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|Reflections on a Colombia visit|
Making a difference one choice at a time
September 25, 2007
Winnipeg, Man. — Dan and Crystal Kehler can’t forget Colombia. Since their visit earlier this year on a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour, they have struggled to come to terms with the contrast between their comfortable Canadian lifestyle and the poverty, violence and injustice that prevails in Colombia.
But there is more to the Kehlers’ struggle than simply recognizing the imbalance; they know that their lifestyle choices impact Colombians.
In a land rich with resources such as oil and gold, and where the drug industry thrives, more than three million Colombians have been forced from their homes and livelihoods so that others can reap profits from the land.
“The petroleum industry is huge globally and affects Colombians directly, particularly in the rural areas where the oil is and where the pipeline runs,” Dan says. As the industry extends pipelines, it pays off military groups for “protection” which Dan and others believe is really directed toward driving people off the land to give the industry access. “We know that the whole economy is driven by the North American obsession with cars – with big cars.”
Dan also refers to an American soft drink company that was accused of hiring a paramilitary group to break the Colombian union in order to keep wages down. This group allegedly killed a union boss in front of workers and threatened them with the same treatment if they did not accept lower wages. Charges were brought against the company, but prosecution is likely not forthcoming due to jurisdictional issues.
The Kehlers went into the country with some understanding of the atrocities committed against Colombians, but meeting Colombians gave their knowledge new significance.
Crystal remembers encountering a well-dressed family of six in the streets one evening. The father was trying to sell individual candies from a bag of sweets. Through a translator in the Kehler’s group, they learned that paramilitary forces had threatened to enter the town where the family lived and kill whoever remained. The man, his wife and four children fled with only the clothes on their backs. The man’s effort to sell the candies was an attempt to feed his family.
“I looked at the beautiful children and my heart broke,” Crystal
recalls. “I reached into my pocket and gave him 5,000 pesos. This
would be considered generous. It’s about $2.50 US. The
look of gratitude on the father’s face will be seared into my memory
forever.” She later regretted not giving the man everything
she had with her. “It would not really have affected me at all.”
...I was sitting with men and women who had firsthand experience of this. Evil men had advanced against them and not only devoured their flesh. They had brutally killed a woman’s son, hacked his body into a hundred pieces and then forced her at gunpoint to clean up the mess. They had been forced to play soccer with the [severed] head of a community leader as the solders looked on and laughed. They had been tricked into eating the barbecued flesh of community members that the evil men had killed. ... The pain in my heart penetrated the knowledge in my mind and the two came together in a profound understanding of the significance of faith in terrible times...
Since their return to Canada, the Kehlers have made a conscious effort to rethink the ways they use their resources. The biggest change so far is to leave their car at home more often.
But supporting Colombians does not mean avoiding everything that is produced in Colombia. Crystal recalls buying a dozen roses for their Colombian host. She paid about $2.50 for flowers that would have cost $50 in Canada. She asked about the disparity and wondered if she should boycott the flower industry. She was told, “Fill your church with flowers because if people don’t buy flowers, we have nothing.” The floral industry provides employment for many women.
Choosing which companies to support and which to avoid is tricky. Dan says that he regularly refers to the Christian Peacekeeper Teams website for guidance in making choices that can make a difference.
Dan Kehler is the Associate Pastor at Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church in Altona. Dan and Crystal, together with six other members from their church, participated in a Mennonite Church Canada Learning Tour to Colombia from Feb 9-19, 2007.
Sidebar: Humbling hospitality
Despite their circumstances and lack of resources, the Colombians were more than gracious to members of the Learning Tour. “They welcomed us, they made time for us, they made room for us, they gave us their beds,” Dan says. “Over and over again we heard thanks for coming, thanks for taking the time to meet with us. The way they put the emphasis on relationships has really changed my view as well.” Dan notes that he is finding it easier to take time to simply be with people now, and the Kehler children have picked up on that as well, inviting friends home more often.
Crystal remembers Guahmo, a man who served them at the seminary where they had most of their meals. Guahmo had a pronounced limp as the result of a bullet wound he received when paramilitary forces attacked his village. Although they shot and killed his wife and children, Guahmo managed to escape and hold to a spirit of servanthood. When Guahmo saw that Crystal was feeling ill one day, he rushed down three flights of stairs to pick herbs to make a special tea for her. “You could see that doing stairs was painful for him. He was so willing to do this for me, a stranger in need.”
Diego, a young man who served as an interpreter for part of their stay, also left an impression on Crystal. A second generation Mennonite, Diego is planning to pursue his masters degree and he is discerning how he can serve his church in Colombia. Crystal sees hope for Colombia in the hearts of young people like Diego who long to serve the church. “All is not lost for despite the darkness,” Crystal reflects. “Theirs is a light that shines far brighter than the morning sun.”