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! 🙂

Hope in Cazucá: Day 3, post 5

by Gerald Hildebrand, Pastor of McIvor Avenue M.B. Church, Winnipeg

For everyone of us there may be an occasional opportunity to encounter people who live out their faith in Jesus Christ in such a compelling manor, that we are challenged to evaluatively reflect on our own relationship with God and ask, “what is God calling me to and do I have the courage to live out that calling?”

Neighbourhood around MB church in Cazucâ

Neighbourhood around MB church in Cazucâ

This took place as we experienced the hospitality of David and Marina Bonilla, Mennonite Brethren church planters and pastors in Cazucá, a shantytown on the southern border of Bogotá and Soacha. It is estimated that 300,000 people, the majority displaced from throughout Colombia, inhabit the 30 neighbourhoods of this “unofficial” mountainside city, plagued with deeply-rooted violence and poverty.

davidDavid commented that his family “prepped” him for a professional upper middle-class life. But 10 years ago he felt the call of God to serve in this forsaken community. Church leaders told him he was crazy to consider this. Together with Marina (a trained and certified teacher), they have moved into the neighbourhood to incarnate a Christian ministry that is transforming the community.

Their motivation comes from the words of Philippians 2, “You must have the same attitude that Jesus had … he humbled himself in obedience to God.” David said, “I have to be a Christian. Many people go to church and behave well … but to be a Christian is to imitate Christ.”

Their ministry began when they assisted a woman who was dying of cancer. They helped rebuild her house. Miraculously she went into remission; and little did they know of her connection and influence in the community. From their practical, lived out faith they were given opportunity to enter the life and trust of the broader community, rebuilding the lives and homes of many who have experienced forced displacement due to armed conflict, financial hardship or regulated relocation resulting from ‘development’ projects throughout the country.



Marina leads community women in running an elementary school up to grade 1. They have also established a sewing program for women. David serves as a community pastor and conciliator, mediating between warring gangs and leading people to consider another way – the way of Jesus. He is called “teacher.”

group with david neighbourhoodDavid led our group on a walk through part of one community, crossing at least 6 “invisible lines” that mark areas controlled by competing factions. It was apparent from his encounters with the people on the dusty roads that he was trusted.

Marina said, “God has been good to allow us to be here. God does miracles as people open their lives and homes to Jesus. I’m happy to be here!” It is nothing less than the power of God that has kept this family alive in the face of overwhelming community violence and conflict.

david marina childrenIt is estimated that 250 NGOs operate in this transitional community. But none of the representatives live here — except for David, Marina and their two small children (and two MCC SEED program volunteers)! It has become their home where they provide a Spirit-filled place for people to find a spiritual home, and be family to a displaced and desperate people.

I/we were deeply moved (and for many of us to tears) by what we experienced in this holy visit with these saints. David and Marina exemplify a life that is devoted to listening to and following Jesus. Lord have mercy upon them and upon us all.

Further reflections on MBs in Cazucá: Day 3, post 6

By Joe Wiebe, member of Grantham MB church and professor at McMaster University, both in Ontario

Every morning a group of us pile into a van that drives us to the MCC office. Every morning people laugh in disbelief at the way traffic flows: steadily moving bumper to bumper through streets with paved lines that act, at most, as suggestions. A Colombian woman describes this movement as guided by relationships rather than as organized by rules. In Colombia, relationships are not mediated by law. I know this from reading articles, but in the van I feel it churning my stomach.

Cazucá road close to MB church

Cazucá road close to MB church

My stomach is knotted again going to Cazucá, a shantytown in Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá. We have been invited by David and his wife Marina to visit them at their Mennonite Brethren church. Other churches and NGOs are active in and around Cazucá, but only David and Marina live there. We wait at the bottom of the hill for David to accompany us for the last quarter mile. The weather is comfortable and the church is close but we wait without explanation. Later we are told that the neighbourhood is dissected by invisible lines that mark gang territories, the results of crossing which are unclear. Presently, the silence is thick – enough to know that things here are serious.

childrenThe entrance to the church opens onto a patio teeming with playing children. They are gorgeous. The tin roof vibrates with their animation and we revel in it, basking in their laughter. They play with broken toys. One child scales the ground doing an army crawl. He pretends he´s playing with an object that explodes in his hands. We’re told these are the younger kids; the older ones play later so they “don’t hit” the younger ones. This, of course, is common to all children. But here it feels like a long shadow; I know the statistics of how these children will end up, and I’m terrified.

davidDavid guides us through the labyrinthine structure to the sanctuary. There are several levels we go through that contain various rooms for different projects: a sewing room for women to make clothes; schoolrooms for the children; one room has a few computers and a keyboard. David tells us how they came to be in Cazucá for the past ten years. It all centers on a local woman whose body was riddled with cancer; her husband abandoned her in fear of catching it. David read the bible with her, and her neighbours started noticing his recurring presence. No other pastors come here, and they are perplexed. They tell him he’s crazy. Everyone tells him and Marina they’re crazy. David retorts, “It’s by being crazy we built all of this.”



