“That moment, when I saw his arm sticking out from under the sheet covered in goosebumps as he slept, I felt something. And that was just the beginning.” Manuela says, as she regales me with the story of her 35 year long relationship with her husband Narciso.
The lighthearted love story became serious quickly, however, when paramilitaries shot Narciso in the face for political organizing. Manuela was overwhelmed “by the amount of blood…I was too afraid to go to the neighbours for help, so I was all alone for hours until help came. Then, I held his hand in the ambulance.”
Narciso survived and the couple fled their town, finally ending up as caretakers for the Sembrandopaz farm. Two months ago, they went back to their town for the very first time in years. They were afraid, but as Manuel expressed with wonder, “We could not even eat all of the food that people had cooked for us, as the news spread to all our neighbours that we had come back!” Narciso took a break from all the eating to visit the father of his suspected would be assassin and, in a carefully orchestrated move that followed the teaching of his local congregation to love your enemies, he embraced him and offered forgiveness.
While neither Manuela nor Narciso feel comfortable moving back, their actions reflect the gradual changes that are taking place in their environment, as justified mistrust mixes with the hope that things can different. The courage to return and the possibility of coexistence serve to create spaces where a different future may be possible.
Back in Bogota, I was invited to attend the release of a new marketing strategy for an evangelical radio station. Sometimes they rebroadcast our program, so my presence was a way to maintain relationships. General rule: the more elaborate the centerpieces on the tables, the higher the need for caution. The moment I saw the red roses arranged on top of white rocks and carefully placed glossy green leaves, all inside giant stemmed fishbowls, I became wary. As pastor after church leader boldly proclaimed the need for people to join their promotional tour to Israel, I could barely choke down my cold empañadas and lukewarm orange juice.
“For life, the family, and values,” pronounced congressman Marco Fidel Ramirez, bouncing back and forth, fist pumping the air as he exhorted God to bless the evangelizing message of the radio station and all those who uphold Christian values. The only mention of any sort of contextual reality was a boast about the reach of the station, even to those kidnapped.
For me, the event was a reflection of fundamentalist thought, perhaps a source of moral certainty in the midst of constantly changing context, but with damaging results, as their positions align, influence, and are influenced by right-wing political realities. The result: peace talks are proclaimed to be demonic in other spaces and morality is defined by the presence of vending machines for condoms.
Sometimes, I think my entire life is a journey to try to make sense out of the nonsensical, to connect the dots between macro and micro. Yet, the personal is political. What might be seen as individual decisions or actions, are always connected to a much larger reality and context, that both influences and informs actions. Seeing connections allows for a more intimate understanding of reality and also of agency, recognizing the ways change from the top and the bottom meet. There is space for both despair and for hope, along with compassion, because individual actions never occur in a vacuum, whether done in the name of religion or not.
I am so grateful that I know the stories of people like Manuela, Narciso and others throughout the campo and the city, that my experiences in high powered meeting are not the only realities of Colombia I encounter in my job on daily basis. There are many factors competing for the future of Colombia. Perhaps Manuela had no idea when she fell in love with a goose-bump covered arm, but her tenacity and hope are choices that also hold the power to change the world.