Canadian Mennonite
Volume 11, No. 03
February 5, 2007


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When storytelling is all they ask

Bogotá, Colombia

Canadian Kendra Loewen, second from right, is pictured with brother and sister Daniel and Yamile Bejarano, left, who served as her host family in Colombia, and Boris Ozuna.

After touring Colombia for three weeks, Kendra Loewen found herself asking some hard questions, knowing the experience had changed her life.

Loewen was part of a group of 12 Canadians (including Johanna Petkau and Jared Martin—see their reflections below) who travelled throughout Colombia with six young adults from that country. The trip was organized by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which supports displaced people in Colombia by providing food, basic supplies, counselling and job training. Together, these young adults explored the historical, political and social realities affecting Colombians, learning from each other along the way.

The trip had many highlights, including a visit to an MCC-supported food project in Bogotá, visits with pastors and others working at collaborating on peace projects, meetings with indigenous people to experience their way of life, and more. What struck Loewen most was the way that so many people she met struggled to live with the presence of violence in their lives.

One Sunday morning, they visited a Mennonite congregation and part of that service was saying goodbye to a family that was getting ready to emigrate to Winnipeg, leaving because their lives had been threatened.

“It was interesting being on that end of the story,” Loewen said, explaining that she has been in churches that have received refugees. “It was unsettling to see this family and realize they were running for their lives, would be leaving this congregation of family and friends, everything familiar, leaving a warm climate and heading for Winnipeg!”

A meeting with a labour union leader also left a deep impression on her. Labour unions fight for the rights of indigenous people and workers who are displaced by international companies that take over the land. When locals protest, they are killed or simply disappear, the group was told.

An economist and social activist who has worked with labour unions spent most of his life living on the run. During his meeting with Loewen, his hands shook while his eyes darted back and forth.

The way he had to live his life made Loewen evaluate some of the basic principles with which she had been raised. Having grown up in a Mennonite congregation, with its clear peace theology, she had always considered herself a pacifist. Meeting people who put their lives on the line daily for the cause of peace and justice made her feel that she no longer had the right to call herself one.

Facing the poverty and the financial hardships that most Colombians live with also affected her. The money the Canadians paid to be a part of this trip subsidized their Colombian counterparts so that they could join them. It would be financially impossible for any of the Colombian participants to make the same trip to Canada.

“Even if they could get here, the cost of buying a meal or a cup of coffee would be too much for them,” Loewen reflected, adding that this trip has made her realize how her actions in Canada affect people in Colombia. It has made her think more consciously of each purchase, of how she uses energy, of what value means.

“I grew up with a Mennonite ethic of fiscal responsibility—look for a deal,” she said. “That’s why it’s hard for me to buy a cup of fair trade coffee. But now I know what the real cost of that cup of coffee is. I can make choices—to buy fair trade coffee, to buy a hybrid car, to eat locally grown food. I have the luxury to choose.”

The trip has also impacted the way she reads her Bible and how that makes her look at her world. A familiar passage in Micah 4, which calls for peace and justice, includes the vision—“each one will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

“That image became so powerful to me because I met people for whom this wish is all they want, to live with a little land, to live without fear,” she said.

It was the people that she travelled and lived with who made the deepest impression on her and it is these connections that she wants to maintain. They have become her friends and because of this she can now name people whose lives are affected by her choices here.

As they neared the end of their journey together, Loewen and her Canadian counterparts asked the Colombians what they wanted the Canadians to do when they returned home.

“‘Tell our stories,’ they said. ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘but what do you want me to do?”

Loewen already has speaking engagements lined up, at which she will tell their stories, and she plans to write for globaleyes, an MCC-based web forum for young adults on the impact of globalization.

—MCC B.C. release by Angelika Dawson

‘How was your trip?’

Johanna Petkau of Winnipeg says she had her “eyes opened” during a Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored trip to Colombia last year.

I choose my words carefully when I answer the question, “How was your trip?” It is hard not to talk on and on for hours about the stories heard and statistics learned. However, as the time since the experience grows, so does my fear that I will forget what I learned and that the experience will fade to a distant memory.

Over the last few weeks, when that fear has threatened to overwhelm me, I am reminded of one evening in Bogotá in particular. It was pouring rain outside and a few of the Colombian participants, myself and my housemate couldn’t find a cab back home. So we grabbed a eurapa (a South American treat) and hot chocolate, and sat in a coffee shop and talked.

One of the Colombian participants faced me and asked, “Do you feel guilty?”

Do I feel guilty that many of the luxuries I enjoy—like gas to fill up my car or the soft drinks (Coca-Cola) I consume—come at the expense of the lives of Colombians who are killed when they attempt to form a union? Yes, I felt guilty.

His response was so simple, so kind. “Don’t feel guilty,” he said. “We want you to be happy, to have the things you want. We just don’t want your happiness to come at the expense of our happiness.”

He continued, saying we all have our own world, our own reality. It is when two worlds come together that there are no more excuses for looking the other way. To deny what is happening elsewhere in the world is not only to deny change and involvement, but our own consciousness.

By reliving that moment, I remember that my world has become permanently intertwined with his and I am no longer allowed—nor want—to forget my experience.

Paul reminds us that “the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…” (I Corinthians 12:12-21).

And so it is with myself. Returning after having my eyes opened by this experience, I understand my role to be a part of a larger humanity, united and connected under Christ.

I come from a centre of power and opportunity. I have the privilege to raise my voice, fight for peace, and seek justice without the risk of losing my life. As Jesus did when he fed the hungry, healed the sick and sought peace, I am reminded that we are also called to take responsibility for what is happening in other parts of our world and to take action.

—Johanna Petkau

The author is a member of Carman (Man.) Mennonite Church; she lives in Winnipeg and works in Portage la Prairie as a child and adolescent community mental health worker.

Drinking Chicha…and other memories

Martin

I was drinking coffee on a balcony at a Christian retreat centre on the slope of a mountain overlooking the fog-veiled city of Cali in Colombia, when my early morning solace was interrupted by a loud military helicopter speeding by pretty close overhead. I grinned at my newfound Colombian friend, Boris, and said, “American tax dollars hard at work.”

In the departamento of Valle de Calle we attended a meeting of delegations from Christian groups to bridge cultural gaps in order to present a united front in social protests. Lunch was a little intimidating when about a hundred smiling indigenous people watched us eat “game-chicken” soup that was very, very difficult to chew, and drink the traditional indigenous fermented corn drink called Chicha. We later learned—to our dismay—that it was prepared by taking corn, chewing it, spitting it out, chewing that, spitting that out—until you have a drink. About half of us who actually drank the Chicha became sick two days later. I didn’t, and I think it’s because I eat things off the floor when I drop them!

Many Colombians wish that North Americans would adopt a progressive—instead of a punitive—approach to drug policy. They wish we would send our addicts to rehab, instead of making drugs illegal and then spending millions on jails and police, and giving millions to the Colombian Army to spray the drug crops (killing all local food crops).

Just like during Prohibition, when gangsters like Al Capone became rich off illegal alcohol, today’s rebel groups and right-wing militias fund their war off illegal drugs.

My duty to all my Colombian friends is to say that much of our prosperity, our cheap oil and cheap goods, and our militant policies come at the cost of many of their livelihoods and lives.

—Jared Martin

The author is a member of Floradale (Ont.) Mennonite Church and a student at the University of Guelph, Ont. His reflections are from a contribution to his family’s 2006 Christmas newsletter.


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