Recordar, to remember.
One of the UCC ministers who preached about the Road to Emmaus that Sunday in El Garzal observed that the disciples who finally recognize the presence of Christ while breaking bread do not linger any further in Emmaus—they leave the table with urgency to hurry back to Jerusalem and spread word of what they have witnessed.
Exactly two weeks later, I sat in the marble narthax of a perfect Yankee cake-topper of a church back in Connecticut. I was still ailing from an intestinal illness I picked up somewhere in the Magdalena Medio; doctor’s orders were for bed rest after bags of IV fluid the Friday before, but I wanted to be there just long enough to say hello. Everyone knew I had been to Colombia and it was my first Sunday back home.
Two tiers of windows were thrown open, circulating still-crisp summer air. Ushers and the regulars puttered around with flowers, programs, cookies. The crystal chandelier custom-designed for the church in 1961 was lit; a music director warmed up on one of only seven Fisk organs in the state.
It was comfortable routine until a second glance back into the church proper—what Congregationalists call “sanctuary”—a little closer to 10 a.m. Someone had since flicked on the lights. Now the grandly-elevated centerpiece of the pulpit was cleanly illuminated, empty. The artificial light popped the colors in the Tiffany window above: a gorgeous tableau of the first Sabbath service celebrated by the founders of the church—and colony—after their landfall in 1638. It’s the closest a Puritan-founded church ever gets to iconography.
The composition is loosely based on a relatively obscure painting by Thomas Prichard Rossiter of that Sunday. It’s the only Tiffany in the world known to portray a gun—in a church that staunchly forbids even reenactment firearms from the sanctuary during full-dress colony commemorations.
Tour guides are trained to provide the hellish natural history behind the artist’s rendering: the original town green just outside the current sanctuary doors had also functioned as a grazing ground for livestock—and a burial ground for often-shallow graves.
This beloved scene of the tiny, unsheltered worship service was not wholly bowdlerized for the sake of aesthetics: Colony Governor Theophilus Eaton is depicted before the Reverend John Davenport with a musket not for pacifying the native population, but to hold the wolves at bay. The inscription in the lower left corner is 1 Kings 8:57:
The Lord our God be with us as He was with our fathers. Let Him not leave us nor forsake us.”
My eyes stung before I realized why. I was gripped with an embarrassing need to catch the minister before I could excuse myself back to my sickbed.
I approached as soon as she walked in, feeling ridiculous about what I had to do.
I just want you to know that your counterpart in El Garzal is missing from his pulpit right now,”
I blurted out, apropos of nothing.
We had to evacuate him out. The church we worshipped with two weeks ago doesn’t have their pastor this morning.”
I had disclosed to her what had happened in Colombia when I first got home. I was just reminding her of something we both already knew.
The sermon at the New Haven colony’s first Sabbath was on Matthew’s account of the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness. Reverend Davenport had brought his followers from European exile, to Boston, to finally sail into the estuaries on the Connecticut shoreline to found what he called “a new Jerusalem.” He would build a reputation as the most strident of the Pilgrim spiritual leaders. That April Sunday he was already concerned for the future of the new settlement, but his fixation on this text was not some Hawthornian, buckle-hat moral panic.
Davenport’s abiding fear for our founding colonists in this wilderness was that they might—even with the best of intentions—use their own powers for the wrong ends and pay dearly.
He lifted up the passage as a cautionary tale to the faithful that acts which on their surface appear reasonable or even righteous are sometimes not what is asked of us—and may even summon evil.
According to Davenport, wisdom—and the awareness of possible consequences—comes only in slow increments, but we are obliged to press towards it without ceasing.
Shortly before our departure to Colombia, I had asked our U.S. organizer to forward along a question I had for Michael about the appropriateness of bringing along small gifts for the Colombians we would meet.
On a research trip to Russia many years ago, I had been advised it was de rigueur to bring along inexpensive but meaningful symbols of your hometown, university, nation, etc. for those who host or otherwise assist you in some way:
I don’t know if this is uniquely Russian, or considered the polite thing to do elsewhere as well.”
