On July 15, in Havana, Cuba, peace talks resumed between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. During this round, talks focused on the rights and compensation of the victims of over half a century of violence.
That same day my husband, our almost 2 year-old daughter, and I took the bus to the end of the line on the southern edge of Bogotá, far from the halls of power. Whole towns have grown on the hillside—the first stop for many in the rural-to-urban migration. Most of the people living here have fled for their lives. They are among the 6 million internally displaced persons in Colombia. It was here that we discovered stories of resilience and peacemaking, along with a handful of modern-day saints.
We came to Colombia to visit our friend Nate Howard who is doing good work here with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). We also wanted to learn first-hand about the massive displacement of people from their land, homes, and communities, and to hear the lesser-known stories from those on the ground who are working for peace, well-being, human dignity, and the common good. Nate and his colleagues introduced us to some remarkable people doing this very work. Here are a few of their stories.
The Church in Community
Marta directs a lively community center and befriends everyone she meets. The center is located in Soacha, the hillside town mentioned (and pictured) above. Marta and her staff enthusiastically showed us their new facilities under construction to house much-needed educational, art, and social programs for families in the neighborhood. Of course, she added, the space would also serve as the church’s meeting place on Sunday morning.
A short walk away, we met Tomás, who formerly served as a pastor at a thriving middle-class church near his home in prosperous northern Bogotá. But when he felt convicted that he was becoming too comfortable, he started commuting two hours south, directing a school for young children and creating jobs for teachers, most of whom have been displaced. It’s a safe, caring place, reaching out to empower children who will be presented all too soon with the false hopes of gangs and armed violence. Here too, the church shares the space and leads the efforts.
In downtown Bogotá we joined a weekly lunchtime gathering at the church called Moments for Peace, thoughtfully organized by Pablo, one of the church leaders. After a biblical meditation, we heard from a guest speaker actively engaged in peace building work along with a discussion, and then shared soup together. Many of those attending the lunch had at one point been internally displaced. The church is a place of belonging for those who have lost everything familiar.
Our particular reference point, and the subject of these stories, was the Mennonite Church of Colombia (Iglesia Menonita de Colombia). Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas, a human rights lawyer and leader in peace, justice, and development efforts in Colombia said the Mennonites taught him as a child that churches could be centers for social engagement and transformation. That is indeed what we found. And it is being done in a spirit of nonviolence, as “… an alternative to a theology that justified the necessity of violence, which in Colombia has been, for many, liberation theology.”
Peace and Development
We met Ricardo, his wife, Lillian, and the rest of his capable staff at Sembrandopaz (Sowing Peace). We heard a variety of updates from the staff while enjoying fresh mangoes. While they advocate for just laws and work to strengthen civil society, the staff also understand that building a culture of peace is directly related to human well-being. “If people are hungry, there’s not going to be peace,” Lillian said, as she went on to talk about their economic development and income generating initiatives for local communities. One of their agricultural development projects is a demonstration farm where one displaced family has found a new home and livelihood and is experimenting with sustainable farming practices as a way to educate others in the community. The farm also serves as a space for community gatherings and dialogue.
Voice and Local Space
Though a national peace accord seems hopeful, and is certainly critical, it is only the first step. The long, hard work of truth, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing will continue unfolding for years to come.
One of the most basic human requirements in that process is giving people a voice and listening when they speak. I’ve been trying to think of this in terms of my own profession of landscape architecture. Where are local spaces where people’s voices can be heard, where they feel safe to share their stories and where others are willing to listen, and where there can be respectful exchange and dialogue? If they don’t exist, how can we design them? Place is important with this sort of thing. It should be hospitable in the broadest sense of the word. The examples above are working creatively in that direction.
Another way we saw people finding physical space to express their voice was through Bogotá’s growing street art scene. Artists have transformed blank canvases to creatively communicate a message to all who care to look, and it is now an unforgettable part of the urban fabric. This art can also inspire others to find their voice in creative ways. We were guided on a 2-hour street art walking tour illuminating the deeper meanings behind some of the art. This particular piece says, “The Peace is Ours” (by Guache, a street artist), meaning not only that the peace belongs to the people of Colombia, but also that the people are responsible to help build a culture of peace.
Though the peace talks are doing what they can to give voice to some, they can only do so much at a macro level. Marta, Tomás, Pablo, Ricardo, and Guache, the street artist—all in their contexts of community—are much more effectively creating space for the type of dialogue and connection that a place like Colombia needs.
I was prompted by these examples in Colombia to think about how we, in our own contexts, could work to create more hospitable spaces in our churches, schools, communities, and cities; places where those who long to be heard can be listened to, as a means to peace, well-being, dignity and the common good. Here in Colombia, there are seedbeds of hope, even in a very violent world. Esquivia Ballestas, Ricardo with Paul Stucky, “Building Peace from Below and Inside: The Mennonite Experience in Colombia,” in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding, eds. Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach (Washington, DC: 2000), pp 122-140.
Tashya Leaman Dalen worked in international development and peacebuilding before studying landscape architecture, interested in the relationship between urban space and social cohesion. She practices through The Good Land Collaborative and teaches urban anthropology. She and her husband and toddler just returned to PA from a learning tour in Panama and Colombia where at least two of them drank a lot of really good coffee.
Photos: Tashya Leaman Dalen