Making the Path by Walking

April 27, 2014
Psalm 34:14; Romans 15:13; Mark 7:24-30

Many years ago, when I was still living in Sincelejo, my home town, I was a part of a group of young adults who had started an Anabaptist bible study group that met several times a month to discuss our faith and social struggles in Colombia. There was no established Mennonite church in Sincelejo, so this was an attempt to gather and create something that looked like a church.

A few years later, this group received letters and pictures from a Mennonite church in the United States.  The group asked me to translate the letters from English to Spanish that contained prayers, support messages, Bible verses, and words of encouragement for us. The letters and pictures had arrived from a congregation in the US who organized an activity where children and adults wrote words of support and a desire to build a friendship despite of the language barriers and distance between Colombia and the US.

We never knew what church this was, but found it very flattering and supportive that there were people keeping this little group in their prayers. It made us feel acknowledged and it also showed us that there was so much out there that we didn’t know about. Then for one reason or another, this relationship didn’t continue between our two groups. On the one hand, I remember our small Mennonite study group was having difficulties continuing to meet together and didn’t ever become a well-established church. On the other hand, we never heard anything again from that church in the US.  We didn’t even know the name of the church!  However, we continued living with curiosity about the pictures we once received.

It wasn’t until I moved to the US to attend Eastern Mennonite University four years ago, that I decided to inquire about those old pictures. I wanted to inquire about that nice gesture we had once received.  I knew the person who at the time had been in charge of the sister church program in Colombia, which was a program set up to connect churches from North America to churches in Colombia.  She and her husband had worked with MCC, and I had gotten to know them during their time in Colombia.  She responded with the name of the church. It was Hyattsville Mennonite Church!

Here are the transcripts of the conversation in 2010:

Hey there,
How are you? Hope everything is going well for you guys! I have a question, just in case you remember; when I was in Sincelejo, I remember there were churches from the USA who sent letters and pictures to our small start-up church group in Sincelejo. Now that I’m in the US, I think I would like to send them a letter or maybe pictures, and know more about them. Do you remember which church it was? It is not a big deal, but if you have any memories of that, it would be great. Thanks,

Hey Boris,
So glad you wrote.  Are you going to be in Harrisonburg for Christmas or going home.  We’re going to be there, so would love to see you if you’re still in town.  The church was Hyattsville Mennonite Church outside of DC, if I remember correctly.  I’ll ask my husband who the pastor was.  DC is not far from Harrisonburg–you could visit them yourself!!!!  How are your brothers and mother?  I have fond memories of the time I spent in Sincelejo!  Blessings!

I also asked someone who used to be part of that small group in Sincelejo, if he still had those pictures… but no luck yet! If the pictures turn out to be from another church and not Hyattsville, then I may have to preach again, but with a different story.

My initial curiosity to find Hyattsville, in combination with a permanent desire to support the people in Colombia overcome a long lasting armed conflict, led me to find an awesome group of people with strong connections to my home town, Sincelejo.

Every year, we unite our voice to commemorate Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia.  It’s a yearly commemoration celebrated by churches in Colombia, US, and Canada, to call for a change in policy towards Colombia. Churches from different denominations and organizations have prayed and acted together for eight years now, inviting people to focus two days on our brothers and sisters in Colombia in their journey to find peace.

It is a 50 year long and complicated conflict. There are many parties and groups involved, dynamics, and different situations that have created a jungle of complications with no clear path.

One of the significant key players is the US assistance that Colombia receives. The US is the major contributor to the military forces of Colombia, and most of the aid money given to Colombia goes to military purposes, leaving social development at great scale behind. Private companies from North America also take a toll. Giant companies like Monsanto, for instance, sell Colombia the chemicals to fumigate illegal crops, without taking into account that the same chemicalskill other agricultural products that farmers use to eat and survive. Recent scandals have disclosed that Cargill attempted toillegally concentrate and exploitland that belongs to local farmers. The evidence was so clear, that the previous Colombian ambassador had to resign two months after his naming. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned during lighting the peace lamp that the money coming to Colombia from the US has become a lucrative business that every new administration in Colombia seeks to maintain. Every month there’s a new scandal about militaries misusing tax money.  And on the other hand, “Every penny counts”, said the Colombian minister of defense at an event at the Brookings Institute this past January, in an effort to let his audience know that military assistance to Colombiashould continue.

That’s why Days of Prayers and Action has been an effort for the last eight years to not only raise awareness about the Colombian conflict, but also about switching the military oriented aid from the US to more social or non-military programs. This is also an effort to invite other people to join the path of building peace, which is insecure and unknown, but with no other hope than finding the promise land, the promised miracle. The path could be found by intentional walking, or by accident. We don’t know, but we do know it will be dynamic and adjustable. This is a path that is worth walking because it is our call and because if we don’t walk it, maybe our children will have to walk it. It is bending that arch of justice.  We just want to bend it sooner because the arch of war in Colombia has been bending for over 50 years.

Churches in Colombia are ready to, at least, continue celebrating Days of Prayers and Action for the next fifty years as well. Or maybe we will have to call it differently once the military aid from the US stops fuelling the conflict.

