“Our church is located in the Cauca province, in the rural village of La Esperanza, which in Spanish means ‘hope’,” pastor Roberto Yhonda says, then adds, “We are determined that our village should live up to its name.”
On the night of April 14th, 2015, a guerrilla commander of the armed rebellion known as FARC entered La Esperanza and attacked some fifty soldiers of the Colombian army who had set up camp in the village’s sports arena. Eleven were killed; twenty-three gravely injured. Villagers awoke to the sound of grenade explosions and cowered in their homes, some scarcely two meters away from the crossfire. As the conflict escalated over the weeks and months that followed, landmines that had been planted around the town previously were detonated. A seven-year old girl was killed when she accidentally stepped on one. Bullets flew through windows at all hours.
It was not safe to cross the street.
“We pleaded for a ceasefire,” says pastor Yhonda. “But armed groups continually accuse churches of collaboration with the enemy, and lives were routinely threatened. As Christians, we were stigmatized and watched with mistrust, even when we met for worship.”
The tension was intolerable, creating fear and isolation in the village for well over a year; no one knew who could be trusted. For the vast majority of the victimized there was no desire for any form of reconciliation with those who had committed atrocities in their midst. Then the Esperanza MB church dared to strategize for hope. They proclaimed that hope boldly, through worship and prayer, on October 2, 2016, in defiant celebration of the International Day of Non-Violence.
The MB foundation known as EduPaz (education for peace) helped mobilize congregants of the Esperanza church to hold a peace march, and invited the residents of the village, posted soldiers of the national army and some members of the FARC to lay down their arms and join together in prayer and song. It was time to cross the streets again.
“Children walked with hardened guerillas,” Yhonda recalls, “Mothers held both banners as well as the hands of those whose palms were calloused from clutching rifles.” The march ended with a gathering around a bonfire, where bread and peace – Pan y Paz – were distributed to all. Since then, the church in Esperanza has determined to shake off fear, passivity and bitterness and instead become active advocates for the reintegration of ex-combatants in Colombia. “We no longer identify ourselves as victims, but as survivors,” says Yhonda.
Francisco Mosquera, president of the Mennonite Brethren Denomination in the Valle and Cauca regions of Colombia, commends the work of both EduPaz and the MB churches, saying, “We know that in many places throughout the world there is war, violence and hunger. But we know, too, that true and perfect peace comes only with the lordship of Jesus Christ.” And that peace, achingly elusive for so many years, is now closer than ever.
Representatives of various local and international peace organizations and ecclesial groups were gathered for a peace camp initiative in the Cauca region when, on June 27, news came that armed groups had disbanded in the rural regions. It was the third and final stage of disarmament called for during recent negotiations for a national peace accord. That day Colombians declared – with hope – that they were now officially at peace. The rebels, who have terrorized this country with kidnappings, murders and armed attacks for over half a century, ended their armed insurgency at a ceremony in which the United Nations certified that over 7,000 guerillas had handed over their weapons. Yet many citizens still reject the peace accords, effectively polarizing the country.
“This is only a beginning,” said Marta Cortes, director of EduPaz. “We have lost an entire generation to violence. We need to reach the children – children who have never known anything but fear and hate in their country and in their own homes – and educate them in the ways of peace. These are tomorrow’s leaders. We must educate the churches to be peace-makers, to model forgiveness as they receive and help reintegrate ex-combatants into their communities. Now, more than ever, we must be salt and light in our world.”
Pray for the peace-makers of Colombia, as they cross the street.
By N. White