Colombia Accompaniment Report: Educating for Peace

Ivan Herman & John Wallace, April 18, 2018

Peace is a dirty word for some Colombians. Right-wing groups, including some political parties and evangelical and conservative Catholic groups, have joined in slandering the idea of peace. Leftist guerrillas claim that it is a slippery slope from peace to LGBT rights to pedophilia. When Pope Francis visited Colombia in September 2017, his comments on peace scandalized many. We’ve heard people calling the nation’s polarization over peace a major social issue that needs to be addressed in the current presidential campaign. Elections are coming up quickly, on May 27, with a runoff date (assuming no candidate receives 50% of the vote) set for June 17, 2018.

While most Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) leaders we’ve talked to clearly have a preferred candidate, the church proclaims publicly that the election of one candidate or another will not solve this country’s polarization; peace education is the only thing that can do that.

This week our journey included meeting with the Directoría del Pueblo (a governmental ombudsman’s office), and with the Foro Nacional de Colombia (National Forum of Colombia). Among many other responsibilities, these two grassroots organizations teach that peace will transform society, bring justice to victims of armed conflict, and organize local conversations in communities that are facing violence. Peace education sometimes includes details about the peace accords between government and guerrillas, but more broadly it means developing skills for living in harmony with others, with oneself, and with the environment.

Peace education happens in many places. Including in schools. The Colegio Americano and the Universidad Reformada, both under IPC direction, have incorporated peace education into their curriculum and their educational philosophy. Together the two schools may be the largest Presbyterian-administered education system in the world.

For more than a century, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and atheist families were not allowed to enroll their children in Colombian public schools. The constitution that governed Colombia from 1886 until 1991 declared Colombia to be confessionally Roman Catholic, and limited the rights of religious minorities to receive public education. The Colegio Americano de Barranquilla was established in 1871, during a time of liberal reform, by Scotsman Adam Erwin for children from poor families. After Erwin’s death, it was restructured into a school sponsored by the IPC. The Colegio Americano has welcomed people of different faith traditions and economic levels and now provides a complete education for students from preschool through high school.

La Universidad Reformada was formed in 2002 by the IPC out of the desire to provide higher education that shared these same values. The Colegio Americano shares costs with the university and makes it possible to provide a high quality university education at a much lower cost than most other local university systems. They not only provide theological education for church leadership, but also have developed degrees in music, bilingual education (English-Spanish), public accounting, business, and engineering. Recent innovations have led to partnerships with private companies, including with a biomedical firm that has installed a new lab at the university. The firm uses the lab to train its employees, and the university can use it to educate its students.

School wall mural with two children in front of the world.

El Presbiterio de la Costa meets only twice every year. We joined one of those meetings as the presbytery received the report from the educational institutions and voted on the nominating committee’s recommendations to elect the rector (principal) and chaplain of the school (both of whom are minister members of the presbytery) for the following year. At that meeting a presbyter made the following point: As economic globalization continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, the only remedy is the globalization of education. In this case, it means the creation of educational partnerships and making high quality education more readily available to the populace.

Presbiterio de la Costa is a small presbytery, with 15 congregations. It is composed of small churches, none more than 120 members; in fact, I’ve heard some say that when a church reaches 100 members, it should spin off a new church. The IPC denomination is also small with no more than 55 worshipping communities across the country, and yet they have had and still are having a profound impact on the educational landscape of the entire country. In Colombia, Presbyterians desire to create small churches which can move together toward peace. Not only does the denomination direct the educational ministry in the school system, but schools are also able to provide significant financial support back to the presbytery to support its mission as a force for peace with justice.