Tuesday, October 18, 2016


People want to be reassured. I felt this lesson strongly everywhere I went. Whether it was Phoenix, Arizona or Knoxville, Tennessee or Wausau, Wisconsin everybody I talked to wanted to feel reassured. Often they wanted to feel reassured that the world wasn't going in a dark direction. They would say they have a question, phrase it as a question, but what they really wanted was for us to reaffirm whatever they had just said.

"The Colombian government and the FARC insurgents signed these peace accords. Whether the people voted or not they can still implement them, right?"

"But both sides are coming to an agreement. They did it before, surely they can do it again."

My job, not just as a translator but as an ambassador of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, was to field these questions to Pastor Luis in the best way. I conveyed his responses with as much aplomb and tact as I could because the reality was: We couldn't offer reassurance. As much as we'd like to say with a certainty that Colombia is going towards peace we also have to admit things could go horribly wrong.

We visited these churches, presbyteries, and universities to share whatever positive news we had. While we avoided discouraging statistics and horrendous stories of death, pain, and anger we couldn't completely evict them from our story. (I say we because, after speaking together for so long, I know the story very well.) The reality we presented, as much as we wanted to present something optimistic, is plagued with incredible violence. It's a reality that's developed over 68 years, and it's one Colombians have to face every day. Pastor Luis and I often remarked to his audience that he wanted to show some photos of mass graves to illustrate the sadness, but he didn't want to dwell on sadness. I think this discomforted some. What we saw, however, wasn't just the effect of our words. The people were discomforted to begin with.

It's fair to say we're at an incredible moment in our history and at the same time in something older generations are familiar with. It's election season. I'm only twenty-three but I get the feeling Americans have been arguing over presidential candidates to varying degrees of intensity ever since George Washington stepped down. We argue now, and more ferociously than we ever did. Video archives show former candidates trying to out-nice each other. We don't get that anymore. The election cycle has shown us Americans a dark side to our society.

Plenty of us knew there existed bastions of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and all the other 'ism's that create exclusion. Some of us were educated about them. Some of us learned the hard way just how backwards we still are. It felt like a conspiracy theory to explain to people that damage is being done in our country and we don't ever acknowledge it, but the cover's been blown. As of this past year we have seen that lingering darkness revealed and given the chance to step into the limelight (and no, I'm not indirectly talking about Donald Trump. I'm indirectly talking about everything that he's a part of and more.) For those of us who might have buried their heads in the sand they can no longer ignore it.

It's scary to see your home as something other than warm and inviting. If you invited a friend to your house for dinner you would hope your family can impress them. Instead we've found ourselves angrier and eager to fight over the food on the table.

People want to be reassured. What they see is a time of great change. Change is naturally intimidating and when reassurance is in short supply you take what you can get. Even if it means choosing a side you wouldn't normally. The people we see as our angry, hateful neighbors are really nothing more than intimidated people looking for a way out. If things have to change, let it be for their benefit at least. That's not unfair to ask.

The Colombian people voted 'No' in a referendum to approve the formal peace accords. There's a lot of reasons why: the Catholic Church stayed silent, the Evangelical church promoted 'No', the government used the vote as a political game. I've heard the answers millions of times. The Colombian people voted 'No' to peace and the great irony is the people who were most affected by this war were the ones who voted 'Yes.' The people most likely to have hate and anger in their hearts collectively voted to reconcile themselves with their brothers and sisters. We could learn a thing or two from that.

That's why I'm writing. Not to denounce anybody or declare my allegiance to any one party. I, like the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, want to work for the betterment of mankind. I want to be on the side of peace. What does that mean? Reconciling ourselves with our brothers and sisters, and as the Pastor often says "The way to reconciliation is through love." Radical love. The Jesus kind of love. It sounds crazy, but that's what makes it so radical. To reconcile ourselves with these people is asking a lot. What we have to understand is: they're just like us. Maybe they're scared or afraid. Maybe they're embarrassed. Maybe they're proud of these faults. Maybe they want to go back to the way things were. It doesn't matter. They are my brother and my sister. Just like the Colombian people we have to love each other or we will never find peace.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Si Creo En La Paz

I'm sure you all thought I was done. I did. As it so turns out I've found myself working alongside a Man of God and his story needs to be told.

