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Colombian Mennonites share bread of life


Esperanza Ortiz and Amparo Rodriguez at Los Pinos Comedor in Bogota, Colombia.

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October 10, 2008
- Shalom Wiebe

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The tantalizing scent of rice and chicken wafted around children with furrowed brows trying to decipher their homework. When the volunteer cooks announced that lunch was ready, 60 children scrambled to find places at the table. The balanced meal awaiting them was insurance against the distraction of hunger when they resumed afternoon classes.

This scene is played out in many locations throughout Colombia in comedores (dining rooms), ministries of Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombian Mennonite Church, IMCOL), a partner of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network. The meals provide nourishment for the bodies and souls of the youngest members of families displaced by violence in Colombia.

María Inés, director of Los Pinos Comedor and a member of Teusaquillo Mennonite Church, believes that in these safe spaces children can express their emotions and strengthen their self-esteem.

"Our vision of Christian service is an ample vision where all are included, where children hold an important place. Marginalization and violence generate serious doubts in a child's mind over his or her worth as a person. As we minister to the children that God has entrusted us with, we are building a spirituality of peace," Inés said.

Members of the Colombian Mennonite Church have a costly commitment to peace in their conflict-torn country. Their conviction that lasting peace cannot be achieved when people are hungry led the church to add feeding programs to their other ministries, such as evangelism, leadership training, the Justapaz peace and justice center, a development agency, a school, a home for the elderly and a retreat center.

According to 2007 United Nations statistics, 12 percent of Colombian children under age 5 suffer from growth stunting. That statistic is nearly double among the displaced population. These children also suffer educationally and emotionally.

Members of the Ibagué congregation had been had been working in Modelia, a neighbourhood composed entirely of displaced people, for six years. In 2005, they opened a comedor that provided lunch for 20 children once a week. A year later, they were able to feed 50 children twice a week. In 2007, with the boost of a supporter’s gift, they welcomed 70 children three times a week.

Ibagué members began Sunday morning services in Modelia for the children who participated in their lunch program. Many parents began to attend, forming the nucleus of a daughter church, Semillas de Esperanza (Seeds of Hope).

A licensed teacher began a preschool program in Modelia that prepares children to enter the public school system and also gives older students help with their homework. Last Christmas, each child received basic school supplies. In cases of extreme need, the fund helped pay school registration fees.

The program has offered workshops dealing with peace-building, ethics, values, gender, non-violence, self-esteem and trauma-healing.

Luz Amanda Valencia – psychologist, coordinator of the Semillas de Esperenza projects and member of the pastoral team – spoke of the profound changes she has witnessed in the lives of the children, many of whom arrived with behavioural problems.

"Many of them come from homes where there is domestic violence. Several children's parents are in jail. Over time, with all the teaching, listening and love the children receive at Seeds of Hope, we've seen a lot of positive transformation," Valencia said.

Several new congregations have grown out of these ministries. Each location has adapted its programs to fit the unique needs of the population it serves.