MCC accompanying the Colombian Anabaptist churches in their witness for peace

Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.

The story of MCC Colombia’s peacebuilding work is in fact the story of Colombian Anabaptists’ peacebuilding work. Although MCC did not open an office and program in Colombia until 2002, its involvement in Colombia began with the founding of Mencoldes (Colombian Mennonite Foundation for Development) in 1976. Mencoldes was born out of the shared conviction of Colombian Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren that just as the gospel mattered for inner spiritual transformation, so must it also speak to the material and social well-being of communities. While MCC and MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) provided the initial funding to launch Mencoldes, it was directed and staffed by Colombian Anabaptists. As Mencoldes matured, it focused on community development, disaster response and economic development.

In 2017, MCC partner Edupaz organized Bread and Peace marches at the schools where Edupaz facilitates peer mediation programs. Edupaz works to ensure a culture of peace at the schools, and the annual Bread and Peace march is part of that effort. Bread and Peace is observed by most of the Anabaptist churches in Colombia on September 21, the International Day of Peace, to publicly testify in their communities that peace is not just lack of armed conflict, but also the hope that everyone will have enough food and comfort to live a dignified life (hence the bread). Edupaz is a ministry of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Colombia. (Photo courtesy of Edupaz)

At the congregational and denominational levels, Colombian Anabaptists in the 1980s (which now included the Brethren in Christ, who joined in 1984) were talking about their faith in new, shared terms. They discussed “responding to their context,” “relating to political power” and “social ministries” and talked about forming themselves to be “witnesses of peace.” As the churches expanded their ministries in these ways, MCC began to support Justapaz (the Mennonite Church’s peace and human rights institution) and other ministries in Anabaptist publishing and efforts to promote and secure the right of conscientious objection to military conscription. Meanwhile, the conflict in Colombia grew more complicated: new armed groups formed, peace talks dissolved and money from the drug trade complicated the situation. By the late 1990s, human rights violations and assassinations had reached an all-time high. At this point the United States became more directly involved in Colombia through Plan Colombia, a massive military and foreign aid package that was intended to support the Colombian state in counteracting left-wing groups and drug trafficking. Soon after the deal was signed in 2000, however, it became apparent that Plan Colombia was escalating militarization of the conflict and funding significant human rights abuses.

In 2010, Viviana Meza Guerra (right) and Yaqueline Morelno Morales hang a vibrantly colored quilt, the fruit of a quilting group and trauma healing project that MCC worker Teresa Geiser of Elkhart, Ind., began in the small Colombian community of Mampuján in 2007. (MCC photo)

In analyzing the situation, Colombian Anabaptist churches decided they wanted more international accompaniment from global Anabaptist churches, particularly those in Canada and the United States. Collectively, they invited MCC to open an office in Colombia. Although MCC had already been walking with them in their peacebuilding work for years, there was a clearer and more explicit mandate following MCC’s opening of a Colombia program in 2002. The wisdom that can be gleaned from this partnership is deep, but for the purposes of this article, I will identify three key learnings MCC has gained from partnering in peacebuilding alongside Colombian Anabaptist churches these past 18 years. First, peacebuilding is holistic, in the vision of abundant life proclaimed in John 10:10. Secondly, peacebuilding requires accompaniment, lived out as a deep contextual and relational commitment to these communities. Finally, peacebuilding is a long-term project that extends well beyond project cycles and even individual lifetimes.

In 1998, Ricardo Esquivia, then the director of the Mennonite peace organization Justapaz (and now director of another MCC partner organization, Sembrandopaz), claimed that “peace is life in abundance.” This articulation gained widespread adherence within the Anabaptist churches over the next two decades. Rooted in Jesus’ words from John 10:10—“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”—it came to encapsulate a uniquely Colombian Anabaptist vision of peacemaking. “For many,” wrote Esquivia, “peace is the absence of war. They have not yet embraced the concept of peace as the fruit of justice, as reconciliation, understanding reconciliation as the reconstruction of lives, of trust, love, respect, and mutual care” (Esquivia 11). It has been on this foundation that Colombian Anabaptists have partnered with MCC in many of their ministries. While we do support Anabaptist partners actively working in conflict resolution and mediation, many more have chosen to work with victims, trauma healing, education in marginalized neighborhoods, agricultural development, community organizing, refugee assistance, documentation of human rights abuses and ministries with youth and children. Despite their different manifestations, partners would articulate these ministries as peacebuilding in the vision of Jesus—life in abundance.

