Colombia and Capacity (2001)

An Eye-opening Learning Tour with MCC

I had met people who were on “death lists” before, in El Salvador during the war and in South Africa after Mandela’s election. Hector Mondragon struck me the same way as the others – as so normal! It amazes me how God gives increased capacity to normal people who are ready to respond to their circumstances with faith, hope, love and courage. Once again, I had to realize that I am, as a USonian, so insulated by my safety and power (and, I must admit, by my apathy) that it takes quite a while to take in the fact that some people can’t sleep in the same bed every night because they don’t want the police (or the “paramilitary” police the government won’t admit to using) to know their routines. Some believers are compelled by the Lord to tell the truth about their government’s corruption and injustice. They burn with the passion to do something for the oppressed. It costs them.

Related image

Hector Mondragon was an economist and a professor before he became an “insurgent” who organized labor unions for abused workers and spoke up for indigenous people. He was one of the people I met in Colombia on a recent Learning Tour with the Mennonite Central Committee (a world wide relief, development, advocacy mission with which Circle of Hope is affiliated). As he gave us an overview of what the U.S.-backed “Plan Colombia” (now the “Andean Intitiative”) was doing to his country, he described the culture of violence it is promoting. In 2001, 130 Colombian labor leaders have been killed. Two people every day “disappear.” Mr. Mondragon told us that he had never made a presentation to a visiting delegation like us on a day when there were no massacres. Sure enough, on the day he spoke to us, a “right wing” paramilitary group killed 23 campesinos. One final amazing thing about Hector Mondragon: the very next day the church had a baby shower planned for him and his wife. The Mondragons consider their child, sure to be born into strife, as a demonstration of their hope for Colombia. That is a great capacity to hope.

In Colombia, the delegation with which I traveled discovered that Christians, like Hector Mondragon, are deeply involved on the macro level of society, promoting peace and gathering together coalitions to demand new ways to deal with the violence and injustice in their country. We spent a good deal of time exploring the broad issues of making peace from all angles. We met with Christian peacemakers whose strategy is basically to “get in the way” of military actions and make those actions known to people in the U.S. – we have a secret war raging in Colombia (see the peace links on the resources page at, for more info). We met with a U.S. Embassy representative who gave us the party line and then told us that even though her husband was a Marine, she still wasn’t sure she trusted the military. We met with a leader from among the business community in Bogota who, although he said he was working for peace, intimated that even greater war could break out if the insurgents didn’t give in soon; he said they were getting “their last chance,” now that the U.S. has a worldwide war on terrorism going. As unforgettable as these people were, involved as they were in the thorny world of global politics, I was even more inspired to meet with people more like me, who were using their resources to show God’s love in practical ways on the micro level.

For instance, we met some church people from a middle class section of Bogota who took us to a part of the city known as Cartucho. We had driven by it earlier in the day and had practically broken our necks looking at it and wondering, “What in the world happened there?” One man, standing in dirty rags by an open fire in a trash-strewn lot, spotted our nice van and the nice, mostly-white people in it staring at him, and he picked up a burning stick and threw it at us. What happened to form Cartucho, as I understood it, is this: one of the previous presidents had allowed a section of town, just a stone’s throw from the Colombian “white house,” to become a settlement for homeless people. He was looking for votes in one of Colombia’s notoriously corrupt elections. The section quickly turned into a place that was so lawless and dangerous that the police were afraid to go there. The government was in the process of literally paving it over when we were there. (Not an unusual solution to the “homeless problem.”)

bogota slum

A woman from the church in Bogota had it in her heart to work with people in Cartucho. She didn’t have any money, just love. She met mothers with young children but no husbands, children of prostitutes wandering the streets, abandoned children of drug dealers and users. She begged a building from a man and started a day care center. A church resulted, too, lead by Sammy D’Arco, one of the few Afro-Colombian leaders we met. This work was a good example of something that impressed me very much about the churches I visited. Even though people have very few resources, they are responding to the needs around them with passion and perseverance.

Another example of this kind of capacity is the work we saw in Armenia. Armenia is in the middle of Colombia’s coffee country and justifiably sees its valley as paradise (the airport is named “the airport of Eden.”). It is beautiful. But about three years ago an earthquake devastated the area, leaving one group of renters homeless and living in one of the city squares. An organization of churches from across all the usual boundaries that divide up the kingdom of God, formed a coalition to help these stricken families. They put together a better quality temporary housing for them (relief housing is usually so basic it is good for a month and people live in it for ten years). Then they went a step further and began a project called El Cantaro to build permanent homes. Unlike other projects for earthquake victims, El Cantaro insists that their development will be a community: one without violence (you can’t have guns there), one with mutuality (you help build your own home as part of its cost) and one filled with hope. The children there created a drama without words (for us non-Spanish speakers) that told their story of fear, destruction and rebuilding that represented the work of people who have been devoted to making a difference in the lives of those in need for Jesus sake. Art, hope, togetherness in the midst of violence and turmoil is inspiring.

As a result of seeing these things and many others I was convinced that the Jesus followers in Philly have a larger capacity to engage the evils around us than we might think. There is nothing like seeing someone doing what you don’t think is possible to renew your hope. Here are some things I hope we will be doing soon to exercise our capacity.

1) Already, we could be inviting delegations to see what God is doing in our city in the midst of “secret” things that happen to the poor every day. We should awaken people to all the good people doing great things, to all the evil things they could alleviate with more attention and sharing.

2) The poor in Colombia are desperate enough to pool their meager resources and help one another survive. We are trying to help people gain our computer skills, as Circle of Hope, but we can do more. I dream of good-hearted people getting together in a consortium of businesses, pooling their resources and helping one another make it in their business ventures. I would like to see a deeper expression of sharing the education and connections we have with people on the other side of the economic divide.

3) We have some home rebuilding we need to do in our neighborhoods, too. We are already connected to Habitat for Humanity. Maybe there is room for us in the discussion of blight and the envisioning of the next Philadelphia.

4) My pet idea is to create Shalom House. I will be looking for young people, especially, who will give a year or more to serve the cause of peacemaking in my very divided city. I have been speaking ever since I returned, as well, about how we need to participate in a national network of peacemakers, like the church in Colombia has done, who can engage the difficult task of providing alternatives to violence to the government and the other powers that be. I hope we will contribute to that possibility.

One of the messages that was burned into me while I was away was that our local congregation and, even more, a united church in Philly, has a lot of unused capacity for building the kingdom of God. Paul’s conviction is that “The end will come, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24-25). I think we are tempted to believe that our military or our economy will triumph over what we fear. But the call of God on the life of each person is to demonstrate that Jesus is Lord, not our country’s military might or business acumen. The enemies of God are functioning at the macro and micro levels. We have more capacity than we think to promote the reign of Jesus in the face of their opposition. Engaging in life versus death struggles is what Jesus does best and what we best do with him.

Leave a Reply