First person: Alejandra Arboleda

A participant in MCC’s Seed program reflects on her journey

Growing up in the Mennonite Brethren church in Cali, Colombia, I heard a lot of stories about Jesus being salt and light. And I heard many things about people being oppressed.

The Bible stories were always told to me as a fight for justice. The story of Moses was a struggle to gain freedom from slavery. Joseph and his brothers showed that it was possible to forgive. What could I offer in this context to be salt and light?

I did my undergraduate degree in social work. As I was finishing a master’s degree in human rights, I applied to MCC’s Seed program and went to the community of Pichilín which is in the mountains about an hour from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. For Seed, the important thing was you come in and get to know the community.

I arrived in the Christmas season. There were a lot of parties, a lot of music. What I didn’t like was that they wanted me to dance. I called a Seed worker in Chocó (another region of Colombia). She was at a church vigil. I was at a dance. We both wanted to trade places.

In the first few weeks, I made a drawing of Pichilín in my diary. It’s a really small community, about 50 families. I said, it’s possible to get to know all the families here.

Each morning I’d wake up early and go milk my neighbour’s cow, then I’d visit house to house drinking coffee. Each evening, I would mark in my diary the houses where I’d been and write all that had happened.

I’m an introvert, but I had to take initiative and ask questions. I had to talk to people I didn’t know, and I was learning how to do this.

After the holiday season, I began to talk with Seed leaders, Sembrandopaz (Sowing Peace; the MCC partner organization I was working with) and the community about what my work would be.

The community wanted me to teach math to children. Sembrandopaz, in response to the violence of Colombia’s armed conflict, asked Seed workers to help develop a curriculum on topics like trauma, nonviolence and laws affecting victims of the armed conflict.

I started teaching math and working on the curriculum. And I started asking questions. Was there a victims group in Pichilín? Were there groups to organize community work?

There were groups, I learned, but they weren’t meeting. With others in the community, we gathered an assembly and talked about how to get groups going.

The reconciliation group, at first, didn’t seem very important. It was just planning parties. As I got to know families, though, I learned there was a lot of resentment because of links to different armed groups. Parties were a way of enjoying time together and of the community meeting together. We celebrated Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. This helped relationships flow a little bit better.

When I arrived, the health centre was where all the bats lived. The day the paramilitaries had come, they had taken women and children to the centre, then had killed men in the community. The centre was left untouched after that.

With the health group, we started providing cleaning days. We cleaned the roof, we got all the bats out. One young person in the community was a nurse, and the group made a kit of supplies for him.

I never think of myself as a leader but as someone who accompanies and helps strengthen those who are leaders. I would ask, “What do you want to do? Who’s going to do it? What help do you need?”

The community had leadership. The people had the capacity to do all this but because of the fear they had, because of all that had happened in the community, they weren’t doing it.

I also learned the importance of being able to talk about losses.

After I finished working with MCC through Seed, I did some work with Edupaz (whose name is a combination of the words education and peace). Through this, I was sent to a rural church and community to work on an advocacy plan to show what the community suffered during the violence.

When I arrived, though, people couldn’t even express what happened to them. Without my Seed experience, I maybe would have gone to the mayor’s office or to the media as part of an advocacy strategy to bring public attention to the losses.

Instead, I looked at the importance of people being able to express themselves.

With the pastor, we started to do Bible studies over the next year. We looked at Moses, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, Zaccheus. We talked about reparations. How did the community feel when Zaccheus repaid them? What do people here hope for?

The church was very afraid of being involved in politics, but eventually they had a march for peace, and the community basically told the guerrillas and the army that both needed to repent. Speaking out was a way of making visible what they believed, and also of protecting themselves.

For me, it’s critical not to just follow a plan but to really discuss with the community what’s important. This takes more time, but it feels more personal. People in the community are in control.

Alejandra Arboleda of Cali, Colombia, served in MCC’s Seed program from 2013 to 2015. When interviewed in late 2017, she was working with Edupaz, an MCC partner based in Cali, Colombia.