I’ve spent the last year of my life talking about peace. Everywhere I went in Colombia we talked about the conflict, the victims, and the peace process. We debated whether the peace accords are good for the country. We talked about who supported the accords and who didn’t. We talked about what the Bible says about peace and how we as Christians should respond. We talked about peace.
And then I returned to the US last week, and suddenly the people around me aren’t talking about peace anymore. Saturday I watched in horror the images and videos that filled my newsfeed of torch-carrying Nazis, peaceful counter protestors being beaten, a woman being killed, and police letting it happen. I felt sick hearing Trump blame both sides and learning from friends that the worst of the violence had been covered up.
But looking at the faces of the people who stood up to the hate and racism, I saw the same thing I saw every day in Colombia: peacemakers. In Colombia they like to say that the purpose of the peace accords is to create a just and lasting peace. The accords aren’t just about convincing the guerillas to lay down their weapons. The accords seek to address the issues of injustice and inequality that caused people to take up arms in the first place. They offer reparations to the victims of the conflict, including minority communities that have suffered disproportionately. They offer rural reform to fix the economic inequality between urban and rural communities. They offer more effective measures to combat drug production and use that take into consideration why people grow or use drugs. The goal is to create peace for all. There is no true peace until all can live in peace.
The counter protestors who stood up to white supremacy on Saturday want that same kind of peace for the US. And they understand something important about peace: peacemaking is different from peacekeeping. Peacekeeping means preventing conflict by upholding systems that cause inequality and injustice. Peacekeeping means blaming violence on the oppressed when they stand up against their oppressors. Peacekeeping means saying there are “many sides.” But peacemaking means stirring the pot. Peacemaking means breaking the status quo. Peacemaking means tearing down the system and rebuilding a new one so that there will be peace for all.
In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Two verses in 5:11 later he says “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Seeing the responses to peacemakers both in Colombia and the US, I believe these two verses are connected. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, but the world will insult us, persecute us, and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of it. Peacemakers are attacked, beaten, and killed for standing up for peace. But that is what Jesus calls us to do.
If we call ourselves Christian, it is clear which side we belong on. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Be a peacemaker. Don’t let hate win.
Photo by Heather Wilson
The day has arrived, and faster than I thought it would. I’ve said my goodbyes, and tomorrow I am flying to Bogota, and then on to the Amazon for one last adventure before I go home next week. Once I get home I’ll have about three weeks in Michigan to get my life back in order, meet with the CPM, apply for spring CPE, prepare a presentation for my home church, and spend time with my friends and family before moving back to Louisville to finish my last year of seminary, (hopefully) complete the ordination process, and figure out what’s next. The idea seems daunting, and honestly I’m not sure I’m ready to go.
Almost one year ago I put my life on pause to come to Colombia. After going straight from college to seminary I decided I needed to step away from everything. I needed time to figure out who I was and what God was calling me to do. I came here with a million questions and, despite answering a few, I’m leaving with a million more. This past year was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but I wouldn’t change any part of it. Although no part of it went how I imagined it (as much as I tried to avoid having expectations before I arrived), it was exactly what I needed. I’ve learned more about God, the church, Colombia, the US, and myself than I ever hoped to. Part of me feels guilty for thinking so much about what I’m taking away, because I know that I’ve gained far more than I was able to offer to the people I met. But it’s as they told us at orientation, all those months ago. No one here ever needed me, but they were happy to share with me their knowledge, wisdom, experiences, and more, and accept what little I had to offer in return.
As I think about going home in a week, I have to admit I’m a bit scared. I put my life on pause. Leaving the US in the summer, spending a year in a place where it never gets cold, and returning once again in the summer, it almost feels like time has stood still. I stepped out of my life, and found an entirely new one here. New friends, new job, new church, new home, new experiences, new adventures. But time didn’t stop. Life has continued both for my family in Michigan, and my friends in Kentucky. Home is not the same. The United States is not the same. Moreover I’m not the same. And somehow I have to figure out how I fit into that and move forward from here.
One more week, and then it’s time to press play.
Last day at Colegio Nazareth Olaya
Brittany and I at our going away party
Me with my host mom and sister
"This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 'Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.' So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him." Jeremiah 18:1-4
This past week Sarah, Brittany and I traveled to Cartagena for our final retreat of the year. We spent the week exploring the old city, snorkeling in the Islas del Rosario, visiting the Presbyterian church of Cartagena, and reflecting on the past year and preparing for the transition home (you can see pictures from the week here). On our first night Sarah led us in our opening worship. After reading from Jeremiah 18, she gave us each a small piece of clay, to shape into a vessel that represents how God is shaping us.
