A letter from Sarah Henken serving as Regional Liaison for the Andean Region, based in Colombia
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The cold knot of dread in the pit of my stomach grew heavier as I read through the letter. For the first time in nine years supporting the struggle for peace with justice alongside the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, I was frightened.
In many ways the letter was nothing new; the panfleto is a despicable and all too common form of public intimidation employed by Colombia’s neo-paramilitary organizations. This one used hateful, violent language to declare all members of human rights organizations, unions, and progressive political parties to be military targets, who should “begin to leave the country or hide like rats” because the self-proclaimed enforcers of a strict public order were going to pick them off one by one. Of the 30-some individuals named, I know about a dozen personally, including several friends and colleagues who have been threatened before, and one who is new to this dubious recognition.
He sat at my dining room table two days later as we compared notes and discussed any additional safety measures we should take. Germán brought his usual humor and joy to our meeting, even while reflecting on the opportunity this provides to renew his commitment to the ministry to which God has called him. “If I ever find myself in the hands of people who intend to kill me,” Germán said, “I pray God will give me the strength to have my final words be, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
That attitude conveys the cost of discipleship for those who would follow the Prince of Peace in Colombia.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has remained closely tied to the Presbyterian Church of Colombia since its founding in 1856. For over 20 years our shared ministry has centered around a commitment to seeking peace with justice in Colombia. One expression of our joint commitment is the Colombia Accompaniment Program, established in 2004. Today over 100 volunteers have been trained and sent by the PC(USA) to spend a month or more with the Colombian church. This ministry has helped safeguard the lives of human rights defenders, church leaders, and displaced persons in Colombia, providing a pastoral presence along with international eyes to report any troubling behavior they might witness.
The panfleto circulated earlier this year contained a new twist: “you think you’re safe because you hang out with North Americans [that is a polite translation of a phrase unfit for mission newsletters] and the churches.” If anything, this new threat makes clear that our practice of accompaniment has been effective and continues to be needed. Today, as the Colombian government and guerrilla forces explore a negotiated end to hostilities, Presbyterians in the United States and Colombia prepare to engage in the hard work of reconciliation that remains to be done.
Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). Discipleship is costly. In some places simply to identify as a follower of Christ can carry dangerous consequences. In others, conscientiously acting by Jesus’ example can be the dangerous thing.
Our Colombian sisters and brothers who put their lives on the line out of their commitment to the gospel have a passionate desire to see real peace in Colombia. We trust and pray that none will lose their life in a literal sense. But they teach us by example what it can look like to lose one’s life in service to Christ’s gospel, in self-giving love of neighbor.
Toward the end of our talk Germán quoted Romans 8:28—”We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Your support is part of God’s “working all things together for good” for Germán and the many other Presbyterians dedicated to seeking Christ’s peace in Colombia. Your prayers help keep us going. Your words of encouragement let us know we’re not alone. Your advocacy efforts for peace with justice hold the U.S. and Colombian governments accountable. Funds you contribute make it possible for me to visit communities in vulnerable situations. ¡Gracias! Please keep up the good work—we need it now as much as ever.
In closing I share these words of prayer from a beloved song sung frequently in Presbyterian churches in Barranquilla, where I live.
We ask for your mercy, good Lord,
for those who suffer in this world:
all creation cries out as one.
Incline your ears to the clamor
of your oppressed people:
Hasten your salvation, O Lord.
May your peace be blessed, in sisterhood with justice,
and may it embrace the entire world: have compassion!
May your power uphold the testimony of your people.
May your kingdom come today: Kyrie eleison.
–Rodolfo Gaede Neto, Brazil
Your sister in Christ and companion on the journey,
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