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.

Finding Gold in Colombia: day 1, post 2

By David Esau, Pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

I’ve only spent my first full day in Bogota and already I feel rich.

Not rich in the way many Canadian gold mining companies plundering Colombia’s resources feel when they strike gold.

I feel rich in the way my friend Pete felt rich when he went across the continent a few years ago to meet the family he never knew he had (Pete was adopted as an infant).  He discovered a family so warm and welcoming and rich in history and stories that he felt he had struck gold — relational gold.

Meeting members of my global Anabaptist family in Colombia today, face to face, was finding gold in a relational vein that has been untapped for far too long. The richness of their hospitality and the wealth of their stories have this unlikely prospector already more than overjoyed that he came.

pastors sharingLet me share with you a nugget.

It took place in a village of only 200-300 people with a church of 30 people. In the conflict over coca, the biggest losers are those caught in the middle with nothing to gain and everything to lose.

When an armed group showed up one afternoon the situation looked bad. When an opposing armed group showed up on the other side of the village two hours later it got ugly.

With the village and the church literally in the middle of a war zone the pastor agonized and prayed over what to do.

No one could have predicted what happened next. Call it moral imagination.

The pastor decided to turn up the volume on his prayers, pointing the loudspeaker in his church out the window at full volume, praying for everyone in the conflict. After two hours of praying at full volume the fighting stopped and the warring groups left.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted that outcome but God.

Want some great foreign investment advice??

Invest in spending time getting to know your global family of faith in Colombia and you’ll strike it rich — guaranteed!

An inspirational first day: day 1, post 1

By Ken Peters, Pastor of Saanich Community Church (MB), north of Victoria, British Columbia

It was an inspirational first day for a Canadian Mennonite Brethren delegation in Bogotá.  We were treated to warm hospitality at the MCC office in the bustling metropolis of 9-10 million people Bogota-Colombia(depending on who you talked with). Gathering ourselves from our billets’ homes across the city, we passed endless construction projects, as well as cracked and seemingly irreparable roads.  We passed ultra-modern office complexes, sports/football stadiums, miles of low two-storey heavily gated buildings and parks while our driver wove skillfully through traffic that is governed not by laws and rules as much as by relationship.

Our Colombian MCCers provided us an orientation to the work within the capital region and the country as a whole.  I got the distinct impression they were but skating over the surface of the information, knowing how much we would yet have to ingest for the rest of the day.  For me, more important than the work described, were the stories of the personnel themselves; how the Lord moved each of them through life to be brought together to serve the people of Colombia at this time.  The work of MCC will no doubt impress me later on this week.

A certain highlight was hearing Alejandro (Alejo) Perez, a Brethren in Christ follower of Jesus whose work as a sociologist in the Choco Department (province) where I believe the MB have 13 congregations. Alejo provided a balanced perspective of the political tensions within the country, the continued war between leftist guerillas and rightwing paramilitary and the national armed forces.

Alejo spoke passionately about the crippling effects of mining, poverty, the coca industry and government spray programs to eradicate the lucrative crops and the ironic challenge of having no safe drinking water in one of the world’s regions receiving the most precipitation.

Alejo asked us to empathize with the pastors of the region whose people are lured into coca growing at the risk of imprisonment and at the expense of other food crops.  Coca supplies growers infinitely superior cash flow compared to say, fruit or rice production.  The churches and their pastoral leadership are officially against coca production, but have needed to offer pastoral care and counsel to those trapped in the drug’s economics.  We will witness firsthand the pastors’ ingenuous approach to rice production and cooperative management of the area’s opportunities.

Praying for Alejo at the end of our conversation

Praying for Alejo at the end of our conversation

Given the complexity, poverty and terrible trauma especially to children, I asked Alejo where he found hope and joy.  He responded that it was witnessing the Spirit-led creativity of Christ’s community on the ground in small otherwise undetectable ways: community processes that neither the university nor the seminary could have foreseen or imagined but brought about by the Spirit of God.

It is a gift, a sheer gift, to call these people our brothers and sisters.

Mining and Resource Extraction in Chocó, Colombia: Pillage, Destruction, Violence and Misery

By José Rutilio Rivas Domínguez,  Pastor, Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó, Colombia.

Translated by Tim Schmucker, July 2012

Pastor Jose Rutilio Rivas Dominguez, regional president of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó

The department [province or state] of Chocó has historically been recognized as a mining area, so much so that has deserved recognition as the richest department in gold and platinum. Yet, in reality, Chocó lives within a paradox, for in national statistics, the population, largely made up of African descendants, lives in extreme poverty.

Chocó has a 200 plus year history of mining pillage; perhaps this is one of the causes of extreme poverty that its inhabitants live in. The wealth that has been extracted from Chocó’s hills and underground is incalculable, but has brought no benefit for the region, perhaps not even for the country.

Between 1916 and 1926 Colombia was the largest exporter of platinum in the world, during a time that the price for platinum was exceptionally high. Most of that platinum was extracted by the Pacific Chocó Mining Company from the Condoto River. However, Colombia received no royalties for the extraction of the metal.

Most of Chocó’s riches have been extracted by foreign companies. Currently, the vast majority of Chocó’s mining territory has been granted to foreign companies by the national government by way of legal titles without prior consultation with our local communities. (See table at bottom that shows the titles and applications of foreign companies here in the Department of Chocó.)

