Refreshed and renewed

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A favorite memory from my visit to Venezuela in September 2016. 

I’d been resisting the temptation to get in the water at the Cascada del Vino. I wasn’t afraid of the cold, but my swimsuit was back in Colombia, and skinny-dipping in front of a busload of Venezuelan Presbyterians of assorted ages didn’t seem like a good idea. But when 75 year-old hermano Asunción wanted to renew his baptismal vows in this beautiful space, it was time to get wet–fully dressed.

“The wine-colored water is the blood of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The waterfall is the movement of the Holy Spirit.” Feet firm on the rocks of God’s grace, we waded in together, surrounded by prayers from the gathered congregation. What a blessing to be part of the great tapestry of faith!

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Bewildered hope

“…and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

On Sunday I went to church in Bogotá, where we prayed for peace and the mood was expectantly joyful. I watched people go to the polls in the morning rain, and then in the afternoon sunshine. I read news about how the rains from Hurricane Michael’s tail had delayed delivery of voting materials in several places and likely kept people away from the polls. I prayed and hoped.

When the results began to come in, I was shocked at how close the vote was, but at that point the “Sí” was carrying the fragile lead. Polls in the days before the vote had suggested a solid victory for the peace accords. But in the end, the final tally was a nearly perfect split: 50.21% no, 49.78% yes, separated by fewer then 54,000 votes.

I had not given serious thought to the notion that the plebiscite could fail. As the “no” vote took the lead, I scoured news coverage in disbelief. Messages shared on social media by religious leaders who had campaigned for the “yes” vote moved from grief to a recommitment to keep promoting peace and reconciliation in Colombia. And I found myself, while still bewildered, buoyed by hope once again.

With such a narrow margin, such a marked division of views, for the accords to be approved would have left a significant segment of Colombian society with resentment and little disposition to cooperate with the process down the line. Now that the breach between different views of how to achieve peace has been brought to the forefront, an opportunity arises for important work to be done.

“How did this happen?”
“Why would anyone vote against peace?”

These are good questions.

The results of Sunday’s vote demonstrate that in areas that have suffered most, support for the accords was clear. But strong opposition in the more highly populated “interior” of the country, especially in the city of Medellín, was enough to tip the scales. (The webpage of Colombia’s Registraduría has interactive maps of election results and voter turnout.)

I, like the leadership of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, have fully and actively supported the accords as a solid path forward toward peace. The majority of those who voted “no” on Sunday also want an end to the armed conflict, but they were persuaded by criticism of the accords.

Some are convinced that harsher penalties and prison sentences should be faced by FARC ex-combatants, or that their political participation should be restricted. Others have been swayed by campaigns of misinformation. The accords recognize a list of different populations that have been victims of the armed conflict, including indigenous communities, women, and LGBTQ people, and affirm that they should be included in restitution processes.  Numerous evangelical pastors and churches rallied against the accords, conflating the provision with other recent sociopolitical debates regarding LGBTQ rights in Colombia.

What all this means is still unclear. Both President Santos and FARC guerrilla leadership have made a public commitment to continue the ceasefire and seek a lasting peace. As I write, President Santos and Senator Uribe are meeting, with other political leaders from each side of the vote, to seek common ground and look for possible steps forward that both can support. For details on the events and possible scenarios, see the news coverage and analysis links provided below.

Questions and uncertainties abound, but the call to continue seeking peace and reconciliation remains unchanged. We always knew that we were embarking on a new and challenging path, it’s just under somewhat different circumstances than we’d envisioned.

Please continue to support the work of peace in Colombia. Pray. Volunteer as an accompanier or a Young Adult Volunteer. Donate to support the IPC’s service work in the North Coast or in Urabá, or my work. Educate. Make sure you vote, wherever you are eligible. God is still working, in us and through us.

Further reading
Analysis by Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America
More interesting English language news coverage and commentary: The GuardianThe Nation, The NY Times 
Official maps and vote details from Colombia’s Registraduría
Posted in Colombia, Musings, Prayer | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sí! We commit to peace

Last week I had the privilege of witnessing the Synod Council of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) express unanimous approval for endorsing the “yes” vote in Colombia’s referendum on the peace accords reached by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) guerrilla group and the Colombian government. The IPC is the first church to speak publicly in favor of the accords, and this witness makes me proud to be a Presbyterian.

Drawing from statements issued by the church over the past six years, a brief letter summarizes the posture of the church and the rationale for promoting the approval of the peace accords. The original Spanish text of the letter is in the picture, read on for the English translation.

