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.

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.

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

Marina

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.”

Marina

Marina

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.

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.

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…