A Public Witness, in the Time of the Yellow Butterflies.
A sermon by Anna Vogt.
May 28, 2017
In almost six years of life in Colombia, I have seen the public witness of the church over and over again. I have witnessed that, a determined commitment to change, when change is not popular or even part of the public agenda, can be a very powerful witness. I have had the great privilege of working with the Colombian Mennonite Church over the past few years.
I still remember my very first week in Colombia, nervous, yet eager to learn. Bonnie Klassen, at that time the rep for MCC Colombia, started talking about the work of churches in Colombia. She said that the “The most difficult and the most encouraging part of working with MCC and our partners here in Colombia is that we are always trying to do the impossible.” That statement has stuck with me, especially when I think about all the changes in the Colombian context, both over the last 27 years, of active Mennonite peacework, and over my time in Colombia. I often think about that impossible in light of the proclamation of Peter and John in today’s scripture, proclaiming signs and healing, words from the lips of ordinary people.
That proclamation, that the impossible, the illogical, the unthinkable, is not only possible, but living with us and present within is, is something that I have learnt from the public witness of the Anabaptist church in Colombia. Today, I would like to share some of the ways in which I have seen that testimony, and also resulting threats, play out in Colombia. I hope that this can be an encouragement for churches, such as LMF, who seek to play an active role in public witness in Canada.
I arrived at the end of an extremely violent period in the country. People and communities were still reeling from a new wave of internal displacements, assassinations, and threats around peace activism. Suspicions were high and we were instructed in what to tell people the supposedly random people who would question us on the bus or on the street, to only mention that we worked with the church, not that we worked in peace. We were told to be careful of phone conversations and to try not to give out exact details of locations or plans over our cells, as a wiretapping scandal had just been uncovered, where a government ministry was eavesdropping on phone calls around the country, especially around the human rights defenders community. What does it mean to work for peace in such a challenging context?
Six years later, I still don’t have specific answers to those broad questions, but rather many examples of a slow, steady, one day at time perspective, where peace is not simply a project indicator or a buzzword in a state press release, but rather a public witness of hope that things can be different and that change is possible. During the time of uncertainty in which I arrived, Anabaptist churches across the country continued to affirm what they had always done: the importance of peace and of negotiations, and ceasefires instead of fighting. Conscientious objection to obligatory military service was a long standing theme, especially in Bogota, as the Mennonite church and their institutions engaged in strategies for changing the law. In Choco, on the pacific coast, Mennonite Brethren churches encouraged their members to plant cacao trees instead of coca, the source plant for cocaine, as a way of literally planting peaceful alternatives. When food crops were aerially fumigated, a strategy used by the US funded military to eradicate coca crops, church members advocated for reparations. Communities on the other coast, the Caribbean, also advocated for land restitution and reparations because of damages suffered during the height of the conflict. Like Peter and John, the churches have a long history of speaking out even when peace goes directly against popular opinion and powerful interests.
During my time in Colombia, therefore, I have seen from my beginning days the uncertainty, when only the Anabaptist churches talked about peace publically, turn into a time period where peace is the word on everyone's lips. From every government official to every NGO, peace is popular! In 2012, the Colombian state and the FARC, the largest guerilla group, announced that they would be entering into peace negotiations. The news was meet with skepticism: after 60 years, and numerous failed attempts, was a negotiated peace actually possible? Mennonite church insitutions began sending letters to the negotiating parties and advocating for the voices of churches and victims to be involved.
As Jenny Neme, the director of the Mennonite church organization for peace, justice and nonviolence, Justapaz, stated:
“What many consider to be a historic opportunity to end the longstanding armed conflict, a conflict that has become embedded in all our social, economic and political dynamics, is hanging in the balance It is with great difficulty that, today, any Colombian can say that they understand what it means to live in peace; we are generations that have been obligated to live in a context of war and we have never experienced anything different. But this does not mean that we do not long for peace. For decades, as social movements and ordinary people, we have dreamt and demanded peace.”
A prophetic Call is one of those efforts, of dreaming and demanding peace. Justapaz documents human rights violations that have taken place in Protestant churches, as a way of raising awareness that not only do churches live in the midst of conflict, they are also directly impacted. This information is also used for advocacy. However, the section on Seeds of Hope also calls attention to the fact that churches are not just victims, but also actors for change.
One of the most joyful moments last year was the bilateral ceasefire signed in July. Colleagues from MCC, from Justapaz and myself gathered on the streets to celebrate this historic moment. After 60 years, at least some of the guns firing across the country would be silence. There were balloons, kids, singing, speeches and of course, dancing at 10am in the morning. People cried, both on the streets and back at the office. In Justapaz, we had our own moment of silence and reflection. Jenny shared about the very first days of an Mennonite movement called Pan y Paz, or Bread and Peace- every Sept 21, the international day of nonviolence and ceasefires, church members would go out on the streets with baskets of bread, passing out the food and demanding peace with social justice: pan y paz. At the time, when Pan y Paz was started, the idea that two warring parties would sit down and dialogue with each other seemed impossible. Jenny cried as she shared about the hope of the day’s celebration: it is possible to believe in nonviolence even when no one else does. I felt very privileged to be there, in that moment, to see a glimpse of the fulfillment of that long term peace work.
