October 5, 2004
- from reports
On August 25, Janet Plenert, executive director of International Ministries,
Mennonite Church Canada Witness, temporarily moved with her family (husband
Steve and daughters Gabrielle (17), Natasha (14), and Katrina(11)) to
Cachipay, Colombia, as an expression of solidarity with the Colombian
Mennonite church, to improve her Spanish, and to assess the needs of the
ministry there. The following excerpts chronicle of some of their initial
experiences. Names and details of Colombians in the letters have been
changed for security reasons.
Sept. 1, 2004
Greetings from Colombia.
At the retreat center where I am [staying] there is a peace conference
going on with Colombian church leaders, so they all sang for me for my
birthday. But it wasn’t Happy Birthday, it was some very long, blessing
on my whole life song. It was cool. My family invited some of the people
that we had gotten to know, and they bought a cake in town, and then we
all ate it up in our room.
I continue to be amazed by this country. There is so much diversity
(economically) and the church here is really amazing. To be a pastor here
pretty much means to get on someone’s death list, so the pastors
here are mega-brave. I have made friends with a pastor named Peter and
he has two little children, and has to be so careful because there are
a lot of people trying to kill him because he is a teacher as well as
a pastor as well as a civil rights activist. That means triple threat.
The churches here are trying really hard to care for all the needy people
in the country, but it’s hard where there are no economic resources.
Three children die of hunger in Colombia every hour. And hunger isn’t
the only problem. There is a huge need for workers to deal with medical
needs, dentistry, a psychologist to deal with all the trauma that people
have experienced (many of the displaced people have watched family members
be killed). There is also a need for skills to be taught, so that youth
can learn skills that will get them jobs so that they don’t feel
forced to join the army.
My Spanish is already getting much better, and I am looking forward
to all that I will continue to experience there. I love you all, and am
praying for you, and hope that you will pray for this country.
- Shalom, Gabrielle
Sept 2, 2004
We’ve been in Colombia one week, and in Cachipay for nearly 5
days. Our house was furnished with the basics – beds and bedding,
five sets of plates, cups, glasses, cutlery and bowls, three pots and
one water heating pot and one garbage can. The bedrooms consist of beds,
walls and floors. Meagre to be sure, but we are purchasing a few more
basics and making due. We are diligently on the lookout for boxes to store
things in and get organized, but so far we haven’t found any! Even
plastic containers are rare and we haven’t come up with any yet.
The floor and extra bunk beds are getting well used as places to put things
on. The girls so far are enjoying this simple life. We did laundry together
yesterday (it was an event). Getting clean – ie having showers –
is still a big deal. The water is far too cold. Gabrielle said it felt
like she was dumping a slurpee on her head!
During one lunch someone asked to talk to me. We sat down and he, very
pointedly and with an urgency in his tone said, “What do I need
to do to get to Canada?” I didn’t know this person, so didn’t
know the context for his question. Turns out the FARC (a guerilla group)
has a high price-tag on his head, and that of his wife and kids. He was
a part of the FARC for 27 years, 11 as a commander. He has been out for
two years and has not received the promised support from the government.
He became a Christian through one of the Mennonite churches and is passionate
about his faith. It was really interesting to sit with him in a discussion
group about the seven personal commitments to peace that are promoted
by Justapaz (the Peace and Justice arm of the Mennonite church) and Pan
y Paz (an ecumenical coalition lead by the Mennonite Church to promote
peace and justice through recognition of the World Day of Peace) What
could I say? I know this will not be the last such question I will receive.
I have already learned a fair bit more Spanish. The kinds of things I
have learned are indicative of our context. I’ve learned words like
sicario (assassination), boleto (a Colombia word to refer to the warning
or death threat that people may receive), vacuna (means vaccination in
most contexts, but also means a ‘tax’ or extortion that an
armed group can impose).
A prayer at the close of a group devotional time was strangely familiar.
The prayer gave thanks for the riches and blessings we have, for the gifts
we have in abundance, for the privileges we take for granted and for being
a privileged people. There was confession for wanting to build bigger
and nicer church buildings instead of focusing on the suffering around
us. With my eyes closed, it felt like an appropriate prayer from North
America. But I opened my eyes to remind myself where I was – in
the midst of people who have dedicated their lives to working for peace
and justice in Colombia, people who can all tell personal stories of violence,
death, loved ones who are ‘disappeared’.
