Global Ministries delegation provides presence and support for peace process in Colombia

Colombiapeople.jpgFrom May 16th to the 22nd, Global Ministries led a high level delegation to witness the ongoing peace process in Colombia. The delegation consisted of Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, Tony Rodriguez, Moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, Nora Sanders, General Secretary of the United Church of Canada, Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, President of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, Rev. Dr. Jim Moos, Executive Minister for Wider Church Ministries and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, Rev. Rick Spleth, Regional Minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indiana, Rev. Edward Davis, Conference Minister of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Angel Rivera-Agosto, Area Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean for Global Ministries, Rev. Jane Sullivan-Davis, Executive for Resource Development for Global Ministries, and Rev. Dr. Teresa Hord Owens, Nominee for General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Colombiagroup.jpgDay 1: May 17th (CEDECOL, Women´s Network, DiPaz)

The delegation had their first official meeting at JUSTAPAZ’s Offices in Bogotá.  Representatives from Global Ministries’ Partners received the group and presented them an overview of the work they do in Colombia.  On that day, the delegation heard and saw reports by the Peace and Justice Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL), the Women´s Network and the Intereclesial Dialogue for Peace (DiPaz).  They also had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the Colombian Counselor for Human Rights, Paula Gaviria. 

After the meetings, the group reflected upon the contrasts between the literature they examined before the trip to Colombia and the testimonies (testimonies) they heard from the partners and individuals on this first day of meetings.  The group acknowledged the violent account of atrocities in the country as described in the literature. The death rate was described as “horrible” and “troubling” by the participants.  Nevertheless, they appreciate the opportunity of knowing persons, of hearing the testimonios of friends and partners that are working directly on the conflict.  Knowing these persons and the work they do through their ministries filled the group with hope. 

Our Partners were described as “resilient” and “hopeful.”  The group concluded that our partners do not share things lightly.  In spite of that, they did not sense the fear that in some situations limits the witness of our partners.  That, along with the passion and the experience on peacebuilding brought a deep sense of responsibility and conviction. The group also appreciated the sense of voluntary service in Colombia. For them it was really important, taking into account, how the churches in the U.S. tend to pay people for the same services.

Day 2:  May 18th (JUSTAPAZ, Tripartite Mechanism, U.S. Embassy)

The work of JUSTAPAZ

The Christian Centre for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz) seeks to embody and serve non-violence through programs working towards transforming Colombia into a just and peaceful state.  Since its establishment in 1990, Justapaz has worked to promote nonviolence, peacebuilding and the positive transformation of conflict. It has developed a broad range of initiatives in training, organization and action for conflict transformation at local, regional, national, and international levels.  Its organizational arrangement actively promotes the formation of a non-hierarchical organization and the deep involvement of Colombia’s affected communities in the way the organization is run.

Jenny Neme, Executive Director of JUSTAPAZ, did a brief presentation about the work of the organization on the morning of this second day of a visit to Colombia.  The delegation affirmed that conscientious objection is part of our tradition as churches.  What was challenging about the experience of conscientious objection in Colombia is that the Mennonite Church educates, advocates and exercises it in a very concrete manner.  It is a pending matter for the churches in the U.S. to educate and advocate more about that right.

The group questioned how to exercise the right of conscientious objection in the context of Selective Service.   What does it mean to do that in the U.S.?  Do young people lose their rights as citizens to declare themselves conscientious objectors?  This reminded the delegation about the situation in Israel/Palestine, where young people do not want to serve in the military.

The empowerment of JUSTAPAZ was inspiring for the group.  The success of filing suits for conscientious objectors is remarkable.  It is admirable the way they use the courts to affirm the objector because they do not have a law that protects them.  Undoubtedly, they work a peace process from below.

TRIPARTITE COMMISSION

The Tripartite Commission received the delegation at the United Nations facility in Bogotá.  The Commission was composed of Gustavo Castillo and Fernando Fleitas, representing the United Nations.  Counterclaimant Orlando Romero represented the Government of Colombia.  Matias Aldecoa and Sandra Rodríguez represented the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).  The Commission explained to the delegation the way they give follow-up to the Peace Accords, the countries that are accompanying the implementation of the Accords, the process of regrouping and disarmament of the FARC and the actual state of the mechanisms.  They also shared with the delegation their expectations of the Peace Accords and their commitment to continue the task until its full compliance. 

The group reflected on how the representatives of the Commission showed their particular internal dynamic of work.  Some questions arose.  Is there any mutuality on the way they do their work?   How do they express their love for Colombia?  Is there anything that unites them? What is their profound foundation?  Are they stuck in the process?