Being a sculptor and potter, I began to think about the process of making a pot on a pottery wheel, specifically the first steps. To begin, the potter has to center the clay on the wheel. This is perhaps the most difficult step for beginners. As the clay spins, the potter places their hands on the top and the side, and applies pressure to smooth it and create a perfectly round cylinder of clay, exactly in the center of the wheel. Inexperienced potters find it very hard to tell the difference between perfectly centered and slightly off, and even more difficult to get rid of the last little wobbles. This leads to many either thinking it’s centered when it’s not, or getting frustrated and continuing with un-centered clay on purpose, which causes problems later on.
But once the clay is perfectly centered, the potter can begin to open the pot by pressing on finger down in the exact center, and gently pulling towards themselves. Sometimes during this step the pot will be thrown off center again by an air bubble or other flaw in the clay that hasn’t be found yet, and the potter must pause and fix it. If it’s off even a little bit, the final pot will be lopsided. At this stage in the process the pot doesn’t look like much, basically just a very thick, low bowl, but from here the potter can create anything. And without the work that has gone into it up to this point, there is no pot.
As I considered this process, I thought about where I was. At first I thought I might still be in the first step, still a little wobbly, resisting letting myself be perfectly centered on God. But then I realized what this year, and the previous two years of seminary, have been: the opening. My seminary experience (which I consider my YAV year to be an extension of) has been about opening me up, in preparation to be shaped into the vessel best suited to fulfill my call. There have been times when I’ve been knocked off center, but God keeps patiently smoothing me out, and continuing on.
I also realized that this step isn’t over yet. Thankfully I have another year of seminary as God lays the foundations for whatever it is I will become. Looking at the tiny version of a partially completed pot that I had created from green modeling clay, I thought, I sure don’t look like much. Just as to the untrained eye it appears that the potter has done barely anything at this stage, to someone who doesn’t know me it appears I am too young, inexperienced, and naïve to do the work God has called me to do. But I know the work that God has done and is doing in my life. I trust that God is preparing me, as only God can do. Because without these first steps, the clay will never be a masterpiece.
Before Colombia I had always considered myself pretty good at languages. In high school I was always among the top students in my Spanish classes. In seminary I picked up Hebrew and Greek easier than many of my classmates. But in the months before I came to Colombia, I was terrified that my ability to learn a language in a classroom wouldn’t help me here. Everyone around me insisted that in only a few months I would be speaking Spanish fluently.
Instead I experienced months of frustration, of constantly feeling like my Spanish should be better by now. I felt like I had only made marginal progress while my other gringa friends navigated the Spanish world with ease. I was constantly comparing myself to my friends who had more experience with the language than I did, leaving myself feeling inadequate. But until this week I didn’t realize the problem that comparison was causing.
This week a group of University students visited the Colegio Nazareth Olaya as part of a month long immersion course. They spent two days with families from the church. In the mornings they attended their own classes, given entirely in Spanish, and spent the afternoons meeting the classes in the colegio. The day before they arrived my supervisor told me I was invited to participate in their classes. Upon meeting them I was immediately bombarded with questions about my job, the YAV program, how long I had been here, how I felt about Colombia, and of course, how fluent I was in Spanish after living here nine months.
Much to my surprise, over the next two days I found myself being asked to translate. When even one of the more advanced students asked me for help all I could think was, why are you asking me? It didn’t seem logical that anyone would rely on me to translate. Don’t they know there are other gringas around here who speak much better Spanish than me?
The second day of their stay, while the students went off to meet the elementary school classes, I ended up in a conversation with one of their professors. We spoke for some time about cultural and political similarities between Colombia and his native Guatemala. And in the middle of the conversation it dawned on me how easy it felt to converse in my second language. It was then that I realized my problem. Spending months comparing myself to people with more Spanish experience than myself, I had been unable to see the progress I was making.
Of course I feel slightly guilty that it took being around people with less Spanish experience than me to realize this. But finding confidence in my own abilities wasn’t about being able to compare myself to people who are better or worse than me. It was about realizing that it doesn’t matter how I compare to others. It only matters how I compare to myself when I stepped off that plane nine months ago. And while I still have a long way to go in learning Spanish, I’d say that Colombia has given me a pretty decent start.
