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The PC(USA)’s Connecting the Dots webinar updates viewers on Colombia’s peace process

‘It’s what peace looks like on the ground — having basic needs met’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Flavia Carpio via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — A pastor with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia talked about her official role as a government negotiator, helping to bring peace to after more than five decades of internal armed conflict in the South American nation.

“I think this space continues to be a hopeful space,” the Rev. Adelaida Jiménez Cortés told the Rev. Sarah Henken, a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Colombia, during Wednesday’s webinar, “Connecting the Dots: Hope for a Peaceful Future in Colombia?” Although “it’s very intense work,” she said it’s “been a great experience to be appointed by the national government to be at the dialogue table.”

The Rev. Adelaida Jiménez Cortés

“It was important to be there as a pastor and a woman to negotiate a ceasefire,” she said. “It has been a space for a lot of learning, and it’s important to hear from other voices.”

Last summer, Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s president for the past year, submitted his “Total Peace” policy to the Colombian congress. The goal, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, is to end the violence that’s plagued Colombia for decades by brokering simultaneous ceasefires with various armed and criminal groups, then trading judicial leniency and other benefits for permanent disarmament. Total Peace includes a six-month bilateral ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest insurgency.

Sue Rheem, the PC(USA)’s Representative to the United Nations, and the Rev. Maggie Breen, Community Education and Assessment Specialist for Seattle Presbytery, were among those who joined with ecumenical partners in Bogotá recently for the “International Encounter for Reconciliation in Colombia.” Henken and the Rev. Dr. Valdir França, World Mission’s area coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean, also were part of that gathering.

On her first visit to Colombia, “I was really struck by the hospitality of the people,” Rheem said. “I was concerned that I don’t speak Spanish, but people were always generous and helpful.”

“As Adelaida said, they are doing the work with hope,” Rheem said. After returning to her work at the UN, Rheem recently spoke as part of a panel on international presence and accompaniment. “I didn’t know much about the work of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia before I left, but as you say, Sarah, the church was instrumental in advocating for the peace process,” Rheem said. “I was very proud to be a Presbyterian there.”

Sue Rheem

The UN “has a vital role” in the peace process in Colombia, according to Rheem. Every three months, UN Secretary-General António Guterres provides the Security Council with an update on how it’s going. While it’s divided on other issues, the Security Council “is in unity on Colombia,” Rheem said.

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is part of a non-governmental organization working group that consults with the Security Council. “We meet with ambassadors to countries on the Security Council and we raise concerns on the ground,” Rheem explained. One idea is to bring a delegation from Colombia to meet with Security Council members “to tell them in person what is happening and what it is [Colombians] desire for peace,” Rheem said.

Partnering with Colombian presbyteries

“It’s been fun to represent the local church with larger national actors,” Breen said. For a decade now, Seattle Presbytery has had a relationship with the Presbytery of the North Coast in Colombia. “We were careful to set it up as an accompaniment model,” Breen said. “We visit and keep up, doing as friends do — text and get together virtually.” As a newcomer to the longstanding relationship, “I am so lucky to come into the deep groundwork they have done,” Breen said.

The Rev. Maggie Breen

Breen has traveled to Colombia a half-dozen times in the last 18 months. “It was overwhelming to hear the stories and the enormity of everything that’s happening and why people spent decades fighting for their families and the determination they have for peace,” Breen said. About 15% of Colombia’s 51.5 million people are internally displaced, and a large number are Afro-Colombians, Breen said, “which is unbelievably painful for people so tied to the land.”

Breen has heard many people express “the frustration they feel when people like me come in and nothing changes. They asked for a commitment that we would share their story and amplify their voices.”

França discussed progress being made in Urabá Presbytery in northwestern Colombia. What’s important to remember about the peace process, he said, is that it “will always be the result of a collective effort to eradicate the root cause of conflict.”

That rural region of Colombia has grown significantly over the past few years, according to França, and so Urabá Presbytery has been working on sustainable development, including water projects, food security, “and other services that communities need. It is a holistic focus on evangelism, and it has a direct impact on a population that has been displaced.”

The positive social impacts “have been essential for communities that are far away from the main congregations of the presbytery,” França said. “They have been able to be a real presence and it’s made a huge difference. They have brought some sustainability to life that’s dignified. … Our office has been able to accompany the Presbytery of Urabá and congregations to help them reach out and make a difference in their own context.”

The Rev. Dr. Valdir França

Each of the three presbyteries in Colombia “has their own strategy for participating in the peace process,” França said. “Urabá Presbytery is much more rural and has been very affected by the conflict, which has given them the opportunity to be a great witness. The church has really evolved at the grassroots level.”

“It’s what peace looks like on the ground — having basic needs met,” Henken said. Presbyteries in the United States from California to Washington, D.C., have partnered with Urabá Presbytery and others in Colombia, she noted.

“They say it has been very helpful to them to have sisters and brothers from abroad to accompany them,” França said. Young Adult Volunteers “have had the opportunity to see it firsthand and then come back and advocate for the region and for the people in Urabá Presbytery.”

Learn more and watch previous episodes in the Connecting the Dots series here. Wednesday’s webinar was offered by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Militarism Working Group and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Real-time Spanish and English interpretation were made available.

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