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Global Ministries 2011 Latin America Trip Blog

December 10, 2011

The last two mission pilgrimages in observance of 200 years of mission are running simultaneously.  One group is traveling in India and the other to Haiti and Colombia. These pilgrimages are for conference ministers and board members are partially funded by Wider Church Ministries and a foundation grant.  The group of ten led by Felix Ortiz, area executive for Latin America and the Caribbean, is flying first to Bogota Colombia then traveling upriver in Colombia to visit with churches and partners.  After spending several days in Colombia, the group will fly to Haiti where they will be hosted by partners there.

Learning, discussion and sharing about church and ministry joys and challenges will be a part of each day. Follow this group blog for a sense of the creative power of solidarity in Haiti and Colombia.

December 10, 2011

“Bring who you are, not what you have.”  This was the invitation extended to the nine of us by Felix Ortiz as our sacred pilgrimage began.  As that pilgrimage winds down and bids farewell to the places and people and encounters that have welcomed and shaped us, I believe we have learned from those who greeted us what it means to share oneself fully and authentically. 

From the pastors and community organizers and campesinos and advocates who blessed our time in Haiti and Columbia, we learned to hold nothing back in matters of faith and justice.  We learned to live passionately and to feel deeply.  We witnessed their commitments of heart and service even when doing so implies great personal risk.  And together we shared our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our ties of faith and basic humanity.  We shared who we are and who we aspire to be.

As our pilgrimage began, so too did the season of Advent, urging us to stay attuned to the ways in which God would be revealed in our midst.  Where might we glimpse the advent of Christ, the unmistakable signs of God working fresh meaning and purpose out of the world’s chaos and complexity?  The markings of God laboring among us were everywhere apparent in our journey:

  • In the calloused hands of rural pastors who derive their livelihood from farming but also cultivate a Spirit of hope and faith among those they serve;
  • In the courage of countless communities to toil for justice and a place to call their own despite immense personal risk and mortal danger;
  • In the audacity of so many to laugh and be joyful amid the enormity of their own need and suffering;
  • In the awesome generosity of those who have little material wealth but yet shared with us so abundantly and graciously;
  • In the testimony of those who witness so powerfully to the presence of God with them even and especially in the heart of their struggles and pains;
  • In the faithful purposes of our mission personnel and courageous partners, who put flesh every day on the Global Ministries’ intent to provide ‘critical presence’

As our little community of pilgrims gathered for reflection on our last night together, Wider Church Ministries staff person Jan Aerie read to us from The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau:  “Soulful travel is the art of finding beauty even in the ruins..” Yes, we have seen ruins….the ruins of a devastating earthquake nearly two years ago in Haiti, the ruins of oppressive policies mandated by our own government and local governments, the ruins of overwhelming poverty and debilitating injustice.  Yet we have also observed  incredible beauty amidst the ruins, in the pure and unwavering faith of so many who live as if another reality is possible.

We have been pilgrims on a journey.  We have been transformed and inspired.  And now the road beckons us forward…partners, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.   Thank you, God.  Merci, merci.  Gracias, Adios.

Shari Prestemon

December 9, 2011:  "Abounding in hope?!"

We began our day taking pictures of the Haitian Presidential Palace that two years ago was destroyed in the earthquake along with numerous other adjacent government buildings. We could see no signs of reconstruction in spite of 14 billion dollars that were contributed in the quake's aftermath along with 10,000 NGO's which have moved in and out of the country, making little visible impact. In this same part of Port-Au-Prince, we saw all around us a tent city -- some of the over seven hundred thousand Haitians living in tents and in unbelievably abject poverty. Most of these are among the 70 to 85% of unemployed Haitians (nobody has an accurate count.) At the end of the day, one of our group expressed my own feeling better than I could have: "This is the hardest place I have ever been. . . I'm on the edge of despair!"

Felix had prepared us well for this part of our experience, but he also had said, "We are going to be walking on holy ground and meeting with one of the saints who have given their lives for their country." Polycarp Joseph (look him up on Google, if you want to learn more about this saint) is the founder of the Ecumenical Fellowship for Peace and Justice and of the House of Hope, which we visited for most of our day.

The House of Hope founded the "Hope and Faith" program to care for and provide holistic education for "resavek" children. These are children who are sent by families from rural areas to the city to live with another family in hopes that they will find a better life than in the impoverished countryside. In fact they become domestic workers, whom some have called "modern slaves." They know only a life of early to rise and late to bed and all work and no play. I was overcome with amazement at seeing the way the teachers and staff at House of Hope care for and educate these children in spite of only being able to work with them for half of each day before they have to return to their work.