When I started my YAV year I expected to end where I’d started, in Pital. But as I’m finally beginning to understand, life rarely goes the way we expect. A few weeks ago I was offered the opportunity to spend my last few months in Colombia working with La Iglesia Septima Presbiteriana (7th Presbyterian Church) in Barranquilla. After much prayer and discussion with my site coordinator, I realized that I was being called to Septima. It wasn’t an easy realization to make. I love the church of Pital and think of them as my family. But sometimes God calls us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. I’ve heard pastors talk about being called away or being called to a new place, but I never realized how hard it could be to understand or accept.
On Palm Sunday I said goodbye to the church, my host family, and Pital. Words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards the community for the opportunity to live, work, and worship with them for seven months. Even more so I feel very grateful for my host family, especially my host mom Claudia, for opening their home to me. I am thankful for the many incredible experiences I have had in Pital, and the people of the church and my host family who have made this time special.
After spending Holy Week getting to know the people of Septima, I began my new placement this week. In addition to being involved with the regular activities of the church, I am working with Comunidad Cristiana Betesda (Bethesda Christian Community) and Colegio Nazareth Olaya (Nazareth Olaya School), both ministries of La Iglesia Septima.
Last Saturday morning in Pital (selfies with a DSLR are hard)
Last month, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Universidad Reformada (Reformed University) of Barranquilla hosted a conference on the contributions the Protestant church has made to faith and society. Rev. Dr. Jerry Pilay from South Africa and Rev. Dr. Chris Ferguson from Canada, President and General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, were guest speakers. During one of his talks Rev. Pilay shared a very striking story which I have been contemplating the past several weeks.
He told us that during a trip to visit protestant churches in India, he had the opportunity to meet with a community of dalit (untouchables). Afterwards, when he returned to the church that was hosting him, he asked the pastor what the churches in India were doing to help the dalit communities. The pastor said not much. It benefited the churches to keep the caste system in place because it meant they could use the dalit as slaves. Rev. Pilay’s point of course, was that churches are upholding injustice when it works for their benefit, rather than working to end injustice as we should be.
Hearing that story, my immediate response was shock and disgust. How could a church support a system of injustice? How could a church ignore the suffering of human beings simply for a few material benefits?
But just a moment later I felt an immense shame at my quickness to judge. Not only did my ancestors use religion to justify horrors such as the Crusades, colonization and genocide, slavery, and segregation to name just a few, I belong to a faith tradition in which the majority continue to uphold injustice because, as the Indian pastor said, it benefits us. How many Christians continue to buy clothes, food, jewelry, and electronics from companies that use slave labor and exploit their employees, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and human rights abuses? How many Christians live lifestyles that show no concern for the effect global warming has not only on the environment but on vulnerable communities that are harmed by the fossil fuel industry? How many white Christians stay silent in the face of racial injustice, or actively participate in and defend racism? How many Christians have used their religion to defend hate speech and discrimination that leave women and the LGBTQ community in fear of their lives?
These examples probably sound wildly different to most people. You might be prickling at the idea of putting people who stock their wardrobe with fast fashion and drive gas guzzling cars in the same category as white supremacists and those who run reparative therapy camps for gay teens, but these very different groups all have one thing in common: they are participating in systems of injustice because it benefits them in some way. Whether we promote white supremacy or just buy clothes from companies that use slave/underpaid labor, we are complicit in systems that harm significant portions of the world’s population. As a church we need to examine every system of injustice that we are supporting, whether deliberately or through inaction/ignorance, and make an effort to fight against it. There are many churches that are making excellent strides to fight injustice, but there are even more that continue to choose to benefit from it instead.
Our faith is based on the teachings of someone who spoke out against oppression and injustice and advocated for the least of these. If we’re not fighting injustice, how can we call ourselves followers of Christ?
The International Day Without Women, held on March 8th, has faced a lot of criticism, both before and after. Everyone felt the need to weigh in, from those who say it lacked intersectionality (the movement being overwhelmingly white in the US), that only women of privilege could participate (low income women couldn’t afford to take the day off and risk losing their jobs), and that when women stop working it only hurts the vulnerable (because a large percentage of teaching and nursing jobs are held by women), to those who say that the wage gap and glass ceiling don’t exist, and women in the US have no reason to protest because women in other countries have real problems. Now I have a few choice words for those who fall into the latter group, but before I get to that I would like to share with you how I, and several hundred other women from Barranquilla spent March 8th, because I think the key word in the phrase International Day Without Women is International.
One Wednesday, March 8th I woke up and began getting ready to go work at the daycare like I do every Wednesday. I was aware that there was a march planned in Barranquilla that afternoon, but, living in such a small town as Pital, I assumed that it would be business as usual. But as I was about to leave my host mom informed me that today was the paro (stop) and the women from Bienestar Familiar, including the one who runs the daycare where I volunteer, had already left for Barranquilla to participate in the march. So after a few phone calls to various friends in Barranquilla I was on my way to the city to join the women of the Presbyterian Church and other women’s organizations in protest of gender inequality and violence against women.
