Monday, April 23, 2012

The "B"ogota Attitudes

I'm currently sitting in the Bogota airport waiting for our flight.  Now we try to figure out how we'll bring what we've learned home with us. During our wrap-up discussion this morning, we talked about three things. We talked about what story or message we wanted to bring back with us.  We talked about questions we could ask at our Canadian embassy visit this afternoon.  We brainstormed some next steps.

I was also in charge of doing a devotion at that final discussion.  I wanted to give Biblical insight into what we had been experiencing, but I also wanted to some way of framing that Biblical discussion into a way that we could reflect on the sum of our experiences.  Here is what I came up with.

I asked everyone to think of eight people and write down their names or the positions they filled.

  1. Someone who recognizes that, on their own, they don't have the resources to get the job done, someone who knows that they are utterly dependent on God.
  2. Someone who has experienced loss, someone for whom grief is an ongoing reality.
  3. Someone who goes about their work not looking for any recognition, someone who is mild mannered and draws little to no attention to themselves.
  4. Someone who has a real inner yearning for good to be done, someone who knows what is being done wrong and knows what should be done instead.
  5. Someone who tries to help people in difficult circumstances, someone who demonstrates mercy in a variety of ways.
  6. Someone who seem uncorrupted by the ways of the world, someone who is uncorrupted by the evil around them.
  7. Someone who seeks to restore the wholeness in the people around them, someone who is working for peace.
  8. Someone who does good but still faces punishment for it, someone who seems to disprove the Biblical maxim that the government is a terror for those who do evil, not those who do good.
We took those names and inserted them into the following scripture passage.  You can do the same thing with people that you know, people you work with, people you worship with, etc.

"Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:
   'Blessed are the ladies who serve food in the Los Pinos resettlement community,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
   Blessed are the farmers in Macajepo,
      for they will be comforted.
   Blessed is the MB pastor who went from economic Strata 6 to Strata 0 (the slums),
      for he will inherit the earth.
   Blessed are the staff at Justapaz,
      for in their hunger for righteousness they will be filled.
   Blessed is the lawyer at Mencoldes,
      for he will be shown mercy.
   Blessed are the the SEED volunteers,
      for they will see God.
   Blessed is the organizer sowing peace,
   for he will be called children of God.
   Blessed are is the pastor and her husband who stand up for their displaced congregation,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' "

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Staying Alive!

Well, over the last three days or so, all of us (excluding MCC staff) have managed to get sick. It's been a bit of an adventure traveling in the heat from Sincelejo to El Carmen to Cartagena with people in varying degrees and stages of discomfort! Nonetheless, we have, to whatever extent we have been able, enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of Cartagena over the last day or so. We're all mostly over the sickness now (at least I hope we are!). Tonight we fly out of Cartagena back to Bogota for one more day there before beginning our journey back to Calgary.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers over these last few days, and for your interest in our tour! We may put one more post up before we leave, depending on time and Internet access as usual.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Story and a Song

A quick update - we do have Internet access in our new location, but no laptops - only phones! So, unfortunately, the pictures may look a little disjointed in this post - it's a bit trickier to do this on a phone!

We have made our way to the coast ad have been in and around a city named Sincelejo. It is a city of approximately 250 000 people - 90 000 of whom have been displaced due to the violence in this region over the last decade or so. Last night we visited a church community called "Remanso de la Paz" (Refuge of Peace). This church is comprised almost entirely of displaced people. One of the highlights of our visit was a song that they sang for us. It was a song they had written themselves that narrated their journey from their farms and homes to the city. It was a story of sadness and pain, injustice and heartache. It was also a song of courage, hope, and joy - courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles, hope in a future of reparations and a return to the land, and joy in the God who had led them and who continued to sustain them in exile.

Today, we hopped on a rickety old truck and made our way to the pastor's former home - the land from which she and her family had been forced eleven years ago. It was an interesting drive - suffice to say that some of us had to stand on the back of the truck due to a lack of space, we shared the road with donkeys, and we had to cross a river in the truck seven times before arriving at our destination. We heard more incredible stories, and met more amazingly kind and courageous people who continue to pursue justice, peace, and the land that rightfully belongs to them.

