Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Progress in the Dialogues for Peace

Wednesday of last week (September 23) there was a major breakthrough for the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). 

There was much anticipation as President Juan Manual Santos announced he would be traveling to Havana, Cuba (where the negotiations have been taking place) at the same time as “Timochenko” (the highest leader of the FARC) was going to be travelling to Cuba. It turned out they were both going to Cuba to sign a final negotiated agreement on one of the most difficult points of the negotiations, that of transitional justice, which had been blocking the peace process from continuing for over a year.

Transitional justice is an approach to achieving justice in times of transition from conflict and/or state repression. It is not an ordinary approach, but a temporary justice system to assist a society to transition from war/conflict to peace. Coming to this agreement seems to have pushed the peace process across the 'point of no return' as the government and the FARC announced they would be signing a final peace accord in no more than six months.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left), FARC leader "Timochenko" (right) and Cuban President Raul Castro (middle) shaking hands for the agreement. Photo -  EFE.
Although there are those that say the agreement will allow for impunity of the FARC rebels, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, has welcomed the agreement on transitional justice. This gives strong legitimacy to the agreement as the ICC, if not happy with the agreement, could decide to step in to try both FARC members as well as members from the national army and political leaders of Colombia in the Hague. This would have caused great damage to the agreements negotiated between the FARC and the government. Fortunately the process can continue with the support of the ICC.

"I note with optimism that the agreement excludes the granting of amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and is designed, amongst others, to end impunity for the most serious crimes," Besnouda said. 

Virginia Bouvier, head of Latin America programs at the United States Institute for Peace, has also stated:
There is no other peace process in the world where victims have occupied such a central role. We have here a design for transitional justice that is historic and innovative. It gives priority to truth-telling, but does not eschew the need for justice. The model is innovative in its inclusion of restorative justice and its focus on repairing the damages inflicted on individuals and communities through a process of dialogue and healing. This bears watching as it could provide new models for other conflict zones seeking to find a way out of war.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko announce the agreement on criminal responsibility on September 23, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Photo - Government of Colombia. 
As important as this step towards the final signing of a peace accord, as I have mentioned before, the signatures on that final document will not automatically mean peace to the Colombian people still living with the numerous consequences of over 50 years of armed conflict. The process after the accord will be long and arduous to build an empowered and participatory society based on respect for human rights.

The Lutheran Church of Colombia (IELCO) is positioned to play an integral role in this long process. It is quite an honor to have the opportunity to be working in such a capacity in such a critical time of Colombia's history. As The IELCO is beginning to plan its activities for the year 2016, it is very exciting to imagine the numerous and varied ways it can be involved in peace-building and human rights work. Through many conversations with pastors and members of The IELCO, I have gained a much clearer understanding of the possibilities there are for me to assist the church to live into its prophetic role working for justice and peace.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

ProFILE #3

I have written about ProFILE (Program for Integral Formation of Lay Leadership) twice before ProFILE #1 here and ProFILE #2 here. This is a four-part leadership retreat. We have been working with leaders from almost every congregation/mission in Colombia with the goal of strengthening lay leadership within the church. This retreat was themed Liturgy and Diaconal Service. One of the goals of this group is to have each of the retreats in a different region of the country (the country is broken up into 4 regions where the Lutheran church has a presence), this retreat was in Bucaramanga, in the Eastern Region of Colombia. To keep with the theme of ProFILE; this will be another photo blog through the photos I took this past weekend.

Our first activity (after the opening devotion of course) is always an ice breaker activity and name re-fresher. Before the retreat we created a large map of Colombia in Colombian colors - yellow, blue and red (bottom left photo). For the activity, everyone drew their hands, then they wrote their name, their church and what Diaconia means to them or how they are involved in Diaconal service in their congregation. Then everyone presented and glued their hand to the map. This was an interesting activity to learn what people understood Diaconia to mean and how they are involved in the different Diaconal projects of their congregations. Upper left photo is Cristian gluing his hand on the map, upper right is a shot of all the hands at the end - filled the map and you can barely see it (can you see my hand at the very bottom center of the photo?), bottom right photo is Enrique presenting himself.