Two years ago the Oscar Romero Education for Peace was founded as a vocational training school to continue the students' education and provides technical training to prepare them to become electricians, construction workers, cosmotologists, etc. We were surprised when we were invited to join in the celebration of the opening of the new Computer Center, with twelve beautiful new PC's. There were colorful ribbons and balloons and a big sign that read "Thank you Global Ministries!" Bing Tso and Shari Prestemon cut the ribbon as part of the celebration.

So in the end of the day and in spite of the daunting odds against them, I saw in the joyful singing and dancing of the students who performed for us and their terrific teachers and staff ample reason to agree with another of our group who said, "I look at those people and I see hope for their country."
Dick Sellers (UCC minister, Minneapolis, MN)

December 8, 2011:  Is Haiti Rich?

You know the "facts": Haiti has the lowest per capita income in the hemisphere, has the lowest life expectancy, has the worst deforestation, you name it. Another unfortunate fact is that Haiti has been overrun since the earthquake last year by some 10,000 non-government and foreign agencies, each with their own agenda and sense of what Haiti needs that often has little to do with what Haitians want for their country. Yes, this country has a long road ahead of it, and the needs are indeed great.

The good news is that Haiti abounds in one natural resource that many of us consider priceless: they are rich in faith. Exhibit 1 is CONASPEH (the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti), which includes 8,000 member churches (more congregations than the UCC in a country the size of Massachusetts!). These churches aren't just what we think of--an "accessory" to our lives, as our trip leader Felix put it. No, they are central to the social and spiritual well-being of Haitians, as they run schools and many other educational and social services. CONASPEH has been one of Global Ministries's most steadfast partners over the past two decades, through coups, natural disasters, and the constant challenges of life in Haiti. Today, its president, Rev. Patrick Villier, led us on a tour on of the headquarters in Port-au-prince. We saw hundreds of smartly-uniformed K-12 students, sitting at desks on bare dirt with tarps for roofs, lapping up knowledge. We listened to the older students voicing dreams of becoming doctors and diplomats.

We also toured the new buildings that will house nursing and vocational education centers. We met in the rebuilt structure that collapsed in the earthquake, killing dozens, including Patrick's son. Most importantly, though, we shared our faith stories with our partners, and learned of Haitian theology, with its emphasis on a God of justice, who serves all people, and who brings hope, and a church that risks everything to defend human rights. Patrick and the CONASPEH congregations have done just that for decades at the real risk of death on several occasions.

And about that faith thing. Tonight we Visited one of the 8,000 CONASPEH churches in the Haiti. This one was nestled in a winding, rocky alley. It was easy to find because of the music blaring out the open doors into the crowded streets. In the U.S., the crumbling concrete shell would have been condemned, and the amplified sound would have resulted in several calls to the police. But not here. The pastor had just rushed here after finishing his day job to lead evening services, as he will do EVERY night through December. In this church, we sat onstage as guests, and rocked, swayed, sang, and prayed together in Creole and English with the lively, intergenerational congregation. How many UCC churches would gladly surrender some of their property equity to gain even a fraction of the vitality we felt tonight?

Bouncing back to the hotel in our van along the rutted, rocky road, we several several more churches, their doors open, the music blaring out, congregants packed inside. The Haiti we saw today indeed appears poor in the traditional sense, but still I marvel at its spiritual wealth.

Bing Tso
Board Co-chair, Common Global Ministries

December 7, 2011

Ending are only new beginnings; as we concluded our pilgrimage in Columbia and begin a new pilgrimage in Haiti.     There were happiness and sadness, so often is the case when it is time to say good bye.  Michael Joseph who is the missionary assigned to Columbia escorted our delegation to the airport on our final day in Columbia. With Michael help and guidance we were able to gain a whole new prospective on the lives and hopes of the people of Columbia. New hope had been given to the people of Columbia. Our meeting with community leaders such as: CRVP(Commission Restaurancion Vida y Paz, Commission for Life and Peace, of  the Evangelical Council of Churches in Columbia (CEDECOL) Women Network, and JUSTAPAZ (Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action and our visit with the community of El Garzal. Memories of Columbia will remain with us for a long time.

As we boarded the plane that morning for Haiti there was a feeling of uncertainty, venturing into the unknown, not knowing what we may encounter.  As we entered the terminal reality began to sink in of the poverty that exists in Haiti. Driving from the airport to our hotel; the pedestrian and vehicle traffic was unbelievable, peoples and cars all wanting a part of the road all at the same time. In all of my travels I have never witness traffic so congested and so many peoples moving about.

Members of Wider Church Ministries delegation had dinner with Patrick Villier, president if CONASPEH-National Spiritual Council of Haitian Churches and members of CONASPEH, newly appointed Missionary to Haiti Jeanette Salley and two independent journalists covering this evening meeting. The journalist interviewed Thomas W. Haines, asking him some very critical questions.  Patrick began the dialogue with wanting the Voices of Haiti to be heard.  There was interesting dialogue between Wider Church Ministries and CONASPEH on how we can support and be in partnership with each other and recognizing our challenges.

