Colombia Accompaniment Report: Women's resilience

Received 20th August from Barranquilla-based accompaniers Lora Burge and Sergio Centeno. (Lora writing.)

Congreso Nacional Pastoral de la Mujer, Tolú, Sucre, 16-18 August 2013

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to National Pastoral Congress for Women.  The event was held in Tolú (more or less in the center of the northern or Caribbean coast).  So, from Friday afternoon through Sunday lunch, about 100 women from the three presbyteries of the Colombian Presbyterian Church descended on a small beach hotel and conference center to learn, fellowship together, and to continue to dialogue about what their shared ministry does and can look like.

One particular activity continues to stick out in my mind.  The Saturday morning workshop was entitled “Resilience and Forgiveness.”  Those are loaded topics but the speaker gave a good introduction with a biblical framework and then we split up for a group activity.  There were groups of about ten women each.  We sat in a circle.  Each group was given a small clay pot.  We were told to make observations about it: “It’s small, there’s a hole in the bottom, it’s burned on one side, the bottom is crooked” and so on.  Then each group was instructed to move to the next location and start over making the same observations about the next pot.

Reassembled potI did not hear the instructions but a few minutes into the second rotation we were told to throw the pot on the ground and break it.  I was a little surprised when my colleague threw our pot on the ground and then we had many bits of clay to observe.  Moving on to the next station, we were then told to put the broken pieces back together.  I happened to have some gum in my bag so we began furiously chewing gum and then trying to stick our pieces of clay pot back together.  It worked surprisingly well.

The speaker then brought the groups back together for a debriefing of the activity.  The definition she had given of resilience at the beginning of the workshop was:  “The capacity of people to overcome periods of emotional grief and experiences of trauma.”  She was encouraging the women to consider themselves like the pots: each one has experienced trauma, pain, and suffering.  Resilience and forgiveness rooted in love become tools for healing ourselves but also then reaching out and caring for and ministering to others.  Each woman could identify with the broken pieces but was also being challenged to see the way that resilience and forgiveness were dynamic forces in her own life, whether intentionally or unknown.

Earlier that morning I was having breakfast with three women, two of whom I had chatted with some but the other I didn’t know.  Looking back, I can’t tell you how the topic came up but two of the three mentioned that they had experienced physical abuse.  The third woman did not speak up.  I hope this means she has not had the experience rather than hiding something in silence.  This is in no way an appropriate social survey but two of the three women I ate with that morning openly spoke of being abused.  For some quick perspective, 39.4% of Colombian women report ever being abused (physical or sexual) by an intimate partner (PAHO study*).  In the United States, almost 25% also report that they have ever been abused by a current or past intimate partner (CDC and NIJ Study**). 

Reassembled pot arrangementWho better than these women knows what it means to be a Colombian woman, the good and the bad together?  As a whole group, these women of the Colombian Presbyterian Church are a very resilient whole.  Too many of them have scars from physical beatings, emotional abuse, having witnessed the violent conflict damage their families and communities, and being displaced and starting their lives over elsewhere.  Each of them has worked hard and continues to work hard to keep putting the pieces back together.  While they do that, they’ve also committed to ministering and caring for other vulnerable women in their communities who are living with similar struggles. 

I left with a bit more hope and inspiration.  Though it is heart-breaking and angering to hear of the ways that women are abused, battered, and devalued, the determination and conviction of these women to care for other women is deep and sincere.  Until justice comes for all Colombian women, I hope groups like the Colombian Presbyterian Church Pastoral de la Mujer (Women’s Ministry) will keep doing its wonderful work.

[*“Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean: Summary Report,” Sarah Bott, Alessandra Guedes, Mary Goodwin, & Jennifer Adams Mendoza, 2013, Pan American Health Organization & CDC].

[**“Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence,” Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoennes, July 2000, National Institute of Justice & CDC].