Standing together

Colombia Accompaniment Program to expand presence, work for peace, human rights

May 6, 2010

Women of the PC(USA) and IPC during the Holy Week evaluation of the Colombia Accompaniment Program.

LOUISVILLE

In the five and a half years since its creation, the Colombia Accompaniment Program has been ever-evolving, adapting as organizers learn more about participants’ needs.

And so during Holy Week (March 28-April 4), members from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC), met in Colombia to evaluate the program.

"It was definitely a powerful thing to be there and to be able to worship with them and be ministered to by the IPC," said Sarah Henken, coordinator of the accompaniment program.

Among the findings of the evaluation: the program should definitely continue, and it will do so according to a plan of action for 2010-2011.

That plan lists 15 items, many of which focus on expansion and increased publicity and promotion of the program.

The program, a ministry of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, was founded with the goal of creating a "circle of protection" for the IPC and its partners through the unarmed accompaniment of the PC(USA). It arose out of a request from leaders in the IPC, who were experiencing death threats for their human rights work. The U.S. citizens were to stand in solidarity with the IPC and act as international eyes. That system seems to have worked — threats to the IPC have decreased — but Henken said the situation in Colombia is "different but not really better."

For more than 40 years, Colombia has been embroiled in a violent civil war that has led to the forced displacement of millions. The IPC has relationships with several communities of displaced people and works to advocate for their rights.  

Looking ahead

Because the accompaniment program was born out of urgency, it was created without a strong structure or any ideas about how long it would last, Henken said.

But when organizers realized the program was approaching its five-year anniversary, they decided it'd be a good idea to talk about the future and ways to share the program's model of nonviolent accompanimen.

In May 2009, participants from the PC(USA) and the IPC agreed to undertake a yearlong information-gathering process, drawing from surveys, essays and interviews with accompaniers and people who had gone through training for the program. The IPC also interviewed its sessions, congregations and displaced people who’d interacted with the program. The groups shared their findings during the Holy Week meeting.

It's important to maintain the heart of the program, which is to provide a testimony for peace and justice in the Colombian context, Henken said. But there are areas for change.

Members of the IPC and PC(USA) visited a community of displaced people, where they worshipped and planted aloe. Photos by Mark Koenig.

One major change is to expand the program to other presbyteries in Colombia. Now, accompaniers generally work with the Presbytery of the North Coast, based in Barranquilla. But representatives from Central and Urabá, the other two IPC presbyteries in Colombia, have expressed interest in having accompaniers there too.

Part of the action plan for 2010-2011 calls for promoting the program within each presbytery and discerning the needs and opportunities each offers.

One such opportunity has already been highlighted in the Central presbytery, Henken said. The presbytery is based in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, so there is the possibility of working with the U.S. embassy in Bogotá to share concerns and request support.

Another goal of the action plan is to create accompanier profiles that would help match the skills and interests of accompaniers with the needs of the IPC.

Although the program was formed based on a "ministry of presence," meaning that accompaniers' "jobs" might be loosely defined or change daily, the less overtly tense situation means that they could now conduct workshops, participate in conversations at schools or provide other expertise that "we can take advantage of without changing the main focus of the program," Henken said.

"They're not just bodies of U.S. citizens," she said. "These are whole human beings with an entire background of skills and experience."

The action plan also calls for the compilation of resources on political advocacy. Advocacy has been an increased focus over the past few years as accompaniers learn and see in Colombia and then come home to share their stories.

U.S. media don't do a great job at telling stories that are representative of Colombia, where U.S. policy is at work. The U.S. has sent billions of dollars in military aid and in August announced plans to establish at least seven military bases there.

But while many accompaniers are willing to be involved in advocacy work, they can feel intimidated and inexperienced, Henken said. One goal is to pull existing resources on advocacy for Colombia and form a packet that can be distributed and found online. It's important that people feel encouraged and supported so that the advocacy can be organized and effective.  

'Ministry of presence'

In March, the Colombia Accompaniment Program saw another milestone — it trained its 101th accompanier.

That's a big achievement for a program whose organizers weren’t sure anyone would even come to the first training session.

"It kind of astonishes us all," said Anne Barstow, a founder and outgoing director of the program.

The program began from a request from the IPC and has become a model for a new way of doing mission — one in which the church from outside the United States directs the program according to its needs and context, Barstow said.

"We have learned so much by working with the IPC," she said. "We have learned the price that a church has to pay when it stands up in an area of conflict."

Another unique aspect of the program is its focus on a "ministry of presence," Barstow said. Accompaniers don't arrive in Colombia with material aid and don’t do any work projects while they’re there.

"We've all had to shed some of our own ideas about what it means to do mission," she said. "We can't measure what we’re doing in, ‘How many schools did you build?'"

That different style of mission has been the hardest thing for accompaniers throughout the years to grasp. A big part of the work involves listening and trying to learn and understand a new context. Accompaniers aren’t sent to perfect the IPC — they’re there to serve and stand in solidarity with the church.

"(The IPC) desperately needed that," Barstow said. "Their backs are to the wall."

The IPC's members all bear the scars of living in a violent society, and accompaniers often become fascinated with the courage of the church and its clarity of values and what it means to be the church, Barstow said.

In the trainings, potential accompaniers are encouraged to discern whether a mission of unarmed accompaniment is a fit for them. Organizers also evaluate volunteers to see if they're cut out for the work. No accompaniers have been harmed while in Colombia, and many ask to return.

At the twice-yearly training sessions, accompaniers talk about their commitment to nonviolence and learn about nonviolence as a form of Christian witness, the political situation in Colombia, security issues, cultural differences and U.S. policy in Colombia.

Accompaniers travel to Colombia in pairs and commit to at least one month there. While not all accompaniers need to speak Spanish, at least one person in each pair must be comfortable acting as a translator. The program is always in need of more Spanish speakers — now, there is only one Spanish-speaking accompanier for every two who have been trained.

To learn more about training and accompaniment opportunities, visit the accompaniment program's Web site.

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