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. 

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.

See 
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.