Friday, June 28, 2013

Dreaming of a better life

Community leaders in Pichilin, Colombia with the memorial for those who died.


It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.  
II Timothy 2:6

On December 4, 1996, a group of paramilitaries gathered the villagers of Pichilin, Colombia, shot and killed 12 of them and burned down many of the villagers’ houses. The next day, the 12 bodies were displayed in 12 different nearby communities in the coastal region as a warning not to participate with the resisting forces.

Most of the remaining 400 villagers left their village, becoming part of the five million other internally displaced Colombians over the years who have fled violence in the rural regions for the cities.

Seventeen years after the massacre, the memory of the 12 who died is still fresh in the minds of those in Pichilin. Only about a third of the villagers have returned.

Sembrandopaz (sowing peace), one of MCC’s partners in Colombia, is the only organization, including the government, that has offered help to the village after the massacre. Fifteen families are participating in a loan program to grow yucca on two hectares of land. The harvest provides food for the participating families, as well as a source of income in the marketplace.

When I visited the village recently, we met with the community action council to hear about their hopes for the future. “I am a young person and I want to work for my community,” said one person. “We must never forget those who have died,” said another. A third person described her dreams for how this farm village could prosper once again.

As we left the village, we promised to pray for the community and congratulated these leaders for not giving up, for dreaming of a community that could grow enough food for their families and respond to future challenges, for loving the earth and for loving their work.

On the edge of the village, we stood silently at a memorial commemorating those who had been killed. The memorial read: “We remember them…hands that build peace in the search for reparation for the victims of Pichilin.”

Even now, as I return to my own country and home, I wonder whether my own government can do more than fund a ten year program, Plan Colombia, that provides most of its support for the Colombian military? Or whether my country can do better than institute fair trade laws that seem to only further pinch small rural farmers throughout Central and South America?

Or whether I can do more? And how? How can we work for a better life for these farmers and for the villagers of Pichilin?

Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A theology of the heart

Marina Forero and David Bonilla with their children, Ian and Aisha

I by my works will show you my faith. – James 2:18

David Bonilla is the first pastor I know who began his career as a runway model. Today, David and his wife, Marina Forero, run a school and lead a church in the poor community of Progress in Cazuca, just outside Bogota, Colombia.

Nearly 80% of the people here have been displaced from other parts of the country because of the armed conflict. The community is haphazardly built on the side of a mountain and the government refuses to provide services. Mudslides often destroy homes.

The Progress Mennonite Brethren Church has been here for 11 years. More recently, a school has begun and it serves up to 120 children from pre-school to grade one. MCC’s Global Family program provides funding for six schoolteachers.

David says his heart is in this community but he also knows his children are sacrificing many things because of his calling. And now there is a threat on his own life. A person was killed just outside the church and another person was mistakenly stabbed instead of him.

David wonders what will happen to his children if something happens to him.

There are gangs, drug addiction and abuse in David’s neighborhood. And paramilitaries systematically “cleanse” the neighborhood from time to time. But David says he has seen change in peoples’ lives here.
The church is the starting point, David says. Other needs are important, too, but people need a community, a church, as a starting point.

Most of the other pastors of churches here drive in for weekends, but David says his family is rooted here. But he feels his family is now targeted and he doesn’t know what will happen in the future.

We gathered around David and prayed for him and his family. We shared a meal together and climbed up the hill through the neighborhood.

Reflecting on the possibility of leaving this neighborhood, David said he and Marina have always had as their goal to train leaders and teachers and that these ministries would go on, even if he and Marina were no longer here.

It’s not just about knowing the Bible, he told us, but about putting it into practice. Not a theology of books but a theology of the heart.

After all, David told us, if we’re not going to be salt and light, who will be?

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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

You can't eat guns

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field. – Matt. 13:24 

Armed conflict in some regions of Colombia is still a reality. 

This morning, I visited the village of Caño Berruguita in the coastal region. Many of the families who are here now fled violence in the village 15 years ago. With paramilitaries and guerillas fighting for control, along with government forces, families simply picked up what they could and left behind everything else they owned.

Fifteen years later, a few of the displaced families are back, trying to make a living in what was once a thriving village. Sembrandopaz (sowing peace), an MCC partner, has begun a loan program here.

We walked through the creek and up the side of the mountain with Walter. He had planted corn high on the hillside. With a loan of $125, Walter planted 2,000 ñame plants among the corn stalks. This starch root vegetable is a staple among the people here. With what he earns from selling the ñame, Walter will be able to pay off his loan and earn an equivalent amount of profit. Next year, he’ll be able to double the size of his crop.

Later, Dioscelite and Benjamin hosted us in their courtyard. Benjamin is a member of the town council who grants the loans in the community. Dioscelite said she had to flee to Sincelejo 15 years ago after, first, her brother was killed by armed forces, and then two cousins. She said that sometimes they didn’t even know the identity of the forces that were killing them.

Dioscelite said that living in Sincelejo felt like living in a jail and her family wanted to get back to their land. They moved back several years ago.

Benjamin told us that the armed forces tried to make him join them, but he resisted. He told the leaders that he was already helping to feed their families and that should be enough. You can’t eat guns, he told them.

Dioscelite said that with a little bit of help like these loans, life is getting better for the people of Caño Berruguita. Good seed has been planted here. And the kingdom of heaven is nearer because of it. 

Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.