Two women in the United Church of Christ are being recognized, and celebrated for their work for peace and justice in Colombia. Two farms in that South American country, 'Finca Barbara' and 'Villa Davida,' have been named for UCC ministers the Rev. Barbara Gerlach and the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, who have been instrumental in bringing economic and food justice to communities living in poverty.
Gerlach has led many of the UCC's economic and anti-hunger initiatives in Colombia, where the farm that bears her name grows food for residents to eat and sell. As she explained, mission partnerships with the Connecticut and Central Atlantic Conferences helped support the work of Ricardo Esquivia, the Afro-Colombian director who founded Sembrandopaz -- an organization that assists displaced communities -- to work in one of the poorest regions in Colombia decimated by violence and displacement.
"Ricardo's focus was on building coalitions of church and civil society organizations to construct a just peace -- which included a holistic approach to development and reconciliation," Gerlach said. Through various grants from UCC congregations and conferences, and work on proposals, Sembrandopaz purchased two small farms that could develop models for economic development and small projects by and with displaced communities.
"A very small part of our support was economic support," Gerlach said. "Most of it was spiritual support, advocacy and opening doors in the U.S. for Colombians to tell their stories to churches, General Synod, Congress, the State Department."
Crabtree, the former conference minister of the Connecticut Conference of the UCC, remembers being asked if she was ever afraid to visit Colombia. "Honestly, my response has always been 'These are our brothers and sisters who live there day in and day out. Surely we can visit,'" she said. "But aside from visiting, our advocacy here for public policy and practice that builds up civil society, offers hope, peace and justice, and protects human rights is far more important than anything we do there. We must be 'planting seeds of peace.'"
"I was stunned to have 'Villa Davida' named for me. I cannot imagine why, because I have done so little to truly make a difference," Crabtree added. "But if it reminds them that they are not alone, that there are Christians here who care, then I'm pleased."
UCC pastors and members of the wider church also stood with Colombia as part of a solidarity campaign in late April, Days of Prayer and Action for Colombians, advocating peace. Gerlach and the Rev. Michael Nueroth, international policy advocate for the UCC's office in Washington, D.C., were part of a group that visited the White House the week of June 3 to meet with advisors and present a letter signed by 56 faith leaders, and an accompanying online petition with almost 4,500 signatures.
The letter, which was signed by UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, asked that the U.S. makes peace and human rights in Colombia a priority, and that the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas negotiate until a permanent peace agreement is reached.
"The recent tentative agreement between Colombian government officials and the FARC on land reform signals the seriousness of both sides, and offers hope for continued progress," said Neuroth. "Our meeting with U.S. administration officials was an opportunity to show support for the peace process from a wide spectrum of religious traditions and grassroots advocates and a chance to call on the U.S. to support the process in ways that will sustain a just peace in Colombia for years to come.
"We highlighted the important role that churches in Colombia can play in the peace process," Neuroth added. "As U.S. partners, we are called to lift up the years of work the faith community in Colombia has done cultivating the seeds for peace for decades amidst such violence."
Members of the UCC faith community also presented the same letter delivered to the White House to officials at the U.S. Embassy in the Colombia. The delegation, from the Connecticut Conference and Central Atlantic Conference, traveled to Colombia the first week of June to work for peace and to witness the advocacy efforts underway to help displaced communities. Nora Marsh, a member from First Church UCC in Washington, D.C., blogged during the trip and posted photos of the delegation's activities.
"The work that Central Atlantic and Connecticut (conferences) have done has always had a strong political advocacy dimension," Gerlach said. "Peace is built through economic development. Unless people have enough to eat, they can't work for peace. It's such an integral part of the process. You have to give people hope they can change their lives."