Friday, October 25, 2013

Flying to Korea: hoping for transformation

I am sitting in my airplane seat as we wait to taxi while the flight crew tries to coral passengers that ran off when a false four hour delay was announced! I am on the same flight with Joanna Hipp from Louisville Seminary and hope to get to know her better during the conference:)

I have been reflecting on my preparation for this global conference for the World Council of Churches and realize how little I have done to be ready to be with this group of global Christian leaders this week. I did not read all of the "Ecumenical Visions" book that I was assigned to present on this week. I did not practice Korean greetings and social language skills. I did not bring small North American gifts to share with people I meet. I did not read all the intro papers of the other students in my small group. I did not spend a lot of time dreaming about what this conference will be for me. I think this is partly a reflection of my busy seminary student life and partly due to my normative USA dominant culture mentality - that people should know about me and I shouldn't have to work hard to really know others. 

I wrote about listening to other voices in my application essay for the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute that I am  attending with the conference. I charish real friendships with people from other contexts that I can learn and grow with through honest dialogue. I believe the WCC is designed to provide space for this type of relationship. My lack of preparation makes me wonder if I can really commit to this type of relationship that requires so much background knowledge and language skill just to communicate with others. 

The language used at the conference will be primarily English, but everyone there will have another more personal way of communicating that can only be expressed to those who have a deeper personal connection. I hope to form deeper connections with some of the people I meet in the next three weeks. I hope to commit to life long friendships that can make me a better follower of Christ in this world. 

The structural violence in the world can be hard to see from the privileged - white middle class Presbyterian Church USA - position I come from. I am blinded by the security of empire. I need other ways of seeing the world. I hope to find other ways of seeing during this conference. I hope the life changing opportunity that I step into when exiting this plane will allow me to further commit to God's will of love and justice through nonviolent action. 

God, please allow the way I am to be enough to continue on this journey. Help my body adjust to the jet lag that stands between me and my new friends. And provide me the strength and wisdom to be transformed by your Holy Spirit in this holy space of worship and devotion to You. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Building Heaven from Hell

This morning was a welcome extension of our five day vacation from the scheduled visit to Turbo, the coastal port city that was the first settled town in this area when the Spanish arrived over 400 years ago. We cancelled that visit when I got an infection in my lungs and needed time to recuperate. 

My growing cabin fever waned as we prepared to travel to Currulao, a town of around 11,000 people on the outskirts of Turbo. The pastor was scheduled to meet us at our apartment in Apartadó at 10:00am, and I was expecting 10:00am because the people taking care of us have kept a very disciplined schedule despite certain stereotypes that would suggest otherwise.  In any case, we rested while waiting for him until 11:30 when he arrived to accompany us on the bus back to his church in Currulao. 

I have really appreciated Pastor Dagoberto's attitude toward us. He treated us like regular people that he would travel with. We didn't really talk much on the bus or on the walk to his church, so I had time to soak in the surroundings. 

We jumped off the bus after passing through the center of Currulao. There were a few small shops and a dry creek bed there. We walked down a sandy dirt road that was part of an organized street grid. Two of the four major public schools were along this street. Several blocks later we arrived at a large concrete church building. Right behind this "templo" was the pastor's house. 

We sat down our bags and greeted his wife and grandson, then Degoberto gave us a tour of the new church. It dwarfed the house and the old templo that still sat on the opposite side of the house. The new building was built on five regular lots combined. It was made of concrete and brick with a strong roof supported by thick timbers. It had a large stage in front and enough room for many more than the 150 members (which is already a large congregation for the region). It even has a separate building for bathrooms and a kitchen!

Pastor Degoberto explained how he has been teaching his congregation that they do not have to live like displaced people even though they are displaced. He has been the pastor in this congregation for six years and in that time the community has developed fundraisers to build this new building and embrace new members. 

After the building tour, the pastor took us around the corner and down the next street to a small house. At the door we were greeted by an elderly woman named Manuela. Her eyes greeted me as if we were long lost friends. I immediately felt welcome in a way I have not yet experienced in Colombia where I lack the language skills to communicate on a deeper level. 

