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First Person: Colombian experience transforms
April 13, 2007
Bogotá, Colombia — As we descended the windy road to Anapoíma, I wondered what the church would look like in this community. As we drove on, it became increasingly important to me that they would have a bathroom. Little did I know what I was about to experience.
Earlier we had met Martin and Elsie, the pastors of the church at Anapoíma – a small community nestled in the mountains southwest of Bogotá – and they invited us to come see their church. We didn’t know what we were going to see. But the privilege of visiting this community has profoundly affected my perception of church, and deeply touched my life.
We pulled up to a large building with some Spanish scrawled on a wall. I assumed this was the church. As we ventured down the street, we rounded the corner and I became puzzled as we walked behind and past the building.
The dirt path soon narrowed and we found ourselves on a ten foot ledge with the building wall on one side and a steep ravine on the other. At the back of the building a group of women and children waited to meet us. Their faces burst into smiles as they saw Martin and Elsie.
Martin introduced us, and we were warmly received. All the while I was wondering when we were going to see the church. Martin began to talk about where they meet, and how when they had paper, the children would spread out to do their Sunday School lessons.
I looked around this open air space strewn with debris, old boards with protruding nails, pieces of tin and wire fencing. There were red plastic patio chairs and a chicken scratching about.
It slowly began to dawn on me where we were. My North American thinking heard we were going to a church. I was expecting a building. But here we were, in the church; standing on holy ground, worshiping God. This church did not have 4 walls with padded pews; it was men women and children united by a common love of God coming together to worship and sing praises.
After the service, I found out that the building we were behind was the town market. Community leaders allowed this small community of marginalized people to live here.
It is interesting how in Canada we invite people to come into the church. Here at Anapoíma the church was brought to the people. One woman commented that before they had nothing but since Martin and Elsie came they had what everyone else has; someone to care for them.
The love and gratitude the people felt for the ministry of Martin and Elsie was etched clearly on their faces. We sang songs together and prayed not as two groups meeting for the first time but as brothers and sisters bonded together in the unity of the spirit. I was humbled. We stayed to meet the people of this small community behind the market. They were so grateful that we would take the time to visit them. They invited us to see their homes. I was stunned to realize that this marginal piece of land that no one wanted was where these marginal people made their homes.
When I saw that there was no fence to protect the small children from falling into the deep ravine, I was frightened. As we traveled down the path we encountered home after home. These small one-room homes we made from whatever bits of lumber, cardboard, brick and metal could be salvaged. Most rooms were no bigger than 8´ x 10´. Some were smaller and all housed many people.
The water supply consisted of a hose spliced into the main water supply line. Water was collected in barrels that sat in the heat all day and provided an ideal breading ground for malaria mosquitoes.
As we were shown each home the owners beamed with pride as they showed us where they lived. They had much to be proud of. They had made something out of nothing. They had taken the bit of land that no one cared about and built a community. A place to raise their families, face the challenges of life, and a place to worship God. They had done something I may not have been capable of. Once again, I was humbled.
I had brought along a bag of suckers for the children and I grieved as we headed away. Why had I not brought bags of groceries, meat and medicine; things these beautiful children truly needed? It was a wake up call for me. How I chose to live affects others many miles away. They were no longer just some people who live far away; they were my brothers and sisters.
The story does not end here. Martin and Elsie also have another church in Anapoíma. This time I thought I would be prepared for the visit. I knew there will be no church building. We began to drive through town and the homes became larger and more elegant. They all had pools surrounded by lavish gardens. I tried to take a picture but the homes were too large to fit in one frame.
Then our tour guide, Ricardo, told us that these were the weekend cottages and summer homes of some of the wealthy in Bogotá. I wondered why we were here. Our van parked at a dead end street. On one side of me was a beautiful summer home, and on the other side was a sign. It read “Welcome to the New Millennium.” We followed the path that wound around the backs of these glorious homes. There again on a ledge of land over looking a deep ravine was the next community of believers we were to meet. This community was bigger than the last one we saw. People again rushed out to great us. They were so overjoyed that we would take the time to visit them. But it was I who is grateful for gracious hospitality and welcoming arms.
The trail led down into the ravine with tiny shanties lining the way. We met up with a young girl returning from school. I was conscious of the sacrifice it was for her family to send her to school. Something I take for granted – that all children are entitled to schooling – is not so in Colombia. Children must have a uniform and books and pens to attend school. We met another 12-year-old boy who could not go to school because he did not have scribblers. A few weeks ago there was an article in the Canadian Mennonite about having an abundance of pens at my disposal. Then I remembered just how much paper I have sitting around in my home, including all the paper I through out. Each person we meet touches my heart.
A woman proudly asks if we would come to her home. She lives farther down the hill. Her house was small and half of it has a dirt floor. The walls were made of brick and cardboard. Some walls had windows but there is no glass or screens; it is all open. She proudly shows us her kitchen. She and her husband have a small business. She makes pastry that her husband sells on the streets. She offers us tinto – slang for a cup of coffee. Her hospitality humbles me. We are strangers who come unannounced but she was willing to share her meager portions with us. I wonder why I feel I must have my home spotless, an elaborate menu planned and two-week notice before I can offer hospitality to my friends; let alone a stranger. She hugs us good-bye.
As we leave I gaze down the trail that continues down the hill. How many other people live here each with stories, hopes and dreams? I never find out; it is time for us to go.
At Anopoíma I have seen community. These people would not survive without each other. They are not caught up in the trappings of life. They don’t have a lawn to cut, a car to wash or a rug to vacuum; all they have is each other.
I am so thankful for Gods timing. Someone had given us a guitar to give away to someone that could use it in Colombia. As a group we didn't know where it should go. We carted it around all over Colombia. At Anapoíma we asked Martin if on of the churches could use a guitar. His face lit us as he told us how he was teaching a man to play guitar so this community could have music during their services, but the man had no guitar. We found a place for this most valuable gift. It would become an integral part of their worship; it was the perfect place.
I don’t know how to accurately express how my time at Anapoíma has affected my life. I am continuing to process the experience. I do know that I look at church differently now. It is community; the building just keeps out the cold. I believe that we can learn much from the people at Anapoíma about living together and valuing our relationships more than the things we have.
I also know my life can never be the same. I am not sure how it will change but I know it must. These marginal people had so much to offer me. We only spent a few short hours together with them. The way they reached out to us and welcomed us is something I will never forget. I continue to be amazed at the incredible importance these people place in solidarity. Why was my visit so important to them? It is a mystery that I may never know. The question that comes to mind the most is what do I have to offer them?
Crystal Kehler together with her husband Dan and 6 other members from Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Altona, Man.) participated in a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour to Colombia from Feb 9 - 19, 2007.