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When memorial services end as peace marches
March 1, 2005
Bogotá, Colombia — White balloons and protest signs held high, traffic backed-up behind our procession. We arrive at the drab municipal building where young pastor Javier Segura González died. I feel for the first time the gravity of the sum of this year's tragedies for Sister Peace churches. Until today they have seemed a bit removed from my comfortable Bogotá existence, where I work as coordinator of the program. But this moment isn't ambiguous like a rumor or a vague email message. I am present, walking with a Colombian faith community, a Mennonite Sister Peace church, as community members carry the casket of their loved and adored friend from his funeral to the site where a bomb took his life on Nov. 30, 2004.
There is a scar on the brick façade of the building and my friend points out the hole in the sidewalk at our feet, the remains of a metal parking barrier jutting out of the broken concrete. Colombian Mennonite Church leaders speak about this tragic loss of a precious life. Javier was not a "terrorist" planting a bomb, as military officials speculated to the press right after the explosion. He is yet another innocent victim of this country's armed conflict.
Balloons rise in silent flight. Mourners place their placards calling for peace and nonviolent resolution of the conflict on the security bars of the building's windows. Others place their wreaths of flowers on the sidewalk strewn with broken glass below some remaining blood dried on the brick wall.
The funeral caravan continues on to the burial service at a city cemetery, but I return to the office, shaken; and shaken out of my sense of distance from the violence of this conflict. A quick review of the many losses and traumas experienced only by 16 Colombian Sister Peace churches this year challenges me to overcome the calloused state that many of us experience after receiving news of so much tragedy.
Sister Peace churches in a certain region of Colombia are witnessing human rights abuses of the illegal armed group in control in that region and of attempts to recruit young men. At the same time, they are receiving pressure to remain quiet and not report what they know to the press.
A Sister Peace church in the same region of the country lost a member, who was likely removed, or "disappeared," by an illegal armed group. A member of the same congregation lost his leg to a land mine when visiting his farm for harvest.
A pastor of another church in the region left his home and congregation because of threats from an illegal armed group, while a pastor of a third Sister Peace church is currently dealing with the threat of kidnapping.
Within the past week, a pastor in Bogotá was approached by a purported paramilitary fighter who wanted the church to accept his weapons so he could demobilize. The church, after discerning the correct advice to give, referred him to a nearby military base.
A Sister Peace community in Putumayo suffered the affects of fumigations carried out near to their town. Many of the children and even some adults of the congregation were sick in bed for days and the local hospital was flooded with town residents and farmers from the surrounding countryside.
Two Sister Peace churches felt increased risk when armed actors entered and killed civilians in neighboring churches during worship services. One of these congregations also lost three close associates of the church to selective killing by an illegal armed group. Two were members in a neighboring church of the same denomination.
Words of John Harder, pastor of Canadian Sister Peace church Stirling Mennonite (Winnipeg, Man.), from an email responding to the death of Javier, seem to respond to the wider situation of loss in Colombia. He, also just having returned from a funeral, shared with me how Rodney Sawatsky, a North American Mennonite leader, was told by someone shortly before he died of a brain tumor, "I am so angry with God that this is happening to you."
Rodney was quiet for a while and said, "It is not God's will that I have cancer. I am a Christian, but I am also a mortal. Christians get cancer just the same as non-Christians. It is a part of being human. What God has given me is peace in my heart and hope knowing that my death is not the final chapter."
John wrote, "A cure may one day be found for cancer, but not for death. A cure for violence may seem just as remote as a cure for cancer, but in the face of both we can embrace each other, we can remind each other of the faith we share, of Jesus who went before us in death on our behalf, and we can pray and encourage each other not to give up in our struggle for peace and justice."
This is also the message of Colombian peace churches in this moment of loss: Javier's death is not the final chapter although it pains us. His survivors are willing to carry on the torch of faith, hope in life, peace, and the struggle for a just society in Colombia.
I hope that I can grasp this lesson and find ways to deal with the trauma of our violent world without becoming calloused and removed. I want to be able to say that I too am helping to write the next chapter, helping to carry the torch forward. I wish for you as individuals and communities of faith the response of renewed hope and commitment as well.
Jesus went before us so that we would not be frozen by fear of death and suffering, but be liberated into a life of love; the greatest love as he defined it, being the willingness to lay down our life for our friends (John 15:13).
Our friends in Colombia are dying. They need us to walk with them through this valley of death. If they, in the midst of loss and suffering, can see the new dawn at the opening of this deep valley, surely we as North American churches can offer to accompany them in their struggle toward the daylight.
We are mortal, yes, and we cannot escape death, but we can find sufficient encouragement in each other not to give up in our struggle for a more peaceful world – one with fewer innocent deaths, fewer war machines, more availability of medicine and health care, better distribution of food and the possibility for healthy human development.
Charlotte Shristi, is a Mennonite Mission Network service worker, is coordinator of the Sister Peace Church program of Justapaz and the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Churches of Colombia, CEDECOL. She wrote this as a reflection on the hope produced through the trauma of another year in Colombia. For a reflection directly relating to Javier Segura González's death, see This Week in Cachipay:A Funeral Reflection. This reflection also appeared in the Canadian Mennonite, Dec 20, 2005 edition (page 26). Mennonite Mission Network is a partner to Mennonite Church Canada Witness.