We got an enthusiastic go-ahead, and the entire delegation packed items meant to stand for our congregations or conferences. There were mugs, hats, lapel pins, a tiny commemorative plate, a purloined cross (the subject of much humor on our end), and chubby salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Washington Monument and the Capitol.
The most appreciated mementos by far—every time—were knitted scraps packed individually in tiny Ziploc bags. One of the clergy delegates serves a UCC congregation where, as the members of the prayer shawl ministry have aged, they have transitioned into knitting these more manageable “pocket” shawls instead.
These were sent with prayer, and members had already committed to praying for their eventual recipients, whomever they might be. They were offered to the Colombian partners we met who had identified as religious, as well as to our missionary; a large number were also left behind for distribution to future victims of human rights violations interviewed for CEDECOL’s annual documentation report. Whenever one came out, everything else hushed to a standstill.
Each was packaged with a slip of paper that explained the premise—the covenant—left behind: We already remember you—even before we’ve met.
We cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard, but remembrance is not enough.
In the course of research for these writings, I perused dozens of websites and personal blogs posted by others who have been taken into Soacha. It became almost mechanical—until I was stopped dead by a small image at the bottom of the personal page of a Mennonite in Canada.
It was a snapshot of the dignified, campesino grandfather we had spoken on the path leading down to his illegal residence. He even appeared to be standing on the same ground, chin tilted in the same pose, framed from a similar angle to what I had captured myself. It sucked the air out of my lungs.
Many weeks later, when I wanted to study the photo again, I couldn’t re-find the obscure blog it appeared on. I still haven’t.
I did find yet another photograph of him in my searches, however—from the group blog of a delegation that went through Soacha a year and two months before we did.
The elderly campesino looked grayer and more fragile to me by 2013, but a Mennonite clergy delegate from that 2012 trip I contacted (who posted his own photo of him on his personal blog) confirms it’s the same individual, taken by a second member of his group; we each have been unable to forget the same agonizing story about him:
Unless there is an additional personal blog out there by another member of that 2012 Mennonite delegation that the three of us are unaware of, that means that we UCC delegates were at least the third foreign church group to encounter and flock around this man to take his photo in the last few years:
Remembrance—and documentation for the sake of documentation—is not enough.
For a witness surrounded, the last psychic defense available against despair and horror is agape, which will instinctually push back out against it at equal force.
That self-protective swell of love is a bare start.
The suffering we witnessed was cruel and non-redemptive. But it was not unmitigated.
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder.”
[2 Peter 1: 12-13]
Parallel to the political and social analysis we received that first full day were the narratives of the Colombians we met.
These were more immediately—insistently—accessible. We shuffled back and forth between three different NGOs for nearly 10 hours, confined mostly to florescent-lit rooms that might as well have been in Boston as Bogotá. But by dinner time, it was impossible to ignore how many family stories of displacement had been raised in the course of formal introductions.
These were urban, educated professionals—one or two generations removed from the watershed events and lost lives kept alive by the same oral tradition commanded throughout the Old Testament for stories of horror and salvation alike.
One young NGO director with the Peace Commission matter-of-factly volunteered that both her parents and grandparents had been forcibly displaced from their homes. She grew up on her father’s narrative of displacement, and the subsequent humiliation of living with the lack of dignity in cities. Her “very Catholic and socially engaged” parents threw themselves into work for their new community in response.
She herself had converted to the Mennonite faith as a young social worker, deeply impressed by
the connection of faith and practice and love”
she witnessed practiced by its members in their own works.
In the course of a different meeting later that afternoon, a senior academic on the Commission disclosed that he grew up hearing stories of displacement from his mother. His family was displaced in the 1950s, due to religious persecution of Protestants at the time.
He grew up to study Colombian history at seminary. He was introduced to the academic lens on issues around displacement and violence, and progressed from there to the conviction that
it is not sufficient to analyze; one must work for change.”
