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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Solidaridad con El Tamarindo

An English language post on this subject will be available soon.

La comunidad campesina de El Tamarindo, en la periferia de Barranquilla, enfrenta la amenaza de desalojo despiadado e ilegal por las autoridades locales en el día de mañana, lunes 7 de diciembre.

Ya han sufrido repetidas acciones de despojo violento, sus cultivos y casas arrasadas, sus integrantes violentados. Oramos a Dios su misericordia e intervención, y exigimos a las autoridades que respeten la dignidad humana en todas sus acciones–particularmente con esta comunidad.

Hoy tuve el privilegio de acompañar a miembros de la comunidad en un acto de concientización en la Plaza de la Paz y durante misa en la Catedral Metropolitana.

Piden nuestra solidaridad. No más sufrimiento_Ya estoy cansada de llorarYa estoy cansada de sufrirYa estoy cansada de tanta necesidad.Por eso quiero hoy manifestar, paz para mi comunidad.Ya no queremos mas ESMAD y mucho menos desalojos.Queremos los ni.png

 

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“Queremos la PAZ en nuestro territorio. NO al desalojo en El Tamarindo, franja El Mirador!”

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“Somos los niños del Tamarindo. Exigimos que respeten nuestros derechos. . . Ya basta de tanto daño porque mi familia no tiene más lágrimas de tanto llorar. Respeten nuestra Navidad.”

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Angels in El Tamarindo

Today is Angel Gabriel’s birthday. Yesterday, our words shrouded by the uncertainty of whether his home would be destroyed today once again, he told me that his birthday always brings sorrow.

Gabriel is a member of ASOTRACAMPO, the association of campesinos resisting one more round of unjust and violent uprooting from their homes on the farmland of El Tamarindo. (If you’re unfamiliar with this courageous community, I’ve written about them on this blog and for the journal Unbound.) They had received word that an eviction action would take place today, but at the last minute that action was stayed yet again. An unexpected respite from the immediate threat, but not a full reprieve. The eviction could take place as soon as Monday.

While they wait to be relocated to new farmland—land to which they can hold undisputed title—they don’t sleep easy at night. This year they have had their water shut off, received threatening phone calls, faced intimidation at meetings with the rich and powerful who want their case to go away. They live crowded together, neighbors previously uprooted taking refuge on their farms, with little land available and not much heart to plant crops that may soon be razed to the ground. And yet, life finds a way.

Fields which a month ago were dry have grown lush and green; a little bit of water has renewed their beauty. As we sat in the oppressive heat, we prayed for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to flow amongst us, and the breeze picked up to refresh us over lunch. For a community whose path was unclear, a new door has opened as the constitutional court plans to review their case.

A poem for Advent by Ann Weems begins: “Angels still appear to those / ready to receive blessings / in spite of the barren / impossibility of their lives.” El Tamarindo is one of seemingly countless places where hope is hard to find right now. And yet, we await a miracle, an incarnation, for Christ to come and join us in the midst of impossibility and show us the way. This Advent season, it seems we need that improbable blessing more than ever.

I pray today for hope in the face of impossibility, for protection from harm, for light that counters darkness, for hearts of stone to regain their humanity, for wisdom in choosing words and actions, for strength and imagination to nurture peace in the midst of so much violence. And I pray with thanksgiving for Angel Gabriel, that God guide and uphold him, and bless him with many happier birthdays to come.

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A visit in September 2015

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Shadows and Light

I wrote this following a visit to the memorial for victims of femicide in Ciudad Juárez, México. I visited with a group of Presbyterians from three countries–the U.S., México, and Colombia–as part of a mission conference sponsored by Tres Ríos Presbytery across the border in the city of El Paso in late September 2015.

It caught me off guard. The wind whipped through my hair, dried the tears on my cheek. To know that eight women were once found in this very place, their bodies lifeless and disfigured, discarded in a weed-ridden vacant lot…


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Thousands of women like these eight have been killed in the area around Juárez, this beleaguered city of migrants, exploited by drug traffickers and corporate greed, divided from its sister city across the river by an ugly fence and border patrol forces.

