A letter from Sarah Henken serving as Regional Liaison for the Andean region, based in Colombia
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I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite days so far this year. I traveled about an hour and a half south from my home base in Barranquilla, with no agenda or official responsibilities, and paid a visit to some of my campesino friends. They are subsistence farmers, and we don’t have much in common, on the surface of things. The mismatched collection of boards that make up their houses bear little resemblance to my own apartment of neatly painted, plastered walls; and yet I feel profoundly at home when I visit them, walking the dusty trails with Marisol, learning the medicinal value of local plants from Angel Gabriel, or stirring soup over the wood fire with Victoria. God is in the midst of us, and we are cultivating friendship.
When I went out to their farm that day I took some things to contribute for lunch, and together we made soup and rice, told jokes and sang songs, and prayed for rain. Rain is probably the second-most important thing for a farmer, the first being land.
My friends are doing the hard work of planting new crops and rebuilding a life after being forcibly removed from their homes last December. They had protested the injustice of the planned eviction for years, filing appeals and seeking press coverage, organizing themselves as a humanitarian zone. But in the end the power of a corporation and some self-interested politicians uprooted the campesino farmers in El Tamarindo one more time.
Most of the campesinos had already been forced to abandon their homes once, twice, as many as six times before. After they assembled as a cooperative farming association on some vacant land outside the city of Barranquilla, the Presbyterian church got involved, supporting their call for the government to treat them fairly and protect their rights. I came to care deeply about the community and its struggle during visits over the past two years, hearing collective and individual stories and sharing them with anyone who would listen. But I think our friendship was cemented in the simple act of showing up when the going got tough.
I was there on the day last December when the bulldozer came. I gathered with members of the community as a parade of police vehicles began to arrive—there were two small buses, four SUVs, and four riot police transport vehicles in the first group. They were joined by a large group of day laborers, hired to take machetes to the largest plants and help with the demolition demanded by the purported owners of the land.
As anxiety began to swell, I turned to the most beloved text in the Bible. “Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want).” I read the words aloud as the police lined up, preparing to begin the day’s destruction. The context gave the words a deeper meaning and power than I had felt before: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
I hope I never again am called on to pray with people while their homes and livelihood are being deliberately destroyed, because I hope such evil will not be repeated. But if, heaven forbid, my friends find themselves in that situation again, I hope God will lend me the love and courage necessary to stand with them. One of the first Bible verses I ever memorized comes to mind, Proverbs 17:17—
A friend loves at all times,
and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
I rejoice with my friends who have been blessed with new land to cultivate. They are only a small group of the larger El Tamarindo campesino association, 12 out of 79 families. The others have traveled far to stay with family or are housed in Barranquilla while the association’s case is considered by Colombia’s constitutional court. The road ahead will be long for them, even if all goes as smoothly as possible from here on. And millions more displaced campesinos are still searching for a place to call their own. These are some of the victims of Colombia’s generations-long armed conflict, to which a negotiated end is now in sight.
If you would like to take action to support the possibility of true and just peace in Colombia and weren’t able to participate in Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia this year, please consider sending a letter to your members of congress. Suggested points to include are outlined on pages 4-7 of the packet available online (https://washingtonmemo.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/dopa-resource-packet-20161.pdf).
Both near and far, the people of this world are our sisters and brothers in God’s house. When we show up for one another, in the good times but perhaps especially in the hard times, we are living into that identity, and may even become friends in the process. I thank you for showing up for me in so many ways, through your financial support and prayers, your notes of encouragement. They help keep me going! Please continue or increase your financial support as you are able. Your generous gifts make it possible for me to walk alongside our sisters and brothers here.
As you return to whatever your day holds, carry this message with you. Keep looking for ways to show up for your sisters and brothers, near and far, day by day. God will be showing you the way.
In Christ’s hope and peace,
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