I was near Susan, whose son-in –law who has been missing for three
years and another who has unjustly been jailed for 18 months. I was near
Paulo, a person committed to peace who is also a former illegal armed
group member whose is being sought out as a traitor. I was near Juan who
is on a death list for his work in peace activities and in a teachers
union. I was near Martha, who told of the night she spent with the family
crouched in fear a blackened room, telling her kids how to carry on with
life if anything should happen, how a list came out of 25 of her teaching
colleagues and that several were immediately killed. I was near numerous
pastors of tiny churches with inadequate space, chairs and supplies. Yet
they prayed in thanksgiving for the abundance and blessings they have,
and for forgiveness for desiring more. I was touched, and humbled.
Sept. 11, 2004
One morning walking into town, we came across five obstinate cows and
were unsure of which side of the road they preferred.
Their owner was having limited luck moving them cohesively, and seemed
preoccupied with his big pile of long grasses. I suddenly saw a horse
head in the midst of the grass, and realized that it wasn’t a pile,
but rather a load of grass so big on the back of a horse that it wasn’t
immediately obvious that a horse was involved!
To add to this morning excitement, the sound of a bus was approaching
behind us and I was sure it wouldn’t want to stop in the middle
of the hill we were on. It honked, the herder shouted, the cows mooed
angrily, the horse reluctantly followed the yanking of the man, the bus
kept moving in closer and I was seeing a lot of steak for supper as the
bus stopped bumper-to-nose with a cow! As almost always happens, the cows
did move, the bus did pass, we did avoid getting trampled, and the horse
followed obediently underneath its massive bundle of grass and behind
the bossy cows. All in a morning’s walk.
Boundaries. Inside and outside, rich and poor, personal space. One of
the things that continues to fascinate me about Latin America is the differing
placement of boundaries, the fluidity of boundaries, and how thin and
fragile the boundaries seem to be.
There is little difference for us between the inside of our house and
our outside porch. We move in and out without noticing, both are part
of the house, of our living space. The door gets opened first thing in
the morning not to be closed again until the bugs come out in the evening.
The temperature is not something we control.
We feel closer to the elements, more in touch with the ebb and flow
of the day. Choices are made based on the weather of the moment because
we are affected by it. We are closer to nature, to creation.
Yesterday we went into Bogotá. The girls immediately noticed that
we had changed economic levels, how people were dressed and carried themselves,
the kinds of groups they moved in, the shops we passed, the ‘chicness’
and sharpness of clothes and hairstyles, the increased price of a pop
from one restaurant to the outside stand that we are more familiar with.
Yet our last visit to Bogotá took us to the south of the city,
to displaced communities, to squatter barrios to places where our host
talked in a low voice and indicated that it would not be safe to go any
further into the neighbourhood.
He told us that 29 of 43 million Colombians live in poverty, and 9 million
of those in absolute poverty. He himself, a Mennonite pastor, is on a
death list. Yet a few miles north, the situation is like being in another
world. The boundaries are fragile. We are hearing stories of people, well
established and educated, whose lives are being uprooted and forever changed
by finding oneself on a hit list. There are no guarantees. Boundaries,
life is fragile.
Sept. 13, 2004
I’ve now been to two church services here in Cachipay, and they
have been very Latin-American. Yesterday’s sermon was an hour long,
the singing is very out of tune, and people like to pray for fifteen minutes
at a time. It is however, very heartfelt and sincere, and fun to be a
part of. There is a snack afterwards, and this week it was boiled potatoes.
mily and I went to visit a Mennonite school in a town called La Mesa,
which is an hour from here. Me and Natasha have decided to volunteer there
once a week, so I am looking forward to that. We will be with little kids,
teaching English and playing.
Me and Natasha have decided to start going to school here a few days
a week. It is a Catholic school in town, and should be interesting. I
Last Saturday a church in northern Colombia was meeting for a service,
when they were interrupted by what is presumed to be a guerilla group.
They started shooting, and three people were killed, eleven injured.
The third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was a few days ago and
I’m sure there was much talk of terror and the like. Being here
put that into perspective... the terror of living every day. I read an
article today that said that one person per minute is displaced in Colombia.
Pretty scary...and talk about terror.
Please keep this country in your prayers. Shalom and love,