The days I spent in El Paso at the end of September opened my eyes to many threads in the story of our U.S. border and immigration policy, but the stop at this memorial in Juárez broke open my heart.

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This painting mourns the depravity of femicide. It hangs in a conference room at Casa Amiga, a social service center for victims of domestic violence in Ciudad Juárez.

Juárez offers the world a new word: femicide, the gender-based killing of women. This year my sisters in Colombia won the inclusion of femicide in the nation’s legal code, and have done hard work to raise public awareness about this growing problem. Visiting the Juárez memorial alongside some of them helped me to experience the defiant hope which is also preserved in that place, that fierce commitment to life and justice.

IMG_20150924_151026552IMG_20150925_152237IMG_20150924_144917896IMG_20150924_150800945My friend Adelaida Jiménez–poet, theologian, joke teller, mother, and so much more–was moved to write this poem dedicated to the women of Juárez. I include her original here, followed by my English rendering. “Listen my brother, listen my sister… And do not keep silent, for silence is hard as indifference.”

Ciudad Juárez, septiembre 24 de 2015

A las mujeres de ciudad Juárez

En las penumbras de la noche,
Se paralizan los sentidos, se escuchan los lamentos,
De las mujeres desaparecidas de ciudad Juárez,
Dónde están las hijas? Dónde están, las hermanas?, dónde están las madres, dónde están?
A dónde las han llevado?

En las penumbras de la noche se escuchan los sollozos,
Han aparecido los cuerpos torturados, son los cuerpos
De las mujeres de Juárez, sus senos mutilados, sus vaginas
Violadas, sus cuerpos marcados por las violencias,
Dónde están sus victimarios, dónde están?

En la penumbra de la noche,
Se escuchan los estruendos de las maquilas de la muerte,
De los poderosos que comercian con la vida,
De los que invierten en la guerra,
Ya vienen por las mujeres de Juárez,
Dónde está la justicia, dónde está la justicia para las mujeres de Juárez?

En la penumbras de las noches,
Se escuchan pasos débiles, son las mujeres con sus vidas desgastadas,
En las penumbra de la noche, un rayo de luz aparece,
Una luz renace de las tumbas encontradas,
Son las mujeres de ciudad Juárez, que se levantan,
Que gritan justicia,

En las penumbras de la noche y entre el rayito de luz,
De la boca de las mujeres sale un grito de esperanza,
Y de sus cuerpos torturados flores, mariposas que simbolizan resistencia,

En la penumbras de la noche, las mujeres de Juárez caminan,
Caminan para clamar, ni una mas, ni una mas,

En las penumbras de la noche, escucha hermano mío, hermana mía,
A las mujeres de ciudad Juárez,
Y no calles que el silencio es duro como la indiferencia,
Ven al encuentro y camina junto a las que claman justicia.

Juárez, September 24, 2015

To the women of Juárez

In shadow of night
The senses falter, the lament is heard
Of the disappeared women of Juárez
Where are our daughters? Where are our sisters? Where are our mothers? Where?
Where have you taken them?

In shadow of night the sobbing is heard,
Tortured bodies appear, they are the bodies
Of the women of Juárez, breasts mutilated, vaginas
Violated, bodies marked by violence
Where are their tormenters? Where?

In shadow of night,
The maquilas of death make their racket,
The noise of the powerful who buy and sell life
Who invest in war
They are coming for the women of Juárez
Where is justice? Where is justice for the women of Juárez?

In shadow of night
Faint footsteps are heard, they are the women with their worn-out lives

In shadow of night, a ray of light appears,
A light reborn from the uncovered graves
They are the women of Juárez who arise,
Who cry out justice

In shadow of night, in that sliver of light,
From the mouth of the women comes a cry of hope,
From their tortured bodies come flowers, butterflies of resistance

In shadow of night, walk the women of Juárez,
They walk to cry out, Not one more, not one more

In shadow of night, listen my brother, listen my sister
To the women of Juárez
And do not keep silent for silence is hard as indifference
Come to the gathering and walk with those who clamor for justice

by Adelaida Jiménez, English translation by Sarah Henken

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“Flor de Arena” (Sand Flower) bronze sculpture-fountain by Verónica Leiton

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#fastfortheclimate

Today, January 9, 2015, I am “fasting for the climate.”