The second activity we do, is a "test" of knowledge. We call it "what we bring" (what knowledge do the participants bring to this, and where are the gaps). This activity is always a game. One of the games I lead during several of the other retreats and workshops is Jeopardy (this was a first for ProFILE). This is a new game to almost everyone, and has been very fun to introduce and play. The categories for this game were: Liturgical Calendar, Diaconia, Worship, IELCO, Hymns, and Liturgy. This time the game was challenging, but still lots of laughs and really great conversation. 

Next Pastor Jairo took over (he is the director of the Diaconia National Ministry of IELCO). He was our guest speaker for the retreat. The first part he talked about Liturgy, the importance of Liturgy, why we have Liturgy and why the order of the Liturgy matters. He is an incredibly dynamic speaker and very passionate about what he was teaching. It was fun to listen and learn along with everyone else. In the photos above the group broke into smaller groups to see who knew the order of the Liturgy. In the upper left and lower left photos Pastor Jairo is instructing the correct order of Liturgy. On the right side the different groups are trying to puzzle together the order of the Liturgy. 

Like I said at the beginning there were two themes for this retreat. The second theme was Diaconia/Diaconal Service. In these photos Jairo is teaching everyone a little Greek, and the history of Diaconia. In the upper photo is the Greek, and the problems or misunderstandings that happen through translating the Bible. I absolutely understand this concept, but boy was it difficult for me to try and have a Greek lesson in Spanish! In the lower photo Pastor Jairo is teaching more about Diaconia and what verses in the Bible support the churches participation in Diaconia and socially minded ministries. The slide in the lower photo says: "Promote Values of the Kingdom of God: Justice, freedom, equality, peace, human dignity. Focus on rights. Luke 4:16-21". 

Finally, every retreat needs to have a little fun. The group all got together Saturday night for a white elephant gift exchange (to celebrate love and friendship, Colombia's Valentines day, which happens here in September). In addition to the gift exchange, one of the homework assignments from the last retreat was to creatively make something with the Luther Rose (each congregation) to gift to another congregation (the gift came with the promise from the gifting congregation to hold the receiving congregation in special prayer). After the gift exchanges, there was the presentation of the Luther Rose Gifts - WOW! As you can see in the photo on the top, people use tons of creativity and made beautiful gifts for each other. In the bottom right is Zulma with a chalice made from the shell of a fruit with the Luther Rose burned into it. This was a gift to the Christian Formation/Education department (where Zulma, Pastor Atahualpa, and I work) from the Church in Paz de Ariporo. The bottom left photo is the gazebo where we held the celebration and everyone seated and enjoying the evening together.

The group went to the local congregation in Bucaramanga (which was was of the requests that came after the previous retreats). This is a photo with Maurico (left), me (center) and Cristian (right) after worship on Sunday. These are two of the finest young men I know.  (Photo taken by Zulma)

Again, this was a wonderful retreat. I really enjoy this group and look forward to our final retreat in December. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How Can I Keep From Singing

“My life Flows on in endless song; above earth's lamentations. I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I'm clinging. 
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? [refrain]
What though my joys and comforts die?  The Lord my Savior liveth. What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth. [refrain]
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing! All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing? [refrain]
Refrain: No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I'm clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”                            ELW Hymn #763

Since 10th grade this song has become one of my rocks. When I was in 10th grade, a young man in my congregation was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain cancer. Although the chemo and surgeries bought him a number of months, the cancer was still there. Just after the doctor left, telling him finally there was nothing more they could do, John sang this song in the solitary quiet of his room. The doctor, having stopped just outside John’s door to collect himself, heard John’s strong and beautiful song. John’s profoundly deep faith was a testament to everyone who knew him. He died a few months later, at the way too young age of 21.  

