[Bogotá: Learning about the CEDECOL Peace Commission, accompaniment, and El Garzal at Justapaz and MENCOLDES.]

We advocate for U.S. policy that champions:

The active participation of victims of violence and civil society in the peace process. Peace must be built from the ground up as well as negotiated from the top down. The engagement of every sector of society—including victims’ associations, displaced communities, civil society organizations, religious communities, and labor unions—is necessary to construct a just and sustainable peace.”

According to our organizer and leader Charlie Pillsbury, the 2013 delegation’s stated mission was:

to gain insight into and first-hand experience of the work of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia, the main partner of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) through Global Ministries in Colombia.”

The Evangelical* Council of Colombia (CEDECOL) represents approximately 70% of Colombia’s Evangelical, Protestant and Anabaptist Christian population.**

The CEDECOL Peace Commission was founded to provide relief and hope to the victims of violence and forced displacement in Colombia, and to work proactively with educational programs designed to help churches and communities make themselves over into peace sanctuaries.

The founding of the peace commission 23 years ago was driven by grim necessity, not theology; the commission also documents political violence against Colombian Protestant churches.  Its yearly reports—”A Prophetic Call”—are used as a resource by the U.S. government in preparing its own regular audit of religious freedom in Colombia.

Peace Commission members believe there is a critical role for churches in Colombia’s recovery, and work in concrete terms to increase the capacity of churches to work for peace.

Circled and underlined at the top of my notes from our meetings that first day is the word acompañar—to accompany.   In our group reflection later that day on the informational sessions, I raised what a remarkable deviation this is from the American social services lexicon: where American providers use the word “help”, “assistance,” or “aid,” in Colombia, they use the noun “accompaniment.” 

One does not provide, give, or even serve, but accompanies.  Counseling is “psycho-social accompaniment.”  Legal aid is “legal accompaniment.”  And the CEDECOL Peace Commission provides very literal accompaniment to selected communities under threat of violence and forced displacement.  The community of El Garzal in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region is one of these sites—and one which our Colombian partners had asked us to accompany ourselves, as a delegation of witness to their struggle and to the work of the Peace Commission.

Accompaniment is walking side by side; it is also a powerful weapon for peace. The sign we would later view at the town green at El Garzal reads, in translation,

 Welcome to the community of El Garzal, a Peace Territory.  We are 100 families.  The organizations that accompany us are: SWISSAID, PDPMM, ADAM, FUPAD, ECAP, PEACEWATCH, ASPROAS, APROCASUR, AGROMISBOL.”

It serves as greeting, and as documentation of highly sophisticated, wide-reaching community leadership.  It also serves as a warning:  We are recognized, we are organized, we are here, and the world is watching.

Twenty four hours after I had started underlining acompañar in my notes, we landed in the tiny town of El Garzal.

*“Evangelical” used as a label in South America does not always have the same connotations as it does in the US; it can also be used as an umbrella term for all Protestants in general, including “mainline” denominations.  (Indeed, it was the term preferred by Martin Luther to describe his original Protestant reform movement.)
**The Catholic Church still dominates Colombia, as it does South America. “The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference estimates that 90 percent of the population is Catholic, while the Colombian Evangelical Council (CEDECOL) states that approximately 15 percent of the population is Protestant.”  Catholicism was the official state religion from colonial times until the constitution was revised in 1991, which recognized and granted other faiths equal protection and status as well.