Winnebago Presbytery, Colombian counterpart overcome travel barriers to work together
by David Lewellen | Special to Presbyterian News Services
WISCONSIN – The Winnebago Presbytery got a chance to learn from its counterpart in Colombia this past May when five visitors from Urabá Presbytery spent a week in northern Wisconsin.
During the course of the 13-year relationship, “they have offered more to us than we have to them,” said Michael Lukens, stated clerk for the presbytery. Many Wisconsin groups have visited South America, but until this year no more than one or two Colombians at a time had been able to make the trip north due to the difficulty of obtaining visas.
“We’ve been very intentional that this is not a charity, it’s not a one-sided relationship,” said Susan Phillips, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Shawano, WI. “We pray together and we serve one another as we serve God.” The Colombian visitors, she said, have “experienced violence and grief and displacement. They have lived their faith in much more challenging circumstances, and spiritually they have a great deal to teach us.”
“It was just a great, great time of retreat and worship and fellowship and celebrating,” said Jeff Todd, vice moderator of the presbytery and a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Wausau. “I can hardly put into words how wonderful it was.”
In addition to the scheduled presentations, “the so-called down time was the richest part,” Lukens said. “We talked about our difficulties, not just in Urabá but in our own presbytery.”
The Colombian Presbyterian church, which numbers only a few thousand people in three presbyteries, would be easy to overlook in the South American nation’s swirling currents of corrupt government forces, paramilitary groups that owe allegiance to no one, and drug cartels that also build schools and housing. During a presentation years ago about those complexities, Phillips recalled, one Wisconsin churchgoer asked, “Who are the good guys?” But, she concedes, “Colombian reality is messy. Every side has its ugliness.”
In the midst of all that, the Colombian Presbyterian church tries to aid the displaced, support relatives of the murdered, and lobby for justice. Some church leaders have received death threats. In Colombia, “each group gets its way more when people are afraid of them,” Phillips said. “But the church says, ‘Fear not.’ They’re the ones who speak out, who name names, who tell the truth.”
Speaking of Irlene Doria, one of the five visitors, Phillips said, “This is my friend standing in front of me, telling me how her family has been murdered.”
“The Presbyterian Church of Colombia is small but with a very large impact on education, evangelization and social work for peace in the country,” said Diego Higuita, secretary general of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, via email. Higuita, who has visited Wisconsin several times, said the most important thing he has learned from the partnership is “the possibility of confessing faith in the company of people on the other side of the world to work together for peace.”
On retreat, Todd said, “we heard stories that opened people’s eyes in our own church. The struggles we have in this country pale in comparison to our brothers and sisters in Colombia.”
But, Lukens said, small Colombian congregations tend to be tight-knit and active in their communities. “They have a rich tradition of hospitality, of sanctuary, of dealing with the ordinary needs of people, of strangers — not just members.”
United States government action and inaction has contributed to the devastation in Colombia, but for an average citizen, “we don’t pay attention,” Phillips said. “We don’t have to, we don’t need to.” But Americans feel the effects. The demand for cocaine is a big one, but things as mundane as cheap pineapple are also ripple effects from U.S. policies.
The covenantal relationship between the presbyteries has also extended to lobbying the U.S. government. Lukens said that over the course of a decade or more, they have learned what works and what is needed, so that now the focus is on ensuring that non-governmental organizations in Colombia are spending their U.S. aid effectively. In Washington, “we are met with interest because we are not advocating for ourselves, we’re advocating for others,” he said. “That’s unusual.”
The Colombian visitors stayed in Wisconsin for a week, visiting churches in the Winnebago presbytery as well as participating in the retreat. “It’s an absolute gift to hear people from other parts of the world tell their own stories,” Phillips said. Guests from Colombia were present at her church on Pentecost. Since that also happened to be confirmation Sunday, Shawano middle-schoolers had the enriching experience of being “confirmed into the global body of Christ.”
David Lewellen is a freelance writer from Glendale, Wis. He writes frequently for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.
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