Lora and I sat down with Manuela at her kitchen table and after one miscommunication I asked when she had moved to Currulao. Lora translated a long life story that involved meeting her husband, moving to Choco (a more remote region) to make a living by building up a successful farm and then eventually fleeing that land when the guerrilla army threatened to take their lives. They had lived their for twenty years and raised their children on that land. Then, after experiencing the escalating violence, they left quickly with nothing but their youngest daughter. 

They left in 1997 and spent several years migrating before settling here in Currulao. They had to live in a plastic shelter with six other families for several years while Manuela washed clothes for work - bringing the meals they provided her at work home to feed the whole family. Her husband worked on the banana plantations. They effectively went from successful land owners to poor industry laborers (one of the goals of the US war on drugs stated by embassy staff in Colombia is to push farmers off their land to become cheep labor for corporate enterprise). 

They had been part of the Presbyterian church in Choco and joined the small church here in Currulao when they got here. Manuela is the essence of Pastor Degoberto's message that one does not need to live according to the identity of a displaced person. After telling this difficult story, she still looks at me with her piercing dark eyes that seem to smile back at me. 

This is where I really see the power of Jesus Christ at work. Her life did not become ruled by the trauma she experienced by being violently displaced. Instead, the trauma became a new reason to join together in community to support and love one another. She rejected the hell that was displacement and started again to build heaven on earth in her church community. This heavenly community is fertile ground for liberation from oppression and suffering. 

It is hard to connect with other people without words, but Manuela seems to really understand the human connection and has celebrated our lives here in Currulao. Even without knowing her story, I would still be forever connected with her if just through her eyes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


As students began to leave the school across the street from our apartment to get lunch on Wednesday, a young man was murdered near the gateway above. Lora and I were just sitting down to lunch in the upstairs dining room when we heard three loud blasts that I assumed came from a vehicle below. When a large crowd began to gather, one of the teachers who was hosting us there went out to the street to hear what happened. First parents started running to the gate to grab their children and take them home. Then the police slowly began to arrive on motorcycle and in a police van. Finally an ambulance came and the teacher reported that the mother of the deceased student was clutching her son's body as they moved to the ambulance. 

The teacher shared that the boy was said to be the leader in a gang from the area. The murder could have been retaliation for more deaths over the previous Colombian Independence Day weekend. Lora wrote a blog reflecting on how this mirrors the gang violence in Chicago. 

The community seemed to be shocked during the chaos of the moment - and I too would have been running to the scene in hopes that the rumored death was not my child - but this situation has become normal for people here. Two hours later everything was back to normal. The most upsetting thing for me was the reason why the teacher talking with us didn't want to see the body. It was not because the death was itself a traumatizing event, but because seeing dead bodies like that returned her to the trauma of the deaths of her father and uncle. 

Are there no men who escape this life of violence?*

To answer this question I will introduce you to one young man who has stood his ground in order to stay out of the many violent activities in his community. For this article I will call him Alberto. 

I met Alberto as he guided us to the right "jeep" to travel to his rural town of around 10,000 people on the border between the department (state) of Antiochia and Choco. The town is literally split in two with to governments, two schools, two hospitals, to of everything. We were with him during Independence Day weekend where all the students from both public schools marched through the streets at night and the next morning to celebrate.
Alberto explained that there was no military marching in the parade in his town, but in other places they would be present. It wasn't until several days later that I realized that the military presence was lacking here because the area is controlled by the FARC and a local guerrilla group that sometimes work together and sometimes go to war with each other. I didn't notice any official boundary or any real presence of armed conflict. In any case, this territory was not occupied by the military.

Despite being outside of military territory, the local police stopped Alberto on his bike when he was 18 years old. They demanded to have his ID card and he demanded to know why. Eventually he discovered that the police were recruiting for the military and he had just been drafted. He got a letter demanding his presence at a military base that he didn't know. As he was telling this story, you could tell there was no way he was going to show up at that base. I think he received a fine for his absence, but he has avoided being redrafted for seven years now. 

My initial question that led to this discussion was, "what do you hope to do with your theological studies?" It seems unconnected, as he is now 25 years old and studying in a distance learning program in Apartadó that many other pastors in the region are participating in, but Alberto is the only man of this age that I have seen active in the church. All other young men between 18 and 25 seem to be missing altogether. The only one I did meet has already done his two years in the military and turned down a permanent contract in hopes of pursuing theology as well. 