When the armed conflict edged its way into the Pacific coastal region of Chocó, the Mennonite Brethren church—present in the region since the late 1940s—became concerned about the impact this could have on the economic life of their community. Not only did the armed conflict inflate prices, but it disrupted transportation routes and introduced illicit activities into the economic system. In response, the churches looked for ways to cultivate lives of abundance, eventually founding FAGROTES, an agricultural development organization that teaches farmers how to cultivate cacao and rice through intensive hands-on training and provides processing options for farmers wishing to sell their products at market. By envisioning peacebuilding as that which leads to life abundant, FAGROTES has stabilized communities by providing farmers with the expertise and access they need to be able to sustain their families and avoid the worst of the economic fallout of the armed conflict.

For many, peace is the absence of war. They have not yet embraced the concept of peace as the fruit of justice, as reconciliation, understanding reconciliation as the reconstruction of lives, of trust, love, respect, and mutual care.

—Ricardo Esquivia

If “life in abundance” is the framework for Colombian Anabaptist peacebuilding, then “accompaniment” is the practice that defines their peacebuilding. Accompaniment is a relational practice, marked by commitment to others as dignified children of God and attention to their spiritual, emotional and physical needs. In some cases, our partners have committed to accompany the same communities for decades, particularly when communities have been victims of the armed conflict. These peacebuilding models seek to rebuild the torn social fabric through trauma healing, community organizing, economic sustainability and leadership development. Other peacebuilding models attend to a transient population, so their accompaniment is necessarily more temporary, but no less relational. One example of the latter model is the response of the Mennonite Brethren in Valle del Cauca to the recent influx of Venezuelans in the cities of Palmira and Cali. With MCC’s support, these churches began to provide humanitarian aid to Venezuelans who were showing up at their churches. Instead of simply handing out food and health kits, however, the Mennonite Brethren visited participants in their homes and prayed over them; they collected medicines to send back to family members still in Venezuela; they rotated snack responsibilities for the biweekly meetings among group members, so they could share different foods with each other; they helped make doctor appointments when people were sick. According to Francisco Mosquero, coordinator of the Mennonite Brethren aid response in Cali and former director of the peace office, Edupaz, some Venezuelan participants commented to the pastors, “You are different than the other aid organizations, because you see us as whole people.”

You are different than the other aid organizations, because you see us as whole people.

—Francisco Mosquero

For Colombian Anabaptists, this kind of peacebuilding is the work of a lifetime. In the words of Ricardo Esquivia, “We must fill ourselves with patience” (Esquivia 11). When Jenny Neme was closing her tenure as director of the Mennonite peacebuilding organization Justapaz, we invited her to share some reflections with our team. She chose to highlight the slow pace of peacebuilding, reflecting on Justapaz’s foundational work in conscientious objection in the 1990s. Some of the earliest gains were a provision for religious freedom written into the 1991 Constitution, but that was yet a long way from freedom to object to military service (Klassen 254). It would be nearly thirty more years and much diligent, faithful work by Justapaz and others until there was a full legal route to conscientious objection in Colombia. Even today, Justapaz has a department dedicated to conscientious objection, because they still dream of an alternative service option for young people. Although we as MCC work in three-year project cycles, we share our partners’ understanding of peacebuilding as a long-term, lifelong work to which we are all called. And indeed, in MCC Colombia’s 18 years, we have been privileged to see how a long-term commitment to the accompaniment model of peacebuilding brings forth life in abundance in all sorts of unexpected ways. 

Elizabeth Miller is MCC representative for Colombia.

Klassen, Bonnie. “Communities of Hope: Colombian Anabaptist Churches Bridging the Abyss of Suffering with Faith.” In From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding. Ed. Andrew P Klager, 251-273. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015.

Esquivia, Ricardo, “Sowing Seeds of Peace in Latin America.” Peace Office Newsletter. 23/2 (April-June 1998): 11.

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