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DECLARATION OF THE IPC ON THE HAVANA ACCORDS BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND THE FARC-EP

“The fruit of justice will be peace.” Isaiah 32:17

The way of peace is long and narrow. Faced with the great challenge of the construction of peace in our country, we are moved by the dream of the God of Jesus of Nazareth, the dream of an inhabited earth (oikoumene) living in justice, peace, and unity, where abundant life for all is possible (John 10:10). Peace is a human aspiration and a gift of God. To participate in its construction is to recognize that we are children of God (Matthew 5:9), and to reach fullness of life. It is a gift of God because God is the one who puts peace in our hearts, who demolishes the walls of humanity’s own making which divide us.

As a religious minority we have lived through the different periods and historical conflicts which our nation has traversed, suffering persecution and religious intolerance. In the time of “La Violencia” in Colombia some of our sanctuaries were bombed; men and women who served as pastors in our communities were assassinated, persecuted and displaced. More recently whole churches have been displaced and their communities decimated in places like Saiza in Cordoba; Batalla, Nuevo Oriente, and Pavarandó in Urabá; Peque, Dabeiba, and Río Verde in southwestern Antioquia; El Guineo in Chocó; and others. In large cities, Presbyterian pastors and leaders have been threatened and exiled because of their work in defense of human rights. Experiences such as these have allowed us to learn the difficult process of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and contribute to peace in the Colombian context. Times have changed, and starting with the Constitution of 1991 the state has recognized the rights of religious minorities.   It’s time for forgiveness and reconciliation! “How many times must I forgive my brother and sister?”

We are tired of the barbarity of war, of hundreds of people disappeared and millions displaced; of families ripped apart; of thousands of children, women, indigenous people and afrodescendent communities expelled from their land. We have wiped away the tears of the widows and the orphans; we have accompanied raped and abused women in their pain and humiliation; we have suffered seeing the anguish of those mutilated by the conflict.

Faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Presbyterian Church of Colombia encourages the Colombian people to maintain hope. In 160 years of presence and witness in Colombia we have worked tirelessly for peace with social justice and will continue on that path. Likewise, we raise our prophetic voice to demand a serious commitment on the part of the signatory parties to fulfill the Havana accords. As followers of Jesus we can choose no other way than that of peace, a sustainable peace that goes hand in hand with repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration (Luke 19:1-10).

As an act of faith, the Synod Council of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, gathered in Barranquilla on September 5, 2016, unanimously agreed to endorse the YES vote on the Havana Accords through the constitutional tool of the plebiscite. This is a possible way forward in the construction of peace, still incomplete and imperfect, but we support it decidedly.

Synod Council

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF COLOMBIA

References: Declarations of the Synod of the IPC from the years 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016.

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The rough road to justice

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Presbyterians for impartial justice, free from corruption

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The toad accuses

The DA’s office investigates

The hitman assassinates

So goes the story of many a human rights defender in Colombia. So goes the story of Alfredo Correa de Andreis.

Alfredo was a respected sociologist, a university professor whose research highlighted the systematic infringement of the rights of displaced persons living in Barranquilla and proposed a new way forward. On September 17, 2004, he was executed in what was later proven to be a plot carried out by paramilitaries and orchestrated by Colombia’s now-defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS).

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“Signposts For a New Way” was published posthumously in 2005

Prior to his assassination, Alfredo had been incarcerated, charged with rebellion as a FARC guerrilla sympathizer based on the testimony of former FARC combatants. The charges were dropped when his lawyer was able to prove the accusations were false. Not only was Alfredo conducting research several states away at the time of his supposed meeting with insurgents on the Venezuelan border, but the exact same false testimony had been copied and pasted word for word in the DAS files against another human rights defender. Both cases had something else in common: the prosecutor, Demóstenes Camargo de Ávila.

After nearly a month in prison, Alfredo was released. Two months later, a paramilitary hitman shot first his bodyguard and then Alfredo as they walked near Simon Bolivar University.

This scandalous event has influenced my own life’s story, because on the day Alfredo was assassinated, Rick Ufford-Chase was visiting the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) in his capacity as Moderator of the PCUSA. The IPC had leaders under threat for their human rights work, offices under surveillance, and needed support from the US church in the form of unarmed accompaniers for its ministry with displaced persons and other victims of the armed conflict. Rick joined IPC leaders in visiting Alfredo’s grieving family, and the urgency of the call for international accompaniment was crystal clear. He then returned to the US where he convinced the PCUSA to move swiftly in answering the IPC’s request. Two months later, the first accompaniers arrived in Colombia. I took my place in a chain of nearly constant accompaniment when I came to Colombia for the first time in May 2006, participating in a program that has shaped the course of my life ever since, a program catalyzed into existence by this assassination.

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Alfredo’s parents, sister, and lawyer. 