This ongoing fast seeks to send a message to governments that people from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe, expect climate action. Already, millions of people have lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of climate change. Yet government action remains profoundly inadequate towards a safe and just future for people and the planet.

I dedicate this day to reflection, prayer, writing, and giving thanks for creation. I believe the Holy Spirit of God is working something new and transformative, and I hope to be one of the many who will listen and be changed.

Fasting is hard, strange, beautiful. Below are some of my thoughts, recorded in real time throughout the day.

10:33am– First real sense of hunger

1:47pm–   The habit of eating, the desire for food, fuel, consumption, is constantly present.  If I can abstain from eating today, what else can I go without in my daily life? Are there other hard choices I need to make, things to say “no” to in my regular routine?

1:57pm–  I didn’t go off to some remote location for this day of fasting. I’m here in my usual habitat, with a well-stocked kitchen right down the hall. Every impulse is to reach out and consume. It would be so easy, and there’s nothing stopping me but the power of my own will. But this exercise in self control is teaching me somehow, deeply, that “responsible consumerism” must often mean choosing not to consume. My kitchen calls to my grumbling stomach with its appealing items. Tomorrow I will eat again, but I pray the Spirit will guide me with wisdom to know when to refrain from other forms of consumption and consumerism.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. —Galatians 5:22-23

2:42pm–  I set today aside to fast from eating. But what about energy consumption? I have air conditioning to make my apartment more comfortable. My work sends me out on buses and airplanes on a regular basis. What personal choices do I need to make to bring my own daily life into greater harmony with the world I inhabit?

3:10pm–  I found drinking tea all day more comforting when I lived in chilly La Paz than I do today in Barranquilla. Conscious of the privilege of having clean water to drink and a refrigerator to freeze it in–it’s time to switch to iced.

4:12pm– Hungry. Why am I doing this again? Discipline is valuable. Felt hunger increases my awareness of the urgency. As another faster puts it, “to bring climate change under control we need to exercise self-control, we need to act together, fasting enhances our focus and determination.”

5:31pm–  Headed out to enjoy the sunset.

6:15pm– There’s an element to this public act of fasting that gives me pause. “When you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. . . . And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward.” (Matthew 6:6, 16). Most of my day has been spent in solitude, prayer, and reflection. I accepted this call to fasting with joy and gratitude, and no desire to be praised for my piety nor pitied for the minor hunger pangs I have felt. Perhaps it would have been best to take this on quietly, and avoid drawing attention to it. But fasting–at least for spiritual purposes, as opposed to medical requirement or a health-seeker’s cleanse–is a foreign thing to the life of most members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and somehow it feels right to share publicly both a commitment to fasting and my personal experience of engaging in it. I hope that isn’t hubris talking. 

8:57pm– Now it is dark, and the day is nearly over. I wait for the time to be ripe, to break the fast. But what will I do to recommit myself to the fast of God’s choosing? What action shall I take, or encourage my government or church or family to take, that will show real love and solidarity with God’s good creation?

9:42pm–  Connecting with hunger today has heightened my awareness of my physical presence and needs in this world, and the impact my lifestyle makes. I am grateful, and weary, and eager to take up the dance again. As my friend Rebecca writes in a beautiful blog entry about our time in Peru last month:

We profess to believe in a material, physical love, a God who took on flesh. Climate justice work must do no less. . . .

Conscious of our kinship with all of life, let us claim our place in God’s earthy, material world.

Let us embrace all of our senses and all ways of knowing so that we might more deeply transform ourselves and in the end, hopefully, the world.

If you would like to join the fast, please visit fastfortheclimate.org

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Frustration and hope

Frustrazione, n.f. Frustration, defeat

frustrazione, n.f. Frustration, defeat.

My eyes fell on this entry, just above the line of gun fire dividing the Italian-English dictionary in half. It was on display at the Museum of the Martyrs at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, one of the books salvaged from the library of the six Jesuit priests murdered there in 1989.