Jeanette mentions some of the things she had observed since she had been in Haiti: wide spread fraud was common and an influx of contractors wanting to do business in Haiti, make a quick dollar and leave. She also said one of the things people said to her was the thing that they need the most was food.

Tomorrow will be our first real test, when we visit with our partners and listen to their stories.

Charles Carpenter

December 6, 2011

Buenos Dias de Colombia,

During our time in Colombia we have been accompanied and surrounded by the love of our partners from Justapaz, including our missionary, Michael Joseph.  Justapaz (Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action) is actively involved in supporting the El Garzal community for two years as they struggle for retaining their land.  They also are involved in helping to transform churches and communities into places where conflicts are able to be resolved peacefully and communities are becoming organized, enabling them to develop their own projects. We are inspired by their love, courage, compassionate and wisdom.

We had the opportunity today to meet with Amanda Porter, the Human Rights Officer at the US Embassy.  She and two of her co-workers from Colombia listened to our concerns about the El Garzal community.  We were informed that this community was one of over a thousand who is struggling with land disputes.  But, as we shared the dire circumstances of El Garzal and the the former drug trafficker turned paramilitary commander who is trying to grab the land of the El Garzal community and the ties he has with the legal community, they began to listen more carefully.  Before we left, Ms. Porter agreed to meet with leaders of El Garzal and some of our partners to see if they could help resolve this.  Michael Joseph will continue to pursue this.

Tonight we learned that the pastor of El Garzal, who hosted our community meeting, received a death threat.  Justapaz and other partners in support of El Garzal began to make immediate plans to go the many hour journey to surround Pastor Salvador Alcantara (pictured in yellow) and his family.  They hope to pull the family out of the community and locate them in a safe community.  We have been praying fervently for this family and the community.  Please join us.

Advent looks difrferent here in Colombia.  Although there are lights aglow and Christmas carols blaring from radios, injustices abound much like that first Advent season.  But what looks really different in Colombia is that people of faith are preparing for the birth of Christ in their lives by praying for each other, by going to the communities of their brothers and sisters hours away from their home to accompany them in their struggles and by welcoming a group of UCC people on our pilgrimage in their country.

This journey is been breaking the bonds of materialism that often dog me during Advent. We are grateful to have joined with Justapaz and others in being able to be God's presence here in Colombia.  Thanks be to God!

Some thought for you for an alternative Christas present to others,
- Ongoing prayers for the El Garzal community, especially Pastor Salvador and his family.
- Prayers for Justapaz and their work
- Prayers for Michael Joseph, our missionary in Colombia
- Prayers for the people of Colombia
- Responding to the Action Alert regarding the situation in El Garzal.
Paz,peace, Shalom,
Diane Haines
Mayflower UCC

December 5, 2011:  EXTRAVAGANT WELCOME!

With representatives from ten other groups (Swiss embassy, NGOs, media, Colombia Human Rights Ombudsman, and other faith-based organizations) we set out to identify, verify and report on the situation at El Garzal, a community of 376 families, whose land is in dispute.  After warnings of possible danger from paramilitaries operating in the area and the ominous portent of early morning storms, our nerves were on edge.  

All that changed when we saw across the wide Magdalena River, as we checked in with the police in VijaGual, huge numbers from the El Garzal community down by the banks, waiting for us with multiple signs of welcome, and little children everywhere with white flags saying "Queremos paz" -- we long for peace.

Bienvenidos and embraces all around, and then a "parade" single and double file nearly a mile "inland."  No need for the mud boots we brought.  In this wet, swampy land, the path had been carefully prepared with drying grasses. After speeches of passion and intention came a feast of soup, rice, totumos plantains, and 25 freshly harvested chickens, served at tables made especially for this occasion.

These people, who do not know if they will be allowed to stay in this place for one more day (if armed mercenaries come) or one more week (depending on a judges ruling) opened their home to us and made us feel "at home."

When we began this pilgrimage, Shari Prestemon asked us to consider each day, "Where did we see God at work?"  Today I saw the face of God in those who became our friends -- who broke bread with us and extended extravagant welcome.  We came to accompany them, and they became companions to us.   We, who name extravagant welcome as a core value, had amazing extravagant welcome extended to us.

As I held little Carmella (two months old, as is our only granddaughter) what was verifiable is our profound oneness as the people of God longing together for shalom --  for lives without fear where people dwell together in peace.  

