Colombia stories

Note: This was part of a presentation on April 15, 2018, at Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, Illinois. The occasion was to raise money for my upcoming service in the Colombia peace-accompaniment program, a partnership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and La Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia. The text for the testimony was the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:1-16. Online tax-deductible contributions to the mission can be made here.

I am going to talk first about my upcoming mission trip to Colombia, share some background about the contact between our two countries and two churches, give brief testimony related to our scripture for today, and then introduce Carolina Velandia Hernández, who is my colleague and friend at Northern Illinois University. She will speak to you a bit about her life in Colombia and her special knowledge and her passion for its well-being and future.

For four weeks, starting July 1, I am scheduled, with one other Presbyterian lay person, to be a mission worker in the Colombia peace-accompaniment program. This relationship was established in 2004 and continues now as a joint effort of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission, and La Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia (IPC).

I am raising the money for the trip myself – about $3,000 – and have asked the Session to dedicate available mission funds to this nonviolent initiative in support of me, but more important to witness to courageous work our sisters and brothers in Colombia are doing at a crucial time in the country’s very long journey toward peace. This Sunday and next Sunday, April 22, you have the opportunity, if you choose, to support this trip individually. Pastor Lisa and I spoke last Sunday. The best way to make a contribution, separate from your regular offering, is here in church, by writing “Colombia” in the memo line of a check or on your envelope. If you wish to give online with a credit card, please ask me and I can give you that address.

It is an awesome thing to feel supported and loved by a community, a koinonia, like this one, especially as one steps out into the mixed-up world of mercy and injustice, peacemaking and persecution that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount. Colombia is a good example of a place where all these human impulses, toward lovingkindness but also toward violence and greed, coexist. Shortly I’ll tell you about my experience of community in Colombia, and the great physical reminder of Christ’s love that I received there.

So why am I doing this? As an individual, I was transformed, given new life, when I lived and worked in Colombia in 2011 as a volunteer at a union for public-school teachers. But, before that, I’d started thinking about Colombia when I contacted a university professor in Medellín, who was educating me about the unique struggle that women and girls have in Colombian life. She was the first person to begin supplanting in me the negative image, the one simple story, of Colombia that many of us have as a place that is drug-ridden and unsafe and unworthy of our attention.

In fact, Presbyterians have been doing mission work in Colombia since the middle of the 19th century, building institutions of primary, secondary, and higher education, such as the colegios americanos that still exist in many Colombian cities. La Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia recently celebrated its 160th anniversary and today, as a religious minority in a majority-Catholic country, consists of three presbyteries, one in Bogotá, the capital, and the other two in the north.

The more peace-oriented connection between our denomination and Colombia began with a visit in 2004 by Rick Ufford-Chase, who was then Moderator of our General Assembly. The important issue for the Colombian church at that time was the safety of church leaders working with displaced populations, primarily indigenous and Afro-Colombian. Since then, more than one hundred U.S.-based volunteers have served in the peace-accompaniment program. This program offers direct action, a physical presence, in support of church policy backing our sister church’s support of and advocacy for the human rights of the displaced. For those who don’t know, for reasons of ongoing conflict and Colombia’s wealth of resources, the nations currently with the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world are Syria and Colombia.

There are two peace volunteers there now, and I’ll be the next to go. My role in this mission will be to serve as a witness to and presence in support of IPC activities, to speak to and worship with IPC congregations, to file weekly accompaniment reports, and to return as a better-informed educator and advocate for peace in Colombia and Latin America. It’s an important trip especially for U.S. citizens to make, since much of the substantial aid this country has sent to Colombia unfortunately has been dedicated to additional persecution, violence, and rabid land acquisition, instead of peace and nation-building.

We are talking about a place where, as a Colombian, it can be dangerous to witness honestly to your own experience, especially outside the large cities. It’s potentially dangerous to be a church leader, a journalist, a trade unionist, a teacher, or a member of any persecuted minority group. As I mentioned, I worked at a teacher’s union. Just this one association of public-school teachers had lost nearly 200 of its membership to assassinations and disappearances over the previous 30 or 40 years.

Speaking of witnessing to experience and of the essential testimony in voice and in body that we give to each other’s existence, I will tell you a story now I have not told anyone. I’m not sure why. I suppose it’s because it shows me as a vulnerable and doubtful person. But toward the end of my work in Colombia I was experiencing depression, which is not uncommon for me. I felt very disappointed about my teaching there, about my performance, and as is also typical for me I had created these thoughts on my own. No one had said one critical or negative thing to me. But I was recently divorced and felt alone and, therefore, convinced of my insignificance.

So, at the completion of my contract, I decided to leave the provincial city where I lived and to go back to Bogotá. And I decided this suddenly. I literally hopped on the back of my host’s motorcycle to go say goodbye to the director of the organization where I had volunteered. I had packed and had a bus ticket for 7 p.m. The family I lived with took me to the station, we ate something, then sat in a central waiting area. This was early December, a weekday, not very busy.

To my surprise, people gradually began to fill up the seats in this waiting area. And these were students. These were students I had worked with months before, these were members of my hosts’ vast extended families, the couple that worked in a gift shop next to their house, teachers, children, even some small animals. They came to embrace and to kiss me. They brought bags of food for the bus trip – I remember lots of panela, the cones of cane sugar that have a central place in many Colombian kitchens.

For me – a stranger, really – they offered the most powerful witness to my physical reality I had ever received. They did this with more than their words. Most important they did this with their bodies.

They were the salt and the light I had been lacking.

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