I never met Alfredo, but today I met some of his family. With photographs and matching t-shirts, their presence brought a name and a face to undergird the protest convened by two prominent human rights alliances, MOVICE (Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State) and Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (CCEEU), of which the IPC is a member. It was a small assembly, lasting less than two hours, but the motivation was compelling: justice.

For peace to flourish in Colombia, the justice system must be as fair and balanced as possible. There are many steps needed to make that happen, but ensuring tribunals are comprised of respected, unbiased magistrates is one key element. Despite a court ruling that required his office to pay damages for arbitrarily detaining Alfredo based on a fraudulent investigation during his time as district attorney, Demóstenes Camargo de Ávila is now a judge. And earlier this month he was assigned for transfer to Barranquilla’s criminal court.

The clear miscarriage of justice which led to Alfredo’s assassination was used as evidence in the dismantling of the DAS and the imprisonment of its director Jorge Noguera. Now MOVICE and CCEEU have petitioned the Supreme Court to review Demóstenes Camargo’s appointment in Barranquilla.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Gesto solidario con El Tamarindo

This message is available in English.

Muchas personas en Colombia y alrededor del mundo están pendientes de la situación de los campesinos en El Tamarindo. Muchas han preguntado, “¿Cómo puedo ayudar?”

Se está haciendo trabajo de incidencia con medios, embajadas, y agencias de gobierno en Colombia. La historia todavía no se acaba, pero sí las familias se ven obligadas a reubicarse esta semana–faltando días para la Navidad.

Invito a todas las personas interesadas en hacer un gesto solidario para animar a los hombres y las mujeres, los niños y las niñas, y dejarles saber que tienen a muchas personas que piensan en ellos y oran por ellos.

¿Cómo puedo mostrar solidaridad con la gente de El Tamarindo?
 

1. Manda un mensaje personal de apoyo a El Tamarindo.

  • Escribe un mensaje breve de solidaridad en una hoja del papel,  o imprime uno de los mensajes adjuntos.
  • Toma una foto con tu mensaje.
  • Publica tu foto en las redes sociales con la etiqueta #EsperanzaTamarindo
    • Si no utilizas las redes sociales: Manda tu foto por correo electrónico a: sarah punto henken arroba pcusa punto org
  • Las fotos serán compartidas con la comunidad
  • Un ejemplo:​

Foto el 15-12-15 a las 6.14 PM

2. Comparta tu apoyo para El Tamarindo en Twitter y Facebook.
Utiliza las frases a continuación, or crea tus propios mensajes, con la etiqueta #EsperanzaTamarindo:
  • Con fe, esperanza, y amor, estoy con El Tamarindo #EsperanzaTamarindo
  • Seguimos orando por las familias de El Tamarindo. #EsperanzaTamarindo
  • Deseo la justicia y la paz para las familias de El Tamarindo. #EsperanzaTamarindo
 

¡​Gracias​​!

Mensajes para imprimir:
ConFe “Con fe, esperanza, y amor, estoy con El Tamarindo”
MiOracion “Mi oración por El Tamarindo: …”
UnaLuz “Una luz para El Tamarindo”
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Solidarity with El Tamarindo

Lee este mensaje en español.
Many people around the world have been following the situation in El Tamarindo, and many have asked “What can I do to help?”
Much advocacy work has been underway with embassies and Colombian government agencies. The story isn’t finished, but the families are still being forced to relocate this week–right before Christmas.
I invite you to join me in an action of solidarity to encourage the campesinos of El Tamarindo and let them know they have many people thinking of them and praying for them.

How can you show solidarity with the people of El Tamarindo?

1. Send them a personal message of encouragement.

  • Write a simple message of solidarity on a piece of paper. Feel free to use one of our templates, below.
  • ​Take​ a picture with your message.
  • Post your picture on social media with the hashtag #EsperanzaTamarindo​ — and consider making it public so it can be shared!
    • If you’re not on social media​:
       Email your picture to me at: sarah dot henken at pcusa dot org
  • These pictures will be shared with the community
  • Here’s an example:

Foto el 15-12-15 a las 6.14 PM

2. Spread the word on Twitter and Facebook.

Use​ the sample social media posts below, or create your own, with the hashtag #EsperanzaTamarindo 
  • Con fe, esperanza, y amor, estoy con El Tamarindo #EsperanzaTamarindo
  • Seguimos orando por las familias de El Tamarindo. #EsperanzaTamarindo
  • Deseo la justicia y la paz a las familias de El Tamarindo. #EsperanzaTamarindo
Thank you! And thanks to YAV Sophia for her work on this. 
Message templates:
ConFe “With faith, hope, and love, I support El Tamarindo”
IStand “I stand with El Tamarindo because…”
MiOracion “My prayer for El Tamarindo is…”
UnaLuz “A light for El Tamarindo”
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Paradise Uprooted

As the sun went down on Wednesday, December 9, I rested in a hammock. A cool breeze to calm the day’s heat. The verdor of trees and plants, sky turning pink and orange beyond. Tiny growls and yips of puppies sparring. A cool cup of agua panela con limón. As I got up and prepared to head home, two sweet little girls sprinted down the road to give me a hug, followed by their more decorous sisters and their mother. A perfect moment, a drop of sweetness, at the close of a most difficult day.

