PPF Trains Accompaniers Still Needed in Colombia

By John Turnbull

Over some alternately stormy and surprisingly warm 72 hours in Chicago, six trainees completed the latest Colombia accompaniment training and discernment retreat. Participants from the Presbyteries of Chicago and Sacramento stayed at the Maria Kaupas Center in the Marquette Park neighborhood, where in 1966 Martin Luther King led marches against segregated housing. The Kaupas Center remains a witness to the Lithuanian mother superior’s life and to the Sisters of Saint Casimir, who in the early 1900s began ministries of education and health care to help serve Chicago’s large Lithuanian population.

Lora BurgeFrom October 6 to 9, Lora Burge, Colombia accompaniment program coordinator (pictured right); Emily Brewer, executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship; Shannan Vance-Ocampo, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Southern New England and longtime advocate for justice in Colombia; and other facilitators trained a new class of accompaniers (acompañantes) in the practical, theological, and historical roots of the accompaniment program. The program started in 2004 on the initiative of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia (IPC).  

Participants in the Chicago-based accompaniment training came from backgrounds as church pastors, biochemists, behavioral-health specialists, and graduate students in divinity, social work, and second-language acquisition. Many have either lived or served other nonprofit missions in Colombia.

Despite the ongoing Colombian peace process, which has led to demobilization of a guerrilla army, Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FARC), and to a Nobel Peace Prize for President Juan Manuel Santos, the need for accompaniment in Costa and Urabá presbyteries continues. The goal of the training is to shape future accompaniers, who as mission volunteers over one month lend their presence and support to those who have known firsthand forced displacement, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and other intimidations in a decades-long struggle over Colombia’s land and natural wealth.

Additionally, though, future accompaniers learn to cultivate a new way of seeing. This new way acknowledges the borderlands that exist in relation to the systemic domination of the powers at the center. The domination has included, in Colombia’s case, a long history of militarization, drug wars, and exploitation of crops, minerals, and human resources. US involvement in these grabs for riches extends back more than 100 years.

Learning to accompany in Colombia, therefore, involves seeing the wounds to society that US policies have inflicted. Trainees get practice in nonviolent responses to conflict, in how to report what they see and hear in country, in trusting the expertise and contextual wisdom of IPC partners, and in advocating for just policies in Colombia and Latin America when their time of accompaniment concludes. 

Being a good accompanier has been described as learning to “be okay with not knowing.” This approach stands in contrast to the meddling and “fixing,” even if benignly intended, of past interventions. Graduates of the weekend’s training will travel to Colombia in 2018 and join a list of more than 100 who have completed accompaniment service.

PPF Colombia Group 2017