Saturday, May 20, 2017

The harvest is increasing

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them. – Matt. 9:36

Five miles down river from Istmina near the village of Chiquichuqui, Luis Norberto and Gladys Musquera farm three hectares of land. Though Luis is one of nine children in his family, he is the only one of his family farming their ancestral land.

Luis grows a variety of crops including yucca, plantain, fruit and two kinds of fish, but the crop he hopes will soon become his primary source of income is cacao.

Through a project with MCC, the Mennonite Brethren churches in the region are encouraging farmers to grow cacao, the source for cocoa and chocolate, rather than coca from which cocaine is produced.

So far, 85 farmers in the region have agreed to plant cacao. It was slow going at first. Farmers feared the armed groups that profit from illicit drugs and producing coca can be profitable. Plus, growing the alternative crop of cacao takes more time – almost two years until the first crop can be harvested and nearly five years until the crop reaches full harvest.

At the Jerusalem MB church in Istmina, Nelly Mosquera tells us that Jesus had compassion on the people and responded to their needs. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, she quotes from the Gospel of Matthew. Her husband, Pastor Fernando Merano, tells us the MB churches want to work with the vulnerable in the community.

Nelly shares about a new project with MCC in response to the peace accord in Colombia which has not brought the anticipated peace to the Choco. Other military groups are now vying for power in the region instead. In response, these churches are going into the communities to teach about peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.  

The MB churches have formed a foundation to encourage farmers to grow rice and cacao instead of coca. The churches are also responding to the growing number of displaced people because of increased flooding in the region, especially in the more remote villages, at least partly a result of mining efforts by outside parties.

We met with church and community leaders in the village of Suruco where the Sinai MB church, with MCC’s help, was able to respond last fall to the worst flooding in the region in nine years. “This is one of the first times we got help,” a woman from the community council tells us.

The flood waters rose as high as the pulpit of the church which is situated on the highest point in the community. “There was no place to escape from the water,” another leader tells us. Food, mattresses, clothing and kitchen items were distributed to community members most in need, regardless of their church affiliation.

Luis, the farmer in Chiquichuqui, expects to produce more than 1,000 kilos of cacao this year. He is more than a third of the way to his goal of 1,000 kilos per hectare. Each kilo of cacao is worth about 4-5,000 pesos ($1.50 U.S.) Because of his increased income, Luis has already been able to send his son to the university. And there is the future hope of directly exporting cacao from the region out of Colombia if the farmers can increase their quantity and quality of cacao. Exporting would increase Luis’ profit margin significantly.

Back at the Jerusalem MB church in Istmina, Nelly Mosquera told us that Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and so should his followers. Here in the Choco, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are increasing.

J Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Lives of service

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice. – Luke 11:28

We are stranded at the Iglesia Evangelica Nueva Vida in Quibdo, one of 16 Mennonite Brethren churches in Colombia begun more than 70 years ago. There is a civic strike in the Choco region and we are not able to find transportation to Istmina, our hoped for destination about an hour and a half away.

So instead, we pray. With the church members who had gathered, we trade songs and Scripture texts and then we gather in smaller circles and pray for the future of this church and for its faithful witness in its community.

Twenty years ago, Pastor Manuel told us, there was poverty in this region of Colombia, but it was also a place of peace, a place rich in natural resources.

Today, mining by foreign states has raised the level of mercury in the rivers to dangerous levels and the additional sediment in the rivers means that when the rains come, as they do frequently, the river is more likely to flood.

The poverty level in the Choco region is the highest in the country with 65% of the people living below the poverty line. The Choco is home to large Black and Indigenous communities.

In the last 25 years, the growing of illicit crops like coca, from which cocaine is produced, has brought more money into the community, but with the money has come violence, and prices have also risen. Today, says Pastor Manuel, the water is not drinkable and it can cost more to buy than gasoline.

The government has promised change, but the two roads in and out of the region are still poorly paved and government services in health, education, safety and transportation have not been forthcoming, and so this civic strike is the result.

The church is active in evangelization and in social ministries, but it is hard work. The pastor says that people don’t seem to reject the Christian message, but they don’t seem to take it seriously either. And young people leave the area to get a better education and then don’t come back.

Still, says Pastor Manuel, there is spiritual poverty here and needs of many other kinds, and they want to serve people of all faiths in this community. With MCC’s help, a health/HIV project has just concluded and other projects include peace education for youth and community leaders and responding to people who are displaced.

Pastor Manuel has high hopes for his congregation and he says many people in the congregation are giving their lives to service to God. The scripture verse on the back of his t-shirt sums up the situation well for me – “blessed are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.”

