Presbyterian mission workers Mamie Broadhurst and Richard Williams often hear people in Colombia say, “You never know when the rabbit will jump.”
It’s their way of talking about the unpredictability of violence in a country involved in a five-decades-long civil war. Being suspected of having sympathies with one of the parties involved in the war—the paramilitary, guerillas or the military—can be fatal. Working land desired by one of the warring factions can present farmers with the choice of giving up their land or being killed. The United Nations refugee agency reports that 3.8 million people living in Colombia have been displaced by the conflict.
Williams and Broadhurst, a married couple, have worked in Colombia since 2009. They are pastoral accompaniers serving alongside the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. They assist a program that sends short-term volunteers from the United States to Colombia to walk with displaced people and the Colombians who work with them.
“The accompaniment program is about brothers and sisters in Christ accompanying one another through difficult times,” Williams says. “It is based in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus was here on earth to walk alongside humanity, and the accompaniment model is following that path.”
The volunteers usually spend one month in Colombia after being trained by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. They hear stories that displaced people are afraid to share with other Colombians, Broadhurst says. Widespread fear and suspicion, she explains, have “created a wall of silence.”
Yet the sharing of stories helps displaced people deal with the pain, Broadhurst says. “You just can’t bottle up that much pain and horror and not have it ooze out in unhealthy, unfortunate and discouraging ways.”
The accompaniers’ job does not end when they leave Colombia. “The church here tries to emphasize that the work they are doing is a first step of a two-part program,” Williams says. “The hope is that they will go back to the United States and continue the accompaniment through advocacy, because U.S. policy has much to do with the situation in Colombia.”
Knowing their stories will make it to the United States encourages the Colombians and motivates them to talk. “You get to tell somebody something that you hope will be carried forward, and you hope that through information you shared something will change,” Broadhurst says.
When the accompaniment program began in 2004, leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia were receiving death threats because they dared to speak out against violence and for the rights of displaced people. U.S. Presbyterian accompaniers went to Colombia to stand with them. Williams and Broadhurst say the accompaniment program was one reason the threats against church leaders ended. “The people who were doing the threatening saw that the church was not alone, that they were indeed accompanied, and I think that matters,” Broadhurst explains.
In addition to its prophetic role, the Colombian church also has an important pastoral dimension, Williams says. “It is a refuge and offers people a place where they can trust one another, where they can be made whole, where they can be full members of a community.”