Several hundred women gathered and marched to the Plaza de Paz (Plaza of Peace), where a cultural demonstration took place that included indigenous and Afro-Colombian women. Along the way three things in particular stood out to me.
No más feminicidios en esta ciudad (No more feminicides in this city)
Quien la mató, quien la violó (He who killed her, he who raped her)
Son crímenes de estado que nadie vio (Are crimes of the state that no one saw)
3. Men’s reactions: As we marched, people on the sidewalks stopped to watch. Most women just stared, but many men, especially those standing in groups of only men, laughed. Needless to say, there was something very disturbing about seeing men laugh at women protesting violence against women. Moreover, at one point a large man pushed his way through the crowd, and demanded that Pastor Adelaida, who was walking next to me, explain what our signs meant. After she responded in a few brief words (they weren’t exactly ambiguous signs), he proceeded to tell her what they meant and what she was protesting (apparently man-splaining is a worldwide phenomenon).
But at the end of the day it was clear we weren’t just protesting. We were showing solidarity. We marched in solidarity for the Colombian women who have suffered disproportionately during the conflict because sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. We marched in solidarity for the women who can’t feed their children because women don’t have the same opportunities for employment and land ownership as men in this country. We marched in solidarity for the women around the world who experience discrimination and violence simply because they are women.
And that was what disturbed me the most about those, particularly women, who said they didn’t need the women’s march because they haven’t seen or experienced discrimination or violence. Because just because it hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Just because you haven’t experienced it personally, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. Even if you haven’t been a victim of gender discrimination or violence, there are millions of women suffering every day, and many don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves.
And so to close I would like to tell those who think they don’t need feminism, why we do. We need feminism because any one of us could be the next victim. We need feminism because men laugh when we protest violence against women. But most importantly, we need feminism because women are suffering. Period.
The women of the Pastoral de la Mujer of the Coast Presbytery of the IPC.
"That the churches do not stay silent in the face of any type of violence"
Ever since I arrived in Pital, not a week goes by that I don’t hear someone talking about Carnaval. I’ve been told that the celebrations in Rio have nothing on Barranquilla. And although Carnaval officially falls on the last four days of February this year, pre-Carnaval started on New Year’s Day, with small towns throwing parades and festivals nearly every weekend, as well as just a general increase in music and dancing. But for the people of Pital, one of their most important traditions is the burros (donkeys).
Each year a group of kids and young adults spend hours making and decorating their papier mache masks, and detangling and sewing yards of “fur” onto their costumes. A few weeks ago my host brother invited me to take pictures of the kids working on their costumes. While I was there I met Adolfredo, the founder and leader of the group. After finding out that I studied photography in school he invited me to accompany the group in several parades as their photographer. As this is probably a once in a lifetime experience, I agreed to do it, despite the rest of my host family warning me it would be hot and tiring.
This past Saturday was the first of the burros salidas (outings). We were told to meet at 1pm to get on the bus to Juan de Acosta, a small town about 30 minutes away. At 1pm I had my camera packed up and ready to go, but my host brother was still getting dressed. Since my North American brain still has not adjusted to the Colombian sense of time, I began to worry they were going to leave without us. Of course when we arrived at the meeting place we discovered the bus hadn’t arrived yet, and it was then that we found out the bus wasn’t due until 2pm. While we waited I was introduced to the other photographer who would be going with us. He had clearly done this before and was already snapping photos of the kids while we waited, so I pulled out my camera and started to acquaint myself with the kids, most of whom I had not met before. Since this would be one of the less grueling parades we had kids as young as 4 or 5 years old.
Group photo before while waiting for the bus. Adolfredo is on the left end of the back row. My host brother is front row third from the left.
The bus finally arrived and we somehow squeezed in the 40+ kids and a dozen or so adults, plus all of the masks and drums (for the Cumbia band that would be walking with us). I was very thankful it was only a half hour bus ride because as you can imagine it was crowded, noisy, and hot. Once we arrived we had to walk half a kilometer or so to the start of the parade. After that it was time for my least favorite part of parades: waiting. It was nearly two hours before we started moving. While we waited we got to see many of the other groups, including a variety of dance troupes in traditional costumes and the resplendently dressed Reina (queen) of Carnaval of Juan de Acosta. While one group of dancers practiced several of our burros decided to join them, trying to copy their moves. I soon learned that this is the burros’ entire job, being as silly as possible.
