Colombia


For anyone looking for things to do this weekend, the Guardian has published a couple of great articles on a couple of countries where I work – all worth reading and situations definitely worth praying for:

On questions of justice, stolen land, NGOs and the importance of long-term solidarity in Colombia, specifically Uraba which was one of the regions I visited in August, and where the Church has suffered enormously but continues to carry out important prophetic work despite the risks: As Colombia Jails Army General, NGO’s Combating Land Grabs Should Take Note

On the insanity of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (as a rule, blasphemy laws are nuts, even in countries in Europe where many are still shockingly on the books, but Pakistan has made their prosecution and implementation a special art form) and their impact on religious minorities, including Christians but also on non-Sunni Muslims and others: How to Commit Blasphemy in Pakistan

On the real impact of the drug war in Mexico (and other countries, including Colombia and Peru, though Mexico is the focus of this article), touching upon the actual real life effects of the North American and European recreational drug habit and political policies on actual real life people in those South American countries. For those wondering what this has to do with religious freedom – consider that in 2010 over 1000 Catholic priests in Mexico reported being under threat from organized crime involved in the drug trade; rates are probably similar for the Protestant churches though no comprehensive study has been possible, mostly because people are so afraid of the consequences of speaking out: Breaking Bad Doesn’t Show You the Real Drug War Drama

The increasing marginalization of women from the political transition and reform in Egypt. This is particularly on my heart as one year ago I was in Egypt running a training on human rights advocacy to a large group of young Christians, the majority of whom were young women, who love their country and were so hopeful for a future that included inclusion and the active participation of women and religious minorities: From Virginity Test to Power

 I am back at home, my comfortable, quiet, safe home, after eleven days in Colombia. These abrupt transitions can be challenging to process mentally and emotionally and I’m still not really there yet. Part of me wonders if it might have been healthier in the olden days, when one had a weeks or months long, physical journey during which to think it all through before arriving back to one’s everyday life.

It was an intense eleven days, as a few colleagues and I traveled to four very different parts of the country, meeting local partners, viewing projects and listening to lots and lots of personal testimonies. I’ve visited Colombia so many times in the last eight years that I’ve lost track of the exact number, but, as always, the country continues to surprise me and teach me new things. Who knew, for example, that the drug wars of 1980s Medellin could be traced directly back to Woodstock[1]?![2]

It was a trip of contrasts, as Colombia always is, of alternating tears and laughter throughout each day. We facilitated a workshop run by one of our Peruvian partners, working with local Colombian partners on care for staff who are all too often overloaded with the trauma of the issues and people with whom they work. As a couple of the local staff volunteered to share what they were feeling and experiencing, their stories of helping others blurred over into their own histories and personal experiences of atrocities, massacres, forced displacement, threats and loss. Later that night, we walked with a few of them, and our Peruvian partner, to watch a soccer match between rivals from two of the major cities and spent a laughter filled night, highlighted by a random snack vendor who apparently found our group fascinating and inexplicably hilarious.

Towards the end of the trip, we sat at the front of a rural church, facing around seventy or so people. It wasn’t the safest area and our time there was limited so they, before we had arrived, had selected five people to give their personal testimonies as representative of the others. The majority, if not all of them, were forcibly displaced people who, at different points over the past decade had been forced to flee their homes – which for them represented all they owned in the world, their sustenance, and their future – because of attacks by illegal armed groups. They had come to this place of very relative safety (the armed groups were still present, just not as blatant in their activities – one woman told me how in that same town five of her brothers and sisters had been murdered over a seven year period) and built up a church that looks outward into its community – a church which, despite the ever present risk and with limited resources, still manages to offer spiritual support and material care for the masses who arrive on its doorstep seeking the very basics: shelter, food, clothing as well as spiritual and emotional support and affirmation.

I still find myself thinking about the words and voice of one of those who was chosen to share her testimony. An elderly woman, she told a story of intense hardship – of threats, violence, forced displacement and loss but she concluded by giving thanks, “I have lost much but I have much to be thankful for. I give thanks to God for this church, for these clothes that I am wearing, for food I have to eat, and for these hands with which to work.”

