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This week in Cachipay


Nov 2, 2004
-by Janet Plenert


Janet Plenert


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.

Winnipeg, Man.— “I want to tell you my story.” Several others had told theirs. The speaker clearly indicated that it was her turn. “I haven’t been able to tell it for a long time, I just wasn’t ready. But now I want to tell you.”

I looked closely at her, wondering just how hard life had been on her. She looked 10 years older than me, and turned out to be my age. A mother of ten and fearful that she is pregnant again (in spite of birth control), she and her family are among the more than three million displaced people here in Colombia.

About 5 years ago one of the armed groups arrived in her village. As they often do, they called a mandatory town meeting. Being sick and pregnant, with a houseful of children, they did not – perhaps could not – go to the meeting. This very act of ‘defiance’ made them enemies and targets of the guerrillas.

She said that they were taking boys as young as 8 years old and simply making them part of their armed forces, removing them from their families and life as they knew it. How could she, a Christian and a mom, go to a meeting knowing that her young boys might not go home with her at the end of it?

The result was that she and her family had to leave behind everything they owned, their land, their livelihood, their community, and leave quietly without telling anyone, without saying goodbye and move on … to what? To where? They certainly did not know.

Five years later, they live in a shack in a displaced community in Colombia. Her children go barefoot because she can’t buy shoes. Their struggle for employment has nothing to do with meaningful employment or good wages, and everything to do with another day job that may help them avoid having the power cut off for another week.

They are lucky to be part of a community that rallies together to give a bit of comfort to each other. As the women told me their stories, the others listen compassionately, put their arms around each other, or filled in a detail that hadn’t been told.

This is a community supported by the Mennonite Church Pastoral for Displaced Persons program. Its leader capably coordinates the local ministry, and had invited me to attend the official opening of the Feeding Program that provides lunches to some of these women’s children. The women learn handicrafts like making rag dolls in traditional outfits and take great pride in their accomplishments.

Although this is a food program, I heard some people refer to it as the church! Though not intended as a church plant, these woman and children are finding community, help, peace and security in this place. It is in fact becoming their church.

My daughter, Natasha (11) accompanied me on this trip. The community has about 700,000 people, the highest unemployment rate in Colombia and the second highest rate of AIDS. We heard many stories of all kinds. I was again impressed with the ingenuity of the human mind, how people with so little make things work and create innovative solutions to their needs. Several shacks had very functional ovens they had made out of clay.

Natasha observed that, in the midst of the poverty, there was laughter and fun happening as the children ran and played. Life carries on in spite of the trauma and in spite of tremendous need.