Colombia Accompaniment Report: Many Visits, One Theme

Cathy & Peter Surgenor

20 February 2018

Our week has been short but busy.  We have visited three churches in three towns and eight families.  

In all these visits there are similarities.  Each home visit was characterized by a warm welcome, great food, generosity, and a willingness to tell family stories.  Almost every meal included a generous portion of stewed meat, green salad, rice (often cooked in coco milk), platanos (twice-fried smashed plantains) and freshly processed fruit juice.

Church members gather for worship.

The violence for the past 30+ years has had a great impact on the lives of these families as well as on the country.  We would sit down to talk and there would be gentle efforts to understand our limited español.  But quickly the conversations would get deeper as our hosts began to tell their stories.  We were able to have conversations in three churches, one at worship on Sunday, one for an informal conversation and one where the church community waited almost an hour for our arrival.

[Let me set the scene: Nearly all the churches we visited were finished brilliantly.  Shiny terrazzo floor tiles, bright paint and ventilation. The church in the photo is an exception.  We walked down a dusty road in a medium-sized village.  The church structure is unusable as work has begun (and stopped) to build a more substantial sanctuary.  Reinforcing rods stand tall, waiting to be encased in concrete to support the roof and for a raised floor to allow worship in the rainy season.  We met in the enclosed side porch of the building which was also the pastor’s home.]

When we arrived, they graciously switched the conversation to focus on our questions and listening. We asked how many in the group had been forced to leave their land; almost all in attendance, including the pastor, raised their hands.  Then, one by one, they began to tell stories of family members killed, land being taken by corrupt government action or paramilitary groups.  Most stories included teary moments as they remembered missing family members.  When we asked if anyone wanted to return to their lands, a number answered, “No.”  “We will stay in this community, but we do need to find some programs to help the youth of this community find productive activities and lives rather than engaging in violence. Parents have been traumatized and are poorly equipped to help their children grow in positive ways of understanding Christian faith. We must provide support for them.”

Another church's gathering space under construction.

In each of the eight family homes we visited there were stories of loss.  Some families had had land taken and had later been able to acquire much smaller parcels in the midst of plantain groves where they worked.  In these smaller parcels they carefully tended diverse plants and trees to support family needs.  We often found papaya, guyava, mango, coffee, cacao (for hot chocolate), tamarind, totumo (whose seeds are inedible, but husks are used for water and cooking bowls). The tree has medicinal properties; and there are other important plants as well. 

But in the midst of this diversity of plants and fruits, there were painful stories of loss.  Horrific stories of family members killed by one group or another.  Stories of terroristic threats attempting to push a family off a small piece of land.  Markets closed for up to two months at a time on occasion to add economic pressure.  One man, whose wife had lost four family members to violence, told of coming home one night on his motorcycle when he was stopped by one of the groups.  When questioned, “What side are you on?” he took a deep breath and answered, “I am a Christian.” When they demanded his motorcycle he replied, “No, it is mine, I am a Christian.  I need it for work.” Those who stopped him stepped aside for a heated discussion about next steps.  Finally, they told him to be on his way.

A family's poster memorializing a loved one lost to the violence.

It is important to know that the violence was not over with 25 – 30 years ago:  

  • One weekend while we were here, transportation on the major highway was suspended due to the threat of violence by a guerrilla group.
  • We were invited to join the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace sponsored by the World Council of Churches* early in our visit. On that pilgrimage we visited the site of assassinations of two men who were vocal about preserving rights: Mario Castaño and Hernán Bedoya– whose assassinations were condemned by PCUSA Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and other groups.
  • We stayed a number of nights in the home of a woman whose husband had been murdered just a year ago.  It was one of the nicest homes in the neighborhood, but sadness and loss had touched the family. The woman shared that “Oui Oui” was her husband’s pet; the parrot has been mourning ever since the husband died. For the first month he even refused to eat. Oui Oui was quiet and allowed Cathy to approach, but did not interact with her further.

The violence is not over.  Justice seems to be hiding. Each group/person has a unique perspective on what justice would look like.  Elections are coming and each of the presidential candidates is calling for peace.  However, they differ in their understanding of how peace and justice can be served.  All sides have participated in extrajudicial killings over the last 30 years.  Who among these groups should be punished? Even the church denominations are divided on this question.