Why theology? For Alberto, theology was his only other option. He had completed public school and like many youth found himself unemployed and unable to find funding to pursue further education. He spent months and years sitting completely idle on his family's small farm with no future. His mother strongly opposed his participation in the military just as she opposed his participation in the guerrilla group or the FARC.  They all promote violence that they knew too well. 

So Alberto applied to be a local police officer. At the same time he applied for a scholarship to study theology offered through the Presbyterian Church. He said he  would have gone with either option, but he went with the scholarship because they accepted him first! This scholarship was his only opportunity to avoid working directly with violence. This opportunity is very rare in his community. He is interested in teaching theology in the future, but he really knows as much about what he will do with his degree as I know about mine (no plans here!).

This is Alberto's story, but there are many more factors just with in his small town. Another man who drives an ambulance for the local hospitals said he was approached by a man in the guerrilla to ask if he would transport drugs across the boarder. The town is close to the Pan-American highway and has access to a waterway that leads to the Caribbean Coast. Government employees like emergency response and police are less likely to get inspected at checkpoints, so they are often targeted by drug traffickers in one of the many organizations producing drugs to pay for their weapons (many of whom are partners with the US government or multinational corporations). It is dangerous to say no to these people, but this man turned them down anyway. I calculated the payoff from participating in a drug run to be around $2,000 which is almost an entire year's salary for many people. Doing it once is still not enough to get anyone out of poverty. It seems the  drug dealers have found an ideal payment that gets their runners hooked into the system as well. 

Other of Alberto's friends wanted to be part of the fight. They have been surround by the violent macho  culture of Silvester Stallone and their local context long enough that all they wanted to do was carry a big gun. Some joined the military only after being turned away by the guerrilla. They were able to carry the big guns in the military, but they are not alive today to benefit.  

A woman hosted us for lunch in Chigorodó who's son was shot and killed as he was walking through the neighborhood 18 months ago. He was a career soldier in the military fighting the guerrilla in the region. There is no safe place to be a soldier. His identity had been discovered, and during a vacation at home with his mother and family, the guerrilla followed him until he was alone at night and killed him.  His body was too deformed to show at the funeral. The woman who shared this story is an elder in the church and very active in supporting others in the community as well as her children and grandchildren. 

So when the United States claims it is fighting the war on drugs by supplying the Colombian military with aid to buy US war equipment and train Colombian solders at the renamed School of the Americas, I question the very basis of this action. How will violence solve any of the issues in Colombia?

There are many layers of this that I definitely still do not understand, but i can see that this is a beautiful country that has been in constant civil war for decades, a country where many sectors in the government and opposing the government are involved in some way in the drug trade to make money, and a place where violence has ruled as the way to deal with conflict just like it does in the United States. 

The Presbyterian Church of Colombia says it is time for a new strategy. It is time for new opportunities for the youth of Colombia. Not everyone has the passion to seek a different option like Alberto. The church here is committed to nonviolence, social justice and community development. I pray we can work for the same goals in my context. 

*(Specifically men because men are drafted into these violent organizations almost exclusively. Women, however, do not escape violence by any means.)

Then the rain comes

It has rained every day that I have been here in Urabá.  That is normal for Colombia in "winter" or the rainy season. Today it rained especially hard. Almost like tears.

Later in the afternoon we visited a woman who I will call Grace. Her home was about ten blocks from the church. It had started raining when we left so we were prepared with umbrellas. Many of the homes in this area are made with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roofs. Grace's home is still incomplete with some wood walls and metal roof covering parts of the inhabited space. The entire neighborhood is made up of immigrants who either legally or illegally took up residency here after fleeing their homes in other towns occupied by one of many violent groups supporting themselves through land grabbing. Grace's home is on the very edge of this neighborhood looking out into what is currently a swamp.

Grace has known the pastor for many years, long before she was married or had children. Since her husband was killed some time in the 1990's, she spent many years being homeless until finally her husband's aunt gave her this property that had no permanent structure. She graduated from adult education classes equivalent to fifth grade in 2008 and has since been working for the administration of a banana plantation but because of swelling in her legs, she can no longer work there full time. Her sons sell bananas locally to get by.