Early in the morning, we walked down the road to the pastor and her husband's former land. It was a poignant moment, watching them gaze out at the land that was taken from them. Even more moving was the walk back. I was walking behind the pastor and after a little while she began to sing softly to herself. It was the same song we had heard the previous night around the table at church. The same song, the same story - a story that this inspirational community is continuing to write. A story with better chapters still waiting to be written.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cazuca Rap

One of the inspiring stories we heard in Cazuca was from two young men who had been a part of the "Growing Together" program, an effort by a local Mennonite church to provide a leg up for the children in this community.  They were inspired to share their story of hope despite difficult circumstances, and they were sharing that story with hip-hop.  They treated us to a performance, and we are sharing it with you.

Please note that from Thursday to Sunday, we will be on a side trip to the north coast and will likely not be able to post reports during that time.  We will fill you in on more stories when we get back.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Three Ironies

Yesterday we went to visit a resettlement community. It was the kind of scene you see in a World Vision commercial.  It's the kind of place a government likes to imagine doesn't exist.  When we asked one of the pastors we talked to there how many people lived in that community, he said that nobody knows.  He estimated around 6,000.  Newly displaced people arrive there everyday.

There was garbage everywhere.  In the middle of the valley was the 'laguna negra' or as I called it, the Black Lagoon.   It had rained heavily the day before, and everywhere we walked there was brown mud, but the lagoon was so polluted that it was still black.  There was a river flowing out of it that bubbled up more than any bubble bath I've ever taken.  Everywhere we went, our guides told us not to draw attention to ourselves by taking out our cameras.  The female volunteer worker we talked with says that she lives there, but she doesn't go out after 5:30pm because it is not safe.  This was a place with infrequent electricity, unreliable running water and all of the hopelessness and violence you could imagine.

We were encouraged by the work of partner agencies there, and we left feeling amazed by so many things.  There were three images though, images of utter irony, that stuck out in my mind.
The first place we visited was a small building that served as a church, school (offering classes for children and adults) and soup kitchen.  It was a tiny building, but they used their space well and were even looking into installing a garden plot on the roof to make better use of the space.  Besides teaching the local children, providing them with uniforms, and treating them with love like they deserved as children, the volunteers also gave the children a free lunch, the only meal many of them would eat that day.  A sing hung over the door with the name of the church, information about when it was open and what services they provided, there was a scripture verse printed.  We had to do some impromptu translation, but we discovered the verse was, John 10: 10b, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."  Certainly our partner churches were doing their best so that those children could have a much fuller life, but that scene did not seem like a full life to us.
Then we went for a short walk from one of the churches to see the neighbourhood.  We met a man whose house had been hit hard by flash floods the day before, a flood that could have been avoided if the city maintained the drainage system under the road.  We met a woman who earned a living by carrying washing machines around to be rented out, and while she had scraped together a modest profit from it, the machines were now broken and wasn't strong enough to lift them anymore.  We met a man who fled his farm in rural Columbia for the safety of his remaining children after three of his daughters had been murdered.  Then, we meet a woman whose story is similar to the rest, and she is wearing a Disney sweatshirt with a picture of tinkerbell and the slogan beneath it, "Wish upon a star."  I'm sorry Disney, no amount of wishing is going to will ensure that anything her heart desires will come to her.
We crossed the road beside the lagoon and left behind the area named "los pinos" (which means 'the pines' but there were no pines there anymore).  Along the way we met a woman who was on her way to the funeral of a young person who died as a result of gang violence.  Then we saw in large spray painted letters, the name of the next community we were visiting, "El Progresso."  Certainly there were a number of agencies active in that community that provided food, job training, government assistance application help, and so many other things, but so little of what we saw there looked like "Progress."

Grappling with what we have seen has not been easy.  We provide no easy answers, because none were provided to us.  But that we left there with even a shread of hope is a testament to what our new friends are doing in those dire circumstances.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Day of Contrasts

