Two national officers of the United Church of Christ, part of a high-level delegation of North American faith leaders, traveled to Colombia last week to provide visible support to the implementation of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel faction operating in the South American country.
"When the Colombian government went looking for a neutral party to provide accountability, one that is trusted on both sides of the issue, they approached one of our partners, Justapaz," said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. "We hope our assistance in accompaniment, building shared understanding around truth telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation has shaped the peace process in ways that would not be addressed otherwise."
The peace accords, signed last fall, ended the world's longest armed conflict of more than 50 years. It's estimated 220,000 people have been killed since 1964, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians, and between 6 and 8 million have been displaced. For the last two decades, the UCC has been advocating for and working toward an end of the conflict, rooted in deep economic and social inequalities, between government forces and anti-government insurgent groups, primarily FARC.
Global Ministries -- a shared ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ -- was invited to provide accompaniment in the peace process by its partner organizations, Justapaz and the Council of Evangelical Churches of Colombia (CEDECOL), and to meet with church partners and the leadership of the Colombian Tripartite Commission, which consists of the United Nations, the Colombian government and FARC.
In addition to Dorhauer, the delegation included four Disciples leaders, Global Ministries staff, the Rev. Jim Moos, UCC national officer and Global Ministries co-executive, UCC Southern Conference Minister the Rev. Ed Davis and the United Church of Canada General Secretary Nora Sanders. They spent several days traveling the country, meeting with Colombia’s Presidential Counselor for Human Rights, officials of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, and FARC commanders and community groups.
"The peace process in those communities is organized around truth and forgiveness," said Dorhauer, "to help the people in the communities heal, to help shape the peace accord that has been written." It involves interaction between former opposing groups and a lot of listening.
"Our Colombian partners have developed a faith-based process called 'Restorative Community' which is independent of, but runs alongside, the peace process between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC," said Moos. "It has three components: reconciliation through memory and the sharing of stories -- stories and memory are seen as key both to healing and to further resistance; community symbolic reparations projects on which both victims and victimizers work together; and economic generation."
As part of the process, the group spent time in Bogota, Granada, and Medellin as well as in remote villages in the Andes mountains. The Revs. Dorhauer and Moos shared moving stories of cooperation in community. Stories about people coming together. In the town of Granada, both victims and aggressors worked together on the construction of a road which will pay tribute to 19 people who had been killed by paramilitaries in that area. In the community of Santa Ana, others joined forces to create a memorial park in an area that had once been covered with land mines.
"We heard story after story of women who were affected by the decades of conflict," said Dorhauer, who scheduled the trip as part of his listening tour before General Synod. He and the other members of the delegation heard much about life under armed conflict and the work to build peace.
"We traveled through villages that were bombed indiscriminately. We talked to former rebel soldiers who were kidnapped and tortured at 12 and made to take up arms with rebel groups. We met with Colombian officials working on the negotiated peace accord, with leaders of the U.N. delegation there to oversee the process, and with rebel leaders who have agreed to the ceasefire."
"The Restorative Community program is having a profound effect on local communities," said Moos. "We regularly heard victims of the conflict speak of forgiveness for those who inflicted the suffering, a forgiveness based on truth telling and real acts of reconciliation. In one community there was a banner, 'Forgiveness is the new name for peace.'"
At every point, Moos said, gratitude was expressed for their presence, and for their commitment to peace.
"Regarding the official peace process between the government and FARC, there is tremendous hope for and commitment to its success, recognizing that there are significant challenges," Moos said. "For example, while we were there Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled against key provisions of the 'fast track' legislative process which is essential to implementing the peace agreement. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty about the way forward, but all sides expressed their commitment to implement the agreement."
"We are being asked to help hold all sides accountable to the agreement," Dorhauer said. "Our committed presence there over two decades will help decide how the peace will unfold."
Moos stressed the absolute importance of accompaniment. "Dr. King famously stated that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere;" he said, "Therefore, in situations of profound suffering we must walk with our partners in mutual accompaniment in order to build a just world for all."
Rev. Dorhauer has eight more stops on his listening tour before General Synod in Baltimore, starting June 2 with the Southern California Nevada Annual Gathering. He’ll be attending the Churches Uniting in Christ Celebration June 4, before visiting the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, followed by UCC conference annual meetings in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Rhode Island-Massachusetts-Connecticut and the Southern Conference.