She has tried to become registered as displaced with the government many times, but she has never gotten any response. The new land restitution law provides rights to displaced people to regain their property. Some are able to receive new property in an unwanted area in exchange for their displacement. For Grace, there has been nothing. No recognition of her loss, no government support for her new financial burdens and no justice for the loss of her loving husband. No justice for twenty years, but she has not given up.

This is her story - translated by Lora Burge.

"When I tell this story it is like living it again. This is why I try to forget. When people ask me about it, I tell them it is really hard. It is hard to see them take your husband and murder him.

I remember the night that they took him. They came to the house.  They surrounded the house and all of the doors. They tried to cover their faces with handkerchiefs but I could see who they were. They were men I had grown up with. 

They said they would burn the house if we did not come out. They could see that I was holding my baby so they just forced my husband to come out. When he did they tied him up and blindfolded him and took him away.  Three days later some men told his father and brother where his body was.
The men I saw behind the handkerchiefs were then drinking coffee with me at the funeral and were joking about how they did not want him to be buried in the cemetery."

This is when Grace became homeless. Her oldest son was eighteen months old at the time and she was pregnant with the second. 

This is when it started raining again. We prayed with Grace as tears came and the rain flooded the prayer with the noise of thousands of drops hitting the metal roof. It rained so hard that the street became a river. It rained so hard that we could not continue our journey. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Empowered Women

A woman came into the moderator's house during our lunch yesterday. I smiled and greeted her, but I am embarrassed to say that I was very surprised when I heard Lora translate that she was the pastor at the moderator's church. Up until this point, all the main leaders in the IPC that I have met have been men. What has caused my confusion? From my perspective it is a mixture of my own limited understanding of the culture, misinterpretations of the church, and the patriarchal mindset that I bring with me from my own context.

Martha's Call to Ministry
Martha fled with her family from her home in Córdoba when her children were very young to escape personal threats of violence there. They settled here in Chigorodó at some point and she continued as an elder here as she had been at home. She continued to take on leadership in the church as she reestablished her life.

Martha became the pastor of the original Chigorodó church with the continued encouragement of other elders in the community over several years. She graduated from seminary and was ordained into ministry as the solo pastor in her church with over one hundred members. She moved to the Manantial de Vida church in 2008 where she continues to lead. 

From 1990-98 there was a lot of violence in Chigorodó - dead bodies were often found in the streets. It was not safe to be out at night so members of the Chigorodó church were not comfortable walking from one neighborhood to the other for evening worship throughout the week. As a result, they started having evening worship at an elders house on the other side of the highway and eventually that led to building the church here called Manantial de Vida.  People from three other communities that were displaced including Ciesa moved here and solidified the need for a church in this neighborhood. Now people from many places are here - it is very diverse and very inclusive. Martha is the pastor in this community of replanted refugees. 

The positive encouragement from the community that empowered Martha to continue her studies and take on a traditionally male role in the church is amazing to me. What is even more amazing though is Martha's courage and tenacity to take on a difficult public and spiritual leadership role in a church that is known for speaking out against oppressors.

The Next Generation
Martha had to leave to meet with other church members so she left us with her daughter Jenny. Jenny is starting university  this year to study psychology. She is interested in working with communities. She has an interest in theology, but does not plan to be a pastor. Seeing the struggles of her mother seems to have had a big influence on her own decisions.

Not being a pastor does not mean she has any lack of initiative in the church! She is on the regional and national association of youth for IPC. She organizes national and   presbytery wide youth conferences every two years. She organizes events for ecological and social topics at these conferences. For example, they have talked about mining in Bahirá - both the environmental issues and how it affects the workers. Locally she organizes health brigades and soup kitchens, nature walks, and days to pick up trash in the streets. 

So why wouldn't someone so involved with the church at all levels be interested in becoming an ordained spiritual leader? Jenny has seen other female pastors in Barranquilla where the national offices are, but in the Urabá Presbytery her mother is the first and only female pastor. It must also be said that the Presbytery is only twenty years old.  One story she mentioned was where a man came to the door of the church asking for el Pastor, when Jenny explained that her church had a Pastora (female) he dismissed her and asked again for el PASTOR. Being dismissed over and over again is not encouraging even when your church members support you.

I asked Pastor Bernardino about this at breakfast today. He says that he has actively been encouraging five of the young women in his church to pursue a seminary degree. So far only one young woman has shown interest in seminary although there are many women acting as spiritual leaders in the church. 