The beginning of the parade was best described as organized chaos. There was no place to line up, just a large crowd of performers, loosely organized into their groups. As the street cleared the next group would melt out of the crowd to take their place. When it was finally the burros’ turn my host brother told me to go up to the front with Adolfredo and his wife who was carrying the flag. I had basically no instructions beyond “take pictures” and had no idea what to expect. The burros organized themselves with the little ones in the front, the big ones in the middle, and the band in the back. As the Mapalé dance troupe in front of us moved down the road, our fearless leader motioned to the kids to stay put and the three of us moved forward twenty feet or so. Suddenly he yelled out “Burros!” and they all came charging down the road. He carried a whistle on him and at his signal they all dropped onto their backs, kicking their feet in the air like burros rolling on the ground. At that point the crow swooped in, pecking at the downed burros, and the tiger pounced upon an unsuspecting kid. I was unprepared for the incredibly enthusiastic response of the crowd. For the entire length of the parade people cheered, laughed, cooed over the little ones, and jumped into the street to take selfies with the big ones. Whenever there was a longer pause in the parade the kids would spread out into the crowd, stealing chairs or sitting on people’s laps, grabbing people to dance with, and poking fun at the crowd and each other, all to the spectators’ delight.
Within about 10 minutes I got the hang of things and ventured out along the edge to get better pictures. On more than one occasion I found myself completely surrounded by burros when the whistle blew, and ended up unable to move due to the kids laying on my feet (and of course they wouldn’t move until the signal came to get up again, leaving me trapped, much to everyone's delight). I spent a significant amount of time stalking the tiger just as he stalked the burros, trying to get the perfect photo of him taking one down. Partway through the parade our group encountered a mimo (mime), who took pleasure in mimicking both the burros and me as I took photos. All in all the biggest challenge was keeping my camera clear of the foam being sprayed by the crowd (see spray cans in photo above).
The parade ended after about an hour and a half and we made our way back to the bus, though not without a few last shenanigans by the kids. But our day wasn’t over yet. The bus took us to Baranoa, a town about 10 minutes from Pital for La Guacherna, a pre-Carnaval parade. Since it was now too dark to take photos I joined my host family to watch the parade while the burros marched again. While I enjoyed walking with the burros, it was also fun to get to see the entire parade. By the time they reached us it was after 11pm and the burros were definitely worn out, but they still couldn’t resist picking on their friends when they saw us sitting right in front.
It was after midnight when we all made it back to Pital. And though it was a long day, I’m glad I didn’t listen to my host family’s warnings about sore feet and exhaustion. As I edit the 400+ photos I took that day I look forward to joining the burros again this weekend on their next salida.
Adolfredo in costume leading the way
More photos here
A year ago I wrote a post called A Basic Human Right, about the Flint water crisis and the 1/10 of the world that does not have access to clean water (you can read it here). Today I am living in a town that does not have clean drinking water. The water that comes out of the taps is bitter and oily. It’s so hard on your skin and hair that people here shower in the rain whenever they can. They have to purchase clean water from Baranoa, 3 miles away, where the tap water is treated and drinkable. Let that sink in for a moment. The several thousand residents of Pital do not have the same access to clean water as the people a mere three miles away do.
But living with a family that can afford to purchase clean water, I didn’t realize until recently that not everyone has that same luxury. A few weeks ago several of my friends were asking me about my home state and the topic of the Flint water crisis came up. In my explanation of the problem I said it was similar to Pital in that they can’t drink their water. Their response was to name several families who do drink the water. When I asked why they responded, because they are poor. The families my friends named are not even among the poorest of Pital, meaning a significant portion of the town is drinking water that I was told in no uncertain terms not to drink.
According to the Colombian government, half of the country does not have clean water. The causes are numerous, including industrial pollution, drug production run off, improper sewage treatment, and destruction of the Páramos (the largest source of fresh water in Colombia). Ironically, Colombia ranks among the top 10 countries with the most water. It is just as shocking that so many Colombians are without clean water as it is that the city of Flint, situated so close to one of the largest fresh water sources in the world, remains without.
In the year since my last post nothing has changed. Flint still does not have clean water. Pital does not have clean water. 1/10 of the world does not have clean water. We continue to deny this basic necessity to hundreds of millions of people. As I said a year ago, water is life. Water is a right, not a privilege. It should be our priority to ensure every person in this world has access.
The well of a local farm
I am a seminary student who loves to study and think about God, Christianity and the Church. I started this blog as a place to share my thoughts with others.