There is a small social service project connected to the 3rd Presbyterian Church of Barranquilla called Sowers of Peace. What began with half a dozen 5-7 year olds 6 years ago, is now a program of over 30 children, from 5-15 years old. The children come faithfully after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and again on Saturday and Sunday for recreation, music, artistry, and Bible study. Overall, this is a formation project. The leader of the foundation, Catalina Bernal, is specific about the mission. “Why are we here?” she asks the children. “Because of God’s love,” they answer in unison. We take turns repeating what shalom means by way of an acrostic: S is for salud/health; H is for hermandad/camaraderie; A is for amor/love; L is for libertad/liberty; O is for obediencia/obedience; and M is for misericordia/compassion. The youngsters all share responsibilities of helping each other learn, even in the English classes offered by Brittany Beasley, this year’s Young Adult Volunteer from the PC(USA). I watched one of the older children make sure the littlest one had a seat (she appeared to be less than three years old, but is five, suffering from malnutrition).
This is the season of Carnaval in Barranquilla. What impressed me most about the gathering today was not that some of the children showed us traditional dances of the region’s festival, but that the performance was not the day’s focus. Catalina spent time talking with the group about how one can show respect during Carnaval, e.g., sharing a seat for the parade, not spraying foam in someone’s face (a common prank), and learning a new dance. Carnaval is about culture, she explained, not just fun.
Then Osiris, Catalina’s colleague, gave a brief history of how Carnaval came to be celebrated in the coastal region. She didn’t avoid any complicated or distasteful aspects: We were colonized and enslaved by the Spaniards; it was very difficult. Even the indigenous peoples and people from Africa were enslaved. The Spaniards gave their slaves one day a year to do what they couldn’t do the rest of the year, such as sing their music, dance their dances and enjoy themselves. The colonizers decided they wanted to join in the party, but couldn’t do so openly, so they disguised themselves to participate. War came to the country again, and celebrations went by the wayside. When Carnaval returned, the celebrations were longer than a day, and now included open mockery of the king, governance and local officials. The children listened to this explanation with interest, attention and respect. It was quite moving to see them absorbing this history lesson on a Saturday morning, knowing that soon they would be dancing the Cumbia together in the classroom.
The missing piece for the project, it seems, is a regular nutritional component. There is a modest snack of crackers, honey and soda at the end of each two-hour session, but the need is for a more complete meal. Most of the children have one meal a day at home at the end of the day; there is no school lunch program. In this poverty-ridden neighborhood, where dysfunction, violence and disruption rule, there is a place for the children to regroup, gain skills for living, and connect in a loving environment.
We were reminded that being a Sower of Peace is not just something we do when we are young – we always have this identity and this task no matter how old we are and what we are doing. Those gathered (some-day lawyers, stewardesses, police officers, pastors, veterinarians and teachers) agreed that this was something that they would always do. May they bear abundant fruits!