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.

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

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.

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