Every time I go to Colombia I am deeply challenged by men and women like her and like the partners and friends at the workshops who told their stories. People who’ve lost pretty much everything but still praise their Maker. People who’ve experienced horrific trauma, who would have every right to shut themselves away from the problems of the country and focus on themselves but, filled with God’s love, keep reaching out in love to others who’ve been traumatized.

While, in theory, I know the answer, I still wonder just how they do it, especially after so many years, decades, and so much horror.

I do know that I, we, are called to do it with them in small and less small ways – at the very least and maybe the very most, in prayer.

“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear; that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share. Amen.”

Adapted from a prayer by Charles Wesley


[1] The 1969 music festival, not Snoopy’s avian sidekick – though that would make for an interesting Peanuts strip.

[2] For the record, this direct connection may or may not exist – but it certainly wasn’t a theory I was familiar with…

I met a little girl today and asked if she had any prayer requests. She nodded. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while her face grew stony and then crumbled and she began to cry. She buried her face in the shoulder of the pastor at her side but managed to get the words out, “Pray that everything will be alright.”

She is nine years old. When she was seven she saw her father, a church leader and local community leader, gunned down by members of an illegal armed group. Her parents were forced to flee their homes in 1996 because of violence from the armed groups and once again it had encroached on their lives. It reached its arm into their home and took her father right before her eyes.

Her mother, only 28 years old, did not yield. She carried on the work her husband had been doing, standing up against the armed groups that killed her husband and threatened to forcibly displace the community once again. She offered public testimony at regional and national hearings about what was happening on their land and what had happened to her husband.

In January the threats started. She carried on. Then she was physically attacked by men from the armed group, but she stayed. Then it became clear that she and her family were going to be killed.

She left the community with her two daughters and the clothes on their backs – escorted by Christians from other parts of Colombia and other parts of the world as a measure of protection. She was resettled in a nearby city but then she learned that the armed group was still looking for her and would not rest until she was dead.

She was sent into hiding in another part of the country, to a big city, and left to fend for herself. She has lived all her life in the countryside, working as a small scale farmer and didn’t know how to survive in the city. Christians from our partner organization decided she and her family would be better off in a smaller city where she could receive constant support from a local church.

She and her two daughters live there now, sharing one room. They have few possessions. The little girl studies hard and was promoted to the fifth grade, a year above her age group. But there was no room for another fifth grader at her school so she was transferred to the only school that had room, a school infested by gangs where she is bullied and threatened by the older girls in her class. Her mother wants to put her in a different school, a Christian school, but has no money with which to do so. She can’t even afford to buy her a uniform.

Her mother works in the evening selling arepas, a kind of corn based flatbread, on the street. She can’t work during the day because she can’t afford childcare for her younger daughter who just turned four. She doesn’t want to leave her locked up in the room alone while she goes out to work like some other single mothers do. Childcare would cost about $56 dollars a month. She has a place to work if she could find a way to care for her little girl.

They receive support from the local church but the local church has little resources and many needy people in similar situations. She said to me, as I left, “If I didn’t have God, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Psalm 57
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts—
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I spent the past week with a living example of this verse, which was funny because I’ve been reading about the beatitudes for the past few weeks and the significance of the Kingdom of Heaven. The book, The Divine Conspiracy, makes the argument that the promises are not just promises for our future but promises for our present. We who live in Christ also live in the Kingdom of Heaven, here today, but all too often interpret these promises as something for our far off future, not something we can receive now.

