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BARRANQUILLA, Colombia — A nearly four-hour worship service closed a four-day celebration here of the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (PCC), a denomination with a strong reputation for offering education to the poor and of upholding the human rights of the country’s most disadvantaged.
The PPC has approximately 12,000 members in 50 churches organized into three presbyteries.
Under way from Aug. 10-14, Monday night’s closing service also marked the 50th anniversary of the Association of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches of Latin America (APRAL), a council that relates to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in Geneva, Switzerland, an organization that represents 280 Reformed churches in 107 countries.
The night wrapped up a week of Reformed hoopla.
Church leaders from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean were present, as well as the Presbyterian Church (USA), which sent its first missionary — Horace B. Pratt — to Colombia in 1856 and which is now sending accompaniers to work alongside threatened church leaders and communities.
Two U.S. presbyteries with Colombian partnerships were represented — Winnebago and Miami — and two other presbyteries had delegations here, Chicago and Tres Rios. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship — which has been recruiting and training accompaniers — was also represented by a delegation.
“God has been with us in pain. He has given us guidance in adversity and he has given light to the minds of those who went before us,” said the Rev. Vilma Yanez, the moderator of the PCC, who opened the worship service by emphasizing that Reformed tradition means embodying Jesus Christ in the society. “We cannot remain quiet.”
Yanez gave thanks for the work of U.S. mission personnel, the Rev. Alice Winters, who has taught Bible and theology here for more than 30 years; Pauline Schutmaat, now retired, who taught music and remains active in the city’s arts life; and its Colombian pastors, like the Rev. Lilia Ramirez, an octogenarian who stills pastors a growing congregation here in Barranquilla.
“I wonder about the reason God has given me the difficult task of presiding in the PCC in this moment, which is so critical in our history. At the same time that we are celebrating 150 years of ministry, our country is facing a panorama so complex and destructive, it could penetrate the life of the church,” she said, referring to Colombia’s tumultuous political reality where more than 3.5 million people are displaced by internal violence.
Yanez deplored the “force and violence” that is being employed both nationally and worldwide to shape events. “This is a time in which the … values Jesus represented are being denied or prevented,” she said, urging the packed assembly to live up to the legacy left it by “brave men and women” of the Reformed faith.
A Congressional award for the church’s peace and democracy work was presented to the church by the Rev. David Illidge of BogotÃ¡, the PCC’s new general secretary. The Colombian Congress issued its recognition of the church’s history and work Aug. 10.
Illidge said the denomination will continue seeking “justice and equality in the country.”
Milton Mejia, the former executive secretary of the church, left Colombia with his family the morning after the celebration for an extended time of study in the United States.
Mejia’s life has been repeatedly threatened by clandestine armed groups, along with the life of Mauricio Avilez, a young church worker who was jailed on apparently false charges, a tactic human rights workers say is used to hinder their work.
Now free, Avilez remains in Colombia, has been the subject of renewed threats and alleged surveillance. Mejia left Colombia in the company of a U.S. delegation of Presbyterians.
In his sermon, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk of the PC(USA) and the president of the WARC, affirmed the human rights work of the PCC, and of AIPRAL, done often, he said, at “great costs.”
Kirkpatrick said that in Romans 8, churches are assured that the powers and principalities of this age can never separate Christians from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
“This pattern of Christian living is never easy for it runs counter to the values of our age, but this is not the first time that Christians have been challenged to stand against the culture for the values of the gospel,” said Kirkpatrick. “In fact, I am convinced that one of the great sources of hope for the church in our day is that our challenge is so parallel to that of the New Testament Church.
“That church, too, found itself in the midst of an empire whose primary values were not justice and peace. It was clearly a church that did not have the support of the established order and carried out its witness against great odds,” he said, adding that the church must now, like then, find unity within its own diversity and be a missionary church as well.
He said the church is called to confront massive injustices with the power of the gospel and the promise of Jesus Christ that he has come that all might have life and have it in fullness (John 10:10). A faithful witness, Kirkpatrick said, means living out God’s promises that:
Â· In Jesus Christ, all might have abundant life;
Â· That in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but that all can be one;
Â· That God intends food for the hungry, a cup of cold water for the thirsty and a world filled with compassion;
Â· That in the power of God’s love, even swords can be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and the world can know peace.
Other dignitaries on hand included the Rev. Marian McClure, director of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the PC(USA); and the Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the WARC., as well as ecumenical representatives of Colombian churches.
U.S. accompaniers present were Traci Smith of Batavia, Ill.; the Rev. Christine Caton of Waterford, Conn.; and Amy Robinson of Olympia, Wash.
ALEXA SMITH is a freelance journalist living in Louisville, Ky.
Photos courtesy Alexa Smith
Communion set — Two U.S. partner-presbyteries present an anniversary communion set to the Presbyterian Church of Colombia recently in Barranquilla during the celebration of PCC’s 150th anniversary. Pictured are, from left to right, Tom Milligan of Miami Presbytery; Lucy Rupe of Winnebago Presbytery; PC(USA) Missionary Alice Winters; Clifton Kirkpatrick stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and president of the World Association of Reformed Churches; Marian McClure, director of the Worldwide Ministries Division. PC(USA); and Cat Bucher of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
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Ceremonies close — Gustavo Quintero and Gloria Pua dance the “Cumbia” to close the PCC 150th anniversary celebration.