Gender issues here are as real as they are in the United States. This is one of those situations where having an outside perspective makes the gender issue look much clearer. I should really have a corresponding article written from Jenny's perspective when she visits the United States some day. Talking to my sister, Reverend Katie Snipes Lancaster, Jenny could quickly see that there are hidden roadblocks for female pastors in my context as well. I praise God that Martha is willing to struggle through additional difficult challenges in order to make way for more women and more equality in the future. Her ministry is so important in this traumatic time in Colombian history.
(Me, Jenny, and Pastora Martha)

Needing Community

Yesterday was for Lora and I the longawaited  exploration of Chigorodó! We have been here for three days and had not been far beyond the thirty yards between the pastor's house and the templo (church - see, I am learning Spanish!). We woke up early for a 6am walk through this neighborhood to the major regional highway and then to the downtown which included a park with a Catholic Church on one end and the government offices on the other end.
(Department of Justice and government offices with people waiting outside for the doors to open)

Later we walked to a different neighborhood to be hosted for lunch by Jesus Vargas who is a ruling elder at Manantial de Vida Church (the other IPC church in town), the current moderator of the Urabá Presbytery and the principal of a school with over 2000 students. We talked about the Presbytery projects including reporting violence and injustice to local, regional and international authorities (including reports on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship website), investing in growing lumber to pay for pastors' retirement, and developing community water filtration systems in towns where the government would not go.  

I asked why he has put so much time and energy into the church: When an armed group forced his family to flee their home in Nuevo Oriente (where he had also been an eldor), he joined the church in Chigorodó which was itself in need of dedicated leadership in a time of struggle. He had also been a school principal in Nuevo Oriento, so he was able to lead a new school here. He explained that when you work on things you care about, there are many people who come to support you and encourage you. If his community would not have pushed him to take on this leadership role, he never would have done it. 

Community is so important here in the life of the church. Living in community is a foundational part of my life as well. Unfortunately, one effect of globalization here is individualization. Vargas sees this in his school as students are now competing to be the best and most desirable for employers and teachers instead of learning how to collaborate with others. A lesson for both of our countries is, how do you promote a strong community and effective democratic government if citizens only know how to provide for themselves? Individualism is very disempowering for our global community. I have hope in the church community here that stands up for the oppressed, not for individual gain but for the good of all.

Monday, July 15, 2013

One Family, One Church

Today was a church marathon - from 9:30am to almost 1pm and then again in the evening for youth church. The youth church was more lively and had really great singers leading worship so I really enjoyed clapping and humming along with them! One young man even brought a guitar since I had asked if people play guitar there and mentioned that I would love to join worship in the musical language since I couldn't understand the Spanish! I enjoyed playing but need to work on finding songs they know in Spanish.
The highlight of the day outside of worship was being hosted for dinner by one of the elders of the church, Jorge. His wife had prepared roast beef, rice, chopped veggies and fried bananas for us to eat. He had three children present and one elder son who worked as a policeman in another town. Jorge sat to eat at the table with Lora an I while everyone else watched behind us in the small concrete living room. 
(Jorge's family outside their home)

Lora graciously translated for me that Jorge has been an elder for many years and coordinates a lot of the events for the three church plants that this congregation has started. He first described this church work and his role as a negotiator for the regional banana workers union which seemed to fill up his entire schedule, but then I came to realize that his income was earned as a banana sorter. He works for one of the big banana plantations and decides which bananas are "good enough" to be exported and which ones go to market in Colombia. I'll tell you the bananas that travel to the grocery store in the USA do not taste nearly as good as the freshly ripened ugly ones that I have been eating here!

Jorge is respected by the plantation owners because he leads group prayers for staff every morning and stems any possible riots in favor of more productive negotiations. He said this year they had successfully raised hourly wages by 4% which seems like a huge victory needed with current inflation.

His son who I met was working as a security gaurd for the Presbyterian school I mentioned previously in Apartadó.  He recently completed his two years of required military service and was offered a full time position at the base where he had worked, but he turned it down because he wants to go on to become a pastor. It is difficult to turn down a secure job like this, but it also seems hard to remain devoted to nonviolence when serving in the armed forces. He and I led a prayer together before we left the house, me praying in English and he in Spanish.