I had the privilege of escorting our special guest around the UK last week as she spoke at churches and shared her story, exhorting everyone she met to never doubt God’s faithfulness and challenging them to pray for and write to our brothers and sisters in the Persecuted Church, sharing what an encouragement that kind of support had been her for and her family over the past two years. Everywhere she went, people were deeply touched. She left every single man in a Welsh Baptist congregation last Sunday weeping. A member of parliament who we had never met before spent an unprecedented two hours with us, inviting us to worship at mass with him (in a private chapel in the parliament!), giving us a lengthy tour of both houses of parliament and treating us to a drink on the terrace of the Stranger’s Bar in the parliament. A senior officer at the Foreign Office, clearly deeply moved, swore up and down he would do all in his power to raise her case and the cases of others like her – and his colleague then proceeded to give us yet another unprecedented tour around the “important bits” of the FCO. A church of 200 women laughed, cried and applauded as she shared her story. Everywhere we went, people would come up afterwards and ask if they could simply hug her.

My friend’s husband, a pastor, disappeared two years ago. Disappearance is one of the cruelest acts committed by man – families go on for years, sometimes a lifetime, in the emotional torture of not knowing. Hope itself, one of the “three things that remain”, is twisted and used to cause an unrelenting pain. I have met women who have not seen their husband or children for twenty or thirty years and exist in a kind of excruciating limbo – torn between hope that they still live, that they will be reunited and the fear that they have been truly gone all this time and are never coming back.

My friend believes her husband is alive. She holds onto that hope – but she rests in something greater. Her pain is evident. As she spoke, the tears were always at the surface; but she is also without a doubt the most joyful person I have ever met. I laughed more last week than I have laughed in a long time because her joy was infectious. She is indeed poor in spirit, the pain and uncertainty she lives on a daily basis is something few of us will ever comprehend. The paradox of this beatitude, however, is made manifest in her – hers is the kingdom of Heaven and she knows it and has claimed it – living in hope and firm in the faith that our God is a faithful God. Lest I leave the impression that her faith and hope are focused on the return of her own husband, I’ll conclude this post with her own words. “I hope that my husband is alive. I believe that he is alive and will be returned to me. But whatever happens, whatever the answer, I will go on loving my Lord, because He is Faithful. Amen!

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The Bible talks a lot about widows. I’ve always skimmed over those verses, thinking they belong to a different age and that they are more symbolic of God’s command to be generous and look after those in need. This week, however, I’ve been reminded in a tragic way that the widows are still among us. Very few of those who I know are being looked after by their brothers and sisters in the Church.

Our guest speaker who is traveling around the UK this week, sharing her testimony as a representative of the Persecuted Church, received some devastating news just before her first speaking engagement on Sunday morning. Was it an attack to throw her off? Given the tortuous experience of getting her a visa, probably. But it’s also a very concrete situation to which we, as her brothers and sisters in Christ, have to respond. She learned that the financial support from her denomination which she and her three children have received since the disappearance of her husband two years ago is coming to an end. The support was very minimal but it made the critical difference in keeping them out of abject poverty and homelessness.

The denomination isn’t financially well off and there are a lot of widows, more every year – so it’s not a matter of them being uncaring or cold. The fact of the matter is that the financially impoverished churches and denominations are the ones that suffer most in Colombia. They are the ones that maintain churches and carry out mission work in the conflict zones – their congregations are filled with subsistence farmers – the pastors themselves often double up, pastoring and farming, in order to make ends meet. These are the pastors who are targeted for assassination by the different armed groups. Their wives come from the communities in which they minister – the vast majority have a primary education, some have a high school degree. The only work they know, and to which they have dedicated their lives, is as a pastor’s wife, with all that that entails.

When a pastor is killed, these women are suddenly left without a husband, without a father for their children, and without a job. They pass from being a pastor’s wife to being a pastor’s widow – and most of these communities are unable to maintain a new pastor and his family and the wife of the assassinated pastor. In many cases, the widow and children have to flee the area anyway, and flock to the cities where they join the massive internally displaced population living in misery.

There are financially rich churches in Colombia and I admit I’ve condemned them in my heart for turning their backs, out of ignorance or convenience, on the widows and orphans in their midst. The wives and children of martyrs of the faith – forgotten and ignored spiritual heroes. But it’s really not just their fault – these women and children belong to all of us. God’s not just going to hold the Colombian churches to account for the well-being of these women and children because they happen to be located inside some humanly drawn borders. The Church is bigger than that, it supersedes man-made lines, and these women and children are as much my brother and sister as they are of a Christian who happens to live in Cartagena.