The decision by the Constitutional Court, stating the unconstitutionality of a “fast track” process of approval, as negotiated by the parts in conflict, had an negative evaluation from the FARC representatives.  They said that it could have the effect of slowing down too much or, even, provoke a break in the implementation of the Peace Accords.  Nevertheless, it is a negotiation process.  The delegation expressed that they should know it was supposed to be difficult.  We are talking about a 60-year civil war.  It is important to underline those representatives of the participant churches expressed that for the first time in their lives, they were close to the situation in Colombia.  They had a pretty good idea about that, but now they could see the complexity of it. There were some comments about how the process needs to remember the victims and to go along with a strong structure to follow up the process.  However, the optimism bumped into gigantic walls.  “People without jobs will rebel,” said one of the delegates. At that point, the group was convinced that there were different visions, concepts, and approaches to what constitutes “peace.”  Some phrases used by the commissioners can illustrate this point:

 “No more dead people.”

“No more hurt people.”

“Colombia needs an opportunity to grieve.”

“Peace needs social justice to be real.”

As the Commissioners expressed their concepts of peace throughout the conversation, there was a deep sense of tension that the group defined as HOPE VS. HEADACHE.

Another comment that struck the delegation was the one shared by Sandra (FARC): “42% of FARC are women”.

CONVERSATION WITH THE U.S. EMBASSY

Three representatives of the U.S. Embassy received the group early in the afternoon of the second day of meetings.   Rebeca Hagley, Human Rights Advisor; Juan Carlos Guerrero, Legal Advisor on Human Rights;  Mike Marcos, Counselor on Vulnerable Communities; and Erick Falls, Deputy Political Counselor, engaged the delegation in a dialogue about the role of the United States in the process of peace in Colombia.

Later, in the debriefing about this particular experience, the group noted how the U.S. designated a whole wing of its embassy in Colombia to deal with human rights.  At first sight, it looked promising.  Later we confirmed what we heard from one of our partners: most U.S. aid has been used for security matters. To that, it is important to point out that most of the U.S. Embassy staff are composed of DEA employees.

Was the group surprised by the saying of Mr. Falls about describing U.S. policy in Colombia as a “success.” Suppression of social movements and imposition of U.S. policy through Plan Colombia seems to be a “success” to them.  Moreover, our sense was that the political section of the embassy was, more precisely, the intelligence section of it.

The group concluded that Colombia needs to continue to seek for peace from the ground up.  People that sell drugs in Colombia are part of the margins.

Day 3:  May 19th Victims Association in Granada/Santa Ana (Restorative Justice)

The delegation visited a place called “Salón de Nunca Más” (“No more room”) where the leaders from the U.S. and Canadian churches along with the Global Ministries staff and board leaders, could acknowledge the process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and reconstruction of the social fabric of the community.  They were received by representatives of the victims, as well as perpetrators in a beautiful and moving experience recognizing the complexity of violence and the quest for peace through forgiveness.  

The group described it as a deeply emotional experience.  To see an FARC soldier (Ismael) asking for forgiveness was emotional.  It was even more emotional, as he described how he forgave a paramilitary responsible for killing his sister while he was in hiding with the FARC.  He could embrace that person while they were both in jail, citing biblical texts about the kind of peace that Jesus gives to the world, calling the murderer of his sister “brother”.  The experience lived on that day was a highlight of the visit.  The group could recognize the enormous importance of forgiveness as a whole matter that is in the deep center of the peace process in Colombia.  It is a dimension of forgiveness, built in the context of the quest for justice, in a collaborative dynamic, moved by the pain of the victims as well as the perpetrators, as they recognized themselves as victims of the conflict along with the victimized.  In the specific case of Ismael, the prophetic voice of Ismael´s mother took our attention. She was a prophet in the way she described the future Christian ministry of her son, even though at that moment he was part of the FARC.  Also, it was important that Ismael never lost his understanding of the roots of the Colombian conflict.  He was free to ask for forgiveness, understanding that “a few capitalists and imperialists on the top of the social ladder dominate the wealth and the resources while they promote Colombians to fight to each other in the lower parts of that social ladder.” 

Walls with photos of children broke the hearts of the delegates.  The delegation was particularly moved by the letters of the children, written on black notebooks that were exposed at the No More Room. That is part of a healing experience for the children who lost their parents in the war.  It was and is a beautiful tribute to the fallen and a way to be permanently remembered by their families and by the community.  Some delegates brought to attention the West African tradition of calling the ancestors and how it can be compared to the Colombian experience of memory and reparation.  Also, they observed as positive the accompaniment of psychologists and how women lead the process.  Moreover, the power of forgiveness is leading the community into a new process of development.  As they signal the places where their loved ones fell as victims of war, they are reconstructing and paving the streets with memorial sites for the fallen. 

Day 4:  May 20th  U.N. camps on Temporary Normalization Zones

The group had the experience of visiting a Temporary Normalization Zone at Buenos Aires Community, Toribio, El Cauca, traveling to the north.  We were received by representatives of the U.N., the Colombian government and the FARC.  They are living in the camps and are overseeing the fulfillment of the Peace Accords in this specific community. 

