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A peaceful refuge

After-school programs at Colombian Presbyterian churches provide safe places for children

February 28, 2012

Colombian children at an afterschool program

Compassion International and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia serve many children throughout the Uraba region of Colombia. —The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo

CAREPA, Colombia

In this Lenten season, one Presbyterian congregation in Colombia will be thinking about more than fasting.

“The church has the opportunity to do something in this place,” said the Rev. Julio Diaz, a pastor with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia, or IPC).

The church’s work in Carepa becomes more important every day. The town — like the rest of Colombia — exists in a complex situation involving land issues, violence and fear. Part of the church’s mission is to generate peace and hope in this environment, Diaz said, adding that the Carepa congregation lives out its calling through its work with children.

“There’s a lot to do,” he said. “It’s better to work than to think about the difficulties. The faith of the church is much larger than the difficulties of society.”

Carepa is one of several IPC congregations that host afterschool programs for local children. These programs provide stability, meals, education and a safe place for students to spend their time. Many of these programs — including Carepa’s — are run in partnership with Compassion International, a Christian child development organization focused on children in poverty.

Compassion International approached the church four years ago, Diaz said. Compassion provides money, and the church uses it to educate, feed and evangelize to the 300 children in its Carepa program, called Mi Familia (My Family).

The program focuses on four areas:

  • Physical — nutrition and sports/exercise
  • Spiritual — Bible study, principles, values
  • Cognitive — tutoring, homework help
  • Socio-emotional — behavioral issues, mental health, conduct, healthy living within families

Mi Familia is housed in the church’s former manse, a one-story building next to the church. The church hopes to expand the building to three floors to be able to serve the children on its waiting list. Compassion International chooses participants based on an eligibility profile and home visits.

Behavioral issues are common at Mi Familia, Diaz said. The children have grown up in a society of violence, whether from domestic violence or related to family members who belong to illegal armed groups. Many also don’t get enough to eat at home.

As a result, many children start fights or try to steal from Mi Familia. Diaz spoke of one child who would rather stay out in the streets than go to his violent home, and of young boys who start their own criminal bands, emulating more established gangs.

Discipline is a challenge at Mi Familia, as teachers — volunteers from the church — want to teach the children good values but must be careful that they don’t scare the children away from the program, Diaz said.

Children and teacher around a table

The afterschool programs focus on children’s physical, spiritual, cognitive and socio-emotional wellbeing. —The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo

Mi Familia provides a safe place for children to go, but it doesn’t overtly discuss the illegal armed groups that permeate Colombian society — to do so would be too dangerous.

“We don’t talk about any of that,” Diaz said. “We don’t touch those issues.”

Still, the church sees its work with the children as a way to promote peace in a culture of violence. Mi Familia helps children lead dignified lives and gives them a place to overcome difficulties and take refuge from the hard realities of daily life.

“It’s done a great deal to help the kids and the families,” Diaz said. “And that’s peace.

“The church is a place where everyone comes to look for peace, for tranquility and a kind of accompaniment.”

Diaz’s comments were translated from Spanish by PC(USA) mission co-worker the Rev. Mamie Broadhurst.

 This is one of a series of stories gathered on a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation to Colombia Feb. 3-13. To learn more about PPF and its work in Colombia, including the Colombia Accompaniment Program, click here.

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