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Mennonite Brethren Learning Tour to Colombia
Through mutual listening and learning, California Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches are strengthening relationships with MB churches in Colombia. These relationships were reinforced on a ten-day Learning Tour with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The group was composed of Pacific District Conference pastors and other MB church leaders, Fresno Pacific University professors, and MCC staff.
The purpose of the trip was to listen and learn from others in the Mennonite Brethren global community. This work of creating mutually transformative relationships is the heart of MCC around the world. As part of the Purpose and Vision Statement of Mennonite Central Committee: “MCC values just relationships. MCC seeks to live and serve justly and peacefully in each relationship, incorporating listening and learning, accountability and mutuality, transparency and integrity.”
Daryl Yoder-Bontrager, Director of MCC Latin America/Caribbean Department explains the rationale behind Learning Tours: “Several things happen when people work at building relationships with each other. First we see ourselves through the eyes of the other…a second thing that happens is that we validate each other’s existence. It is a powerful confirmation of our significance as people when good interaction takes place across cultures…A third element of building relationships is that they are so wonderfully unpredictable. We start without knowing where we might end up. Jesus made a career of connecting people in unexpected, breathtaking ways.”
The trip, led by Cesar Garcia, Mennonite World Conference General Secretary, and his wife Sandra Báez, MB Colombian pastor, gave perspective on priorities. One of the most repeated messages throughout shared time together was how the MB church in Colombia wants to be in relationship with the MB churches in California. It is not a financial or one-way relationship, but one of prayer and communion.
During the Culto Unido (joint church service) in Bogota, Pastor Bill Braun (College Community Church MB) was particularly impressed as the congregation, in unison, said the three pillars of their faith: “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center our lives and reconciliation is the center of our work”. As Pastor Braun notes, “the spontaneity and enthusiasm with which the statements of faith were repeated was all the more impressive given the situation of violence and uncertainty in which they lived on a daily basis. I stopped to wonder if that basic understanding of practical faith could be expressed in a similar way at home.”
Tim Schellenberg, representing North Fresno MB Church, describes the situation he found in Colombia: “efforts in economic development, peace, and displacement issues have given the church a much needed voice in the society as a whole. The Mennonite Brethren together with other Anabaptist churches work together with MCC at a level not seen in many places. It is impossible to see where MCC and the church work begins and ends, they work so closely together.”
The reality of MB churches in Colombia is not easy living; however, “the church is flourishing in spite of armed conflict, displacement because of coerced cultivation of drug crops, and violence throughout the country. Some churches have been forced to flee, but some are slowly returning home. We heard of MB members who have lost their lives standing against the drug trade. The church has been forced by the issues in their society to take a stand and to become active, active against violence, drugs, and economic displacement and for justice issues,” Tim Schellenberg explains.
The group learned about MCC/MB projects in Colombia, including providing schooling for displaced children, vocational and computer labs for adult education, regional/economic development projects, peace education, and exchange programs. These programs were introduced to us by Bonnie Klassen, MCC Colombia Representative, and Colombian partners who are passionate about their country, their work and their heritage as Anabaptist. The group was inspired in hearing how thankful people are to original MB missionary - teachers like Elizabeth Thiessen who came to Colombia to share the peace of Christ.
One MB pastor the group met was Javier Pinzon, who previously had a very high ranking in the Colombian army but traded that life for one of service. Pinzon started a church in Macheta, an area several hours outside of Bogotá. This community holds church services twice a month, along with shared community gardens, a small school and frequent fellowship meals. This church plant is connected to Torre Fuerte Hermanos Menonitas (Strong Tower Mennonite Brethren) church in Bogotá. Members of that church drive out to the countryside to help with the church services and farm chores. Yet as one Torre Fuerte pastor put it, “we need this community more that they need us.”
According to Yoder-Bontrager, “Through our connections with others we open the window on ourselves and each other a little wider. Through budding relationships we can experience what God’s grace really means. Along the way we may also find that God is taking us places we could not have imagined on our own.”
Part of this growing relationship calls the members of this trip and also their churches in California to be diligent in prayer and action for our MB brothers and sisters in Colombia. A more recent issue involves a conflict in which church leaders in Colombia are asking for prayer as they decide how to handle a situation that has placed them between local armed groups and the needs of their people.
The U.S. government-supported plan to eradicate the coca crops in the region of Chocó through spraying harmful pesticides has raised grave problems for these communities. The pesticide causes serious health problems, especially among children. The environment is being affected as food and water sources are contaminated.
One pastor from the area explained how this has affected his community. “We are experiencing drastic changes to our way of life. Due to the fumigation of the illicit crops by the government, the communities are feeling obligated to go out and march in demonstration against this action. Although the streets are filled with marchers, the situation is not being resolved, the message is not being communicated. We’ve run out of food and gasoline. There are shortages everywhere. The protesters threaten to burn the government building.”
The MB pastors of Colombia have sought the support of MCC and other MB churches willing to pray and advocate for this situation. As Colombian pastor Rutilio Rivas says, “The church must be the guiding light to a good solution. We are salt and light. In such a mission we need the support of our brothers and sisters around the world.” Through experiences of Learning Tours such as this one, participants know the significance of this connection and the power formed in relationships.
Please pray for God’s guidance and the continued growing relationship of the global Mennonite Brethren community.