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. Pictured above are Pastor Manuel, Amparo and Pastor Rutilio with MCCers Giles and Amy Eanes.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

For the peace of the world

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. Col. 3:15

On Easter morning in April 1528 in Augsburg, Germany, almost 100 Anabaptists were rounded up by the authorities during worship and told to denounce their faith. Some of those arrested lost their lives for refusing to do so.

Lawyer Hans Leupold, one of the Anabaptists arrested, eventually was sentenced to die, mercifully, they said, by the sword rather than by burning. Said Leupold when he was told he would pass from life to death: “No, from death to life.”

Two years ago, a plaque was placed outside the house where these Anabaptist Christians once worshipped. Lutherans, Catholics and Mennonites celebrated together that Christians no longer faced persecution in Germany. A brother from the global south reminded us that was not true for people of faith in some other countries.

Pilgrim Marpeck, an early Anabaptist thought leader, also lived in Augsburg. Contrary to most other reformation leaders, Marpeck felt that if Christians took up arms defending their faith, it would only lead to protracted war.

Marpeck wanted to bring the various groups of Anabaptists in the region together for common witness and mission. It was a task he ultimately failed to accomplish.

Almost all Anabaptists were expelled from Augsburg by 1530. Conrad Peutinger, the town manager for 40 years, was seen by many as a tolerant leader of the multiple Christian factions present in the city at that time. But about these Anabaptists, he asked, what was he to do with these radicals who didn’t believe in the military and how would the city remain safe?

The city of Augsburg, Germany is called the city of peace, even though it has seen its share of violence. During World War II, 80% of the city was destroyed. Most of the men in the city were killed fighting in the war and the women were left to rebuild their community.

I was in Augsburg for meetings of the Mennonite World Conference, the global body of almost 1.5 million Anabaptists around the world. About 100 leaders gathered in Augsburg to talk about issues of faith within the Anabaptist bodies.

Our Mennonite World Conference tour leader told us about a gathering of German-speaking Anabaptist leaders who met here in 1527 to decide on a common mission strategy. In a way, he said, MWC meeting here now is the first international gathering of Anabaptists in this city since 1527!

Near the end of our Anabaptist tour in sight of the Catholic cathedral, we saw the sculpture of Max Josef Metzger, a Catholic priest, who gave his life during the war in 1944 resisting the Nazis. Metzger believed that the Christian task was to preach the peace of Christ and to put our weapons down. Metzger said he was ready to give up his life for the unity of the church and for the peace of the world.

Reminiscent of lawyer Hans Leupold more than 400 years earlier, Metzger said before he was put to death, “I go into death, no! I go into life.”

Ron Byler is the executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sharing ourselves with others

Who dares make light of small beginnings? (Zechariah 4:10 NET)

The other day, on a crowded subway in Mexico City, I watched a mother buy a pack of flavored gum for her two-year-old son from a vendor passing through the train cars. The two-year-old delighted in opening the gum packet and eating a piece. Then his mother did an amazing thing.

The mother instructed the boy to share his gum with those of us sitting in the same area on the train, and he did! Smiling and laughing, he made his way up and down the car offering gum to each one of us, all of us smiling and laughing in return. What a joy to watch! Such a small act of generosity with such a large impact!  

This is how I often find myself feeling when I see MCC’s work around the world alongside our partners. A relatively small contribution can often make such a large difference in peoples’ lives.

In the village of Tepatlaxco about 90 minutes outside of Mexico City, Aulas de Desarrollo y Esperanza (classrooms of development and hope), with just a staff of two, serves a dozen children with physical and developmental disabilities. MCC helps with a small grant to Aulus. When you see these children smile, you know something good is happening here. 

The 50 or 60 children that Aulus has touched in the last six years is only a small percentage of the children who could use its services. “The children feel at home here, and yes, these children have disabilities, but sometimes, it’s other people who create the barriers for them,” the director, Maribel, told us. Maribel wants to encourage more families in the nearby villages to use Aulus’ services.

In Mexico City, we are staying at Casa de los Amigos (House of Friends), another MCC partner organization. Marco Antonio, the director, sees his ministry as one of hospitality, not just for people like us passing through, but also for the 65 migrants who have also stayed here during the past several years. Tonio estimates that 250,000 migrants will pass through Mexico this year, about 200,000 from Central America and the rest from other parts of the world.

The 65 migrants Casa has hosted represents a very small number of the many people in need, but it is a faithful witness. Tonio believes about 10 of
the 65 migrants made it into the United States, legally or illegally, and another 20 decided to stay in Mexico. Who knows, he says, what happened to the rest, but he think many probably are in the northern Mexico border region trying to get into the United States.  

