Look and Listen: Colombia Accompanier Training in Tucson

This past weekend, I was one of 18 participants in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Discernment and Training for the Colombia Accompaniment Program (CAP). During an intense three days, we sought to learn the history of the nation of Colombia over the past 50 years, explore the origin of the CAP and dig into the nitty-gritty of life as an accompanier with the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia (IPC). We gathered to discern whether God was calling us to a month of looking and listening in Colombia.

Contrary to stereotypical mission work, the work of an accompanier is a commitment to the ministry of presence. This weekend, we were challenged to think about how we would feel spending a month with the sole purpose of holding presence with our Colombian hosts. As 18 white folks with U.S. passports, we were a group with immense privilege and power. We were challenged to shift our understanding and commitment to develop a practice that would serve us not only as acompañantes but in our day-to-day life. How do we prioritize looking and listening over doing?

These conversations brought me back to my first couple of months as a Young Adult Volunteer in Tucson in 2013. Much of my time at Southside Presbyterian was spent being present, hanging out with people eating breakfast, speaking broken Spanish with day laborers in the parking lot. I struggled with this, realizing then how programmed I was to want to accomplish tasks. But, I was challenged then as I was this weekend to acknowledge and practice the power of presence. The IPC continues to request more accompaniers because our presence helps them to defend their rights. When the Colombian government sees that the Presbyterian Church there has United Statesian* friends who visit, they are less likely to infringe on their rights. Even still, they are still much more at risk than we will ever be in their country. That was a tension we wrestled with as a group. And one we were challenged to sit with.

Throughout the weekend, we were given two opportunities to practice looking and listening. On Sunday afternoon, we did a partner walk. Each person in a pair was given 15 minutes to discuss their process of discernment for the program. The partner’s job was to listen well without interrupting. As I listened to my partner Leslie, I was reminded how difficult it is to not interject! But, I learned so much about her by listening to understand, not to respond.

On Monday morning, we split up into three groups to visit local Tucson community groups. Once again, our goal was to listen and learn from the community groups. Two groups visited shelters for asylum-seeking families; my group visited the House of Neighborly Service (HNS), a community center with a focus on economic advancement opportunities for women. During our reflection after, Alison asked us to imagine that we couldn’t understand the language of our host at the community group. What, then, did we see? This question caught me by surprise. What did I see that would tell me something about the work of HNS? I take comfort in understanding every detail of what someone says to me, often frustrated when I misunderstand something in Spanish. How can I rely on my other senses to understand the world around me? How can this serve me as an accompanier? In my daily life?

The more power you hold in the world, the less you’ve been told to be quiet and listen. As a white woman with a U.S. passport, I have been socialized to take up space in most spaces. Usually, I’m listened to. As I leave this weekend committed to one day becoming a Colombia accompanier, I feel empowered to continuing to develop these skills of observation and listening. It’s one way I can use my power for good.

*American is a misnomer because it includes all people of Latin America. We’re trying to normalize ‘United Statesian as an alternative adjective.”