David Sulewski and Tibrine da Fonesca work with MCC in Quito, Ecuador, coordinating the Refugee Project, a ministry of the Mennonite Church in Quito to refugees, the majority of whom are fleeing from the armed conflict in Colombia. This post was originally published on their personal blog.
In late January we hosted a delegation of pastors from the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali, Colombia. The visit is a first step in an ongoing exchange “to build a bridge between the churches in Cali and Quito,” as one pastor expressed. The focus of the delegation’s visit was to see how the Mennonite Church in Quito ministers to refugees the vast majority of whom are coming from Colombia.
Cali has suffered from the violence of armed conflict and displacement for decades. Colombia’s third largest city, Cali remains today a principal destination for internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the southwest region of the country. IDPs are concentrated in extremely impoverished urban areas on Cali’s margins, have limited access to services and are exposed to fragile security conditions. Illegal armed groups also present in Cali contribute to the ongoing urban violence and displacement.
The Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali feel directly the impact of the ongoing flux of IDPs. Over the years their own church members have been victims of violence and forced displacement. One pastor recalled the excessively violent 90s, unable to wash her memory of the images of dead bodies across the street from the seminary: “The FARC, the State and the paramilitaries fight among themselves with bullets and bombs and the churches and communities are the ones caught in the middle.”
Last year I visited my friend Godswill who was working for the Mennonite Central Committee in Cali at the time and stayed at his apartment on the edge of a barrio rife with poverty and violence. Sitting on the stoop at night I noticed that every fifteen minutes the same man on a bicycle rode down the street blowing repeatedly on a whistle. “He’s a community watchman,” my friend explained, “blowing his whistle signals that all is clear. If you don’t see him in 15 minutes, then you know there’s a problem.” The next morning, Godswill pointed out to me an abandoned house on his street corner once occupied by armed actors and drug traffickers in the 90s before police raided it. Never renovated or re-occupied, it stands as a silent monument to Cali’s more violent past as well as a reminder of the violence that persists today.
We jumped on a microbus bound for downtown. Within minutes we were standing on a street corner in the city center, a vibrant urban landscape bustling with pedestrian traffic and commerce, a vision before my eyes so far removed from the reality of Cali’s periphery.
That late afternoon, back in the barrio, as my friend and I were walking back to his place I saw that everyone was out, sitting in lawn chairs or leaning against parked cars watching a soccer game on TV sets that neighbors dragged outside and set up on their patios. As we strolled by, a family as unknown to us as we were to them welcomed us warmly with the wave of a hand to join them. At that magical hour when the setting sun paints the world orange and the day’s heat begins to dissipate, I joined the chorus of impassioned shouts of joy and frustration at the players on the TV and was overwhelmed by that warm feeling of falling in love with Colombia.
When I told the pastors this story they laughed, saying, “That’s Godswill, always making sure that his visitors see las dos caras de la ciudad—the two sides of the city.” We, too, showed the pastors the two sides of Quito, taking them on a home visit to a newly arrived refugee family living in a dilapidated building in the world-famous historic center just one street removed from La Ronda, a touristy street lined with artisanal boutiques, restaurants and discotheques.
Standing in the damp, cramped apartment, the family recounted their story of having suffered internal displacement within Colombia twice before going to Cali. Continuing to receive death threats, they fled for the third time and crossed the border into Ecuador. Hearing the refugees’ stories of persecution and flight was not new to the pastors, but learning the sheer number of Colombian refugees in Ecuador surprised them. “I expected fifty-percent of the refugees in Ecuador to be Colombian, not ninety-eight percent,” one pastor marveled as he shook his head.
Given Cali’s proximity to the border with Ecuador we frequently meet refugees from Cali. Just a few months ago we even received a refugee family that had participated in one of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali.
Like many others, the pastors anticipate an uptick in violence and displacement after the possible signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC. The pastor shared that as a church they are discerning how “to keep the church doors open, preserving the space as a sanctuary of peace and transforming the mentality of the various churches to understand that they have a responsibility to respond to the violence.”
For as long as the conflict has been going on the Mennonite Brethren churches in Cali have been working for peace. They run mediation programs in schools to cultivate a culture of peace and dialogue among the youth and they work with churches of other denominations to help them formulate a vision of working for peace, justice and reconciliation.
Reflecting on how they can continue to minister to IDPs in Cali, the pastors expressed wanting to deepen their understanding of the reality of Colombian refugees in Ecuador in order to provide better information and counseling to victims of conflict weighing the difficult choice of seeking refuge in Ecuador.
This meeting between churches in Cali that work for peace amidst a conflict from which so many Colombians flee and the church in Quito that receives and welcomes those very refugees underscores the need to create cross-border connections to accompany more holistically victims from the moment of persecution, through their flight and to settling in a new country.