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.