It is the Time for Peace with Justice in Colombia

April 28, 2013
Psalm 34:1-14

Let’s start with an important theological question: How many of you enjoy eating avocados, guacamole, or just plain avocado? Raise your hand please! By noticing how fast the avocado salads and guacamole run out at potluck days and gatherings with this church, I was expecting that most of you would raise your hand. I’m glad!

Let me explain, avocados are a central product in Colombia, and is especially important to the region where I come from, the region of Montes de Maria. Since childhood, you grow up hearing jokes, riddles and tongue twisters about avocados (as well as plantain, yucca, mango, and other products) but avocado is the emblematic fruit of the region. You’d hear the man in the street selling avocados by yelling “Eeeeeeel aguacateee, El aguacateeeee”. Avocados are known to grow in the wilderness unattended and they can be as big as the size of one’s face.

Avocados in Colombia, as well as in other countries, contain great quantities of nutrients. Avocados provides nearly 20 essential nutrients to the human body, including fiber, potassium, vitamin A, E, C, B6, B12, Vitamin K, Niacin, and others. It enables the body to absorb the nutrients of other fruits and used to lower cholesterol levels. In Montes de Maria, thanks to having access to products like avocados, people in extreme poverty levels are still able to meet their food security needs, survive, and not die of hunger. They can also commercialize it in the streets and local markets.

But recently, there has been a plague that has attacked avocado crops and campesinos have been left without the tools to recover their crops. Due to this government abandonment, avocado production has suffered a significant decline. So imagine the situation; it’s like if I tell this community that no one will ever be able to eat avocados again. I’m not only depriving you from a nutritious and delicious fruit, but also creating a social trauma.

Avocados represent an important part of the culture, tradition, pride, and are present in moments of celebration. It is part of people’s happiness and connection with life. Other products have become part of our celebrations and spirituality as well. For example bread and wine, present in our worships. So, in Montes de Maria, you can confidently say that Jesus could be the “avocado of life”, and it makes sense. Now you understand the theological meaning of my initial question.

The March

Given this situation around a thousand campesinos decided to march and protest the protection of avocado crops, and also to demand more government presence in all areas of social services in the region. The planning of this march started back in October 2012 when several church leaders, from different evangelical denominations, and non-church community leaders, gathered and decided to do a “nonviolent collective action (Yes, they’re hanging out with Mennonites) They decided to march for five days, 80 miles, starting in one of the small villages and ending in the touristic city of Cartagena. Once there, they were hoping to meet with government officials and express their demands and get media attention.

But somehow, government representatives showed up on the third day of the march and reached agreements with the leaders with conditions to stop the march. Past experiences have proven it is difficult to assure that officials will keep their word. The march stopped, but it caught public attention and it seemed to be the beginning of another social movement in Colombia, in addition to many that already exist and that claim for sustainable peace. Colombia is one of the countries with the highest levels of violence in the world, but it is also one of the countries with the highest number of peace initiatives. Every week there’s a protest or public manifestation in a major city of the country.

Another important success of this march was that several church leaders put aside their differences and united in one voice. They found a common cause that gave them a reason to come together, to pray, and mobilize for peace. What was this reason? The answer is hope.

“11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days”.

Our sister church, Remanzo de Paz, was also present in this march. They sent us a letter two months ago asking for our prayers and support in their participation in this march. They were also frustrated and fearful of losing crops. So, they have also joined the national clamor for peace in Colombia. They are convinced that now it is the Time for Peace with Social Justice. We as a church prayed and were with them in spirit unaware of how connected we are by avocados.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
9 Fear the LORD, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

Our sister church is engage in helping to build peace in Colombia.  They are gathering as we are today, looking for the good things of the Lord. They want to find refuge from so many years of long conflict and violence. They want to be blessed because they love life, they don’t want to lack anything.  As do we!

There are several ways to understand the Colombian conflict. Almost every analysis points out that the fight for land is one of the main root causes of violence.  Bonnie Klassen, MCC Latin American Director, says: “Displacement is not a short-lived disaster in Colombia, but rather a chronic, systematic strategy for concentrating economic and political power.” Who are the people that have this chronic strategy to concentrate power? Whoever they are, they are missing something in their life, and they are missing the good things of the Lord.

10        The lions grow week and hungry,
But those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

The Lord invites us to not be “weak” in our search for peace. Instead the message encourages us to seek permanently. The Lord invites us to not wonder in an eternal stage of hunger for power and concentration, but to find its refuge. Maybe the Lord knows this is the only way we can actually rest and be blessed.

Gabor Mate, a Canadian doctor that works with street addicts in Vancouver, describes in one his books called In the {Realm} of Hungry Ghosts, that there are many types of addictions, besides the ones that society usually condemns, that are even more dangerous and we even seem to encourage. Like addiction to power, or addiction to work, or money.  Profit for the sake of profit and concentration of land for the sake of wealth sounds like an addiction. This type of behavior, extorting land from others and pursuing these addictions continues a cycle of violence in Colombia. Land concentration is not only a Colombian problem, but also the same phenomenon that happens in countries where there’s internal conflicts. This is something that society needs to start considering seriously.

A Message of Hope

But the message of God says that those who seek the Lord will lack no good thing. These are words of hope that can actually help us to break through the cycle of violence, and the stage of weakness and hunger. Hope is the right word for the moment that many churches and communities of faith are living in Colombia.

Several things have been giving hope lately to the Colombian society. The Colombian government has been negotiating peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces, after decades of confrontations. Land restitution laws have been passed to help millions of people who were displaced from their homes. But this is only the beginning as the process is complicated and there are still major human rights violations and threats to victims.

Now is the time. But why now?  Why is now the moment? Well the moment has always been there. The word of God has always been there. The invitation to find its refuge and to seek his word is always there.  There’s always an opportunity to end suffering, to build peace and bring reconciliation, and to work together.  We don’t always find the connection though, the symbol, the gesture, or the relationship that unites us in hope. But it is there and we have to claim it. We just have to taste and see that it’s good.

Relationships like the one we have with our sister church in Montes de Maria provides the connection that we need to create hope. Fifteen years ago, the region where I come from, especially the rural areas, was an “invisible” region, like many other regions of the world, to the eyes of the international community.  The crimes that were committed in this region were committed because there was a sense that no one was watching. But all that has been changing and Montes de Maria is not the invisible region it used to be. There’s still enormous government abandonment, but is not a forgotten region anymore, because more and more people keep investing time, energy, prayers (like today), and hope in building peace and relationships.

Their history became meaningful to other people and now their history is known.

11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days.

That is the invitation of the Lord, to gather with him… her… Elohim. This is not a desire that keeps you in eternal “hunger”, but instead, it promises us to “see many good days”. God wants us to gather and listen to the stories that others have to say. Stories that can probably provide that connection that creates hope, prayer, and action.

Now you know what it means when I say I’m from a city in Montes de Maria. You’re one of the few Mennonite churches in the US, where I can say the name of my home town and you recognize it. One of the reasons I attend this church is because you know where I come from, which is of great importance for me. That is the importance of being watched and recognized, and therefore, I am not invisible in this place. And I too like avocados!