Shaped by a history of violence: Day 2, post 4

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.

Dinner, prepared by Vilma, MCC staff

Dinner, prepared by Vilma, MCC staff

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.

Elizabeth Miller, MCCer and historian of Colombia MBs

Elizabeth Miller, MCCer, Colombia MB historian

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.

Around the Justapaz table

Around the Justapaz 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.

Justapaz staff

Justapaz staff

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.

David C inviting MB pastor Liliana to the dinner table.

David C inviting MB pastor Liliana to the dinner table.

Justapaz’s web-site

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.

One size doesn’t fit all… Day 2, post 3

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

We’re only at the end of day two in Bogotá, and already the lessons learned are filling all available room in my brain. It’s getting a little bit crowded in there (at the rate we’re going, I may need to take out a lease on some additional mental space!).

With every encounter, our Anabaptist brothers and sisters are weaving a rich tapestry of Colombia’s political, social, and religious realities. From all that we’ve heard there are many colourful, dangling threads to unspool, but if you’ll permit me to tug on just one of these for a moment…

Mencoldes tableThis morning we had the privilege of hearing about the truly impressive and holistic work of Mencoldes and Justapaz—the development, and justice and peace organizations of the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Churches in Colombia. These meetings gave us plenty of food for mental chewing (and, thanks to Colombian hospitality and culinary skills, a lot of delicious food for literal chewing as well!).

In our encounter with these partners, we learned about Mencoldes’ tireless work to foster social transformation amongst the country’s most vulnerable—tackling human rights issues, supporting internally displaced peoples, providing psycho-social support for victims of trauma, delivering micro-credit to communities in need, engaging in peace teaching, etc. Justapaz, with a focus on transformative advocacy, diligently documents individual stories of those victimized by violence and human rights abuses, provides education and advocacy on conscientious objection to obligatory military service, and so on.

Even this lengthy list gives short shrift to the breath-taking expansiveness of their work. It barely scratches the surface, really. And the breadth of their projects and ministries is undergirded by the incredible depth of their Anabaptist faith, which motivates, guides, and sustains.

We were swimming in information, but to my listening ears a common thread ran throughout much of our dialogue and discussion: the importance of context, of giving a voice to local stories, experiences, and realities.

Mencoldes staff

Mencoldes staff

When we asked Mencoldes and Justapaz staff for more insight into specific socio-political issues, they would respond with, “well, it’s impossible to generalize” or, “that depends on where in Colombia we are speaking about.” When we wanted clarification, they provided nuance. As Mencoldes’ staff stressed, they don’t take a “one size fits all” approach to their work. Rather, each project, every initiative, must take into careful consideration the rich diversity of Colombia’s peoples and the distinctiveness of local and regional dynamics.

Their work, in other words, is both shaping, and is shaped by, the particularities of Colombian reality. This, they said, is what it means to incarnate the holistic gospel of Jesus.

Our faith journeys are like this. They are lived realities, walked within the context of our unique personal, communal, national, and even global stories. In Colombia, this means wrestling with faith in a context where struggle is no stranger—where human rights abuses are systemic, economic inequality abounds, and various government forces, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups create devastating insecurity and displace Colombians in mind-boggling numbers.

Us with Mencoldes staff

Us with Mencoldes staff

As we heard from our history lesson on the Colombian Mennonite Brethren this afternoon, the theological orientation and peace practices of the churches bear the mark of these pressing socio-political realities. By necessity, churches are responding in creative, Spirit-led ways to the particularly tense circumstances in which they find themselves—tensions that, given my own realities in Canada, I can only ponder, reflect on, and theorize about.

The stories of Colombia’s churches in action have already struck me as a powerful illustration of what it means to be incarnational communities who live faithfully, and with authenticity, in the midst of the gritty problems and perplexities of life.

And it’s only day two…