Me with The Twins: Jenny (left with blue glasses),
me in the middle, and
Cate (right with the pink glasses).
(Photo credit: selfie, Jenny)
In March, I was again reminded of this song and John’s life. I was on a very full bus back to Bogota from the youth retreat, sitting with 'The Twins', Jenny and Cate (Zulma's daughters). Unknown to us their cousin was in Bogota having a stroke, leaving her half paralyzed. This was the beginning of the journey we now know to be a very aggressive brain cancer. 

Laurita, 10 years old, has been a trooper. Since March, she has had 3 brain surgeries and started chemo. She quickly lost her hair, but not her spirit. When she started losing her hair, her mom (Lizeth) held her breath, wondering how Laurita was going to react. True to her nature, she looked in the mirror and said: "oohhh, I look sexy". Another story I heard a few weeks ago took place the last day of school last year. During a break/quiet time Laurita wasn't tired, so while the other children were resting she took and put a rock in every student's backpack. You get a sense of Laurita's nature: a joker, prankster, and all-around good-natured kid.  

Zulma, this was on a recent travel. We took a walk and found
this old can had been turned into a chair. (Photo credit: me)
This is a family I have become very close to. I credit Zulma with teaching  me Spanish, giving me work, making me feel like I have a purpose here, and befriending me. She is who I work alongside every day, who I travel with and the one I go to when I need help, and so much more to me. 

So, why am I writing? I am writing to you, our readers, supporters, family, friends, and whoever else sees this, to ask for prayer. There is nothing else I (or you) can do. Two weeks ago when Laurita went in for her chemo her little body was too weak to handle the treatment. They gave her a little more time to see if her body would get stronger. It didn't. She will start radiation this week with hopes of a better outcome. This has (of course) affected the whole family. After Laurita's stroke in March, when she was unable to walk up and down stairs, her whole family moved in with Zulma's family where there is an elevator. The Twins have taken on an extra role in helping care for Laurita and Juan David, including taking their whole summer break to care for the two rather than hang out with friends. The Twins are in school studying to be nurses, and Lizeth is also a nurse, so Laurita is constantly surrounded by good care.

Saint Paul wrote that when one member of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer; and when one member of the body of Christ rejoices, we all rejoice (I Corinthians 12:26). Please keep the family in your prayers: Laurita, her brother - Juan David (6), her mother - Lizeth, her Aunt Zulma, and The Twins (20): Cate and Jenny. Prayer for healing in the fullest sense, peace, strength, and wisdom for Laurita and her family and friends, that we might not lose hope in God who walks with us. 

Laurita and her family after church this last Sunday:
Juan David (6) left, Lizeth/Mom center and Laurita (10) right. 
(Photo credit: me)
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Climate Change and Churches in Latin America

The growing unpredictability of the rains and many other changes to the global climate are already impacting many communities around the world. Climate change is a major issue connected with many other social, economic, religious and political issues that require urgent actions from humanity. Those who are already the most vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed will experience the worst impacts of climate change, while having contributed the least to its causes.

This past September 2-5, 2015, the international seminar “Biblical-Theological Perspectives and Challenges of the Climate Crisis for Churches in Latin America and the Caribbean” was held in Barranquilla, Colombia. Discussions and presentations were held on what churches are already doing to confront the issue, as well as on the Pope’s recent encyclical “Laudato Si", and developing advocacy commitments together.

Faith communities in Latin America, as well as in the entire in world, have a large role to play in addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. Caring for neighbors and working for justice means concern for the world that we all share as our home. Climate justice was the focal point for church involvement in the issue.

At the heart of climate justice is the understanding the urgent action needed to prevent climate change must be based on community-led solutions. The well-being of local communities, Indigenous Peoples and the global poor, as well as biodiversity is the goal. This is to say that global poverty and inequality are inseparable from climate change and environmental destruction. One cannot fully be addressed without also addressing the other.

