The Common Good
May-June 2003

Suffering Servants

by Ryan Beiler | May-June 2003

The persecuted peacemakers of the Colombian churches

Without warning, two members of a right-wing paramilitary death squad burst into a small whitewashed church near Colombia's Caribbean coast and shot the Sunday school teacher dead in front of the children. "The day these men came, I was the one preaching, so I was very afraid," recalls pastor Miguel Cruz.* "When we came to this area they didn't like us because we came from the countryside. They think just because you lived out there that you must be a part of the other group. They said he was bad, but he was our friend and brother."

On the Colombian rim of the Amazon jungle, pastor Julio Torres

* reads Psalm 37 by flashlight during a Saturday evening service. A guerrilla attack has once again knocked out power to most of the region, as Torres, himself personally threatened with death by the guerrillas, proclaims these words in the humid darkness: "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday."

In Colombia, there are 30,000 violent deaths per year. State security forces, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitary groups battle for control. According to the U.S. State Department, the paramilitaries commit 70 percent of the human rights abuses in Colombia, yet U.S. training and military aid for the Colombian army are focused almost exclusively against the guerrillas. Colombia is the third highest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.

Though the conflict has its roots in centuries of social injustice, both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries (initially formed by wealthy landowners, but now often acting with the complicity of the army and police) have been thoroughly corrupted by the drug trade—and both are considered terrorist groups by the U.S. government. In the tragic pattern of Latin American history, it is the poor and those that defend them that are victimized most severely.

"The church in Colombia is a suffering church," says Ricardo Esquivia, director of JustaPaz: Christian Center for Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action and director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Council of Evangelical Churches in Colombia. According to Esquivia, 35 pastors and church leaders were killed in Colombia last year alone. Some 350 local congregations were forced to close by one armed group or another.

"Why is our community so affected in a situation like this?" asks Cecilia Duarte,* a church leader whose name has appeared on paramilitary death lists. "Because we're in the midst of the conflict. And because our attitude is ‘No more! We don't want any more violence!' and that clashes with their interests."

There are some factors, however, that lead to heightened suspicion and threats by the armed groups. Like many evangelical churches in Colombia, Torres' church was started by North American missionaries—a Yankee influence toward which the guerrillas are highly hostile, at times even accusing missionaries of being connected to the CIA. Other churches, because of their interpretation of Romans 13, side with the government, which makes them enemies of the guerrillas. Still others have a pacifist orientation and don't want their children to join the army or any of the armed groups, making them enemies of all.

Being threatened by all sides is not unusual. "They can't fathom the idea that you don't belong to either of them," says Duarte. Emilia Vargas,* the wife of a pastor forced to live in hiding, says of her husband, "The guerrillas accused him of being a part of the paramilitaries and the paramilitaries accused him of being a part of the guerrillas."

The exact reasons for threats and violence seem arbitrary. "Suspicion is enough to make you a target," says Cruz. The paramilitary group responsible for killing his Sunday school teacher later admitted—without apology—that they had made a mistake.

One way churches attempt to avoid such "mistakes" is to declare their independence from all armed groups. Torres' church, for example, has declared itself a "Sanctuary of Peace," part of a program of the Justice and Peace Commission in which the doors are open to all—especially those in need—but it refuses to align with any of the armed groups, expecting them to respect its neutrality and humanitarian mission.

"The transparency in doing the work gives one some authority, and so you earn respect from those who could threaten you," says Rolando Jimenez,* a worker with another Sanctuary of Peace church. "But the costs for earning this respect have been high. Playing this role isn't viewed well by everyone."

That's because serving the people displaced by one side or the other is a risk in itself. More than 2.8 million Colombians are refugees within their own country, fleeing direct threats from an armed group or the crossfire of combat zones. "When you cross their borders of control, you enter into real risk," states Cruz, because each group tends to see those displaced from areas not under their control as the enemy.

Because of its influence and organization, the church has been accused by paramilitaries of being a kind of "mafia," according to one Bogota church worker, "because it is an alternative, and it is strong, and it is challenging the system."

JIMENEZ'S CHURCH is one such alternative. It works with displaced children, both for their physical and emotional recovery as well as to give them vocational alternatives to the armed groups, which pay well and are an attractive option to those struggling with economic needs and the desire for revenge against the group that wronged them. "In the evangelical church," says Duarte, "we're trying to not harbor hate against the people that hurt us."

Churches have not always come to this work easily. Torres, who has five displaced persons living in his own house, laments that "the churches are in their four walls singing and clapping and all this is going on and they don't know what to do."

Irma Rodriguez, Esquivia's colleague on the Justice and Peace Commission, says that churches were slow to engage such issues until their own pastors began to be persecuted. Now her work promoting the council's women's network includes handing out pink study Bibles as well as peace posters—speaking evangelical language while expanding the churches' vocabulary on topics such as gender equity, human rights, and economic development.

Similarly, Jimenez's church had not combined spirituality with service until displaced people literally showed up on their doorstep. "In churches, there's a lot of theology that's preached," he comments. "And when you're not confronted with reality, you don't even really understand what you're preaching. But now we have to live this, and to serve and love our neighbor because we have to—because that's what life has demanded of us."

The churches have also been confronted with the necessity of healing the history of division, mistrust, and even violence between Catholics and Protestants in Colombia. Because leaders and members of both traditions are suffering, in one violence-torn region Catholics and Protestants came together for an ecumenical peace service—the first ever in their province.

"It's important not to be fanatical about our concept of religion," said Torres, one of the service's organizers, "but to come together in the cause of peace." Future plans include a youth camp where Catholic and Protestant kids can form relationships and develop their faith together.

Both traditions also teach conflict resolution to priests, pastors, and lay persons through grassroots programs, planting seeds for a "culture of peace." And in the face of an escalating conflict, both Catholic and Protestant church institutions have publicly declared their support for a negotiated political resolution.

"We don't want weapons anymore," says Duarte, "We want a peaceful means to resolve this conflict. And our trust is no longer in weapons, but in God."

*Name changed.

Ryan Beiler, Web editor at Sojourners, recently traveled to Colombia with a delegation sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and Bogota-based JustaPaz: Christian Center of Justice, Peace, and Nonviolent Action.

>>See and hear more stories in Sojourners' multimedia presentation of Suffering Servants

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