“There are other names they call me,” Cristobal says, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Padre to Prostitutes, Minister to Misfits, Shepherd of the Street People. Some names are too rude to say. In my own denomination I am known as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bankruptcy, here in Popayán.”
Cristobal Ochoa came into his vocation by a markedly circuitous route. Born into a family where abuse and alcoholism forced him onto the streets at an early age, he decided to join the M-19, one of the violent armed groups that was dominating Colombia at the time. Conflict with his commanding officer led him to fear for his life, and he left that group to join the military. Once inscripted, however, his rebel past with the M-19 was discovered and he was promptly imprisoned for treason. His time there, though short, only served to harden him more.
“I was always armed, always ready to fight,” he relates. But Cristobal was brought up short when, one day, his small son found one of his guns and playfully pointed the deadly weapon at his father’s head. Thankfully, the boy did not have the strength to pull the trigger. But Cristobal was brought to his knees in shame and repentance.
Turning his life around has involved education, social activism and a commitment to follow Jesus. Cristobal now finds himself drawn to those living in squalor on the streets of Popayán, marginalized because of addictions. Some are ex-combatants, like himself, seeking to numb the horrors of their past with alcohol and drugs. Operation Angel, a street ministry operated out of the Baptist church that he pastors, sends out teams twice a week until three AM, feeding the homeless and inviting them to visit their church for a hot meal, shower, clean clothes and - most importantly - hope.
In June 2017, MB Mission ACTION participants joined Cristobal and his teams to walk the slum areas of Popayán, distributing bread and hot agua de panela drinks from canisters strapped to their backs. Above the ripe, suffocating odor of rotting garbage and smoke from crack pipes, the love of God was demonstrated in a tangible way. At one point the North American teams were alarmed when a fight broke out, and an angry, deranged woman began to slash at a man who was threatening her. The team froze, unsure of whether or not to run, but two of the street people quickly surrounded them, seeking to shelter them from possible harm.
One of the North Americans reflected on this the next day, during the church service. “We only gave them bread, perhaps a little kindness and dignity.” But it was as if this allowed the image of God, their Creator, to emerge in them. And so, rather than respond with violence, their impulse had instead been to protect the vulnerable. In that moment, those enslaved to addiction and violence themselves became leaders for peace.
Cristobal and his congregation are among the few Christians who dare to reach out to the homeless and the disbanded ex-combatants in their region. They are determined to collaborate with God in the restoration of lives that often seem broken beyond repair, seeing the intrinsic value of each individual created in the image of God. For them, no one is disposable.
By N. White