I. La paz no es solo el silencio de los fusiles. May 31, 2013: Bogotá. The delegation receives a crash course on Colombia.
II. Acompañar. May 31: Bogotá. Learning about the CEDECOL Peace Commission, accompaniment, and El Garzal.
III. The road to El Garzal. June 1: Magdalena Medio; Vijagual. Traveling towards El Garzal to meet Pastor Salvador; past death threats.
IV. Tengo una bandera plantada en mi corazón. June 1-2: El Garzal. Accompaniment, worship—and a sudden forced evacuation.
V: Voces Ocultas. June 5: Soacha, Bogotá. The stakes. The aftermath of forced internal displacement; the CEDECOL Peace Commission responds.
VI: Redeem your taxes. June 3; 7: Barrancabermeja; Bogotá. Where paramilitaries come from, U.S. involvement, and the call from Colombia.
Epilogue: Sin Palabras. A Colombian last word.
From May 30 to June 9, 2013, a delegation of clergy and lay leaders from the Central Atlantic and Connecticut Conferences of the United Church of Christ (UCC) traveled through Colombia, accompanied by Global Ministries missionary Michael Joseph.
Since 2000, the Connecticut and Central Atlantic Conferences have participated in a Partnership with Colombia that also includes the Disciples of Christ (in collaboration with the UCC via Global Ministries), the Mennonite organization of Justapaz in Colombia (as well as others), and the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL). The 2013 delegation was organized in the U.S. by Charlie Pillsbury with Michael Joseph in Colombia.
This time, our Colombian partners set the itinerary. We met with Peace Commission affiliates running programs for displaced persons in Soacha, advocated for a young Colombian conscientious objector at the U.S. Embassy, and traveled into the remote Rio Magdalena region to assist Peace Commissioners in accompanying the tiny village of El Garzal and their leader, Pastor Salvador Alcántara.
Christians often speak of the power of Christ to disturb. As well as inspired, our delegation was left disturbed—and so moved into action.
The United Church of Christ historically participates with other denominations in the annual Days of Prayer and Action for Peace in Colombia, which includes lobbying for responsible policy and resource allocation there—Colombia is one of the U.S.’s top aid recipients year after year. Our delegation’s experiences in Colombia powerfully illustrate the societal realities and individual lives behind the policy planks of the 2013 petition addressed to the U.S. government.
Materials prepared by the UCC and the Mennonite Central Committee for the Days of Prayer and Action are the best starting point for comprehensive background on Colombia and the official advocacy positions of those institutions.
Unless otherwise noted, the words and captioned images on this blog are exclusively the personal reflections of just one (non-clergy) member of the 2013 delegation. They are not meant to represent the views of any of the institutions referenced—here or abroad—nor serve as an official account of the 2013 trip or speak for any of the other delegation members, either individually or as a group. Our experience of witness was too rich—and complicated—to be completely reflected in the solo series of personal essays that follow.
It’s easy for the North American church to fall into the habit of listening for cries for help from abroad. What the UCC is actually hearing from Colombia is a strong and steadfast call for accompaniment, and accountability. (Even Global Ministries missionary Michael Joseph’s blog is titled, “Colombia Calling.”)
This call for accompaniment is directed towards a denomination that speaks to them of partnership; whose members pay taxes to a federal government with massive presence on their ground (for better and, often, for worse); that is their mirrored counterpart in faith, stated values, and the spirit of many congregations under one banner.
This is our call.
The word accompaniment here—the term preferred in Colombia in lieu of “help” of “aid” in social services parlance—matters. Accompanying Colombia means not just meeting face to face, but also walking side by side with powerful, organized local leaders who made it clear to our delegation time and time again that they are prepared to lead on strategy and only ask from us what we feel is realistically in our “capacity to deliver.”
The delegation’s wider mission was to begin a collective re-imagination of what a Partnership with Colombia might look like.
In Colombia I witnessed two powerful forms of accompaniment: relational, and institutional.
Relational accompaniment can mean personality-driven, leader to leader collaboration. This is the compelling origin story of the Partnership with Colombia: two UCC Conference ministers cultivated a strong relationship with CEDECOL Peace Commission co-founder Ricardo Esquivia, and have continued to advocate with and for him into retirement. Relational accompaniment also includes sister congregation programs, and the camaraderie and pastoral support of in-person delegations like our own. These specific relationships and programs are vitally important in establishing connection across all kinds of borders.
Institution to institution accompaniment is civil society power; it concretizes the relationship and grows sustainability and wider inclusion. (And words like “institutionalization,” “concretize,” and “sustainability” don’t have to be red flags for “standing office,” “staff,” or the dread “obligatory monthly committee meeting”—we can surely organize more creatively than that.)
Stateside, mass UCC participation in the annual Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia is institutional accompaniment—and this October, the body of the UCC stood with CEDECOL when 84 leaders at the Connecticut Conference fall assembly signed a petition to advocate for Peace Commission co-founder Ricardo Esquivia in his latest struggle.
In Bogotá, when our American delegation gained access to meetings and information that were not readily accessible by our Colombian partners, that was institutional accompaniment as well. And our presence in accompanying a tiny village under threat of forced displacement was a tacit commitment by the body of the United Church of Christ—especially after the events that unfolded as a consequence of our visit.
In areas of Colombia beyond the reach of the state, both illegal armed actors and churches committed to peace have stepped forward to fill the vacuum. The CEDECOL Peace Commission has found and claimed its rightful place in the ground war for peace. To accompany in earnest our sister churches in their radical works and hope—to keep any promises made—we will need to roust and assess ourselves as a denominational partner: what is our capacity?