Colombian Lessons in Pride and Contentment

By Lynn Drew Bartlett and John Turnbull

 

One senses Colombian pride immediately when the airline pilot concludes his “we are beginning our descent” announcement with “Viva Colombia!” which most passengers repeat with fervor.  “We live contentedly,” one community leader told us; and “la Iglesia está contenta” is a favorite verse of an often sung hymn.

Smiles and friendliness abound; and the social graces of interaction with friends, neighbors, and foreigners make establishing contact easy.  The children ask many questions about airplanes, the journey to Colombia, English words, and where we live. “Did you bring any children with you?  Why not?”— they wonder.

Behind the general contentedness, signs of past troubles and continuing struggles to avoid or deal with displacement and poverty are apparent.  In one home, even the sweet little green parrot has become so sad he hardly speaks now.  The family is suffering from the murder of the head of household by gunshot just down the street one year ago this month.

These churches we visit are central in the lives of the Presbyterians we meet and also to the communities where they are located.  Services occur on at least two nights per week and then on Sundays, when congregants actively worship for hours. Services include many familiar aspects, as well as several innovative Colombian touches.  Hymns often last 15 or more minutes with people singing them from memory.  Guitars, tambourines, and a churuca (a tin grater with a big handle struck by a three-pronged, long, fork-like item) back up the enthusiastic voices.

Bible readings from both testaments with discussions of the interpretation and messages are always lengthier than in our home Presbyterian churches.  Lay persons often lead these parts and seek comments from members, who also read verses.  “Characteristics of a Good Christian” and “What the Bible Says Makes a Good Marriage” were recent Bible study topics.

The healing portion of the service can be intense with the pastor spending 20 minutes or more with a person who has requested healing.  Family members and friends gather around the person while the pastor administers prayers and petitions. The oil, which is mainly symbolic in other such services and situations, has a stronger role in this process toward healing.  Afterward, visits to homes include a healing message with the imposition of oil and long prayers. A most heart wrenching visit was to a family where the father is suffering from cancer and no longer receiving medicine.  The family welcomed the pastor’s presence and concern. The children were pleased to practice some English with us, and everyone wants to be in a photo.

During regular services, the pastor often tells members the upcoming weekly schedule for visiting church members, so they can plan to go.  One such home visit involved telephoning for the motorcycle taxi (moto taxi) and then riding motorbikes for several miles into the countryside. We dismounted for a walk down a dirt road and across cultivated fields. We met an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Our small group chatted with him to learn how the church could be of assistance.  We helped cut some rice in his fields, and several men plan to return to assist this farmer with installation of a bathroom.

Acts of kindness by strangers in the communities are frequent and endearing.  A couple seeing us standing to watch the soccer team practice in an after school program brought chairs for us to use.  Two boys returned sunglasses that we had not even noticed had dropped. On the porches where everyone gathers, the guests get to swing in the hammocks.

Most pastors’ homes are open to receiving visitors at any time.  Some persons stop by just to visit and chat, while others come seeking advice, assistance, or food.  After services, people often gather for a tinto (cup of coffee) at the pastor’s home.  Special ecumenical relations have developed in one village where we met members of an American evangelical church who actively participate in the Presbyterian worship services and activities. Our hearts are warm. We are learning very much from our Colombian brothers and sisters.