A strong community which does not give way to tears
Colombian farming cooperative aided by ecumenical accompaniers
Editor’s note: This is the first in series of reports on the new Programa Ecumenico de Acompanamiento en Colombia (PEAC), a ministry of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Mennonite and Episcopal churches in Colombia. They receive international support from such Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partners as the ACT Alliance and Church World Service. The PC(USA) and partner the Presbyterian Church of Colombia have had their own accompaniment program in Colombia ― sponsored in part by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship ― for several years. ― Jerry L. Van Marter
FINCA ALEMANIA, Colombia ― The Finca Alemania was the first place we visited, and walking through their fields I could sense sadness, pain and isolation. Nevertheless the people are quick to show us hospitality and friendship, greeting us with smiles and flowers, bringing us food which they produce on their land.
The week began with flowers and the first visit to these people we will be accompanying was to one of the community leaders, who met us halfway up the road to his house with a big bouquet for each of us. It was such a beautiful and unexpected gesture, but it was only the first of many such moments in a week profoundly filled with emotions.
When we had greeted one another we continued with him on foot and started talking as we walked. He seems to me to be a man of much wisdom, the sort of wisdom that can only be gained through experiences over time, through grief and loss. It is the kind of wisdom that makes you strong, that enables you to understand that, in spite of everything, you have to keep going, you have to maintain hope.
He and his wife received us in their home with food and much affection. He gave us a general overview of how the Finca Alemania came to be established, what happened to them when the violence began and his own personal experiences.
He also talked about the goals of the cooperative in the present day, about their current struggles, and how he sees the future for Finca Alemania ― that is to say, how they are working together to improve their community and raise their crops, but also how he sees the likelihood of more violence against them developing.
Listening to him, I am very aware of the grave importance these people place on our accompaniment.
Later, we talked with two other leaders, both older men but very vigorous. I didn´t want to ask them how old they are, but I think that rather than being of very advanced years they have been aged and seasoned by their experiences. Life has wrinkled their skin, but not their souls. Neither of them talks much, but I can read in their expressions their welcome and their pleasure at being able to be with us.
Ruth and I found it hard to come up with ways of not eating with them. Not that I would mind eating with them, in fact it really bothers me not to share bread with them, because for Jesus the sharing of bread was so important, to get to know people, to be with them as in a family. But I still feel keenly that I am taking from them something they have very little of.
The two of them open their hearts to us and tell us their stories briefly but in a very sincere manner. As we were continuing to talk with one of them, his wife and two of his neighbors came over towards the end of the afternoon to share their own moving stories.
The next day we went to the house of an incredibly strong woman and had a much livelier conversation with her which allowed us to get into such topics as personal tastes and the role of women in our respective societies. She was a great hostess and it was very pleasant to spend time in her home.
After this, we went to listen and learn at a meeting of the cooperative members which took place in the home of one of the most prominent women leaders. We took advantage of the opportunity to introduce ourselves to all the members we had not yet met. Rosario from Infancia Feliz (“Happy Childhood”, an NGO) brought along two lawyers who reviewed case by case the support being provided to each family that had previously been displaced. We shared food with the group and afterwards we all sang together.
The members of Finca Alemania have suffered forced displacement, threats and the deaths of a number of their leaders, but still they look to me to be a very well-organized group of people The PEAC program has been very well received, and they are very clear about what they want from us. They aren´t asking us for our opinions about what happens in their meetings. They want us to accompany them and listen to them.
I asked Sergio directly what difference he would see between the former time when the Finca Alemania community was forced to leave this place and how things would be if the same thing were to happen today. He almost didn´t know how to answer me, but then he told me that we, that is to say our presence, is a great positive step. I want to somehow be worthy of his confidence, and I trust that together with all the team of people who have brought us here and who are supporting us we will be able to do good work.
These people have a great deal to tell us, and I believe firmly that this in itself is a liberating act, and that we are accompanying them in that act. And I am aware that they have not even shared with each other some of the details which they are sharing with us.
What amazes me is that during not one of the stories which I have listened to so far have I seen the narrator shed even one tear. This is a community that does not cry. It may be that they have recounted their stories so many times, it may be that their costeño, or coastal, character helps them get through it, it may be that this is a form of self-protection, it may be many things.
But the fact is that they are telling you their life stories, telling you their sorrows, their loss, their fears, their anxieties…..with a smile on their lips. What incredible strength they have!