In many ways the violent, pre-dawn invasion of dozens of U.S.-trained salvadoran soldiers was a defeat. The lives and efforts of the priests were cut short, frustrated. The purpose of those who ordered the operation was accomplished. The museum bears witness to lives extinguished, to brutality and violent repression. But it also bears witness to life renewed even in the midst of suffering and death. In a powerful way, the purpose of the death-dealers was–and is, still today–thwarted by the persistence of hope, and the rebellious act of remembrance.

IMG547The museum paints a vivid picture of who the priests were, right down to the clothes they were killed in 25 years ago last Monday. It also names and remembers many of the tens of thousands of other victims of El Salvador’s civil war (among them the four North American churchwomen who were killed in 1980. The New York Times ran a Retro Report piece earlier this month focused on the churchwomen and also mentioning the priests).

There’s something powerful in the act of naming. We name not only our heroes, the famous and the erudite, but also the schoolchildren and the farm women. We speak their names and announce, “¡Presente!” For they are still present, and the ways they lived and died cry out for justice. We must keep on remembering lest we forget. We must keep remembering until we are stirred to action. For, sadly, there are many places in the world today where justice and healing are sorely needed. Ayotzinapa. Ferguson. Gaza. Catatumbo. Just to name a few.

The hard thing isn’t only the paying attention. The hard thing is knowing what to do with what we see. And, honestly, I don’t have a ready-made answer. But I believe that Christ is present with us in the act of opening our eyes to one another’s pain. So maybe that act makes us ready to follow the One who guides our feet along the paths of peace.

"It means so much to me when a child trusts me enough to give me a hug!"

“It means so much to me when a child trusts me enough to give me a hug!”

Before arriving at the Museum of the Martyrs, our group of friends and colleagues from Presbyterian World Mission (in El Salvador for a week of training and inspiration for service in Latin America and the Caribbean) visited Archbishop Oscar Romero’s last earthly home and the chapel where he was killed while saying mass. In the chapel a devout religious woman welcomed us. She invited us to remove our shoes and gather around the altar, placing our hands upon it. She prayed for each of us and our families, and then encouraged us to take turns standing behind the table, where Monseñor Romero stood when he was killed.

Romero saw his assailants drive up outside the open doors to the chapel, take aim, and fire, but he did not cry out or run from his place. He stood his ground, in his role as Christ’s servant, and refused to be intimidated by hatred or dissuaded by fear. As my friend David later reflected, the invitation to put ourselves in Romero’s place is, in the literal sense, easy to accept. I can put my feet where he stood. But can I stand firm and confident in my sometimes daunting calling, and respond with such grace and conviction in the face of the death-dealers and the shadowy powers of this world?

IMG544In all honesty, the answer is often no, but sometimes I manage a yes. And I take courage  in knowing that I do not stand alone, and that I have not chosen my ground on a whim.  I feel a kinship with the work of Romero and the priests and the martyrs, part of the same tapestry of God’s mission of transformative love. And I am profoundly grateful to work day by day with many faithful, intelligent, and insightful people in the church universal.

That week in El Salvador was a time for me to lean on some of my colleagues in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to laugh and cry and question and grow and pray and sing together. It was a time to witness and learn from the stories of contemporary martyrs. I left refreshed, with hope and energy to continue standing where I’ve been sent and doing the Kingdom work God sets before me.

I imagine there will continue to be times when it seems that wickedness prospers, when the innocent suffer, and efforts toward peace are frustrated. Still, as we approach the Sunday in the Christian calendar set apart to celebrate Christ’s Reign, I choose to trust that we are never outside the reach of Christ’s healing love, and that somehow “in all things God works for the good” (Romans 8:28). I choose to trust. And I join the multitudes in offering my all for God’s purpose in this world.

 


ImageNo storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging;

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

 

 

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Incertidumbre en El Tamarindo

To read in English: Uncertainty for El Tamarindo

Vimos los carros de la policía al llegar. Rodearon el Caterpillar, todo listo para la diligencia de desalojo de las humildes casas y campos sembrados del predio Natacha en El Tamarindo. Continue reading

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