“The most difficult and the most encouraging part of working with MCC and our partners here in Colombia is that we are always trying to do the impossible.” This statement made by one of MCC’s workers here in Bogota, is one of many that reflects the complexities, challenges and opportunities that underlie everything that happens here in Colombia. Although it has only been three days since we arrived, we have quickly become immersed in learning about those complexities and challenges ourselves.
In Colombia, MCC works through three different dominations of Anabaptist churches. Everything that they do is directed by a committee that is made up of MCC workers, church leaders, and members various partner organizations that are directed by local churches. I will be working with Sembrandopaz (Planting Peace), one of these partner organizations. The work of MCC Colombia in supporting their partner organizations is not focussed on providing social services, although that may take place. Instead, the majority of their work involves promoting social change, which always involves asking why something is happening. And this is where the complexities begin to appear…
MCC works on a number of different themes around the world, including Colombia, focusing on relief when major disasters take place, development which includes areas of health, food security and education, and peacebuilding, which involves reconciliation and advocacy among others. All of these themes are all interrelated, and all become much more complex when the why questions are asked. For example, Colombia has had an unheard of amount of rainfall in the last year. Instead of raining for four months of the year, it rained for an entire year. This has caused many floods, which means MCC Colombia is now working to develop its relief capacities in this area. However, this change in climate means that advocacy about climate change must also be looked at if long-term solutions are going to be addressed, which moves into a different type of work that involves different actors, but must still be directed by local partners. Another area where complexities are evident is the area of displacement. Colombia has the second largest number of displaced people in the world, and this creates all sorts of issues, including polarization and distrust. How is reconciliation and peace building possible when people’s basic needs are not met because they have been forced to flee from their homes? What happens when armed groups and urban gangs mix with displaced peoples in city slums? How is the spread of AIDs combated when armed groups move from one area of the country to another because of military intervention, often spreading sexually transmitted diseases in their wake? How does it work to have 24 people from around the world working with local partners in these areas? It seems impossible, and these are only a few of the situations MCC is working within!
However, there are still encouraging things taking place which I will hopefully also get to participate within. MCC Colombia staff have been quick to point out how the churches themselves can build bridges between people and situations in a unique way that other groups may not be able to because the churches approach things from a theological, not ideological, standpoint. Of course, this will lead to positions that are political, but hopefully with different results as the agenda is not to simply gain power and money, but to transform social situations. The Anabaptist church is also a work in progress, with many problems, but they do represent a group of people who are trying to understand root causes and work in a nonviolent way to bring about a different order of society that is rooted in something fundamentally different. This work too, is exhilaratingly impossible- imagining the world as we would like it to be, and then living as if it was as we attempt to work for change.
However, along with wrestling with all of these complexities, I am still trying to figure out where I am and how I fit in with all of this. Our first full day in Bogota was Monday and it’s still hard to believe that I am finally here! I feel like I have been waiting since October to get here, and now that I am here, it’s hard to know what to think about next. However, my mind is filled with Spanish, trying not to get lost, figuring out paperwork to keep track of living expenses, living with others, new food, and attempting to find my place within our group. Language classes start tomorrow and I already have homework. All of this takes a lot of mental energy and does not leave a lot of time for reflection on Colombia, which is what I am here to do in the next few months before going to the coast. At the same time, I know that figuring out these things will not last forever and is an important part of learning to live in Colombia. I am also reminded of all of those people around the world how have been displaced or forced to move to a new place with none of the help that I am receiving. How many refugees from Colombia, for example, have come to Canada without the opportunity to have English lessons and intensive city orientation? This does not mean that their experiences negate my feelings, but thinking about these things helps me to put things into perspective and hopefully (maybe) appreciate a little more what I have been given.