In recent years, the government has begun to regulate mining more and more, and has been requiring small local miners to get mining licences. This has triggered a series of complex situations. The local informal miners have experienced the government measures as abusive, as the requirements for getting a mining licence are unattainable for small miners. This in turn shows them the clear bias for large mining companies.

Although there is space in the process of self-regulation for a certain level of functionality in the daily life of local miners – due to limited state intervention –community interests are often dismissed while those of ‘special interests’ [the foreign mining companies] are abusively imposed using the political and financial power along with extortion and violence.

Currently, small-scale mining in Chocó municipalities is carried out by 1) local artisan miners and 2) informal mechanized foreign mining:

  1. The former are part of the community councils of black communities; they carry out mining using various small and traditional methods, such as mini dredges, pumps and elevators along with manual sifting and sand washing.
  2. The second group carry out mining with heavy machinery, bulldozers and large dredges in river basins, but without mining licences or environmental clearance. Generally, these mining actors are extorted by illegal armed groups, who charge “vaccines” to sustain their illegal activities.

From a reflective overview, the way mining activities in the department of Chocó have developed historically has caused irreparable damage to the people of the Chocó, both socially and environmentally.

In the first place, the government has not been consistent with its public policies in relation to the development of mineral extraction. It has facilitated the entry of foreign mining companies, yet without putting in place any control and monitoring of them.

Secondly, large foreign and domestic mining companies have plundered the riches of the department [province], without generating any development for our people, all with tacit and explicit permission of the Colombian government. Their activities have increased political corruption, prostitution, labor exploitation and the violation of human rights.

Thirdly, informal mining without environmental authorisation, with the use of heavy machinery – dredges and retro-diggers – in the river basins are causing irreparable environmental damage. The soil is being destroyed irrationally, rivers are being filled with sediment, and the use of mercury that threatens human health.

And lastly, the presence of illegal armed groups has increased. They control informal mining activity in order to sustain themselves; they determine who can work in mining and who can’t. This whole situation has caused chaos in our area of Colombia. And to this, we have to add the presence of illicit crops cultivated by illegal armed groups along with political corruption.

The Mennonite Brethren Church of Chocó has been affected by all these problems, because the majority of her members make their living by informal artisanal mining, and many have been victims of extortion, exploitation, abuse, theft of property, and displacement by illegal armed groups. Indeed, many also find their faith is weakened by the actions of injustice to which they are subjected. But thanks be to God, who sustains us through difficult situations.

Thus, thoughts such as those of King David become relevant in these contexts:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Psalms 23:4.

Equally relevant are the words of the Apostle Paul when, inspired by the Spirit of God, he encouraged the church at Corinth saying:

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1 Cor. 10:13

As church we recognize that we are salt and light of a society that every day is declining into the moral abyss of massive environmental destruction, whose sole purpose is the enrichment of the wealthiest at the cost of exploiting the poorest. Thus, our role as Mennonite Brethren church is to accompany and guide both our members along with the community at large to develop mining activities responsibly and with social justice, with the understanding that God has placed us as administrators of creation with the responsibility of using natural resources rationally and intelligently.

We affirm that mining is part of the history of humanity and cannot be separated from it. In fact, in some contexts mining is necessary for the socioeconomic development of communities; indeed, it is the foundation of the economy, as is the case in the Chocó. To take a position as church thus is complex, especially when in the Bible we find no explicit instructions on mining. Yet in early biblical history we see the use of precious metals, such as gold, and they’re usually found underground. Now, how they “mined” them we do not know.

But in God’s thinking the principle of land care is very clear. He legislated rest for the land.

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Lev. 25:3,4.

With this, God is teaching his people to care for the land, to not use it indiscriminately, that to do will bring disastrous consequences.

In the midst of this situation I describe, our church seeks to respond with a gospel message filled with a holistic vision, building bridges of relationships between the various actors and stakeholders in this situation. In order to do this, we seek allies from other experiences and latitudes who will help us discern as we work toward solutions.


125,541 – Anglo Gold Ashanti

56,095 – Explorciones Choco Colombia Sa

10,502 – La Muriel Mining

5,251 – Anglo American Colombia Explo.

5,007 – El Crucero Som

3,552 – Vikingo S.O.M

2,512 – Corporacion Minera De Col.

1,802 – Carla Resources

1,502 – Condoton Platinum Colm.

1,502 – Rio Tinto Mining


213,267 – Total hectares under foreign control

84% of all mining done by foreign mining companies

16% of all mining done by Colombian companies

It is also important to note the applications in process by foreign mining companies in the Department of Chocó, a total of 628,565 hectares applied for. (Statistical information from “Current analysis of mining in Chocó and the projects: Chocó Mining Federation Fedemichocó”.)

Votoratim Metais Col. – 324,015 ha.

Anglo American Exploration  – 76,991 ha.

George  Patrick – 58,713 ha.

Robert Daniel Taylor – 51,002 ha.

Anglogold Ashanti  40,831 ha.

Grupo Bullet S.A. – 35,867 ha.

Continental Gold – 10,438 ha.Proyecto Coco Hondo – 30,708 ha.

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