Jorge's  older daughter is in 10th grade and lives at home. She walked us back to the church and was responsible for leading the youth worship we attended. They did not need a pastor there to lead them. They could sing, lead prayers, read scripture and support each other on their own. Lora preached in Spanish as the guest. She is a serious theologian!

What is amazing to me is how much time each Memeber of the church devotes to supporting the community. While we were at church, Pastor Bernardino traveled to a church over an hour from Chigorodó that had been wiped out when a paramilitary group threatened the residents with violence over six years ago. They were forced off their land leaving only two church members who were willing to stay. Bernardino's church has been working with them ever since to keep the church doors open. There is new life there with new members, although the people who left will not come back. I would not want to return either. Experiencing threats and violence is common for people here. From what I can tell, many people living in this bario (neighborhood) are refugees from somewhere else in the region. The work of this church community is very relevant for every one here.
(The view from Bernardino's porch during a rain storm)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The All Stars :)

Today my accompaniment partner Lora and I traveled to the town of Chigorodó where we are staying with Pastor Bernardino. This area has a mix of cultures as it is home to  Indigenous peoples, Afro-Caribbean peoples, and people from all other regions of Colombia because it is near the pan-American highway.

We showed up at a house about a mile from the main square of town (still very dense neighborhoods) in a cab carrying our one big bag of supplies for the next two weeks. We sat in the house for sometime before Lora started translating where we were or who we were with. Then suddenly we sat down at a small dinner table with the pastor and his wife. we were surved a delicious lunch with pork, rice, pickled carrots and fried bananas. Once we were settled there he started to tell his story.

Pastor Bernardino has been here for 8 years but has been a church leader since he was 16 (in 1987). The area where he lives now was originally a banana plantation. When the owner could not pay his workers, they decided to move onto the property as payment. Since the people were favored by the local guerrilla armed group existing here at the time, the land owner was afraid to evict the new residents. Currently the neighborhood is well organized with grid-pattern streets, electricity, plumbing, and beautifully painted homes and businesses.

Previously Bernardino was the pastor in Apartadó where he was the head of the Urabá Presbytery.  During that time, paramilitaries and/or guerrillas  had been destroying the schools in the region so the presbytery decided to open a school (colegio) in Apartadó to support the community. Currently local schools are better funded  from the government and safe so the colegio is smaller.  They are now offering night college courses in the space as well.

Bernardino explained that there are three main ministries of his church, evangelism, deaconia (social justice), and environmentalism.  At the local government level there is an association of pastors that do massive evangelism events (campaigns) and he is Vice President of this association. The group includes all churches who wish to participate. The Catholics are not part of the association but they have been invited.  The IPC (Presbyterian Church of Colombia) has a good relationship with the Catholics (most people here identify as Catholic but I am not sure how many actually practice).
Bernardino's church also has connections with the local and regional government that meet regularly to discuss human rights concerns that they learn about through the congregation. We will visit some church members who were recently pushed off their land and still have not been able to find permanent settlement in this area. I think most of the people here have come here after being displaced from their land in other parts of the country. This community of displaced people has come together over many years. 
(Festival of "Families in Action" we saw coming into Chigorodó)

In addition to all of this, the church partners with organizations to promote environmental sustainability. This is a huge issue in a region where most of the industries involve extracting something from the land: bananas, pineapples, gold, copper, titanium, and oil. There are huge swaths of land still covered in rainforest, although it seems like they may be going away rather quickly.
(Bananas are everywhere!)

Basically, my first stop in Urabá is with a family of IPC all stars. I feel so honored to be staying with them this week. I pray we are open to learn from each other.
(Drinking the local "Tinto" coffee with Bernardino!)

Friday, July 12, 2013


I realized after writing the last blog about my day in Medellin that I did not fully express the joy I experienced meeting my hosts, D and S.  They took over as hosts at the last minute when the regional contact couldn't make it. They had other plans, but they jumped at the opportunity to take care of me for a day. 

Most amazing was the simple human desire to learn about each other. I meet a lot of people in my life, and I am often disappointed when a real connection is not made. Maybe because I do not follow professional sports or watch popular TV shows, I am not that easy to connect with.  But D and S made a deep connection with me in just a few short hours together and we speak different languages!

