six more church plants along the way serving 1400 people.

God has graced these saints with courage, strength, faith and vision that some Canadians can only dream about.  It is pouring in Istmina and it is God who reigns. 

Know Hope In Colombia: Day 4-6, post 8

david esauBy David Esau, pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship (MB) in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia

No, it’s not a typo. 

And if you could hear what we have heard, seen what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched, you would know hope in Colombia too.

You may not know much about Colombia, but from what you have heard and seen from a distance, chances are you’d know there is coffee in Colombia (though you’d probably not know there’s a coffee strike in Colombia—my luck, eh!).

You’d know Colombia is a major source of drugs. And you’d know there’s been war and violence in Colombia for a long time (50 years long).

But hope in Colombia? 

Chocó river polluted by mega-mining.

Chocó river polluted by mega-mining.

Ask one of the millions of people displaced by the violence, the war on drugs, or by any of the ecological disasters caused by many of the large scale foreign mining companies, and many will tell you, “There’s no hope in Colombia, especially in Colombia’s poorest province of Chocó.”

While in Chocó we were enjoying Colombian hospitality at the Mennonite Brethren church in Istmina.  A shy small humble looking man sat down at our table to join us.  With help from Bekah, our MCC guide and translator, we exchanged basic facts and pleasantries.

But somewhere along the way we realized we had stumbled into a story, the very personal story of one of those millions of “internally displaced people” that we had heard about in the statistics.

Suddenly, the “statistic” had a name and face - Jose.  Jose graciously allowed us to probe the details of his recent past.

Less than three years ago, a paramilitary group arrived in his village of Chocó, holding him and the 73 families in the community hostage in the centre of the village.  For two days they endured the constant threat of death, accused of “supporting” a different paramilitary group.

With their lives hanging in the balance, a brave brother from his church, Pedro, challenged their captors to release them, underlining his community’s innocence, and calling for their release.

Bathing and doing laundry in a Chocó river, polluted by mega-mining.

Bathing and doing laundry in a Chocó river, polluted by mega-mining.

Miraculously they were released, but had to flee with only the clothes on their back and shouts from their captors, “Don’t come back or you will be killed.”

As they fled along the river on a 15 km journey to the town of Pie de Pepe, they were caught for a time in a crossfire with another paramilitary group. “But thanks be to God,” says Jose, “no one was killed.”

They finally arrived in the neighboring village, terrified and homeless.

But hopeless? No, they soon discovered they were not hopeless. 

Their sister church in the village took all of the displaced community in (73 families of 6-8 people per family) and helped them start rebuilding their lives.  

With the gift of work and the caring of Christian people, he and his community are finding hope and healing in Colombia.

As Jose says with a big smile on his face, “Thanks be to God.”

Chocó MB church leaders meeting at the Jerusalem MB church in Istmina - the first MB church plant in Chocó, formed in 1946.

Chocó MB church leaders meeting at the Jerusalem MB church in Istmina – the first MB church plant in Chocó, formed in 1946.

My heart is full: Day 4-5, post 7

by Carol Siebert, MB Church Main Centre, Saskatchewan

We have been in the Chocó Region now since Friday morning, Mar. 8.  It was difficult to bid farewell to our very gracious hostess in Bogota that morning.  Our ride came at 4:30 am. in order to catch the early flight at 6:30. A flat tire on a taxi and missing ID card added to the drama of the morning and challenge of arriving at the scheduled time!

Our flight over the Andes was smooth and breathtaking and my thoughts went to the first missionaries who came here. They were from my home province of Saskatchewan and I remember hearing stories in church about the work here in the Chocó. I was deeply impacted by the tragic plane crash that killed the Dyck’s on their flight from Cali back to
Istmina.

Today on our walk through the town we passed the building which housed the first missionaries as well as a medical clinic and school. Earlier in the day we had met pastors from the region- the fruit of those first missionaries.  The churches and pastors here continue to reach out to the community caring for people in a wholistic way as those first missionaries had done.

I am overwhelmed, humbled, honored and privileged to be here.   My heart is full.

by Dan Siebert, farmer, from the MB Church at Main Centre, Sk. Canada

The events of each day have exceeded my expectations and today that happened before breakfast was over.

Yesterday we caught an early flight from Bogota to Quibdó, the capital of the Department of Chocó which is home to between 150,000 to 200,000 of the 460,000 people in the Chocó. We were graciously received by the pastors and people of the MB church there and given a context of the region and walking tour of part of the city. Then we took a two hour bus ride to Istmina, where missionaries arrived from Canada in 1946 and established the first MB church in the region.

This gets me to Saturday breakfast in the Iglesia Jerusalén MB where we dined with a pastor and heard his story- one of violence and hope and how the church is being a witness to both victims and offenders. In these situations MCC partners with the churches to provide psycho/social counselling and help address resettlement needs.

It was a blessing to meet with pastors from all over Colombia, worship with them, and hear of their joys and struggles. It is amazing to see and hear how God’s people are being salt and light – both which enhance their object. The people are showing Jesus to the world.