A Letter from Sarah Henken, serving in Colombia
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Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that awakens me to joy. I hadn’t imagined myself playing tag and jumping rope when I got up that morning, but there I was, surrounded by children and adults enjoying some raucous play time. I was accompanying a delegation from the Seattle Presbytery on a visit to Semillero de Paz Shalom (Shalom Peace Seedbed), a project for neighborhood children run by Third Presbyterian Church of Barranquilla. I think I can speak for all of us grown-ups: that play time was a gift!
It was one of the moments of life where grace bubbles up all around and seems to echo the affirming refrain of Genesis 1: “God saw how good it was” (CEB). Moments like that glisten in my memory, a counterpoint to the more challenging parts of ministry here in Colombia, and the new energy and enthusiasm of the delegation helped make this one possible. I’m grateful that my friends from Seattle were able to be part of that, and also that they bore witness to the shadow side of life in this wonderland of a country.
They heard testimony from some of the women of ASOTRACAMPO (Association of Campesino Farmworkers of El Tamarindo, a group the Presbytery of the North Coast has been accompanying for several years in their struggle for justice and dignity) about how the police came in riot gear to enforce the eviction of the campesino families from land they had been farming for over a decade and guarantee they would not interfere as their homes and crops were destroyed. How do we measure the distance between law and justice, when the law promotes big business and international trade at the expense of local food sovereignty and the livelihood of small farmers?
We also visited another group of campesinos from El Tamarindo who were able to relocate to a small farm about two hours away, and we spent a night in hammocks and beds in their homes. These hardworking sisters and brothers are reaping the fruits of their labor—abundant yuca, plantains, squash, and peppers—but they continue to struggle with the local county government and the water and electric companies to have access to public services. And their peaceful environment doesn’t immunize them from the common human tensions of differing visions and personalities.
As the delegation joined in a time of reflection on the experiences of the week, I mentioned that “the least of these” in Colombian society are in some ways set against each other. Although implementation is haphazard, displaced persons who are victims of the armed conflict are eligible for benefits and support from government agencies such as access to land and special educational programs. While there has been some progress in social services in recent years, far less support is available for those who are poor for more routine reasons, impoverished by a legacy of inadequate public education, meager housing conditions, and low wages.
This is one example of how societal systems and worldview tend to “qualify our compassion,” as the Rev. Staci Imes put it. Our structures reflect and reinforce our notions of who deserves help and who does not. The Rev. Mark Zimmerly, another member of the delegation, wondered what difference it would make if those who are homeless in Seattle were considered “displaced,” making visible the forces that push so many families and individuals into precarious living conditions. How do labels and categories affect the way we see people, the way we value their human dignity? Can we justify our desire to qualify our compassion if we are centered in the Christian faith?
Questions like these help bridge the distance between ministry in Colombia and ministry in Seattle, questions that get at the heart of what it means to promote life in fullness for all of God’s good creation. This is what I love about my life as a mission co-worker, wading into the messy, creative space of encounter between cultures, seeking God’s will and wisdom in the midst of it. The time and encounters I shared with this delegation left me feeling a sense of wholeness and peace in my vocation.
Cold dawn on the hilltop
Sticky dough, crackling oil
Patient Colombian hands show
Awkward gringo fingers
How to make arepa de huevo
Dancing and laughter
In between languages with
Other people’s thoughts on my tongue
Seeds of commitment
The struggle for daily arepa y yuca
Trying our best to speak words of peace
Finding we are family
Whether we like it or not
God sees how good it is
Vocation is something I spend a good amount of time considering with the Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) who come to spend a year of service here in Colombia. Whether they will go on to work in refugee services, real estate, education, or parish ministry, we try to root ourselves in the deeper questions, moving from “What should I do with my life?” to “Who has God created me to be?”
My own life is one of the tools that I have to offer as an example, and I am profoundly grateful for the ways the broad community of the church has helped me in discerning new steps of peacemaking work. I’ve been feeling a deep sense of joy and excitement even in the midst of challenges faced by some of the communities I work with.
This year, I’ve been finding my way in new rhythms of work with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC), sharing a Christian witness in promoting peace and reconciliation in Colombian society. I have seen hopeful steps toward a possible relocation to good farmland for the campesino farmers of El Tamarindo who were uprooted at the end of 2015. We are helping other groups of displaced campesinos find funding for improvements on their land such as building wells and decent dwellings. And through the churches, we are engaged in the good, hard work of transforming our own minds and hearts and our patterns of behavior at home and in society, to help nurture a culture of peace.
Please keep Colombia and the witness of the IPC in your prayers as the peace process moves forward. This has been a challenging year, as we continue to see opposition and threats to this delicate endeavor. In spite of this, commitment to the process remains strong among the majority of the population, and the FARC have been fulfilling their agreements to transition into civilian life. The former combatants who have participated in the peace process have now relinquished 100% of their weapons arsenal to the United Nations. This is motive for hope and thanksgiving!
The road ahead is long, and progress will be slow and halting, but we are committed. And I rejoice in the knowledge that I am right where God is calling me to be. Thank you for being part of this work of service. Your prayers and financial support make it possible for me to be here, and for that I say, ¡gracias!
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