Written by W. Evan Golder
On Ash Wednesday, when many of us were entering Lent by receiving ashes on our foreheads at services of worship, the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, was accumulating dust on his shoes on a different Via Crucis (way of the cross), tramping through a refugee camp in Colombia.
Colombia delegation and village photos by Patricia Tucker.
Thomas accompanied the Rev. Patricia Tucker, President of the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, and the Rev. David Vargas, Area Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean for Common Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples) on a three-day fact-finding trip to Colombia.
"The ashes we received were the testimonies of lost loved ones massacred and the encounter with families living day-to-day in crushing poverty," the three write in their trip report.
"There was a sense that this was really embarking on the way of the cross," Thomas explains. "I had an overwhelming sense of the tragedy of the place. This is a country that has endured civil war for nearly four decades and whose people are incredibly weary of violence."
Colombia delegation and village photos by Patricia Tucker.
The refugee camp sprawled across hills and valleys, barely an hour outside of Bogot?, Colombia's capital.
"These were folks that had fled violence," Thomas says. "People talked about relatives being killed in front of them and their need to flee to these rural areas. But they have come with very little assistance and they're trying to scratch out a living in these settlements that are getting larger and larger and more and more permanent looking."
"None of these folks want to stay there and there's very little support and almost no jobs. Yet there's a kind of infrastructure and capitalism developing in these camps," he says. "Shops and stores are created out of scraps of wood, a school is set up in a community center, a water system winds its way through plastic hoses down the unpaved streets, and housing ranges from cardboard walls and corrugated tin roofs to brick fronts."
Their visit to Colombia was hosted by the Colombian Council of Ecumenical Churches with assistance from the Mennonite Church. While in Colombia, they visited with pastors and lay church leaders, human rights representatives, experts on the country's social and economic conditions, and representatives from international non-governmental organizations.
Their visit also provided an opportunity for Colombians to know each other better. One meeting with 80 clergy was the first time that urban pastors had heard first hand from their colleagues in rural areas.
Three consistent messages
The trio went to Colombia, in part, in response to General Synod 23's call to the Common Global Ministries Board to "develop a presence in Colombia in cooperation with ecumenical partners to work for peace, justice, and human rights." As they visited and listened to a variety of people, they heard three consistent messages, Thomas says.
The main message was the rejection of violence by all sides, he says. "There are three military—or ?armed actors,' as they refer to them: the left-wing guerillas, the right-wing paramilitary and the government soldiers. All three groups are viewed pretty uniformly as self-serving and are regularly abusive to the civilian population. And none of them really has a plan for the future that is viable."
Even so, he says, the second consistent message was that one needs to negotiate peace with these groups. "There was a real encouragement for us and other churches in North America to encourage a commitment to the peace process," Thomas says, to try to end the 38-year civil war.
The third consistent message, he says, was that the U.S. government's Plan Colombia does not adequately address the profound underlying issues of economic injustice and merely increases the levels of violence. "We met a rather deep suspicion that Plan Colombia is primarily about serving U.S. interests rather than bringing peace to Colombia," Thomas says. "So we experienced a great deal of anger about U.S. foreign policy."
Requests of us
The Colombians want the three to encourage pastoral visits and contacts. "There is a real sense of isolation," Thomas says. The Colombians urged the church visitors to talk to their ecumenical partners so they, too, will increase the level of contacts.
The Colombians also asked the three to generate an alternative voice to the U.S. administration's approach, Thomas says, both in Plan Colombia and in the latest request for $98 million to train and equip a new battalion to focus primarily on defending the oil pipeline in the eastern part of the country.
"The people we met with feel that U.S. policy really needs to be focused on economic, humanitarian and human rights issues and not on increased weaponry," Thomas says.
Shortly after the three returned to the United States, peace talks broke down between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—or FARC in Spanish. The rebels hijacked a plane and kidnaped a leading presidential candidate, leading the government to take back land it had granted FARC and to break off negotiations.
To assist victims of this escalation of violence in Colombia, on Tuesday, March 5, Global Ministries sent $20,000 to the Human Rights and Peace Commission of Colombian Council of Ecumenical Churches as an emergency grant. The grant has been secured from combined funds from the UCC's One Great Hour of Sharing and the Disciples' Week of Compassion.
This increase in violence prompted the U.S. State Department to reaffirm its warning that "American citizens avoid all travel to Colombia." Nevertheless, the Disciples' Women-to-Women study trip is planning to go to Colombia in 2003.
And the UCC and Witness for Peace are taking a large ecumenical delegation to Colombia this summer (June 26-July 8). The delegation, "Building a Just Peace in Colombia," is being initiated by the Central Atlantic, Connecticut and Massachusetts Conferences and will be hosted by the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches.
Will participants be safe?
"The situation is fluid and changeable," says the Rev. Barbara Gerlach of First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., one of the three coordinators of the trip. "We need to be in constant consultation with our Colombian partners on the ground, in whom we have complete confidence, to discern and make good decisions about the safety."
"At the same time," she adds, "church witness and presence is needed even more in Colombia, with the ending of the peace process and the escalation of the war."
"I think these trips are valuable as opportunities for more folks in the churches to get first hand experience," says Thomas. "They're a sign of support and solidarity and they broaden grassroots support for a change in U.S. foreign policy, which is consistent with the General Synod action."
To read the trio's trip report, visit www.globalministries.org.
For information about the UCC/Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia (cost is $1,450 plus international air fare), visit www.witnessforpeace.org or contact Barbara Gerlach at firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: 202-726-4382.
For information about the projected Disciples' Woman-to-Woman study trip to Colombia in 2003, visit www.homeland.org/NETWORKS/Women/.
For information about the UCC/Witness for Peace mobilization on Colombia (including lobbying, a teach-in, vigil, rally and non-violent action) in Washington, D.C., April 19-22, go to www.colombiamobilization.org.