Welcome to Colombia

Here are the main actors in today’s sermon: Global Ministries, Justapaz, Ciederpaz, villagers along the San Juan River in Choco, and about 18 of us pilgrims, mostly from Washington State.


On World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our connection with other Christians all over the world. Today we focus on the people of Colombia. A week ago, Rick Russell, Jan Kinney, and I joined about 15 others in a Global Ministries virtual pilgrimage to Colombia. We celebrate those working for justice in that country after over 50 years of violence. In 2016 there was a peace accord between the government and the rebel groups, including the FARC. FARC members laid down their weapons. There was great hope that things would finally change.


Then a new administration was voted into power, and its priorities go in a different direction. Jan may speak more about the justice and reparation issues in her sermon next week. I will just say that the gap between the haves and have-nots is enormous. Social justice leaders are targets for assassination, disappearance, or other violence.


Villagers in Choco, the northwest state of Colombia, get caught in the crossfire. Paramilitary groups have invaded these remote areas. They grow coca there—which gets turned into cocaine and smuggled to us in the U.S. This crop helps fund their groups. This northwest area of Colombia, with its access to both the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts as well as the border with Panama, is a prime drug trafficking corridor. The paramilitary groups impose curfews on these villages, or kill the villagers, or inflict violence on them, or push them out. The young people in the villages are targeted for recruitment, and sometimes, having nothing better to do, they join up.


Some years ago I started offering a prayer of grace at meals, giving thanks for my food and for all who made that food possible and brought it to my plate. I give thanks for the soil and seeds, the pollinators, the wind, sun, and water. I give thanks for the farmers and migrant workers, the packers and truckers, the grocery clerks. I give thanks to God for the ways in which I am connected to all of them—the ways in which we are connected to each other.


So on this World Communion Sunday, we bring it all to the table—all our connections—and we give thanks. We celebrate with Christians in Bocas de Suruco, San Jeronimo, San Miguel, Dipordu, Bebedo, and Union Waunam. We celebrate our connections to the Mennonites and Catholics leading the community outreach, working for healing, reconciliation, and reparations in these locations. We celebrate Justapaz and Ciederpaz, the two peace-building organizations who put this Global Ministries pilgrimage together. And we celebrate the work of Global Ministries, which is also the organization that has sent our own Leda Zakarison to Lebanon.


We are connected to Colombia through food: chocolate, coffee, grapefruit, rice, sugar cane. One of the delights of this virtual pilgrimage was the sharing of recipes along with short videos of people making the food and explaining its importance. Even though we couldn’t sit down at the same table to share these meals, we could still participate in getting to know the people through their traditional recipes. We remember that Jesus ate with everyone, and that the sharing of food is sacred. I am newly aware of food on my plate that could have come from Colombia.


We are connected to Colombia through water. These six villages all lie on the banks of the San Juan River. This river is their primary mode of transportation, their water supply, and a food source because of the fish. It flows out to the Pacific Ocean, just as our rivers do. Of great concern to the people in these villages is the pollution in the river, which comes from gold and platinum mining upstream. You may know that mercury is key in the mining of gold. When it gets into the water, it poisons the fish and the people. Another source of pollution comes from the U.S.-funded planes that spray the illegal coca fields to combat the drug trafficking of the paramilitary groups. Unfortunately, the planes spray fields indiscriminately, wiping out fields of rice, sugar cane, and other crops that the people need to survive. The spray also gets into the water system. For their communities to thrive, the river will have to get cleaned up. This is one of the requests these communities are making: help from the government to clean up the river.


We are connected to Colombia through our youth. Like young people everywhere, when there is nothing to do, they can get into trouble. Here, we worry that young people will join gangs. There, they are recruited into the paramilitary groups. Same idea. Teen pregnancy is an issue. So in some villages, starting about three years ago, the church formed soccer teams and held tournaments. The church leaders taught concepts around team building, conflict resolution, and other skills that apply not only to soccer but also to life. The tournaments brought villages together, helped people get to know each other in positive, community-building ways. The tournaments are now postponed because of the coronavirus, but people are hopeful that they will start up again because they were popular and gave young people positive options.


We are connected to Colombia through a history of racism. Over 200 years ago, Africans were brought to Colombia as slaves to work in the mines or on the farms. Eventually some escaped and went west, where they created villages, grew rice, fruit, vegetables, caught fish in the rivers. The land and the river gave them enough for a decent life. But these Afro-Colombians are not well treated by the government, not a high priority. They are seen as lower-class. Black bodies are treated as more disposable there, just as they are here. This western area is filled with paramilitary groups that terrorize the villagers, kill them, “disappear” them, inflict violence on them. Villagers are displaced, forced off their land. With nowhere else to go, they drift into cities and live in slums. The indigenous village that was part of our pilgrimage is in danger of extinction. Does this sound like our own history with slavery and treatment of Native Americans? Genocide, displacement, discrimination—as if people can be disposable. So we can learn from each other, try to figure out a better way together.


We are connected through COVID-19. If anything has shown us how connected we all are, it is this coronavirus, which strikes peasants and presidents alike. The US has 4% of the world’s population but about 20% of the cases of coronavirus. Colombia has the second highest rate of cases in Latin America. When we on this pilgrimage paid for this trip, much of our money went to preparing 200 kits to deliver to people in these six villages. These kits contained food staples such as sugar, rice, and pasta. The kits also contained hygiene packets as well as masks and hand sanitizer. Community councils in each village selected who would receive these kits, prioritizing those who had survived violence and those most in need. Distribution of these 200 kits benefitted an estimated 700 people. So our money is helping the poorest and neediest take care of themselves during this pandemic.


Finally, we are connected through faith. Paul’s words to the Romans resonate here: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:12-13). The needs are great. Paul teaches us how to be good people of faith with each other.


On this trip I was continually looking for what we could do about the things we were learning. And there are some things we can do, which we will get to in the next two weeks. But we start simply by being present, by bearing witness, by meeting people and hearing their stories. We feed the hungry, give masks to those who don’t have them. We try their recipes, listen as they speak of violence and soccer games, of loss and hope, of trauma and reconciliation. We pray with them and for them. We share our communion table and our faith that God is present in and with and all around them, just as God is present in and with and all around us.


When people say, “Why take this pilgrimage? You can’t fix their problems. You meet strangers for one week and then you go away and never see them again.” Yes. But I am changed by the experience, and so are they. I get to reflect on how my lifestyle is connected to these people thousands of miles away: all that we share in common, all that is different and horizon-expanding in my understanding of what it means to be human and a child of God. Maybe I am able to help them in some small way. And maybe they help me see the same problems in my own community and get ideas for how to be a peacemaker right where I am. We are certainly living in turbulent times, whether we are in Colombia or right here in the U.S. As Paul says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). Meeting each other and learning to love each other—connecting as fellow humans, fellow children of God—is the first step. Let us be committed to that journey. Amen.

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