I think we really connected when I asked S , "Why are you studying journalism?" This opened up a dialogue about the need to empower women in society and how developing a strong voice for women in the news media would allow for change in male dominant structures. She also spends time with homeless people and finds them to be amazing teachers. So great!

D is studying finance and hopes to combine his passion for music with training in finance. He is still dreaming about how that would work - perhaps developing a music school, maybe helping musicians make a living, and definitely using the language of music to spread a message of hope and love and peace:). He and S are both leaders in the worship group at the new Presbyterian Church they founded in 2011! This has a big impact on the lives both of them are leading.
⬆D and S in downtown Medellin

I was a little hesitant at first to tell them what I wanted to do with my Masters of divinity degree, but after hearing their totally honest and inspiring hopes for the future, I decide to explain myself. I want to bring people from different faith traditions together to learn about each other respectfully and take action together to promote peace and justice in their community. Both D and S were excited about this concept and could relate to the need to be open to change and open to learning from/with the other.

This is all very inspiring to me as I come to Apartadó - a regional hub on the Pacific coast where I will be returning between home stays with human rights activists/pastors in the Urabá region. There is so much life in this country. Life dreaming about a more beautiful future. I hope I find this kind of life even in places that have experienced so much death.

Words of Peace

I landed in Medellin, Colombia yesterday after a whole day of flights across the Americas. I only stayed in Medellin for one day as a layover for my final destination in Urabá. I waited in line for customs with my one bag and after a few hesitant words exchanged in English and Spanish with the customs agent, he stamped my passport and I walked out to find my two hosts for the day holding a beautiful cardboard sign reading, "Benjamin." 

I was hosted by two young adults in university who are leaders in a new Presbyterian church that they started just over a year ago. The young man was basically fluent in English, so I retreated to my familiar language just minutes after entering the country!  We talked about music, art, and culture in Medellin and around Colombia. We also talked about the human rights work of the IPC (Presbyterian Church of Colombia). 

The young woman hosting me had been planning to attend a poetry festival going on at the time in Medellin called "One hundred Years of Peace for Colombia. She found an event that had an English speaking poet from Ireland. After eating lunch in the famous downtown complete with dozens of sculptures by Fernando Botero (who is from Medellin) and taking the metro train to my hotel, we went to the poetry festival held at her university.
One of Fernando Botero's works in Medellin 

We sat on the ground and listened to peaceful musical collaborations with instruments from drums and guitars to those plastic tubes you spin around in the air to whistle. The park was packed peacefully with people - many hugs and kisses were given as the crowds gathered, and finally the poetry began. 

They had international poets from Ireland, Peru, Egypt, and also poets from the 1% of Colombians that are indigenous peoples or Amerindian. They spoke passionately in their respective languages and translators spoke with equal vigor repeating the poems in Spanish. The crowd was alive - soaking up every word and applauding in celebration when they connected with the message. 

In my first day I have seen beauty, wisdom, strength, and love at every turn. I pray for peace. I pray for words of peace.

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is looking for a new accompaniment program coordinator. If you are interested in being an accompanier or being hired as the coordinator, check out their website.
My view at the poetry festival!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Journey to Colombia

Today I leave on a new journey with the people of Colombia, South America. I will not be with the government elite, the business leaders or the tourist industry, although I might run into them. I will be with the strong men, women and children who have moved to the tropical Urubá region of the country after being violently displaced from their homes, their communities and their land. These families and the local Presbyterian pastors that act as their civil rights advocates will be my guides into a world that is invisible in the United States despite the real connections between displacement and US interests.

I don't want to try to explain the complex systems of oppression that lead to US military aid in Colombia or land-grabbing strategies practiced by international corporations until I can understand at least one more layer of the issues on the ground. Stopping these oppressive practices is the objective that led the Presbyterian Church of Colombia to ask for a visible presence from the Presbyterian Church USA and that equal partnership for change is what moved me to get involved.

I leave tonight from Louisville, KY to fly to Chicago, Miami, Medellin, and finally to Apartadó before driving into the rainforests of Urubá to meet these amazing communities who come together as Christians to support one another. I am going both to use my US Passport as a shield for Colombian human rights activists and to be a witness to people's life stories in order to spread the word and promote change for justice and peace.  I pray for safety, for new friendships and for movement for liberation of these oppressed peoples.

To donate to this ministry please click on the donation links to the right!