In July I accepted an invitation by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
to follow one of their Peacemakers: Pastor Luis Fernando San Miguel, a Colombian Presbyterian, who participated in the peace negotiations between the FARC Insurgents and the Colombian government. Pastor Luis is traveling around three different presbyteries (Presbytery of Grand Canyon, Presbytery of East Tennessee, and another Presbytery in Wisconsin.) They asked me to travel with him and translate his presentations at the various churches, presbyteries, and universities we're visiting with. At the time I was in Uyuni, Bolivia so I accepted the call. It was work when I had no work planned.

We've been on the road a week and a half now. I've translated his presentation (in all it's various forms) over fifty times now. I can give you all the whole lecture, but let's do the basics.

1948 - Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (Liberal party political leader) is assassinated, kicking off Civil War and 68 years of violence.
1953 - The Civil War between the Liberal party and the Conservative party comes to an end. Many guerrilla groups reside in Colombia at the time.
1964 - The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) form.

2011 - FARC enters peace talks with the Colombian government.

26 September 2016 - Both FARC leader Timochenko and the Colombian President sign the 297 page peace treaty.

02 October 2016 - The people of Colombia vote to ratify the accords. In a Plebiscite vote the Colombian people vote No.
Pastor Luis shaking hands with President Santos

Pastor Luis had been sent on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia to accompany these peace dialogues. He spoke with the guerrilla leaders. They asked him to go to their encampments deep in the mountains and talk to their infantry about peace and reconciliation (which is especially unique if you acknowledge that FARC is an anti-religious group.) So he went. So he spoke. So he made many friends.

Well, the Colombian people voted no. Then the President announced he would honor the ceasefire agreement until the 31st of October. Pastor Luis says that it's highly likely that on November 1st (All Saints Day) the Colombian army will attack the Insurgents. The Insurgents will respond and war will open again.

President Santos and Guerrilla Leader Nobel Awards
Just yesterday the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to President Santos partly to honor those who died in this horrible 52 years of guerrilla war, and partly to motivate President Santos to continue seeking peace. Between myself and Pastor Luis we both feel reasonably hopeful that an accord can be reached before the deadline.

Just in case, however, FARC has asked for leaders of Civil and Religious groups to come to their encampments and offer their protection for the FARC soldiers. FARC is committed to peace now. They are asking for these men and women to shield them with their bodies. Pastor Luis got the call. If he has the chance, on the 30th of October, he will be deep in the mountains offering his pastoral care for their 500 years of reformation service. I've traveled with the man for a week and a half now. I can read his moods fairly well (we think a lot alike) and I can tell he's worried about it too.

Speaking at a church in Phoenix, AZ
Here's a man who believes in radical love. A shining example of God's love on this Earth. He has this passionate way of speaking in superlatives. 'We HAVE to do something.' 'We DON'T have a choice.' He's not exaggerating his work. If anything I think he's playing it down. He always shares these beautiful moments and he hates talking about the sad statistics of the never-ending violence in Colombia. He always finishes his speeches by saying Colombians are happy, spirited people who love to dance. 

Entire generations of Colombians have grown up not knowing peace. There was a point (according to Pastor Luis) that they were unfazed by news of massacres. I can understand why they would consider voting 'No.' After all, the leaders of this guerrilla group massacred innocent civilians. These leaders would be pardoned if they confessed to a special tribunal. Make no mistake the government proved equally as violent at times with over 2,500 people kidnapped from their homes, killed, and buried away forever hidden. I can see how you would not want to forgive someone who killed your mom or dad and took your lands from you.

At the same time Pastor Luis makes a good point: Who doesn't want peace? Colombia might be the only country that gets the luxury of asking itself if it wants peace. Jesus preached radical love. That's why he was always with the tax collectors, lepers, and exiled. He never maintained the social order. He preached for peace, but a peace by social justice. That's exactly the sort of work Pastor Luis does. He does it on behalf of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and in partnership with many other faith traditions. The church he so lovingly talks about is the church I'm incredibly proud of. A church that's inclusive for everyone - guerrilla fighters and government employees. A church that shares it's services amongst other faith communities. A church that preaches a radical kind of love. It's this kind of message that makes me proud to say I'm presbyterian.

There's a lot of concern going forward surrounding Colombia. The No vote is still so fresh that each day brings it's own wonders. We never know, and not even Pastor Luis (who has had such an integral role in these peace talks) knows what exactly is going to happen. But as Pastor Luis likes to say: we live every day as children of God in the best way we can. That means he spreads his message and shares the stories of Colombia while I translate as best I can. Tomorrow we'll be in a church. Monday we're in Wisconsin. Our mission takes us all over, but it's work we're called to do. We don't get much of a choice. We have to do it.