U-C: What I See

Saturday, September 18, 2004

A Day in Colombia

Thursday, 5 p.m. – I’m in four-wheel drive truck with Herman, Moises, and three women from the communities (Judith, Sarai, and Leida). We’re driving south of Barranquilla to visit a community of the “displaced.” There are somewhere between 2 and 3 million folks like them in this country, people who have been forced off there land and out of their homes by the violence between the various armed actors – guerrilla, paramilitary, and military forces who often appear to be equally indiscriminate in the violence they carry out against the civilian population as they fight with one another.

The women and I are joking in the backseat of the truck as we drive through the rain toward “kilometer 7,” the piece of land that the city government has offered the desplazados. They’re teaching me Colombian slang, and joking with me about my Mexican/Gringo Spanish. As we get close to the community, the mud gets deep and the truck begins sliding around on the road. Eventually, we come to a stop on the edge of the community. Sitting in the truck, I listen to the rain pound the roof as the women describe how they came here, how the government moved them out to this piece of land, and how they built “temporary” houses out of tarps, plywood and cardboard more than two years ago.

As we drive on, our conversation takes on a strange character – shifting between the joking that I find so comfortable as a way of connecting with people in this culture, and the stories of the women themselves in the midst of the violence. Leida describes the family members lost to the violence, and weeps as she speaks of her father’s assassination by the paramilitary a little more than a month ago. A thirty-two year old mother of six, she herself has been targeted by the military – detained a few months ago for her work with a human rights organization that the displaced have formed to document the disappearances and to demand their basic rights. After three months, the government no longer identifies someone as a displaced person – kind of similar to the way we in the U.S. don’t count someone as unemployed if they’ve been looking for work more than six months. Here, the distinction is a matter of survival, because there are no government services for these folks who are on the extreme margins of the economy in this society.

The violence here doesn’t respect political opinion or affiliation.

Friday – 7:30 a.m. I’m in an ecumenical gathering of local church representatives at the Presbyterian Reformed University here in Barranquilla. The gathering is significant, because it includes Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic participants who have been coming together regularly to discuss what it means to be church in the midst of the violence.

I’ve been asked to give a brief reflection, and I choose the text from the 2nd Chapter of Acts in which Peter preaches his sermon immediately following the Pentecost, and three thousand step forward to be baptized. What happened in the midst of the Pentecost that gave Peter the courage to step forward and preach openly about this new thing that was happening? What happened that moved the moment from 120 people hiding in a room to preaching openly in the streets and shifting to a movement of thousands? Pentecost happened – the movement of the spirit that offered the radical Good News of Jesus in a way that united people across all kinds of religious, cultural and even national boundaries? What are the lessons that we can learn today as work across those same boundaries to respond to the crisis here in Colombia and around the world?

In this context, it is an act of courage even to gather as Christians to discuss such things.

Friday – 11:00 a.m. Milton Mejia and I are meeting with the Commander of the Second Military Brigade and two of his top advisors. They assure us that their role is simply to carry out the wishes of the attorney general’s office by picking up potential “rebels and terrorists,” words that I’ve noticed this week are often linked to human rights workers like my young friend Mauricio who I visited in jail yesterday.

The justice system works, they assure us. If Mauricio is innocent, it will be discovered and he’ll be released. They may be right, but he’s been detained and jailed for three months on the word of an ex-guerrilla who has come forward and is quite likely to be working as a paid informant of the government in their “re-insertion project” in which guerrilla are offered the chance to re-integrate in society. All fine and good, we suggest to the commanders, but the bottom line is that a young man with a six-year history of working to secure the legal rights of the displaced has been jailed on nothing more than the word of an ex-guerrilla. Whether he is found guilty in the end or not, his detention will be enough to mark him as a subversive in the eyes of the paramilitary “self defense forces.”

In this country, that’s a death sentence.