Tonio says the migrants who made it as far as Mexico City are the lucky ones. Violence is a regular occurrence on the journey north where migrants are seen as “merchandise to be sold” as cheap labor, mules for the drug trade, forced into prostitution or their bodies’ organs harvested to sell.

Tonio says, if it wasn’t for the humanitarian network that Casa and MCC represent in the country, this would be even larger humanitarian disaster.

Mexico is a country with one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. Communities organize themselves to live off the migration traffic. Both Mexico and the U.S. have learned how to benefit from the corruption. And the Mexican mafia also preys on the people fleeing north from violence or for economic or political reasons.

We met with a group of Mexico City pastors from Anabaptist denominations who tell us about the increasing violence around them, largely, they believe, because of the demand for drugs in the United States. They see the political corruption and the human trafficking effecting their communities. “We have a tremendous challenge,” one leader tells us.

We are realizing, says one leader, that being a church of peace is not about being like our neighbors or how big our church is, but about how much we are sharing ourselves and sharing our food with people in need.

The Prophet Zechariah imagined a day when small beginnings would bring about the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. May we also imagine a day when our efforts will bear much fruit in communities and in peoples’ lives all over the world.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Building stronger communities

A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great. Proverbs 18:16

We slogged through the mud to the village of Dia, about three hours northwest of Hanoi in the Tan Son district. The people here are an indigenous ethnic group called the Muong. Their ancestral home and former livelihood is now in the nearby mountains, a national forest no longer available to them. The Muong and their Dao neighbors are left to make their way as farmers. New gifts and new skills to use the land do not come naturally to them.

The new farmers are learning to grow vegetables in the winter in addition to the two crops of rice they grow throughout the year. MCC works here in six villages in two communes, or townships, working and learning alongside the Muong in agriculture and education projects and in peacebuilding workshops.

The village of Dia includes 55 households, about 200 people. With MCC’s help, Ha Phi Chung is raising rabbits. In the past six months, she has been able to sell several dozen rabbits and earn about $4 million dong ($200 USD) and is still able to give away six rabbits to another family, the same number of rabbits she first received.

It is not enough income, Chung tells us, because she wants to build a house, But it is enough to earn money for food and to keep members of her family from traveling to other communities to earn more money to send back home. Chung’s neighbor has been trying to raise chickens, but the village is too close to the forest and snakes have been feasting on the chickens.

At the school, just a short way down the road, several women are preparing a lunch for the children. MCC has shared its resources to help the community build a school kitchen. The children can now stay at school over lunchtime. The children have enough to eat, their parents can keeping working in the fields and the children are more likely to stay now for the afternoon school session.  

We meet a young couple who attended two MCC peace trainings and are now prepared to share their skills to mediate community disputes, many of which involve overconsumption of alcohol and domestic violence. Inaccessible roads, little or no electricity and not enough work to grow the food they need for their families all contribute to unhealthy home lives. Each of the six villages where MCC works has a community mediation group of five men and five women who are now available to respond to community disputes.

We later meet with government officials who ask MCC to expand our resources to work with other villages and communes in the region. Small gifts from MCC have opened doors to help build stronger communities and relationships. When we share our gifts, they are shared with others.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A heart to learn and a heart to care

Exodus 34:7 (GNT)
I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents.

Paul and Esther Bucher are two of seven foreigners living in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam. Esther is an occupational therapist. We watch her work and play with children at the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) day care center in Pho Duc.

In the 60s and early 70s, during the “American” war in Vietnam, the U.S. military
sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange on the countryside of Vietnam. The purpose was to eliminate ground cover, destroy crops and force civilians into the cities so that the resisting Vietnamese forces could be killed more easily.

Instead, more than 400,000 people were killed or disabled by Agent Orange and, since then, a half million more children have been born with disabilities caused by these chemical toxins. American soldiers serving in Vietnam during the war have been disabled by the chemicals as well.

With MCC’s help, VAVA works with families and children affected by Agent Orange. Another project provides a cow to 20 families who have a family member with an Agent Orange disability. A cow will supplement the family’s income after the first calf is shared with another family in a similar situation.

We visited Nguyen Thi Sun who received one of the cows. Her son, Phuoc Han, age 14, was born with severe disabilities caused by Agent Orange. Eight months ago, Thi Sun’s husband died. Even though her son, Phuoc Han, can’t sit up in his chair by himself and sometimes falls out of it, his mother still has to work in the fields and tend the cow. She has no choice.  

Thi Sun gave her cow’s first calf to another family and she is hoping her cow can produce another calf soon.

