Colombia Accompaniment Report: It’s Complicated

By Ann Rosewall and Ruth Hamilton

Invariably, when I ask a question here in Colombia, the answer will culminate in the phrase, Es complicado. It’s complicated. Really? I’ve spent quite a bit of time in El Salvador and have even navigated the political realities of Illinois, so I resisted what seemed to be a blanket descriptor of the Colombian landscape. Today, I find I couldn’t agree more.

We began our month of accompaniment with a discussion of what it means to be displaced from one’s home. Decades ago, at the start of civil unrest (this can be traced to the 1920s in the coffee fields of Sumapaz, the 1948 assassination of a presidential candidate, or 1960s US-backed anti-communist campaign), farmers were displaced from their homes to the city. There was no work in the city, increased deprivation, and a desire for justice. Groups of rebels formed (what might be called guerilla fighters) to push back. The elites were backed by the government, and used the arm of the military to extinguish uprisings. The rebels grew in strength, and the government backed off. Some major landowners began using their own enforcers (paramilitary groups) to maintain control over their land, threatening guerillas, army and civilian alike. Everyone ramped up their forces, and the whole country became involved in tragedy, disappearances, kidnappings, torture and murder.

In one sense you might think this is not so complicated – it is a story of land-grabbing that has transpired since the beginnings of society. However, layered on top of this scenario are the internal and external influences of drug trafficking, immigration into Colombia from neighboring countries at war, and the desire of multinational corporations to buy up land for factories, exploit natural resources for cash crops and create trade passages. Layered underneath the narrative are realities of slavery, colonization, and underdevelopment toward the end of creating economic dependency. Oh, and then there’s the interwoven history of the church… and political maneuvering for power… and environmental destruction… Can I say it? It’s complicated!

In the midst of this, one can see the simplicity of the gospel. Love your neighbors. Blessed are the peacemakers. Throughout these same decades, even in the face of violence (often perpetrated in the name of God), there has been a steady heartbeat of love emanating from Christian communities. In Barranquilla we are in the presence of the Colegio Americano – a school begun by the Presbyterian Church 128 years ago – where children learn the art and skills of critical thinking, the joy of making music, and engage the possibilities of the future. More recently, the Reformed University was founded to continue this spirit of education and empowerment, especially with a vision to bring dialogue, cooperation and peace into society.

The Presbiterio de la Costa in its strategic plan for 2016-2021, is direct in its mission to develop peacemakers for the world. The plan encompasses leadership development, social transformation, actions for peace by congregations and pastors, and stewardship of the earth. This model has the potential to unite not only the Presbyterian churches of the area, but to exemplify to the country the benefits of coming to the table to converse and voice even opposing ideas.

The best news, from what I have seen so far, is that everyone is starting from a place of acknowledgement that the Colombian story is, indeed, complicated. The story in all its complexity and diversity is embraced, unpacked, resewn, re-envisioned and projected into a future that is unknown, but for which peace is the plan.

Unfortunately, this plan is complicated by ongoing threats and recent attacks against human rights workers.