Neddy Astudillo, Latin American Coordinator of 
Our Voices, the global faith and spiritual climate 
action network, presenting  on “Biblical and theological 
perspectives on caring for creation”. 
Photo by Milton Mejia.
Milton Mejia, left (secretary-general of the Latin American 
Council of Churches), Father Rafael Castillo, middle, and Jairo 
Suarez, right (Coordinator of the Diaconal ministry of IELCO), representing the ecumenical efforts to 
overcome differences to protect our common home. Photo by Marcelo Leites

Olav Fyske, Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches 
presenting “Ecumenical perspective of the 
struggle against climate change and the care for creation.”
Photo by Milton Mejia.
As the Lutheran World Federation has recently stated: As a Lutheran Communion, we understand that climate change is an issue on justice, peace, the care for creation, and protection for all peoples everywhere. We raise a special concern for the most vulnerable, in particular the poor, Indigenous Peoples, and the voiceless. 

The conference was able to overcome the overwhelming sense of doom the issue of climate change so often carries. Celebrating the hope that we all hold onto, the desire for creating a better world, included songs, dances, stories as well as commitments to work together. As Olav Fyske of the World Council of Churches said in his addressI hope this seminar here in Colombia will be a stimulus to all of you, to Colombian churches, to CLAI (Latin American Council of Churches), to join the pilgrimage of justice and peace. As human beings we are all pilgrims in our lives, searching for meaning, for change, for hope. Our faith convictions express and nurture the hope for the future, for the next generations, for one earth and for one humanity.

On another note, the Latin American Council of Churches utilized the climate change seminar to initiate a new program in Colombia, working with Indigenous Peoples to teach the various member churches how to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples. I was also invited to participate in this group. Throughout the days of the seminar, the group of Indigenous Peoples and myself grew close and are committed to continuing in the program. I look forward to this project and assisting it in whatever ways I am able to. 

A few of us from the Indigenous group, after a morning of discussing the new program. Photo by Ligia Valenzuela. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Human Rights Buy-In

Throughout many conversations with many people in the Lutheran Church of Colombia (IELCO), all from various backgrounds and differing ideas and attitudes, I have learned a few things about how to best accompany the church from the point of view of the human rights program. I have learned that without massive buy-in and without the committed support of church members and pastors, the program will struggle to provide IELCO all that it is capable of.

Because Colombia has a history of holding human rights language in suspicion (due to ideological posturing and the armed conflict), the acceptance of human rights within the population, including the church, is not guaranteed. This means the first step for me in the human rights program is to gain the confidence of the members, leaders and pastors of the church. Not only gaining their confidence but also ensuring that the program is theirs, and encourages their involvement, their leadership and their guidance.

After my first year working in this capacity in Colombia, I had a chance to put the confidence in the human rights program to the test. DIPaz (Dialogo Intereclesial por la paz; Inter-church Dialogue for Peace), which the IELCO is a member, finished its verification of the FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) month of a unilateral ceasefire. This verification was asked for by the FARC with the government’s full knowledge. After seeing that with this unilateral ceasefire, Colombia experienced it’s least violent month in the last forty years, DIPaz wrote a letter to the government and to the FARC leaders urging them to continue the ceasefire and the de-escalation of hostilities.

This letter was opened for signatures from all those members of DIPaz, as well as international supporters of the work of DIPaz. I sent the letter to every pastor of IELCO to see who would sign their name to this important call to strengthen the peace process. An overwhelming response came in with a little over half of all pastors of IELCO signing this letter. This came in as quite an affirmation of the human rights program, and the trust I have been gaining.

As we are looking into the year ahead, and planning the activities of the program, this affirmation has been very inspiring!

In terms of the FARC’s ceasefire, after the first month, they announced that they will now extend their unilateral ceasefire indefinitely, with the hopes that the government will reciprocate. Here is the letter DIPaz wrote (translated in English) for the verification of this first month and the call to continue finding paths towards peace.