Â© 2006. Used by permission.
BARRANQUILLA, Colombia–While accompaniment of Latin Americans by North Americans is generally understood to protect bodies threatened by illegal armed groups and berserk military strategies, people here say it is equally good for the soul.
“We probably won’t know what the changes are within ourselves until we look back, but it is impossible to come here and not be changed,” says 27-year-old Traci Smith of Batavia, Ill., and a spring graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, who is ending six weeks of accompaniment of threatened church human rights workers this week.
She’s sitting in the rain-soaked courtyard of the Presbyterian secondary school here, where a spectacular thunderstorm has abruptly soiled an outdoor dance, one event amidst the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (PCC). The storm turned the city’s concrete streets into gullies and cut the electricity in this middle-class neighborhood, where the school has operated for more than 100 years.
As the night gets more sticky and the relentless humidity of the Caribbean coast thickens, Smith talks, interrupted often by young people, who are flitting between huddled groups in the lightless night, trying to improvise a Plan B.
Maybe a dance club, instead? Why let a storm ruin the entire night when everyone still wants to dance? What’s a little rain when the night is so young? There have to be passable roads to somewhere. Or, there will be if you just wait out the storm.
It is an odd dichotomy, life so seemingly normal and upbeat–young people looking for a good time. And other young persons there in a situation so grave that they hope to help save lives by their very presence.
Smith says that a particular text in Ecclesiastes brought her here, chapter four, verse eight: Two are better than one, for their partnership yields this advantage: if one falls, the other can help his companion up again; but woe betide the solitary person who, when down, has no partner to help him up.
She was referring, of course, to the ongoing threats against church human rights workers, who are offering aid and organizational training to some of the more than 3.5 million people violently displaced from their farmland. The land is bought up by multi-national corporations to industrialize agriculture or to make way for gas and oil pipelines running from Venezuela to Colombia’s coast and pushes Colombia’s poorest out of the way.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in cooperation with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, began placing accompaniers here more than one-and-a-half years ago when the lives of church leaders who protested the policies were threatened. Two U.S. Presbyterians rotate in-and-out of here monthly, sticking with church workers, visiting displaced communities and reporting information to the world church and to human rights organizations.
I thought I was coming here to help them,” when, really, (it works both ways.) When one falls, you pick each other up,” Smith says, stopping to listen to another youth who is concocting yet another variation on Plan B.
Smith smiles. After all, she wants to dance too. Despite the heat.
Wringing out the drenched hem of her ankle-length skirt, another accompanier, Christine Caton of Waterford, Conn., says she’s continually nourished by the persistence and the faith of the Colombian church despite the very real obstacles it faces in its ministries. “In the displaced communities, that’s where you see the hopelessness in people,” she says. “Not in the church.”
The PCC, she says, keeps plodding on, improvising as it needs.
“I expected to see more of a military presence (here in the city), more armed actors,” says Caton, who, in Hebron, encountered armed Israeli soldiers daily, but here, faces more clandestine operatives. “Here, you don’t see them.”
The denomination has moved three threatened pastors and one church worker into safer quarters in the past five years. Its leadership intends to expand the accompaniment program, stretching into regions beyond Barranquilla and, perhaps, to needy organizations, according to Milton Mejia, the church’s former general secretary who initially requested accompaniment from the PC(USA.).
The presence of a North American is a deft improvisation that makes it safer for Colombian church workers to enter displaced camps, since armed groups, overtly or covertly, halt attempts to organize or assist the displaced who take the risk of documenting their abuse, are seeking financial compensation or alternative acreage.
The church gives direct aid, leadership training, and how-to classes in approaching the government. Its workers give pastoral care, often listening to the plight of the poorest, now cramped into already overcrowded cities with little hope of work to support their families.
Accompaniment also enables Colombia’s displaced to see that the efforts to help them stretch beyond Barranquilla. And it equips North Americans to return home with first-hand information to approach the U.S. government, which sends billions in military aid to Colombia, but fewer development dollars Ë† a strategy Colombian churches vehemently oppose.
“This is far more than a physical presence of accompaniers. It strengthens our hope, helps us feel that God is with us,” says Mejia.
The newest accompanier here, Amy Robinson of Olympia, Wash., and a middler at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, says Colombia is already good for her soul. She’s hoping that the U.S. church will gain from encounters with the PCC and overcome its timidity about advocacy.
“Here, in theology, the care of the poor has primacy, and in a week, I already have the ability to see that; even in the midst of oppression, people speak out,” she says, having sat in on a meeting of the country’s ecumenical network. “The PC(USA) often talks about social realities, but it doesn’t always take action.
“It’s hard for us to get past conversation.”
It isn’t always easy to be here for a month or for months, according to the accompaniers.
The showers are cold. Bright sunlight screeches through the windows around 5:30 a.m. The Caribbean heat is scorching and a breeze is a rare gift. There are cravings for English-only conversation. When you need to run a problem by a best friend, she is an expensive phone call away. It can get lonely. You often rely on others to tell you when there is actual danger since outsiders may not always pick up the cues.
But people here pick up the slack as best they can, Americans both north and south.
“There’s a tighter bond here between people. The people being accompanied count on you. And, humbly, we think we could be helping people be safe just by being there.
“There’s nothing we can do,” says Smith.
She pauses. “If you look at the history of this war, it looks hopeless. If you read the statistics, you’ll see that it is the worst in the hemisphere, the biggest crisis on this side of the world. In terms of displaced people, Colombia is only second to Sudan,” Smith says. “I’m in a place where I can be here. I’m single, no kids.
I can do this.”
She sits a moment longer in the sticky night. Another teen shows up, bummed that the dance is cancelled but adamant that the party must go on, elsewhere. Smith laughs.
When her term ends a few days later, she is to fly back to Chicago, where she’ll be seeking a call, mostly in inner-city or downtown churches. But she’ll be back here by mid-September.
When it will still be hot.
ALEXA SMITH is a freelance journalist living in Louisville, Ky.