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.