So, we who went with hearts anxious and tentative left with hearts strong and open.  Through Bing Tso, Chair of the UCC Wider Church Ministries Board, we promised to visit tomorrow with the US Embassy in Bogota to share what we heard and saw and to write a letter to the judge ruling on the disputed land. We also pledged that on our return to the US we will witness to our churches and denomnations and we will work with our congress people to make Plan Colombia less military and more social-justice oriented.

Thanks be to the God who offers extravagant welcome -- whose face we saw, whose voice we heard, and in whose arms we were held in our journey to El Garzal.

Rev. Dr. Karen Smith Sellers, Minnesota Conference Minister

December 4, 2011: Boots for Burning; Hearts for Turning

This morning we began our day with an inspiring service at the Mennonite Church of Teausaquillo. Rev. Pablo Stucky gave a sermon on Isaiah 9:2-7, and the Magnificat (Mary's Song in Luke 1:46-53). If you have a chance, read those texts and imagine how they would sound in a country torn by violence, and where the poor are sorely oppressed. With Pablo and the congregation of the Mennonite Church of Teausaquillo, we hope for a day when all the boots of soldiers and clothes stained with blood are burned, and no one has to wear soldeir's boots or bloody clothes ever again -- especially child soldiers forced to join paramilitary groups at twelve years old. We pray for a day when the mighty are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.

To that end, this afternoon, we met with representatives of JustaPaz and Suidocol in preparation for our trip to El Garzal tomorrow. We learned some of the background of the conflict between the peasant farmers in that area and the powerful people who want the land they live on. I believe I can speak for my fellow pilgrims when I say that our heads are spinning with the complicated nature of this problem, and our nerves are a jangle thinking about our coming journey to this dangerous region tomorrow. We can only pray that God will give us ears to hear and eyes to see, and that our presence accompanying the people of El Garzal will strengthen the hearts of those who need it, and turn everyone's hearts (ours included) toward God's justice and peace.

John Tyler "Juan Antonio" Connoley

December 3, 2011: Our end of the bargain

This trip is a pilgrimage that is all about partnerships.

What does it mean to be partners with the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Church of Colombia whose members risk their lives to walk with those who are threatened and whose families are killed because they stand up for their rights to own their land?

What does it mean to be partners with the Women's Network who marches into Colombian prisons to invite reconciliation between the prisoners and their victim's families in the name of Christ?

What does it mean to be partners with a group of Lutheran miner/farmers whose homes and churches are sinking from the mines underneath them, as they travel the country singing about Jesus and environmental destruction?

Maybe we share our own ministry challenges in the US and ask  our sisters and brothers to pray for us. Maybe we do what our partners ask of us and demand that the US stop funding oppressive, murderous paramilitary groups and instead, hold them responsible for their crimes.

Maybe we unite with our partners in actions for life and freedom to close the School of the Americas. Maybe we remember that there is no first world, second world or third world. There is only ONE WORLD.

Maybe we listen to and learn from our sisters and brothers in other countries. We are partners with many courageous prophets.

Maybe we remember that all we have is God's and is to be used for the reign of God. Maybe, if we belong to the UCC or Disciples of Christ we increase our giving to OCWM, Disciples' Mission Fund and OGHS or Week of Compassion.

Maybe we turn directly into the headwind of materialism that pervades US culture instead of just complaining about the wind as we are blown along with everyone else. Maybe we acknowledge that, while our partners are confronting injustice every day with their very lives, we need to confront the system that causes the injustice of which many of us are beneficiaries.

Maybe that's a little of what it means to be a global partner. 

Thom Haines

December 2, 2011: Day one

One by one we gathered in Miami exclaiming about the warm and sunny weather and our adventures ahead.  We know we will soon be where it is seriously summer, hot and humid.

Our afternoon was spent getting acquainted and working through our mission interpretation training handbook. Some important and significant conversations about our pilgrimage purpose and ways to share experiences when we return ensued.

As the day progressed so did our learning about each other's lives and our roles at home. By evening we completed action plans individually with several goals and objectives, culminating in a commissioning service.

We are ready and anticipating orientation tomorrow morning and then our flight to Bogota tomorrow evening. A sense of advent anticipation and possibilities for transformative experiences pervades, and the spirit's presence is near.

Jan Aerie


The last two mission pilgrimages in observance of 200 years of mission are running simultaneously.  One group is traveling in India and the other to Haiti and Colombia. These pilgrimages are for conference ministers and board members are partially funded by Wider Church Ministries and a foundation grant.

The group of ten led by Felix Ortiz, area executive for Latin America and the Caribbean, is flying first to Bogota Colombia then traveling upriver in Colombia to visit with churches and partners.  After spending several days in Colombia, the group will fly to Haiti where they will be hosted by partners there.

Learning, discussion and sharing about church and ministry joys and challenges will be a part of each day. Follow this group blog for a sense of the creative power of solidarity in Haiti and Colombia.

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