Friday, 2:30 p.m. Now we’re meeting with the woman who is the regional head of the government prosecutor’s office. This is the office that is charged with determining whether there is enough evidence to go ahead and charge someone like Mauricio, and then prosecuting the case as it unfolds. She is sympathetic as we tell the story and shares our concern both for Mauricio and for the church in this climate where anyone working on behalf of the poor is suspect. I try to explain one more time – as I have in every official visit for the last four days, that the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. is gravely concerned with how the members of our sister church in Colombia will be protected as they try to do the work of ministering to the poorest of the poor – the displaced who have suffered so much of the violence here.

She’s been polite, and even helpful in explaining the process and what we can expect to happen. Then, Milton receives a phone call on his cell phone. I watch as his face turns ashen. “It can’t be,” he says. “No, no, no.” He looks at us and tells us that a friend and colleague in the work with the displaced has just been assassinated in broad daylight a few blocks from where we’re sitting. As he hangs up, he stares at the ceiling. “NO, NO, NO, it just can’t be,” he says. Slowly, I watch his face break apart and he begins to sob – tears rolling down his cheeks. The regional director moves immediately to her phone to confirm the news – she also is badly shaken.

Alredo Correa de Andreis was a sociologist professor in his mid-forties. He’s been known and loved in this community for his work on preserving the city’s heritage by helping to organize cultural events. Two months ago, he was accused of guerilla activity – and jailed in the same room as Mauricio for a little over a month. Last month, he was released on his own recognizance as his case was investigated. He might as well have been convicted, and he might have been safer in jail.

As we had argued a few hours earlier with the Brigade Commander, in the eyes of the paramilitary, he was guilty as charged and the sentence was death.

Friday – 6 p.m. I’m doing a pastoral visit with Mauricio’s mother, sister and brother in their home – a small, second floor apartment in a poor neighborhood in Barranquilla. Mauricio’s mother can’t stop crying, and the talk revolves around Alfredo, as it does on talk radio, the television, and everywhere else in the city. The family is worried sick, and they have good reason to be. The cases are extremely similar and the implications for Mauricio – twenty-four years old and in his last year in law school, are serious and frightening.

The phone rings and his brother answers. It’s Mauricio, calling from a pay phone in the prison. “That’s the third-time today he’s called,” says his sister. “He never calls more than once unless he’s depressed or worried.” When I visited him yesterday, one of the things he made clear was that he’s no safer in jail than he is out. The arm of the paramilitaries is long.

What does it mean to speak of safety in this environment?

Friday – 7:30 p.m. I’m at a Presbyterian Church for a special worship service in which I’ve been invited to preach. Although it’s raining again, every seat in the sanctuary is filled with more than two-hundred Presbyterians in attendance from across the Presbytery. As I listen to the teenagers from the choir at the Presbyterian run Colegio sing, I realize how much I’ve needed to be in worship.

Then, two teenagers carry out a short skit in which the young woman is symbolically beaten down as others came forward and tape signs to her cloak reading: death, violence, humiliation, intolerance, hunger and misery. Slowly, she falls to the floor.

Then, another teenager enters with his face painted. He yells, “where’s Jesus”, and then begins looking for the woman. When he finds her, silently, he removes the placards one by one, and the woman – the Christ – stands. They hug in silence, and then walk to the back of the sanctuary hand-in-hand.

The text comes from John 10 – the same one that grounded our work as a General Assembly this year. “I have come that you might have life in Fullness.” Matched with that text are the words of Jeremiah in Chapter 20: “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “violence and destruction!” for the word of the Lord has become a reproach and derision all day long.”

In my sermon, I tell our brothers and sisters that we in the U.S. are a church that cares, and that we will do our best to accompany them through this dark time of violence in which they are at risk for the simple act of acting like church. As I make the commitment, I pray that we as a church in the U.S. will find the courage to stand with these people.

As the service comes to an end, we open for prayers of intercession. One person after another asks God to intercede for justice, for an end to the impunity for government officials and paramilitaries, and for a future of hope for the people of Colombia.

As we finish with clapping and singing and joy, I’m struck one more time, as I’ve been struck so often in my life and during this week, with the relationship between joy and sorrow – fear and hope.

It’s been a long day.

Grace and Peace to each of you.