The craziness of Colombia itself is palpable, but difficult to describe – hence we tell stories. David tells us about the presence of the paramilitaries (paras) that brings both violence and protection; Marina informs us about the women whose husbands have been killed (most likely by the paras) and must work from 3AM – 10PM, leaving their children either on the streets to be recruited by gangs or locked in their houses getting so hungry they eat toothpaste. It is only because of the paras´ protection that the church can function, but the law they bring is through selective assassinations that David is trying to stop.

When one of the MCC SEED workers describes the violence – rape, murder, thieving, drug trafficking – David shrugs and shakes his head. It’s crazy. And yet David does not have the world-weariness you see in pastors burnt out by tiresome demands of fickle congregations in Canada. He is tenacious and, well, attractive – both his laughter and his tears are infectious. The source of his virtues is his particular incarnation of Colombian craziness – I might put it more theologically by calling it the Holy Spirit (which it is), but that doesn’t explain anything beyond the stories he tells.

The difficulty is that we often say something is crazy as a gasp of exasperation, a release of tension that is supposed to lead to an explanation, an order or underlying reason for the way things are. Reason fails in Colombia; its reality is contained in the fraught silence of the potential violence that everyone knows is hovering invisibly overhead waiting to be given bodily form – present in the way “para” functions in the word “paranormal.”

walking down the roadOur tour of Cazucá can be given a sequential order: the hanging tree where people are executed, the brown door behind which drugs are trafficked, the rose garden, the dogs barking, the blood splattered in the dirt, the resourceful families, the smiles and greetings, the man with scars on his face, the woman whose stew David describes as “finger licking good.”

What connects them? Each is its own rorschach test: make of it what you will. For a tourist such as myself to say that there is a dignity and happiness in the people we meet (which Marina insists upon) that blots out the despair and redeems the gut-wrenching tales would be patronizing at best.

What I can say is that David and Marina have embraced the insanity by refusing to despair in a world in which communal life is not organized by laws. He does not turn to the government or to violence to make sense of life or enforce order; instead he forms relationships that exceed all social (and legal?) boundaries. In the silence and irrationality that marks reality in Colombia, David and Marina are immersed in a profound inter-involvement with both marginal and powerful lives.

group inside david marinaDavid informs us that people in the community do not go to him and Marina out of guilt or shame but because they are looking for a new life, an encounter with God.

As a Canadian irrevocably involved in an economy that enables the poverty Cazucá is mired in, the temptation to react to these horrific stories is one of guilt and shame. Indeed, during our time together there is a confession followed by tears.

But to feel only guilt and shame would not recognize, and therefore forestall participation in, the complex craziness that built an MB church in a place all others flee after sunset. It would give our transgressions the last word. Like Colombia, we are free from the law, which gives both love and hate incomprehensible fertility.

And so David and Marina say that while resources are needed, what is of utmost importance is that we pray for them. Their lives and mission are sustained in part by our encounters with God, by a continual search for a new life radically present to our community. This is not sentimental or simplistic; it should make our stomachs churn. For if our churches are not organized by laws (rules that tell us who our friends are, who we can worship with, who we listen to) then they are guided by relationships with our communities, which is crazy.

Colombia Mennonite Brethren invite Canadian MBs to visit

Dear Mennonite Brethren sisters and brothers in Canada:

1_CésarGarcía_byBRBGreetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! And greetings from Mennonite World Conference offices in Bogotá Colombia where I, César Garcia, serve as General Secretary.

I write to you, leaders of our Mennonite Brethren church in Canada, with a special invitation to join me on a Mennonite Central Committee Canada Learning Tour to Colombia, my home country where my family and I now live after completing our seminary studies at the MB seminary in Fresno, California.

From March 4-15, 2013, we will walk with Colombian Mennonite Brethren church leaders, both in the capital city of Bogotá and in the province of Chocó. I am convinced that, hearing their stories of planting churches and sharing the gospel in contexts of poverty, injustice Tim_ColombiaLT_07_064 trimmed3and conflict, will inspire us to greater faithfulness to Jesus’ good news.

In Bogotá, we have a special invitation from MB Pastor David Bonilla and his wife Marina to visit them in a squatters’ slum they call home, where they have been church planting and sharing the good news of Jesus for the past eight years.

In the province of Chocó, we have a special invitation from MB Pastor Rutilio Rivas to come and hear about his congregations’ struggles to be faithful to Colombia - Pastor RutilioChrist’s gospel in a context of poverty and injustice due to massive foreign mining operations. He recently wrote, asking Christians in Canada to walk with them in discernment as they seek to respond with a gospel message to extortion, exploitation, and displacement by illegal armed groups.

Will you join me? Together we will all be inspired to greater faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Christ, César

October 27, 2012