CONDOTO, Colombia – A Mennonite church in this small mining town in western Colombia is reaching out to children affected by ongoing violence in the region.
Peniel Mennonite Brethren Church has been running a program for the past five years in support of children in need, called Los Niños por la Paz (Children for Peace). Condoto, like many towns in the department (district) of Chocó, is home to families displaced by violence related to illicit drug production or mining.
“Many of the children in these families have lost their parents and are in the care of older siblings or grandparents,” explains Rebekah Sears, an MCC worker in Colombia. “The church began the program out of concern that these vulnerable children could be drawn into gangs and other criminal activity.”
Los Niños por la Paz offers lunch and activities four days a week. The program ranges from games and crafts to teaching about concepts like peace, love and justice from a biblical perspective. Aside from its director, who is also the regional vice president for youth within the Mennonite Brethren Church, the program is made up entirely of volunteers.
Within armed conflicts, communities like Condoto are often caught in the middle of the violence and instability, and feel powerless to stop it, says Sears.
“Standing up to violence and injustice with a prophetic voice for change in such circumstances requires prayer, courage of heart and perseverance. This is the current reality of the Mennonite Brethren Church in the Chocó.”
In the last six months the levels of violent intimidation of communities and killings in this predominantly Afro-Colombian region have greatly increased. Armed groups such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) re-mobilized paramilitaries and state forces are battling each other for control of land and resources.
Caught in the middle in southern Chocó are 17 Mennonite Brethren churches with their 1,500 members.
“The situation is very complicated,” says Pastor Jose Rutilio Rivas Dominguez, regional president of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó. “But the increases in violence come down to a few main factors: illicit crops and mining.”
As the national government increases its coca crop intervention in the region (used for cocaine) and mining activity increases, the illegal armed groups react to protect their control of resources by threatening the civilian population.
“The church is called to be an instrument of change for peace and a prophetic voice for justice within communities,” says Pastor Rutilio. And that is what the Mennonite Brethren leaders and communities are seeking to do.
Projects led by the local Mennonite Brethren churches, with support from Mennonite Central Committee, provide communities in coca production areas with alternative crops such as rice and cocoa (used to make chocolate).
Local churches become healing communities for people who have suffered from armed conflict. For example, by offering hope to children and families who have gone through the pain of displacement and violence, Los Niños por la Paz inspires alternative ways of reacting to violence, and helps bring healing in a situation that at times can seem hopeless, says Sears.
According to Pastor Rutilio, one of the biggest challenges for isolated congregations in these violence-affected communities, is feeling alone. Earlier this year, the three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia committed to support their brothers and sisters in Christ in Chocó.
The hope, too, is that Anabaptist churches around the world will walk alongside the people of Chocó, supporting them through prayer, concern, action and advocacy.
MCC Canada news service with reports from Rebekah Sears