Yet that spirit of celebration didn’t last long.
On Oct 2, the Colombian people had the chance to vote in favor or against the peace deal in a referendum. We all thought that it would be an easy win, a formality to continue on with peace celebrations. I was in Canada at the moment, but waiting and ready to celebrate, at least virtually, with my Colombian coworkers. It was with shock and dismay that I checked the results, in my aunt’s car, driving through the mountains, to see that the NO vote had won, by the narrowest of margins. Our group chat went from excitement, to an expression of disbelief, to nothing. Instead of dancing and tears of happiness on the street, people cried.
The news of where the yes vote had won: in the rural communities and areas most impacted by conflict, people had voted for yes. One emblematic case was a community that had suffered a massacre by the FARC, where over 97% of the community voted yes to peace. In the more urban, middle class areas, where conflict is not as closely felt, people had voted no. The most disheartening news for us was the role that the evangelical churches and conservative Catholic Church had played in leading the no vote. The peace accords are some of the most comprehensive in the world, and deal with reparations for victims of the conflict- they use a differentiated approach, recognizing that women and members of the LGBTQI community had suffered in different ways, and therefore required a different approach in terms of reparations and recognition. Yet for many evangelical churches, this way of framing and inclusion was coopted by politicians against the accords- who campaigned against the “gender ideology” contained within the accords, actually launching the No campaign from inside a mega-evangelical church. If the peace accords were signed, churches were warned, the traditional family structure would be destroyed and this would have much, much worse consequences than ongoing conflict. Mistrust, years of conflict, and fear of impunity for members of the FARC, along with the desire to support “family values” lead many church members to vote against the peace deal.
In one of the readings this morning, the one of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, I think of the referendum and of Jesus, healing and plucking grain, revealing a different kind of wisdom from the wisdom of those around them, whose fear of going into the unknown, of breaking the law, was actually holding them back from a true prophetic witness and belief, a belief in the impossible.
I came back to an office and a country in crisis. What would happen? Yet yellow butterflies adorned the walls and cubicles in the Justapaz office, part of a saying that had been floating around the internet in the days before the vote, from Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez- “let loose the yellow butterflies, the time of peace has come.” I assumed they had decorated the office with the butterflies before the vote, in anticipation of the yes win, but my coworker Angelica told me that they had put them up the day after the no victory, because the Mennonites, in at least my office, would continue to say yes and live in hope for peace, that impossible peace, whether or not the rest of the country, and the church, said yes or not.
The prophetic witness continues. The first Sunday after the no, many churches, including institutions and members of the Mennonite, who had been involved in the peace movement, gathered in the central square of Bogota, for a public service to ask forgiveness from the victims for Colombia’s lack of faith in the peace process. Bread, in the shape of PAZ (peace), was laid out in front, and broken and shared among the crowd, including an occupy type tent camp, filled with people camping out in the front of the plaza until a new peace accord was ready. Students lead marches, where thousands of people filled the streets, demanding peace. The most beautiful was the March of the Flowers, were Bogotanos gave flowers to victims and Indigenous groups who had travelled to the city to demand peace. Crowds chanted: we are with you, and publicly expressed their shame for a lack of solidarity that could lead to people voting no. It was one of the most beautiful, impossible, exhilarating moments of my time in Colombia. Just like in Acts, the public proclamation of signs of healing was once again taking place.
When I think about the broader call to be a witness, I think of the call towards the proclamation of hope, not simply a hope in a faraway place or after death, but the hope of grain when you are hungry, of a stretched out hand being healed, of the ability to work and to play with dignity, of not being afraid of local authorities, of justice and of peace. Today, things are once again difficult. Transition into peace is challenging- of social activists, especially in rural areas, being actively assassinated.
What does it mean to be part of the church? For a small group of Colombian Anabaptists, it means being present and engaged, in the lifecycle of their country. It means being aware of political and current events, and talking about those events together. It means challenging power, by drawing awareness to the need for peace with social justice, of bread and peace.
The church is always a public witness, because the church is always present within society. What does it mean to be proactive and to think critically about what we are demonstrating, whether we are in the streets or not? To be reflective, and also hopeful that change is possible, whether or not we see it, our job is to engage in the nitty, gritty, everyday work, with our neighbours.
To receive and to give grace is also part of this witness. I think of my own time in Colombia and what I have been given. I am a Canadian with a Spanish bad accent and a colonial history, yet time and time again, organizations and communities have invited me to join them in their work. During the Marcha de las Flores, we, some MCCers and myself, stood on the sidelines until the folks from Justapaz, walked by, SIN OLVIDO (not forgotten) held high. All at once, instead of standing on the sidewalk, we were walking alongside. That invitation to walk alongside, through all the variations of peacework, from the mundane, to the ecstatic, to the terrible, are what have defined this work for me over the last few years. It is a privilege to sit in an office, stand on a street and learn another way of being the church, together. This work too, is exhilaratingly impossible- imagining the world as we would like it to be, and then living as if it was as we attempt to work for change. And this is the invitation that communities of faith also extend to us, here in Canada, to join in this work.