By Ben McConaughy, Ruling Elder/Mercer Island Presbyterian Church
The 60-year civil war in Colombia resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, 85,000 disappearances, many hundreds of thousands of wounded, rapes, threats, intimidations, land thefts, and the displacement from their homes of nearly 8 million men, women and children. The Presbyterian church has a 150-year history in Colombia, and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) has been one of the principal religious advocates for peace, including for the peace accords signed in 2016 by the government and the primary rebel group (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC). Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia as part of a delegation sponsored by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Our goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the status of the implementation of the peace accords, to listen, to learn, and to come home to advocate on behalf of the Colombian people. The delegation included the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, J. Herbert Nelson, the Director of PPF, and pastors and lay leaders from across the country. We met with victims of violence and displacement, rebel groups who have laid down their arms, representatives of the Colombia “Truth Commission,” the UN Mission that is overseeing the implementation of the agreement, the FARC representatives of the joint body that is overseeing the implementation of the group, NGO’s involved in advocating for peace, and a forum of 75 Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and political and social leaders.
While there is universal desire for peace in Colombia, our trip revealed significant challenges in implementing the accords. The political party currently in power -- which was elected after the signing of the accords – had actually opposed their approval. It has been slow in implementing the agreements. Paramilitary groups have seized control of significant parts of the country previously controlled by FARC and are stifling political and social change in those areas. The process of reintegrating FARC into civil society has slowed dramatically. The trauma experienced by the victims of war remains unhealed. Assassinations (and threats of assassinations) of civil and religious leaders stifle social change. A rebel group which was not party to the accords recently bombed a police academy in Bogotá, which has heightened tensions and distrust.
Yet we saw that the will for peace remains strong. Our brothers and sisters in the IPC labor tirelessly to bring healing to the victims of war and to former combatants who have renounced violence. We met with and encountered numerous advocates and agencies working to hold the tenuous peace. The PPF has a robust “accompaniment program” of volunteers who walk alongside Colombians, and throughout our trip we were told our presence was a tremendous source of encouragement to the Colombian people. (For those interested in serving as accompaniers, the next training in serving is in Montreat, NC from October 11-14. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
As a result of our trip, our understanding of the competing narratives and tensions was enhanced, and we intend to advocate within the United States and at the United Nations on behalf of the causes of peace, justice and reconciliation in Colombia. We offered resources to facilitate the work of the Truth Commission as it gathers information within the United States from victims and perpetrators of violence who have fled Colombia to live here. We took hope from the resilience of all parties concerned, and we were inspired to stand together with our sisters and brothers in that war-weary nation.