Twenty to thirty pastors are assassinated each YEAR in Colombia – almost all of them leave behind families who have not only lost a husband and father, but all too often, everything else as well – their security, their home, their futures. The scale of the problem is overwhelming and the silence of the worldwide Church is devastating but I read these words this morning, written by Dr. Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy,

“The barren, the widow, the orphan, the eunuch, the alien, all models of human hopelessness, are fruitful and secure in God’s care. They are repeatedly invoked in Old Testament writings as testimony to the great inversion between our way and God’s way.”

This is right and good and I believe with all my heart that God will remain faithful to His martyrs and those they leave behind, but how the unfaithfulness of His Church must grieve him.

Amazing how things can turn around in a week or so – and a good reminder of how God is much bigger than the petty details and can turn them all on their head. After a lot of hard work, particularly on the part of a very persistent organisational director and an incredibly kind and helpful embassy staff member, the visa, denied last week after a two month process, was granted in a matter of days. Our guest speaker, the wife of a pastor who disappeared two years ago, got on a flight the following day, and one day later was in London. It’s her first time outside of Colombia and she’s now touring the UK, speaking at churches and other Christian groups. I knew God could do it if He wanted to; I’m very grateful He wanted to.

Sometimes this work is about the big stuff – political systems, principles, and most importantly, people’s lives. But sometimes the petty stuff rears up its head and threatens to take over. As this week wound down, it was flooded by the petty stuff.

The trouble with the petty stuff is not only that it’s a distraction from the big stuff, but that sometimes it can have serious and devastating implications for our work and the very people we are trying to support. This week’s petty theme was visas.

A few months ago, my organisation invited someone from one of our focus countries to travel to the UK as a keynote speaker at a series of speaking engagements all over the country. This person has suffered enormously over the past few years but through it all, her faith has not only stayed strong, it has grown. She has the potential not only to motivate the hundreds or even thousands of people who might have the chance to hear her to speak out on behalf of the Persecuted Church, but also to inspire and challenge people in their own walk with God. At the same time, she has not found the last few years of tribulation easy, to put it mildly, and this visit would be enormously encouraging to her as a reminder that she and her family are not alone in their ordeal.

We did everything right: provided all the paperwork, gave her the materials and the money she’d need for the application, assisted her through the process of filling out the forms, all well in advance. This week, less than two weeks before she is due to travel to the UK we were informed that her visa application was denied.

It wasn’t denied because she forgot something or missed something, but because they felt the pay slips which they asked her to provide to prove she was employed were “insufficient”. Considering that my organisation explicitly stated, in writing, that we planned to cover all her costs while she was in the UK and that we have a great twenty year track record of inviting people just like her to the UK,  it just seems ridiculous to me that they would throw out the whole application because of a pretty irrelevant detail. Petty.

The worst part is that the whole process has been outsourced to a private company – so whereas in the past we’d have been able to call up the consulate or the home office back here to find out what was going and to clarify the situation – now no one seems to have any idea at either end who we should talk to to try to sort this situation out. The rejection letter she received has no name, no contact details, just a reference number for the person who apparently reviewed and rejected her application.

She’s heartbroken, feels that she’s failed us somehow, and is deeply disappointed at seeing what she told me was the fulfillment of one of her dreams slip through her fingers. My colleagues who have been working hard over the past few months to set up a series of speaking engagements for her and to arrange all of her accommodations, translation and other logistics are discouraged and anxious. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money and resources that have been invested in this visit at a time of economic difficulty. I am frustrated.

One of my directors reminded me though of a phrase often quoted by one of our founders, “We don’t believe in miracles, we rely on them.”

So here’s to miracles – it’s good to remember that even when the petty details loom large in our life, threatening to derail everything, God is still in control and will, if we trust Him, work things out exactly as they should be.

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