BIRMINGHAM — Study vs. action — that was the question.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) struggled on June 19 with the question of how fiercely to speak up against oppression in Colombia — and how strongly to advocate for particular changes in U.S. policies in the region.
The shadow of the divestment debate — in which the assembly in 2004 took a controversial position in favor of phased, selective divestment in some companies doing business in Israel — hung a little over this discussion, although not spoken of explicitly.
But the commissioners clearly were weighing the value of strong advocacy versus the need for careful, thoughtful action, and ultimately decided to refer recommendations regarding U.S. policies towards Colombia back to the denomination for more study.
“I believe the church in Colombia cannot wait for more studies, we need action,” said David Illidge Quiroz of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, an ecumenical advisory delegate to the assembly, who was speaking through a translator. “We strongly believe the gospel needs to come alive” in the social and financial situation of Colombia, he said.
But some commissioners clearly were uncomfortable with the idea of taking a position without understanding the issue better — especially since the action they were considering was presented as a commissioner’s resolution, which means they didn’t get to see it before they arrived at the assembly in Alabama.
“We need to do something, but to dumbly do something gives pause,” said Peter Haas, a minister from Lake Huron presbytery. He was among commissioners who objected in a minority report to what was described as the “political tone” of the resolution. It expressed support for the accompaniment program, through which trained Presbyterians from the U.S. go to Colombia to stand with representatives of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia whose lives are sometimes in danger because of their work on behalf of human rights.
But some commissioners were uncomfortable with a section of the resolution that called for the PC(USA) to take a position on some specific issues — such as withdrawing military support for the government of Colombia and seeking to change American policies regarding economics in the region. Haas said the commissioners needed more facts, more analysis — and “to do something in a dumb, uninformed way can bring harm and conflict.”
But Barbara Smith, an elder from Detroit presbytery, argued that people familiar with the politics on the ground in Colombia told the assembly’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee that a strong statement was what was needed.
“The time for advocacy is right now,” Smith said, “before more of our brothers and sisters in Colombia die.”
In the end, the assembly followed the lead of former moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, who helped to create the Colombia accompaniment program. Ufford-Chase suggested passing the part of the resolution that praised the program and acknowledged its impact, but referring the part of the resolution advocating policy positions back to the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the PC(USA)’s Peacemaking office for more study. He made that suggestion after it had been suggested that the assembly refer the whole thing back for study. The assembly voted 295-204 to do as he suggested, asking for a report back to the assembly in 2008.
“We are very disappointed,” Maria Arroyo, the PC(USA)’s coordinator for South America and the Caribbean, said during a news conference following the vote. The denomination already has studied the situation in Colombia, Arroyo said, and the 2004 assembly was willing to make a stronger statement.
Presbyterian ministers in Colombia often face death threats or the possibility of sudden arrest, because of their work assisting the millions of displaced people in the country — people who’ve been forced off their land by guerillas or paramilitary groups, and who are living in camps on the outskirts of the cities. The violence has grown a great deal in recent years, said Milton Mejia, the immediate past executive secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, speaking through an interpreter. “Our church leaders are fearful,” Mejia said, and want “the Presbyterian church up here (in the U.S.) to double its efforts and help us to get other churches involved in similar accompaniment programs.”
The presence of the U.S. accompaniers in Colombia has been vital, sending the message that “this will not pass unnoticed” when church and human rights leaders are harassed, said Alice Winters, a missionary in Colombia for nearly 30 years. “Your presence says, ‘Americans care,’ “ Winters explained. “We know what is going on and we are watching.”