The group was impressed by the age of the representatives.  They are young people who are living and working there.  They showed a connection between them.  While in Bogotá the representatives were more middle-aged people, in the demobilization zone, we found young people conducting the process. 

The young Colombians that represented the government at the zone reflected the position of the government: “Things are great,”  “they are not fighting anymore.” The rest of the representatives (U.N. and FARC) seemed more concerned and, even, frustrated with the everyday business of the implementation of the Accords.  At this same time, young FARC leaders´frustrations are real.

The group noted, again, women´s leadership in the demobilization zone.  That was awesome.  The question was how the roles get defined in the midst of new circumstances? Some FARC member said, “I had a gun, but now we are in a new context.”

The beauty of the place made the group say that “it looks more like the Garden of Eden than a War Zone.”

Isabel Vargas (FARC member) quoted: “Now, I do not have a rank.  I have a mission.”

The commitment showed by the young U.N. representatives, as well as the youth of FARC and the government, reminded us about the conscientious objectors we heard in JUSTAPAZ Offices;  also the young woman from Argentina, working for the U.N. in the camp.  She was a volunteer and is requesting an extension of her service for a longer term. 

The group reflected on what does it mean to build trust in that context.   It is hard to build trust, and it needs to be based on complying with the Accords.  If you put a signature on something, you better DO IT.  Even so, the group again brought the issue about how the schedule could be unrealistic from the beginning. However, some concerns expressed by the FARC leaders put the analysis somewhere else. There are allegations of corruption in service contracts related to the Accords.  They told us that the government has been delivering expired food to the FARC camps.  Even the government is not providing medical services to the population in the zones.  All of what was mentioned made the group believe that problems are not necessarily tied to a specific schedule. 

At this point of the reflection, the group brought questions about the way the government, and all governments, do business.  Is public corruption a real enemy of the Accords?  Contracts are business and business can bring complications to the fulfillment of the Accords.  The group asked about the real leadership of Juan Manuel Santos as President of Colombia.  His leadership was described as “weak” by our partners.  Also, another question would be the influence of the U.S. in the progress of the Peace Accords.  President Santos and President Trump met in Washington D.C. on the same dates that we visited Colombia.  One of the results of that meeting was Trump commenting about the need for continuing the “war on drugs” in Colombia that has exacerbated tensions. 

Day 5:  May 21st (Worship at the Evangelical Missionary Union and Final Evaluation)

We are grateful for the opportunity to know the culture of Colombia.  The Spirit of Colombia is flourishing in spite of suffering.

The group defined their experience with the FARC as “contradictory.”

It was awkward to go into a church, into a humble community and get so much love.

This visit has been living proof of our accompaniment as churches and Global Ministries.   It is the same, all over the world.  The pastor at the church said, “We are well accompanied.”

Our presence in the world put us in a deep experience of receiving God´s gifts.  On this trip, we received the gift of reconciliation.  We received it in our flesh and bone when it came to a commitment to dignity.  It is so important to participate in the process of narrating the experience to others.

The group was very thankful.  We have so much to learn.  We need to develop the ability to articulate why we do the things we do.

Conclusion:

This travel has been a comprehensive experience about living the experience of pilgrimage through our accompaniment as Global Ministries to Colombia.  That is so because the word pilgrimage is derived from the Latin term peregrinus, meaning 'alien,' and peregri, meaning 'abroad,' referring to “the one who travels to foreign lands.” So, we traveled to Colombia to make us present in their lives and in the lives of the brothers and sisters with whom we collaborate in a spirit of international solidarity. However, in the way of making us present by this travel, we could also participate in their journey as our Colombian brothers and sisters detach from their reality of violence and war and embark on their spiritual and faithful pilgrimage of peace and justice.  We could appreciate the difficulties of that travel.  There are obstacles and circumstances that can even affect the whole process of peace there.  Nevertheless, they keep their “stubborn hope,” as Angélica Alonso from JUSTAPAZ defined her experience of holding her endeavor in spite of adversity.  That is admirable and stands as an experience that we in the U.S. should learn and apply to our spiritual journeys here.   

As a follow-up of what was discussed on the first day, the group proposed to continue sharing the story of Colombia with the churches in the U.S.  The objective of this is for the people to know about what is happening in the communities and to be in solidarity with them.  Also, our partners invited us “to keep doing what you are doing” regarding solidarity and accompaniment. 

Finally, the group brought to their attention some new learnings about the term “advocacy” as our partners use it in Colombia.  There, the delegation learned about “advocacy” as, “political incidence.”

The group suggested writing a letter to both of our churches about the experience we lived in Colombia and requesting our government to spend more money on aiding the Peace Accords and not in Plan Colombia.  It is important to establish that reducing humanitarian aid to Colombia can put the whole process in jeopardy. 


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