We, the churches also play an important role. We are persistent. And like our brother Ricardo Esquivia, who is a Colombian Mennonite leader, pastor, and lawyer, saidwhen he spoke at our church last September: We are guards of hope and bishops of peace. Ricardo –using the story of a little fire fighter truck that without brakes  was able to put out a giant fire –reminded us that sometimes by accident, or even without knowing, we are able to bring the good news, because our identity as Christians is to guard the hope and promote peace in the world.

One of the Bible verses of today takes place as anunexpected situation where Jesus learns something new, while making the path by walking it.

Our Story in the scripture today says that Jesus retreats, expecting to rest and to keep his presence a secret. He did not want to be bothered or interrupted by others. He probably sought a time alone to think that maybe he was gaining too much attention, and that things were getting a little complicated for him. He thought that maybe he should lower his profile as a prophet a little bit, by limiting himself to work with the people of his own culture, community, and roots.  Maybe sticking to the causes that he knew about the Jewish people. However, the Syrophoenician woman manages to change Jesus’ point of view and mindset of who He was, and what his mission was about.  In other words, Jesus did not always understood that he was sent for all humanity. He discovers this as he walks and it is the Syrophoenician woman who taught him that he needed to expand his mission to others from other cultures and languages.

“As soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” We could interpret this as Jesus, the bread of life, responding something like: Mmmm, Actually I’m a little busy right now, and I don’t think it is right to involve myself with something that is not related to the struggles of the children of Israel. You see, you’re Greek, and from Syrophoenicia, and I don’ think I should get involved with your issues.

28 “Lord,” she replied, That is such a lame excuse!Let me tell you something: Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words: I think your logic is a little twisted, because we’re all in this together. And the fact that you see me now under the table, like a dog, picking up the leftovers from the children of Israel, doesn’t mean that my child and I should stay away from the blessing, which is you”.

Jesus had no other choice but to help the woman. He helped her, and she left and found her child on the bed, and the demon gone.

One of the beauties of reading the Bible and keeping our distance as a third person is that we can learn something from all the persons involved in her story. In this story, we learn from Jesus that it’s ok to change our understanding and that our mission is global, even though, we’re not always certain. And from the Syrophoenician woman we learn to be persistent and faithful, especially when it’s about bringing hope, peace, and justice, and that the only choice we have is to continue seeking help from those who we think can help us.

Churches in Colombia need the help from their brothers and sisters from North America. They don’t take a “No” for an answer and their voices will sound loudly until the demons of war and injustice are gone.

From our small group at Hyattsville called “The sister church committee” we have decided to take an additional step by expanding our commitment to support the work of our brother Ricardo. He and the people that he works with have been under a lot of threats for their work in claiming the land of farmers displaced by armed groups and shady deals of multinational companies. They are also victims of a weakened judicial system that ran without funds when all the international aid went to military purposes.

For us, this is a reality that we can’t ignore. It is not only the reality of the Colombian conflict that may affect us, but the reality of all other conflicts in the world as well, and the Christian call is to respond.

In our small committee, we don’t always know what to do and there have been occasions in which we don’t know the path ahead, but little by little we’re making the path by walking.  Even Jesus was unsure about joining the struggle of the woman, but in the conversation he discovers a new purpose.

By coming to Hyattsville I was inspired to do something about the people in Sincelejo, especially about all the farmers and friends who continue being threatened for their work to change a culture of war for a culture of peace and social justice. It is by having others next to you with the same desire to help that makethings possible. As we walk the journey, God’s hand is working through little encounters that remind us who we are, and what our mission is about. We all have our personal struggles, and we all have our social communal struggles. War and injustice is one that we all share no matter where we are, and it is a blessing when we can count on others to move forward, to move adelante.

Last week, Rebeca and I went to Iowa City to celebrate a bridal and groom shower for her sister and fiancé. It was the first time for us in Iowa and we were enjoying a delicious meal at First Mennonite Church.  All of a sudden, a lady sat next to me and started asking me questions about people I knew from the Mennonite church in Colombia. She first asked me about the well-known leaders of the Mennonite church like I expected. But all of a sudden, she said: “What do you know about a woman named Maggie Urueta? I said: “that is my mother, how do you know her?” I told her I had to reached over and give her a hug.  I did!

She then explained how important it was for her daughter to work in Colombia with children who had been displaced by the armed conflict in Sincelejo, and that she had worked with my mother. We talked for about an hour and decided to stay in touch. When she told me her name, it was the mother of my friend whom I had exchanged e-mails with before, the one who told me about Hyattsville in the first place. Now, if this is the Mennonite game, and if this is how it rolls, let’s keep playing it!

Right now, Colombians are living a moments of great expectation due to the peace dialogues taking place in Habana Cuba, between the Colombian Government and the left wing guerrilla group FARC. These are great news, but a long lasting conflict doesn’t end overnight. It is the beginning of changing a culture of war for a culture of peace, but is in the regions where farmers, churches, and civil society organizations are located, that social justice is rooted.  The journey continues and we keep on walking!