by Dave Chow, pastor of Killarney Park MB Church in Vancouver, BC and MCC Canada Board member .
In between sessions orienting us to the work of MCC in Colombia (Mencoldes & Justapaz) and Colombian MB church history (Elizabeth Miller), we ate delicious samplings of typical Colombian fare: soup, rice, and a beef brisket with plantain, along with a simple and elegant salad. I was struck by how the country is filled with contrasts as it is with beauty.
As we enjoyed walking through busy afternoon traffic and sidewalks in central Bogota, we saw sights of palm trees in public spaces with children and teens playing soccer in parks. It was a far cry from the hour-long morning commute to MCC’s offices in grid-lock traffic on pot-holed highways and diesel-filled air.
While we enjoyed the peace of a vibrant culture and colourful people, it was difficult to understand that this country is still in the throes of a 50 year-old civil war. The politics and religious situation is much more complex than one would guess upon first glance.
When young Colombians are taught the history of their country, it goes hand in hand with lessons in geography. Within the confines of a space slightly larger than the province of Ontario is a very diverse topography that has shaped the people and their history. River systems cross the country and divide valleys, while the Andes form an almost impenetrable north-south barrier between neighbouring provinces. Thick and wild jungles fill the land.
It’s amazing that the first Mennonite Brethren missionaries in the late 1940’s made it as far and wide as they did in such a short time. The land is rugged and difficult to traverse today – never mind in the 1940’s! Much travel was done on the rivers in boats. Just after the MB mission began in earnest, a bloody civil war erupted, claiming over 200,000 lives and displacing more than one million people.
Much of the conflict was, and continues to be over land that holds the vast wealth and resources of Colombia. It was in this context that the MB church was born, through the establishment of medical clinics and schools. The local communities saw a holistic gospel presented, ministering to the practical needs of people as well as their spiritual needs.
Fast forward to today, and the needs of the people have not changed – they have only intensified. With the conflict between government forces, and factions of armed forces, there continues to be a growing number of victims. Colombia is ranked first in the world for number of people displaced (over five-ten million people), due to the violence. Young adults are pressed into military service, and subsistence farmers risk death or incarceration by growing coca in order to make enough money to put food on the table.
This is where MCC and its partnering agencies (Mencoldes and Justapaz) come in – only, they haven’t just recently arrived. Due to the longstanding history of Mennonite Brethren presence and ministry of coming alongside the marginalized and the most vulnerable, the government recognizes the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite contribution to community development and to their legacy of being non-partisan peace-builders. Reputation goes a long way.
But it is not safe and simple work. Working in concert with MCC, Justapaz works for peace and justice by non-violent means. Justice can mean fighting for land claims illegally taken by warlords, or standing up to the judiciary with youth who oppose mandatory military service. In the recent past, Justapaz workers collected information on Protestant victims of the armed conflict, implicating government forces as aggressors. Notably, break-ins at the Justapaz offices led to the theft of computers containing information documenting human rights abuses experienced by Colombian Protestants, putting those who gave testimony at risk. Even today Justapaz staff suspect their offices are being monitored.
As an arm of the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite churches, these organizations working for peace and justice through non-violent means continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.
Their existence has been shaped by the history of the country and its MB mission heritage, and along with the church, speak to a country in need of hope and a future.