Today was a day of incredibly stark contrasts. We spent most of our day visiting MCC supported projects in Cazuca, which is an extremely poor region on the southern outskirts of Bogota bordering Soacha. This region is populated almost entirely by campesinos - farmers and their families who have been displaced from their homes in the country due to large companies (many of which are Canadian!) buying up huge tracts of land for mineral extraction, palm oil production, or large-scale agri-business ventures. These farmers often only have a few hectares of land, but through a combination of economic pressure, threats, and violence from various armed groups (who are often paid by government or big business) they are forced to leave.
Once they leave, many have nowhere to go but the big city. They settle on the outskirts in places like Cazuca. This region has virtually no support or recognition from the goverment, almost no infrastructure (running water, electricity, roads), and is plagued by grinding poverty, crime, corruption, and despair. Our visit today was sobering and overwhelming on many levels. It was heartbreaking to see the conditions in which these people live. It has been raining for days here, and many homes had been flooded out, with mud and debris virtually everywhere. Many of the homes were little more than a few patched up walls with a piece of tin for a roof. One man showed us pictures of how the water had washed out his family's meager home. He was trying to use a system of crude pipes and trenches to divert the water around his home, but with little success. Everywhere we turned, we saw images and heard stories of almost unimaginable suffering and loss.
And yet, even in the midst of these truly horrific conditions, there are seeds of hope. We visited three projects sponsored by MCC and various Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ churches. In each place, we met incredible, dedicated people who are working to improve their community. We heard about literacy programs, recreational activities, sewing classes, daycare for children, reproductive health programs, peace and nonviolence initiatives, and countless other attempts to give people who are often at their lowest point - physically, emotionally, and spiritully - hope for a better future. In each of these projects, we saw smiles and joy and hope. We saw it in the eyes of children. We heard it in the stories of the workers. Even in these truly desperate conditions, the light of Christ shines brightly in the darkness.
A sign outside one of the projects quotes the gospel of John: "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full." It was grimly ironic, indeed, to read these words in the midst of such material depravity. And yet, there is a fullness of life that was clearly evident in the courage, conviction, and faith exhibited by the people of these three projects who have sacrificed so much to try to bring hope to Cazuca. It is a fullness that knows the value of self-emptying for the sake of others. At one point, Pastor David who runs a church and school called El Progreso, was asked if there was a single experience or event that motivated him to leave his life of wealth and security to come to live and work among the poor. David paused, smiled, and said, "Well, I think I read the same Bible you do and my Bible tells me that Christ became nothing for the sake of others. I am not Jesus, but I am trying to imitate him."
Life to the full? Yes. Life to the full.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Manuel: Pastor, Mediator, Taxi Driver

When you embark on a Learning Tour, like this one, you can expect to visit supporting congregations, partner agencies and various tourist sites.  The idea is that you will worship with your brothers and sisters in that part of the world, hear about and be inspired by the work they are doing in the name of Christ, and experience the beauty of God's creation and admire in handiwork of humanity in that country.  All of those things we have done in abundance already in these two days we've been here.  We will have those stories to tell soon as well.

It is also important, however, to be open to what will happen in between those scripted moments.  Sunday morning I was fortunate enough to have one of those unscripted moments.

After breakfast and a brief introduction to some of the staff we would be connecting with during our time here, we all hopped in taxis to get a ride to church.  There were eight Albertans and 3 MCC staff people in our group that morning.  Two other pastors and I shared the back seat while an MCC staff person, our interpreter, sat in the front.  The driver and our guide discussed where the church was, and we were on our way.  One of the other pastors was collecting his thoughts for the sermon he had been invited to share. The other pastor and I were admiring the scenery that we hadn't been able to see the night before since it was dark when our plane landed.

I thought it was odd that the driver was dressed better than I was, and I was on my way to church, but I had been told that Colombians like to dress well.  I also thought it was interesting that he had two bibles on the dashboard.

When he asked who we were and what we were doing in Columbia, our guide explained that we were pastors and told him about the Learning Tour.  He was happy to hear that, and explained that he too is an evangelist.  I wondered if maybe he was a pastor in Bogota as well, but he went on to tell us that he was an evangelist to the guerrillas.  One of the Bibles on the dashboard was his own personal one.  The other was one designed specifically for guerrilla soldiers.  He described his mission as visiting with guerrilla groups all over the place, and giving them these Bibles.  He said that they had never refused to take a Bible.  He also talked about a meeting with a high ranking guerrilla officer who took one of the Bibles he brought and ripped some pages out to use as toilet paper.  This evangelist wasn't offended by this, instead he said, "That is just paper, but the truth of God that those pages contain cannot be defaced, no matter what you do."

Only a few weeks ago, when he was driving his taxi, he was attacked by a group of young men. They demanded his money and put a knife to his throat.  He told them that the spirit of robbery and violence had no power of him, and that Jesus had won the victory over evil forces like that.  The would-be bandits left without any money and without harming the driver.

Since then we've already heard from amazing people doing peace and justice work in this country that so badly needs it.  Hearing their stories was a big reason why we came.  But this taxi driver was not Mennonite, he was not connected to any civil justice agency and probably wouldn't claim an overarching pacifist theology as his own, but he was demonstrating love for his enemies as an expression of the gospel.

When we got out of the taxi at the church, I said to the pastor who was about to preach that morning's sermon, "That guy just raised the bar for you. I've already heard a pretty good sermon today."