Nguyen Thi Du is the person who received the calf from Thi Sun. Thi Du had to sell the cow she had previously owned because her
husband was sick with Agent Orange. Thi Du says her husband is always sick. Thi Du has a small plot of land where she plants two crops of rice each year. She has enough rice to feed her family if the weather is good, but last year, her land flooded out and she was not able to harvest the second crop.

Thi Du has had her new calf for just three weeks. The calf was only five months old when she received it, and she says it was small and weak, but Thi Du says the calf has already grown stronger and she has hope that the calf can help provide additional income for her in the future.

At the VAVA day care center in Pho Duc, both Esther and Paul are working as MCC volunteers alongside the VAVA staff. Paul works on special projects, like the organic garden he is planning, and Esther continues her occupational therapy with children and adults and she trains other staff as well. At lunchtime, we watch the children interact with each other and feed themselves, something Esther says could not have happened, even several weeks ago.

“In my heart,” says Esther, “I care for all people, like my father taught me, because each person is different and special, and each one is loved,” Esther says that if people have a heart to learn and to care, change can happen.

When we leave the daycare center, we visit the father of one of the children. Pham Van Trinh was exposed to Agent Orange as a nineteen-year-old soldier in 1971. He shows us his leg that still itches from the exposure to the toxin. He has built a railing outside his home so that his disabled daughter Minh can exercise. He tells us of two other

families in the neighborhood who have children disabled by Agent Orange.

As I watch Esther and Paul interact with these families, I am reminded that God’s love runs deep, as we read in the book of Exodus, but God also holds us responsible for our sins, even the sins of our parents.  

Exposure to Agent Orange during the war more than 40 years ago, has brought anguish today to thousands of families in Quang Nai province of Vietnam. As American Christians, that sin is ours.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the children will not share the guilt of their parents when they do what is right and fair.  Paul and Esther give me hope that, in the future, we will be able to do what is right and fair for the people of Vietnam.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Building bonds of friendship

Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. – I John 4:21

Cuban farmer Hernan Hernandez owns 300 mango trees on 20 hectares of land in the village of San Miguel de los Banos. Last year, a severe drought decimated most of his crop.  

Hernan says that most years there is plenty of rain, but last year, there was almost none. MCC partner CCRD (Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue) helped Hernan purchase new seeds and seedlings this year and MCC provided an irrigation pump.  

There is a bountiful crop of large, succulent mangos on the trees this year. Unfortunately, the state mandates that farmers sell most of their crops to the government for a low price, but this year, the truck that was supposed to pick up the mangos broke down and wasn’t able to pick up the mangos. Hernan will receive no income.  

After he showed us his crops. Hernan shared a cup of mango juice with 
each of us.
Since the Cuban government also controls the country-wide system for processing mangos, there isn’t much that Hernan can do with his mango crop except sell a few of them if he is able to his neighbors and watch the rest of the crop rot on the trees. 

Hernan seems resigned to knowing there will be another difficult year ahead. 

Just a few miles away, outside of the city of Cardenas, Hector Correa owns 23 hectares of land with his three sons. For 31 years, Hector and his family have combined the work of farming and pottery making. Standing outside his pottery shop, Hector tells us that when either farming or pottery isn’t going well, he always has the other to fall back on.

But last year, the drought was even more than Hector and his family could weather. Like Hernan, Hector also received similar support from CCRD and MCC.  

Hector feels blessed to have three sons who understand that it is possible to live well on the land they own. Hector and his sons grow coffee and green beans and any other product they feel might have a market.

Hector says he mostly sells his pottery and his produce to the large tourist hotels in the beach communities. He makes oversized pots which are hard to dry in his kiln, but these pots are in high demand from the hotels and they will make arrangements to come pick them up. Recently, Hector began growing green beans because he discovered that beans are one crop in short supply in the hotel kitchens.  

Empowering rural communities is only one part of CCRD’s work. The Center responds on behalf of the churches to community emergencies, provides pastoral counseling, trains leaders in conflict resolution and brings the community together to address a multitude of social issues.

It is no small secret, CCRD leaders tell us, that there is a real issue of access to food in Cuba. Thirty percent of Cubans live in poverty and those in poverty are disproportionately located in the rural communities. Almost 70% of arable land is not being used. CCRD believes that training small scale farmers can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.

Pastor Samuel of the Second Baptist Church in Cardenas participates in a pastors’ circle coordinated by CCRD each month. He says that before the circle the community pastors and churches had very little contact with each other. But now, in their peace working table, Samuel say the pastors pray for each other and talk about important issues in the community.

Samuel says the peace working table is a way for the pastors to recognize the work of God in the community, to work together and to build strong bonds of friendship.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.