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.

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. 

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.

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