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Colombia: Praying for Peace
Colombia is a land of staggering contrasts and “one of the world’s most violent mission fields.”

Many moons, moves, kids and contracts ago, I was 19 and living in Colombia for three and a half months with a group called Canada World Youth (CWY). CWY took handfuls of Canadian youth and connected us with counterparts from the developing world.

Its reputation is of drug lords, kidnappers, rebels and civil war – and of course really fantastic coffee.

For ten weeks I lived, worked and made pork sausage to sell at the mountaintop market with the family of Don Pedro. Our host family were “campesinos,” part of the rural many who struggle to get by in this beautiful but troubled country.

I remember the rides in colourful buses that clung to and careened around the mountain highways. I remember the lush green hills and fields of flowers destined for the exotic bouquets and crystal vases of foreign ladies. I remember that Colombians can dance for hours. I can still smell the smoke in the tiny, dark, unventilated mud kitchen where our “mother” cooked the daily potatoes over an open fire. The next year, CWY crossed Colombia off its list of partner countries. It had become just too dangerous.

Colombia, bordered by Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, sits where North and South America meet. Its reputation is of drug lords, kidnappers, rebels and civil war – and of course really fantastic coffee. Who can forget the astounding images of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt Pulecio and 14 other hostages being rescued in 2008, after more than six years of captivity by the FARC, the infamous Rvolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia?

FARC, the oldest and largest guerrilla group in Colombia, has warred with the government for 40 years. Much of the inner struggle is drug-related – and it seems far from over.

Colombia is “one of the world’s most violent mission fields,” according to a recent Christianity Today article by Russ Stendal. He quotes the watchdog group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which reports that in the last three years more than 200 churches have been forced to shut down and 35 pastors have been assassinated.

Its website offers reports of pastors who are among the disappeared – a poetic way of saying killed or kidnapped in Latin America – and families displaced because they live and worship too close to the cocoa fields, where FARC and other rebel groups know that astronomical amounts of money can be made by those who can control them.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that more than four million ordinary Colombians have been displaced in the past 40 years, poor pawns in the conflict, fleeing from rural to urban centres and sometimes back again, with little official support.

The World Bank estimates that if Colombia had not been besieged by conflict, the income of the average Colombian would be 50 percent higher. As it is, 65 percent of the population live in poverty – even 80 percent in rural areas that also typically lack safe water, proper sanitation and, for too many children, access to education.

Colombia, like so many others, is a country of staggering contrasts. The rich are very rich. The poor are very poor. Battle lines criss-cross a terrain that is achingly beautiful even as it struggles to disentangle itself from the claws of the violent status quo. And then, everywhere you turn, there are families like Don Pedro’s, ordinary mothers and fathers with children who yearn to make a better life – and dance whenever they can.

Karen Stiller is the associate editor with Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2010.

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