They had been stirred up by way of reminder.
We are called to record, not to retread.
Paradoxically, memory—personal, familial, institutional—seeks to simultaneously preserve and transform.
Recursion that does not eventually resolve towards mastery curdles into sickness. Trauma without reconciliation is handed down through families as seamlessly as narrative—even in an enforced absence of narrative.
When the situation in El Garzal unfolded that Sunday, Michael Joseph outlined a typical escalation ladder for us as we stood around waiting in the Pastor’s home. The spaces in between vary, but it often progresses from rumor; to harassment (motorbikes up and down the dirt roads in the community late at night, the killing of livestock); to threats passed along via third parties; to direct verbal or written threats; to in-person visits by armed individuals; to—finally—completed acts of violence.
The Colombians we met have many years of experience at puzzling out the devil’s calculus of when to evacuate in order to deescalate, and for how long. We saw evidence in El Garzal that even on the lower rungs, threats still have a devastating effect on those targeted. It re-traumatizes the traumatized.
“Terrorism” as a word has been muddied and abused into uselessness, but here’s its bread and butter: you only need to torture or murder once, to open a door into the imagination that can’t ever be completely shut again by survivors.
Even just feinting brutality at those to whom violence has become intimately familiar ranks among the basest of human rights violations. The suffering that can be generated by armed actors with such a low barrier to entry is excruciating even in witness.
It’s impossible not to worry about how the memories of atrocities experienced or witnessed—by millions in Colombia, over and over since 1948—might echo down the generations long after any silence of the guns.
The miraculous healings sprinkled throughout the New Testament are light on follow-up of characters suddenly, bafflingly, no longer lepers, blind, or lame—after presumably years or a lifetime stunted by illness. The sick who are then the healed are unsatisfyingly reduced to plot points, when the more interesting—and critical—question is, what happens next?
In one healing, Peter curtly commands a man (just as Christ himself once said to another paralyzed person he miraculously cured in order to prove a point):
The man does so and promptly disappears, having served his narrative purpose.
As far as the author (and reader) is concerned, his role has concluded; for the man who long laid crippled on that mat, the story—and need for healing—has just begun.
At our meeting at the U.S. Embassy, the discussion inevitably turned to the current peace talks in Havana, and their (hopefully anticipated) “third stage.”
Colombians and international observers speak in terms of three key stages: the negotiations just to get to get FARC and the Colombian government to the official table and to agree upon the agenda (which occurred behind closed doors and initially in total secrecy); the actual process of negotiation; and then the implementation stage.
One of the Foreign Service officers volunteered that in this third stage,
Any outcome is going to be polarizing, so churches and NGOs will play a critical role. Everyone [in Colombia] knows someone who has been victimized.”
A member of the CEDECOL Peace Commission had explained as much the night before.
Peace Commission members are thinking as cautiously as everyone else about what may or may not come out of Havana, but on one point they are certain: in the third stage, the role of the churches will become even more urgent.
They are the civil spaces where the rubber will meet the road, in terms of transitive, and restorative, justice efforts, for victims and perpetrators alike:
Pastors will have to figure out how to pastor a former guerrilla who wants to join the congregation.”
Religious leaders will have much to offer, but they will also need accompaniment themselves.
As noted previously, CEDECOL has pioneered the use of participating member churches as an organized network for tracking and reporting human rights violations against Protestant leaders and congregants.
As described to us by one leader on this project,
Documentation helps to keep the memory alive, but we are also careful to observe best practices so reports can be used for political advocacy as well.”
I asked what the typical background of a volunteer trained to conduct interviews is like. A number of them are women with advanced degrees; our partners knew offhand of one interviewer who is a pastor, and another is a trained psychologist. Some of the interviewers in the program have themselves been victimized; they are perhaps seeking to re-master their own trauma.
The leader we spoke to in Bogotá reiterated the CEDECOL Peace Commission’s perspective on this sober (and risky) calling, for their organization and the victims alike:
It is important to go beyond memory, to speak publicly.”