Colombia Accompanier Report: Saving the Church

Cathy and Peter Surgenor
February 6, 2018
Apartadó, Urabá, Colombia

There are two stories about an iglesia in the Humanitarian Zone. Maybe elements of both stories are true. When the plantation masters were departing, they tore down all the buildings. One story says that the women took up machetes and sticks and stood around the iglesia (where gas was already spread on the ground) and said, “You will need to kill us in order to burn this iglesia.” The other story says that the women gathered inside the iglesia and shouted out, “You must kill us to burn this iglesia.” So the presence of this building is an important statement for the community.

Over 70 persons gathered in the iglesia for worship, and each one introduced him/herself. Someone explained the community experience, values and way of living. Some community members shared their stories of displacement and struggle. Father Alberto shared some thoughts during the sharing time, “The scandal of the world is not the atheists. The scandal of the world is those who go to church who do not work for justice. The work of the church is for justice.”

We Presbyterians, 3 pastors, 2 Young Adult Volunteers, and 2 PPF accompaniers, were privileged to sleep in the iglesia. Washing in the river after dark invigorated us.

After breakfast in the morning, we toured the community, stopping first at a small booth or shelter, where we recalled the origin of the community and Walberto, a community member who was assassinated for speaking out.

The remains of the casa grande (large house), where the finca masters lived and worked, was the highlight of our tour. It was the seat of power; the masters made the people feel like slaves. Paramilitarios often found shelter in this house while it was occupied by the masters. When the land title was returned to the community, members of a family of masters refused to leave. A government official clearly told the family to leave the land, but no one from the government enforced the demand. The community waited for months and finally insisted that the government act or the community would act. The women of the community, to assert their rights and save their lives, entered the house and removed the remaining family. In song and poem the members of the community tell how one night a “great wind” knocked the house down (i.e., one stormy night they took action themselves). The remains of the house remind everyone of the occupation by the finca masters and also of the community’s power to bring justice.

After fond farewells, we walked the 2km back to vehicles for the bumpy ride to the highway. Everyone’s heads swayed in unison, a “bobble head” experience, as the van slowly traversed what was almost a road.

At another Humanitarian Zone, a woman named Leticia welcomed us with a broad smile that brought brightness and light to us. She told of a time when a man with a gun on each hip insisted that she give up her land. She said, “Shoot me if you must, but this is my land.” For months, when the man’s cows came into her crops, she and other women pushed the cows back where they belonged. At every turn, she has had to defend her family’s home and rights. She shared that each day brings the possibility of more threats, harm or death. Her courage and fortitude have encouraged other families to return to this community and to their rightful land. Leticia’s welcoming home had a floor of well-worn dirt—plus internet access and DirectTV. We shared lunch with the kittens, dog and chickens.

From there we walked through a banana grove to visit a FARC re-integration camp, where formerly armed combatants now live with their families — and no weapons. They are receiving the education they had missed by fighting at a young age. The leader of this FARC community wanted us, the “Pilgrims” group, to know that they had taken a risk by giving up their arms for peace.

In spite of action by some FARC members, the Colombian government is not holding up its end of the peace agreement. As we walked into the camp, we saw fully armed National Policia/Army. The camp community shared that this armed presence is to protect them from the assassins. Even though the peace agreement included a promise that the FARC could campaign in the coming election, the army doesn’t allow community members to leave the compound. FARC members welcome us, though. We are witnesses to police actions and the community’s plight. As we sat and talked with them, they entreated us to tell others that they are not the ruthless criminals that the media portrays. They see themselves as campesinos who want to see the peace agreement implemented so they can return to their farms and communities.

After a long ride, we dropped off the Pilgrimage members at the airport and then drove to our apartment in Apartadó. Our heads are full of memories and stories. Our hearts are full of grief for those lost and compassion for those who struggle. It was a great privilege to join this pilgrimage with church leaders from around the world and the Urubá region who are working for peace and justice.