Come to Colombia

June 11, 2015

While living abroad, I read about the Aurora movie theatre in Colorado where James Holmes gunned down 12 people and injured 70 more. The following year (2013) I learned about the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three, injured 264, and traumatized the residents of Boston and the Northeast. I also learned about Adam Lanza, the 20 year old who gunned down 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT.

Then when I ask if a mission team might be interested in developing a parish-to-parish relationship in Colombia, I get a standard reply, “Oh no, we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”

Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, and Cincinnati … yes, Cincinnati … are listed as among the most dangerous cities in the U.S. and among some of the most dangerous in the world. Most people wouldn’t think twice about visiting any of those cities, but people don’t want to come to Bogota, because “it’s too dangerous.” For three and a half years I lived in a middle class neighborhood in Bogota. I never felt afraid or threatened in anyway and never had a concern for my personal safety. I didn’t experience any acts of violence, and there were no reported incidents of terrorist acts. There were a few occasions when the government was on higher alert than normal, but that wasn’t any different from the last time I was in New York City when there was a heightened alert (since the terrorist attacks in 2001).

When discerning mission trip possibilities, parents freak if Colombia is mentioned, and yet sign off willingly to send a youth group to El Salvador, a country that the Department of State lists as having high levels of crime that include “stolen passports, extortion, muggings, highway assaults, home invasions, and attacks at ATMs,” and further notes that it has one of the highest gang violence rates in the world. Thousands pack off to Honduras on mission trips even though the Department of State “continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high” and the UN states that it has the highest homicide rate in the world. In fact, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala are 4 of the top 5 most dangerous countries, making Central America one of the most dangerous regions in the world … and yet, mission trips abound in all of those countries while Colombia is deemed “too dangerous.”

In the early 2000s when violence was the norm in Haiti, the local bishop was so concerned about the safety of mission teams working in Haiti that he started requesting that they consider not coming because he couldn’t guarantee their safety, yet mission teams still went. But, again, when asked about the possibility of engaging in mission in Colombia, the standard reply is, “Oh no, we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”

Mission teams pack off to various locations in Africa that are not only experiencing high levels of religious and political violence, but those teams invite their lesbian and gay parishioners to participate while many African countries have instituted either life imprisonment or capital punishment for being homosexual. No one in Colombia has ever been beheaded or thrown off the roof of a building simply for being accused of being gay, but “we couldn’t go there … it’s too dangerous.”

I’m not sure why it is that people can’t see the dangers in going to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Haiti, or any number of African countries, but seem to have ingrained in their minds that Colombia is “too dangerous.” While many have read in the press that Colombia has had a violent past with kidnappings, para-military activity and active drug cartels, if they continue reading today they will learn that those were a part of their past and shouldn’t continue to define them … just the same as we wouldn’t want the murder of Martin Luther King, racial violence in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or the more recent racially-driven incidents between police and the public to define the States.

BogotaColombia has been engaged in peace talks for the past 2 years. Indiscriminate (chemical) spraying of farm lands is being completely phased out. Coca production has dropped so significantly in recent years that Colombia is no longer considered the primary supplier of coca for the production of cocaine (Bolivia and Peru have attained that distinction). Today, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security states that “Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations like Cartagena and Bogota.” The State Department lists no major travel advisories and states that “tens of thousands of US citizens safely visit Colombia each year.” [the bold is my emphasis]

CIMG0711I’m not sure what to think about all this or how to change it, but for the benefit of Colombians and for the sake of the church I believe it needs to change. Maybe the issue has to do with what we know about each country. We know the poverty rates and inequality faced by Haitians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans. We know a little about the indigenous populations in those countries, and we know about the programs the respective dioceses and local parishes have been developing and supporting. We also know people who have been involved in those various programs.

So then maybe what people need is to know more about the aftermath of over 50 years of civil strife and drug wars in Colombia. Maybe they need to understand more about Colombia’s displacement rate, one of the world’s highest at 5.2 million people. Displacement means being forced to live somewhere other than what you call “home.” Often the displaced are local farmers with limited education and skill beyond their farming talents. Landless, they have no way to care for themselves and their families, so they end up in slums on the edges of any of the major cities in Colombia.children Yes, you read that right … 5.2 million out of 46 million people, or said another way, 11% of the population. The displaced are a major contributor to the economic inequality in Colombia, with an inequality rate that rivals Haiti for the highest in this hemisphere. Together, they contribute to the fact that 47% of Colombia’s economy is “informal,” which translates to all of those folks entertaining in the streets, selling from baskets they carry through a neighborhood or from a cart pulled by a horse, and so forth. In real terms that means that 47% of the population isn’t paying taxes and subsequently doesn’t have access to the country’s “universal” healthcare system, have any kind of pension, or have access to social security in retirement. Bogota is a world class city in many respects, yet of the 12 million in and around the city, millions lack employment, adequate housing, healthcare, running water, or electricity. It’s estimated that anywhere from 10,000-15,000 orphaned children live in the sewers under the city. Many are drug addicted as they participate in drug running to making money and use drugs to dull the pain of life and their chronic hunger.

Another thought is that maybe people need to know more about what the Diocese is trying to do to address social ills in
CIMG0652Colombia, and how they might be able to get involved. There are 40 priests, three deacons, and two transitional deacons in the Diocese serving 36 parishes and missions located around the country. Clergy are primarily bi-vocational, and most finance their own ministries, demonstrating significant dedication to their vocational call and their respective communities. Diocesan and church-based programs include micro-finance, low-income housing, youth leadership development, women’s empowerment, refugee assistance, food security programs, and medical clinics. The tasks are many, and the laborers few. So while I think we’re called to serve everywhere, including those places I’ve identified as potentially dangerous, I encourage you to also seriously consider Colombia the next time someone raises the question of mission discernment and engagement.

3 Responses to “Come to Colombia”

  1. trshives Says:

    Hey Ted. ‘ Would love to, if there were finances in place. With multiple mission commitments, it takes one’s entire budget.
    Blessing for your work. Stay well, TR


  2. jimboston Says:

    Right on! I remember meeting the Bishop of Colombia, over ten years ago, at a national meeting of those involved in Jubilee Ministry. He was seeking connections and companionships for his diocese, and not getting any. What has been accomplished since then, raising up local leadership, is awesome. I hope your message is widely shared. Send it on to our church media!


  3. Marilyn Miller Says:

    Hi Ted, What an excellent first hand overview and challenge!  Will you be leading mission trips to Columbia now that you are back here?  I do hope you will find a significant way to minister as you resettle back in the U.S. I don’t know about Maine and the NE, but there are lots of Spanish speaking communities here in the U.S. as you well know.   I’m not quite sure when you arrive, but… Welcome back.  Marilyn


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