Editor’s note: this is the first in series of stories about the more than 50 Presbyterian mission workers and international peacemakers who are speaking in more than 150 presbyteries in the coming month as part of Mission Challenge ’09. — Jerry L. Van Marter

NEENAH, Wis. — Beside a table dressed with a colorful Colombian tapestry and set with baskets of bread, the Rev. Diego Higuita-Arango preached in Spanish on his vision of peace during two worship services at First Presbyterian Church Oct. 4.

Higuita, general secretary of both the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and the country’s Uraba Presbytery, visited the church on World Communion Sunday as one of 45 mission co-workers and 11 peacemakers sharing their stories with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this year’s Mission Challenge.

The challenge is intended to connect mission co-workers with Presbyterians across the country. From Sept. 25-Oct. 18, 45 co-workers will visit 152 presbyteries, sharing their stories and educating listeners on how to get involved.

“Peace is an imperative for every believer. It comes when we are in solidarity with the weak and disenfranchised,” Higuita said from the pulpit through interpreter Lucy Rupe, executive presbyter of Winnebago Presbytery.

Since 2003, the 40 northeast Wisconsin churches that make up Winnebago Presbytery have partnered with Uraba Presbytery in a program of exchange, accompaniment and social justice advocacy.

Through his sermon and a talk with about 20 attendees at First Presbyterian’s adult Sunday school class, Higuita addressed the value of that partnership and the need for peace in Colombia. For 45 years, the country has been torn by civil war between political conservatives and liberals, Higuita said, with thousands of innocents killed and millions displaced.

“Those of us under 50 can only imagine a life without conflict,” he said.

The conflict has affected Higuita’s small mountain hometown of Dabeiba, to which he returned after completing seminary studies in 1997 to serve as both a pastor and an ambulance driver.

“I was facing every day very painful, very difficult things in addition to my own fear,” he said through interpreter Jose Paba.

Higuita spoke of a woman living next door to him who had fled paramilitary forces that killed her husband and sons in front of her and her daughters, falsely claiming that she had cooperated with guerrillas aligned with the Colombian government. The assassins found her in Dabeiba and threatened her again, ordering her to leave town.

“She had no money, no clothes, nothing, and she said to me, ‘When you’re driving the ambulance and going to Medellín (the regional capital), please take me,’” Higuita said.

Though it was illegal and life-threatening for him to do so, Higuita granted her request, secretly transporting her and her children, along with a patient, to the capital city, a five-hour drive that the party completed that night in only three hours.

Shaken by the plight of this neighbor, Higuita thereafter involved himself in sheltering displaced persons and denouncing human rights violations in Colombia.

“We organized with other churches in Colombia, asking, ‘How can we make this problem visible?’” he said.

The six-year mission partnership between Uraba and Winnebago Presbyteries has helped with that, Higuita said. Visits between the two groups have given those in Uraba hope.

“They said, ‘We are not alone. We have friends in other places. We can build something,’” Higuita said. “The vision of the people of Uraba has changed dramatically. They said, ‘We are a church and we have a testimony and we have a chance to give it.’”

Lisa Strandberg is a freelance writer from Neenah, Wis.