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 Apartad√≥ 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.