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|News from Cachipay, Vol. 2|
News from Cachipay, Vol. 2
October 20, 2004
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. In late September, Plenert traveled to a conference in Venezuela, choosing a potentially dangerous overland trip with her Colombian brothers and sister rather than flying. Later, she also journeyed to Cuba to present lead a workshop on Anabaptist history to Cuban church leaders.
Oct 7, 2004
Hello dear colleagues.
I had stated long ago that I would travel to Venezuela with the church delegation since I didn’t want to be the foreigner that would make her own arrangements, but I rather wanted to be a part of the group. I did not know that it would mean an extensive bus trip (15 hours) then a flight.
It is clear that foreigners can be less safe, and can be targets of violence in Colombia. The bus trip was being done through the night – unusual in itself and not normally considered wise – and that it would go near some areas where there have been troubles in the relatively recent past.
I received two radically different opinions on the wisdom of me going on the bus. We then checked with Bonnie Klassen (Witness Mission Associate and MCC country representative who is highly connected to security issues). She was flying for timing reasons and thus had not done a security reading on that route. Given the entire spectrum of opinions, and given my strong belief in going local, I went ahead with the group, and did so with a peaceful mind. We were stopped during the night by military police, and I had to ask if they were police since they really looked to me to be an armed group because of how well and obviously they were armed. Otherwise it was a very smooth trip.
The next day two conversations confirmed my decision. The church president, Peter Stucky asked me if I was glad I had come in the bus (this while we were hot and sweaty and negotiating amazingly tedious border crossing into Venezuela). I said I was without a doubt. He seemed pleased. Later - about 28 hours into the 30 hour trip – Alix Lozano, president of the Mennonite Seminary in Colombia, asked why I would possibly have come with the group when she knew I could have chosen to fly the whole way. I said that I came to Colombia to be a part of the church and to walk with the church even on a trip like this. It looked like a light went on in her. I asked myself, why would I NOT have gone with the group?
At the conference, ten Anabaptist denominations from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela gathered for four days to study, worship and work together at the agenda of the church in the Andean region of South America. The Peruvians and the indigenous leader from Ecuador were denied visas – a recurring theme recently.
One story that sticks out came from a Chinese-Venezuelan Mennonite Brethren woman, Stella. In January she was kidnapped and held for 8 days. Her Spanish language is not strong and she struggled to communicate with her captors. Every day she prayed for them, and the Chinese church prayed for her. In spite of some rough treatment, she decided to treat her captors well and respectfully. Briefly, she was released with a strong commitment to learn Spanish better and to plunge into the Bible and her faith so that she would be able to better explain her faith in difficult situations. But she must have managed to share her faith with them, because her captors asked her to pray every day for them. Perhaps the funniest part for the Colombians listening, was that during her early captivity they were trying to get information out of her and they threatened her that they would send her to Colombia if she didn’t cooperate! The beauty of the story is that her husband became a Christian through this difficult experience.
I do ask you to pray for the church in Colombia as it seeks to organize itself, nationally and locally in ways that honour God and their felt call to be like Christ in the world.
A week before Jack Suderman and I were scheduled to meet in Cuba to teach a course, our religious visas were denied, the location was switched from Las Tunas (in the middle of the island) to Havana, a considerable distance away, with no meeting or lodging arrangements were confirmed for the 25 participants.
While this might have been considered chaos in Canada, it is closer to ‘par for the course’ in Latin America. But we decided to go anyway. God was at work and knew what was ahead of us.
I was eventually let into the country, only after fairly rigorous questioning by four officials and having my suitcase searched and talking my way around why I had Sunday school curriculum packages if I was a tourist. I figured out that the Colombia stamp in my passport was what made me look suspicious. We got word 30 minutes before our class started that we had approval (of sorts) to go ahead and teach.
It was a wonderful group of keen, committed and thoughtful pastors and church people. They embraced new ideas, history and all the challenges we threw at them. Each morning we would hear of groups that had stayed up late at night discussing the material and struggling with applications of it. As we showed books or other materials they immediately would come and ask how they could access it. One student (one of the many well educated and highly motivated Cubans who have worked hard for society through the government channels and is now checking out the church) read two entire books during the week (Mennonite History by CJ Dyck and a John Driver book). People like him have a thirst for depth and integrity and will not settle for a church that offers pat answers.
It was again humbling and inspiring to get to know some of the circumstances of the students. Among the keenest and sharpest students was a young pastor couple. Alexander had spent four years in a Baptist seminary and makes around $15 a month as a pastor – when the money is there. Aisha was a journalist who recently gave up her job in order to be able to dedicate herself to the work of the church. How they live is a mystery to me. Yet here they were, having travelled a long time to come and participate in the class.
Day after day one or both of them approached us to ask deep, probing questions, to share their vision for the growth of the church, to bounce ideas off us, and to share deep personal struggles of calling. Alexander was enthralled with the nuggets about the Radical Reformation that he learned. Aisha struggled deeply to absorb and understand questions of peace, of non-violence and perhaps more than any other student, was seeing the deeper implications of it for the church in Cuba. It is truly a blessing to be able to just watch these people engage with the biblical text as their starting point, and move from there into practical applications.
Our whole experience thus far has provided the opportunity to reflect anew on what it means to be safe. Many people have prayed for my family in Colombia as we have made the choice to come to a country with high levels of violence. We have submitted ourselves (most of the time) to the security guidelines that the national church has set out for us. We have carefully discerned choices such as taking a bus trip rather than flying, considering potential risk as well as solidarity with brothers and sisters who cannot afford to make that choice.
Recently we had a potentially tragic experience – in Cuba, not Colombia. Cuba, where only in recent years have people admitted that crime is appearing in Havana. Jack Suderman and I were walking at night and were approached from in front and behind by two young men; the one in front pulled out a knife. Other than being startled at the attempted robbery/mugging, nothing happened and it ended very quickly with one man running and the other (with the knife) slowly backing away.
But it did give us reason to be grateful it ended the way it did, instead of how it might have. It also reminded me again that ‘things happen’ and although one can be prudent, it isn’t worth living in fear because these things invariably happen when least expected. Our guest house hostess was much more distraught than we were, and tried to insist that we not go out again at night. We simply told her that our lives are not controlled by fear.
Many more stories could be told, but this is enough for now. Blessings to each one of you.
Sidebar: Another day, another hook-up issue
So I’m back in Cachipay and ready to send off some email. The phone circuits are busy – ALL day and right up until 11:45 pm. I’m suspicious.
The next morning I unexpectedly wake up early and try again. Circuits still busy at 6:30 am. Suspicions confirmed: There is a bigger problem.
So I plan my day around going into town and planning on seeing if there is a chance to hookup my computer right from the telephone office, since it has never worked to synchronize from the internet café. One last try again changes the plan as the phone line is working – for one minute. Then there is no dial tone. Hmmm…. My suspicions shift directions and I realize the new problem is with my hook-up.
Time to get out all the technological tools of the trade:
Cachipay Computer Repair Kit
Nail polish remover
I hereby resolve not to complain when MC Canada server goes down in the future. Have a great day, and enjoy your high-speed, serviced, internet connections. Don’t take it for granted!