Colombia Accompaniment Report: Theology or arms?

Received August 4th, 2013, from Urabá-based accompaniers Lora Burge and Ben Snipes  [Ben writing.]

We have now visited a diversity of Presbyterian churches in urban and rural communities in Urabá. Each church has different dynamics and various participation among youth, but I have noticed in particular that young men aged 18-25 are largely absent from the church community. From what I have gathered, this age group of men are usually drafted into the military if they have not already joined a guerrilla group or an urban gang. It is difficult to survive as a young man in these organizations. One man who gives me hope for a life outside these violent groups is Fernando.

I met Fernando as he guided us to the right "jeep" to travel to his rural town of around 10,000 people on the border between the department (state) of Antioquia and Chocó. The town is literally split in two with two governments, two schools, two hospitals, two of everything. We were with him during Independence Day weekend where all the students from both public schools marched through the streets at night and the next morning to celebrate.

Independence Day Parade by Ben SnipesFernando explained that there was no military marching in the parade in his town, but in other places they would be present. It wasn't until several days later that I realized that the military presence was lacking here because the area is controlled by the FARC and a local guerrilla group that sometimes work together and sometimes go to war with each other. I didn't notice any official boundary or any real presence of armed conflict. In any case, this territory was not occupied by the military. 

Despite this being outside of military territory, the local police stopped Fernando on his bike when he was 18 years old. They demanded to have his ID card and he demanded to know why. Eventually he discovered that the police were recruiting for the military and he had just been drafted. He got a letter demanding his presence at a military base that he didn't know. As he was telling this story, I could tell there was no way he was going to show up at that base. I think he received a fine for his absence, but he has avoided being redrafted for seven years now. 

My initial question that led to this discussion was, "What do you hope to do with your theological studies?" It seems unconnected, as he is now 25 years old and studying in a distance learning program in Apartadó that many other pastors in the region are participating in, but Fernando is the only man of this age that I have seen active in the church. All other young men between 18 and 25 seem to be missing altogether. The only one I did meet has already done his two years in the military and turned down a permanent contract in hopes of pursuing theology as well. 

Why theology? For Fernando, theology was his only other option. He had completed public school and like many youth found himself unemployed and unable to find funding to pursue further education. He spent months and years sitting idle on his family's small farm with no future. His mother strongly opposed his participation in the military just as she opposed his participation in the guerrilla group or the FARC.  They all promote violence that they knew too well. 

So Fernando applied to be a local police officer. At the same time he applied for a scholarship to study theology offered through the Presbyterian Church. He said he would have gone with either option, but he went with the scholarship because they accepted him first! This scholarship was his only opportunity to avoid working directly with violence. This opportunity is very rare in his community. He is interested in teaching theology in the future, but he really knows as much about what he will do with his degree as I know about mine (no plans here!).

The sobering part of this opportunity to study theology is that some of Fernando's friends that grew up with him did not find an alternative to joining the military or the guerilla groups that rule in his region.  Many of those friends are not alive today.  The violent organizations offer financial security, but they cannot offer any assurance of survival.  

The Presbyterian Church of Colombia is acting out of a different strategy. I see them bringing together leaders from all parts of the community to develop safer neighborhoods and provide new opportunities for the youth of Colombia. Not everyone has the passion to seek a different option like Fernando. The church here is committed to nonviolence, social justice and community development. I pray we can work for the same goals in my context.