Thirteen hours earlier I had jolted awake to the sound of my predawn alarm and prepared to face another day of uncertainty with the community at El Tamarindo. I arrived, wearing clerical collar and cross, to news that the riot police were at the other entrance on the far side of the territory. Two men arrived on motorcycle at our entrance shortly afterward, and my friends observed from the official license plate and the pistols at their belts that they were plainclothes police detectives. At 8:30 the parade of police vehicles began to arrive, with 2 small buses, 4 SUVs, and 4 riot police transport vehicles in the first group. They were joined by a large group of day laborers hired to take machetes to the largest plants and help with the demolition demanded by the purported owners of the land. My hand trembled as I took my first photographs of the assembling forces.

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Anxiety began to swell among the community members gathered at the territory’s main entrance. Seeking to calm their fears and my own, I turned to the most beloved text in the Bible. “Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)” I read the words aloud as the police lined up, preparing to begin the day’s destruction. The context gave the words a deeper meaning and power than I had felt before: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

IMG_2622 (1).jpgI spent the next two hours there at the entrance with community members, while the first crops and homes were bulldozed. We prayed and read scripture and joked by turns, and received occasional updates on what was taking place down the road where accompaniers from the FOR Peace Presence and Colombia’s Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz were continuously documenting and observing the eviction. I hope I never again am called on to pray with people while their homes and livelihood are being deliberately destroyed.

It went on for hours, a slow and relentless process: the police inspector stopping at a farm, dictating the official document enacting the eviction, and then moving on to the next. Due to convoluted legal issues, some of the farmers were granted a 10-day stay of eviction in order to arrange their possessions. Others were not. On farm after farm, the machete men and bulldozer entered and began to demolish homes and to cut down and uproot crops and trees. The tube that delivers water to El Tamarindo was slashed early in the day, cutting off the water supply for almost all of the farms until the community could get it adequately patched up almost 24 hours later.

IMG_2666 (1).jpgAs I walked and prayed, greeted people and photographed, I was disgusted by the needlessness of the whole situation. What constructive, reconciling, humane settlement could have been offered to the community with the funds spent not just this week, but in over 40 other forcible eviction actions against this community? That money could have been used to build up the future for these families. Instead, the company and local authorities have preferred to invest in destruction.

On Wednesday, the police forces maintained a posture that was as non-threatening as riot gear can be. The hired hands were under strict orders not to slash crops indiscriminately but to await orders. To my knowledge, there were no physical altercations. The miscarriage of this questionably legal version of “justice” was carried out smoothly.

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Representatives from city hall wore these vests with the mayor’s slogans, which ring with cruel irony in El Tamarindo.    On the front: “With justice at hand, Barranquilla is safer!”     On the back: “Barranquilla blooms for everyone.”

That was Wednesday. On Thursday, as the police inspector continued the evictions with fewer cameras on hand, the action was more hostile, with threats of calling child services and aggressive demands made by the company’s lawyer to demolish homes as quickly as possible. The police inspector finally finished his process of evicting residents around 6:30 in the evening, well after sundown. I walked with my friend Marisol back down the unlit road, each passing police transport covering us in dust.


 

Late Wednesday afternoon, one of the evicted campesinos departed with his wife in a truck loaded with their pigs and possessions. He has no family here in Atlántico, so they are going to stay with relatives in another state. He has been displaced four times before by the armed conflict, and now the authorities have sanctioned this new abuse. He is 78 years old.

After he left, I stayed on his farm for a time, bearing witness to the pleasantness of his garden, with butterflies dancing around the flowers in the afternoon sun.

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What seems perhaps most clear in all this is the truth of these ancient words: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” 1 Timothy 6:10

But I choose to remind myself of this challenge: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

Right now, in this situation, I’m not sure how we go about that. But I am confident that we are on the side of God’s justice. And I am grateful for the privilege of accompanying the people of El Tamarindo.

The community’s work of advocacy and planning continues. They are still standing. As they find the way forward, please join me in praying for God’s guidance and provision to come through human hands and hearts.

 

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