Mutuality and co-learning are guiding principles in collaboration between Seattle and Colombian presbyteries

‘This is truly a unique and exciting way to be church together’

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Several partner churches in Barranquilla, Colombia, partner with local community children’s programs to run after-school tutoring programs. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — A simple question asked nearly a decade ago by a Seattle-area pastor interested in learning more about the Presbyterian Church in Colombia has blossomed into a partnership that reflects a mutual passion for theological and academic inquiry, worship, faith and the desire to simply “be” together.

The special connection is between Seattle Presbytery and the el Presbitero de la Costa (Presbytery of the Coast) in northern Colombia. It’s been developed and nurtured over the past eight years through social media, Zoom calls and face-to-face visits. Earlier this year, a delegation from Seattle reconnected with their Colombian siblings after a hiatus in 2021 by visiting the city of Barranquilla, a seaport capital of more than one million people and the home for most of the 12 churches that comprise the Colombian Presbytery of the Coast.

The Rev. Eliana Maxim, co-executive presbyter in Seattle Presbytery, stated that when the two groups began to explore what a partnership might look like back in 2015-16, it was important that the presbyteries enter any relationship as equals.

“We agreed on certain guiding principles for our ‘hermandad’ or sibling relationship. And at the center of them was a posture of mutuality,” said Maxim. “Our presbyteries entered into this relationship as equals, committed to nurturing relationships above all else, and allowing them to then determine how we would live out our commitment to one another.”

Now eight years in, Maxim, who was born in Barranquilla, feels like the fruits of their labors are starting to materialize.

“My primary goal from the very beginning was for us to decolonize traditional mission partnerships and create something completely different: equitable, mutual and deeply relational,” Maxim said. “We are beginning to see the fruits of our commitment, and this is truly a unique and exciting way to be church together.”

Representatives from both the Seattle and Barranquilla presbyteries participated in a cooperative leadership forum as part of the thriving congregations initiative. (Contributed photo)


The Rev. Cristhian Gómez, executive presbyter of Presbytery of the North Coast and pastor of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Barranquilla, echoed Maxim’s thoughts.

“Without a doubt I would highlight the importance of these partnerships, which are growing rarer for economic and cultural reasons. Nonetheless, in these times it is necessary to strengthen them by seeing one another as equals who listen to one another and share strengths, equals who meet face to face, laugh, cry, and together build dreams that will be realized in their communities,” said Gómez.

Gómez called the Seattle group’s recent January visit both hope-giving and challenging. Hope is emerging in a post-pandemic church featuring a return to face-to-face ministry while the challenge is moving from broad, contextual issues to serving the specific faces in the community.

“My biggest takeaway was rediscovering the need to ‘be’ and ‘walk together,’” Gómez said. “This pushed us all to see our common needs and to work to meet them. One of the needs is the mental health of our members. Our siblings’ visit led us to create spaces for listening and perceiving this need shared by our people both here and there.”

Over the past eight years, more than 40 people from Seattle Presbytery have made the trip to Colombia, which Maxim notes was always intended to nurture a relationship different from the traditional idea and practice of “mission,” which has historically meant the church going abroad to bestow change.

Pastors and ruling elders who traveled to Barranquilla in January represented eight churches. (Contributed photo)

“Our siblings in Colombia know how to do church and need absolutely nothing from us,” said Maxim. “As the American Presbyterians, we do not possess the answers, solutions or fixes to anything. And though our economic realities may be different, we are committed to a mutually transformational relationship rather than a transactional one. We are co-learners embarked on a faith journey together.”

While the Colombians need nothing from their American visitors, the partnerships’ focus on mutuality definitely makes an impact. Laura Gómez, a ruling elder with the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Barranquilla, found the experience enriching on multiple levels.

“I thought it was quite an enriching experience at the cultural and religious level. It impacted my faith life in a very lovely way because sharing the Word and working as a team for the church with siblings who aren’t ‘the same people as always’ helped me see that regardless of language, culture, and distance, there will always be some way for us to communicate, understand each other and enjoy the experience of being together,” said Gómez. “Seeing how the exchange of ideas among our churches and sharing how each of us operates allowed solutions or new ways of working to be found that respond to particular needs in some of our churches was the most interesting part of the visit for me.”

Valledupar, a Presbyterian congregation located about a five-hour drive from Barranquilla, received its first face-to-face visit from the pastors of its sister church in Seattle, Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. The church’s co-pastors, the Rev. Staci Imes and the Rev. Joseph Martin Sheeran, got a firsthand view of the congregation’s day-to-day life, visited the homes of several community members, led Bible study, talked to female victims of sexual violence and engaged with church leaders on future expectations for the partnership.

“This visit was like an injection of energy and motivation to know that we are not alone in this effort to be a living testimony to the resurrected Jesus, but that beyond our national borders there are also men and women of faith in other cultures who share our feelings, pray for us, and carry us in their hearts,” said Fabio Romero, pastor of the Presbyterian congregation “A Community of Friends” in Valledupar. “I consider this to be the principal blessing we received, but we also had the opportunity to draw closer and deepen our ties, working together on plans and projects to benefit our respective churches. We think it would be beneficial, if possible, to have longer two-week visits and more frequent virtual connections.”

A visit to a community of displaced campesinos included wonderful conversations and always a cup of tinto, or black coffee. (Contributed photo)

Joint ventures that arise from this relationship come from a place of knowledge and trust with one another, according to Maxim. One such project is a scholarship program which would provide funding for children ages 5 through high school to attend school. The program’s focus will be on children from displaced families who have experienced violence. Maxim notes the fast option is to simply ask Seattleites to open their checkbooks and donate, but both entities want to do more for the child and family.

“Our approach is to first nurture the three-way relationship between the recipient family and both presbyteries to better understand the child’s journey and how we can all partner together to support and complete their schooling,” said Maxim. “This takes time but both presbyteries want more for the child, their family and ourselves. We want to create community and see each other through God’s own eyes.”

Another engaged participant working in Colombia for the PC(USA) is the Rev. Sarah Henken, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s mission co-worker in Colombia and the Colombian YAV site coordinator. Henken has accompanied the Seattle visitors in each of their visits and notes that both presbyteries have been very intentional about creating a broad base of participation, and that the mutual passion for theological and academic inquiry enriches the partnership.

“It’s been a joy for me to accompany this partnership from the very beginning and watch the relationships deepen over time. Both presbyteries have shown intentionality around creating a broad base of participation, one of the keys to a successful and lasting international partnership,” said Henken. “The North Coast has actively included youth and young adults at every opportunity, and Seattle brings a different group with each visit, some who have come many times but there always some new faces as well. There are funds shared for priority projects, but those never interrupt the focus on human connection and the desire to be Christ’s church together in a mutually beneficial and authentic way.”

“The fruits of this commitment are as many as they are varied,” said Maxim. “I see pastoral leaders in our presbytery have a deeper and broader understanding of what it means to be community and their role to the wider community outside of the church walls. I see Seattle Presbytery folks decenter themselves and their need to ‘save’ or ‘fix’ what is different or unknown and instead express an appreciation for diversity of human and church expression, display genuine curiosity, and a respectful intentionality in finding common ground. All of this strengthens the leadership capacity of our pastors and energizes our congregations.”

Seattle congregations who participate in the trips to Colombia, or have congregation to congregation partnerships, include Union Church, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church, Overlake Park Presbyterian Church, Queen Anne Presbyterian Church, John Knox Presbyterian Church and Woodland Park Presbyterian Church.

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