Colombia Accompaniment Report: "Invasions"

Received July 22, 2013 from Urabá-based accompaniers Ben Snipes & Lora Burge 

We are out in the churches of the Presbiterio de Urabá now. We've spent this week in Chigorodó, getting to know the church, its members, and a bit about the history of the town. We have learned a lot about "invasions." The church here intentionally settled itself in an area of invasion to be present among a very vulnerable population.

Invasions are the places where displaced people congregate and live. Most often, on the edges of cities and towns, on unwanted or unused land, which sometimes is dangerous to build on, and often prone to flooding. Over time, communities will grow in these areas. Houses range from plastic tarp shacks to concrete block with plaster houses with many things in between. Hopefully, the municipality will grant the people in the invasion the rights to the land and invest in basic infrastructure, but this is not always the case.

We spoke with a woman who pastors a mid-sized Presbyterian Church here in the area. It is also located in an invasion. She told us that 90% of the church is made up of displaced people, including herself and her family. Then she told us the story of how the church was founded:

There are two Presbyterian Churches in this town. A number of years back when the violence was really bad, people were afraid to walk across town at night to attend evening worship and activities at church. They would come across dead bodies along the way and fighting between the various groups was unpredictable. So an elder in the neighborhood opened up his house as a place for evening worship. Local church members afraid to be out after dark would gather at his house for worship and prayer. Over time as the invasion community neighborhood grew larger, the second location became an official church with its own pastor. The two churches still hold events together sometimes.

We have wondered: Why is the deviant term put on those being displaced? The only reason they are "invading" is that someone or group invaded their homes first. For them, it is survival. They literally have nowhere else to go. And so the original invading and displacing forces get the neutral term, displacement. In science, displacement is simply a measurement of normal or natural change. This is NOT normal or natural. So many Colombians that we met have settled in an invasion, building a home and community from the ground up with nothing. Yet their neighborhoods are the wrong ones—accepted as less legitimate.

Every day if not multiple times a day we've met people who live in invasion neighborhoods after fleeing their homes and lives because of violence, conflict, and armed groups wanting their land. The Land Restitution Law known as Ley 1448, which was passed in June of 2011 created a process for victims of displacement to have their land restored to them. This is a complicated process involving bureaucracy, documentation, and time. We've not yet met anyone who has had their land restored to them.