What Colombia Has Taught Me About Having an Open Heart

HNGR student learns peacebuilding across differences with Colombian organization.

A street in downtown Bogotá near where Haleigh lives. Photo by Haleigh Olthof.

As we sat in a small circle of plastic chairs, our voices echoing off the concrete walls of a long, second-floor room in Nariño, Colombia, my coworkers, a local leader from another NGO and I planned the next day’s female-led workshop, in which local women would identify priority issues in their ongoing political advocacy. My coworkers and I represented Justapaz, the Mennonite peacebuilding and human rights organization where I am interning for six months as part of Wheaton’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) certificate. 

My turn to speak came. All too aware of my accented Spanish and lack of experience compared with the other women in the circle, I discussed the bleeding woman who is healed when she touches Jesus’s robe in Luke 8 — the biblical reflection I planned to present at tomorrow’s workshop. 

This devotional, however, was different from ones I had participated in back home. This time, the audience would be mostly Catholic, with some individuals coming from different faith backgrounds and others who don’t believe in a higher power at all. There was a local leader, for instance, who works with an NGO training female farmers to grow local, diverse, organic foods. She was not Christian, but was present for the meeting. Earlier that day, when Justapaz’s director started a prayer with “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” that leader had interrupted by simply saying, “the beings accompany us.” When I finished my devotional explanation, she responded by reflecting on the “divine feminine” as a feminine spiritual power manifested in this woman’s ability and initiative to claim her own healing. I had never heard this interpretation before, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t surprise me. 

When I arrived in Colombia to intern with Justapaz (Asociación Cristiana Menonita para Justicia, Paz y Acción Noviolenta), a Mennonite organization, I thought I would be working primarily with fellow Christians. Although I have met and worked with many strong Christians, I’ve also worked alongside more non-Christians than ever before. 

That’s because Justapaz’s work insists on crossing all societal divides, including religious ones. A few of my coworkers are Mennonite, but others are Pentecostal, another is Catholic and a few are agnostic. Justapaz works with various sectors of the population, from progressive, city-dwelling young people and nonreligious social leaders to rural evangelical churches with little political experience.

Haleigh Olthof giving a devotional during her trip to Nariño. Photo from Haleigh Olthof.

Justapaz’s networking with diverse organizations and churches is an effective strategy for making change. Politically, the state is more apt to listen to many united voices than to a lone cry. But Justapaz’s networking also reflects the kind of change that it fights for: a change where every voice is heard, where we all learn from each other and work together across our differences to construct our common life. In Colombia, where a civil conflict has persisted for more than 60 years, a focus on collaboration and reconciliation is particularly essential. 

Through my internship at Justapaz, I have had the opportunity to meet people from the various groups with which Justapaz collaborates and see the work they are each doing to seek peace and justice in Colombia. Most of my internship has consisted of office work — writing, translation, a bit of data work and the beginnings of a research project – in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, where I live with my host family. Outside of the office, I have also had the opportunity to travel to several of Colombia’s diverse regions to meet communities with which Justapaz works. I also help out in workshops cultivating political participation that advances human rights.

During my first month in Colombia, I traveled to Cali, a big city in the Colombian southwest, for a gathering with young people from across the country to talk about conscientious objection to mandatory military service. The young people I met there were not all Christian; some of them voiced heated skepticism in a session discussing human rights in the Bible and violence in the Old Testament. But they were all committed to building justice and peace in Colombia, and many had roles in community organizations back home. I left feeling inspired by their initiative and care for those around them.

Members of evangelical — often Pentecostal — churches in Colombia’s conflict zones have taught me about the challenges many Colombians face, including social issues, infrastructure failures and armed conflict in their communities. Although these Christians are often perceived as sequestered in their spirituality and slow to act in the public sphere, many believers I have met are deeply committed to addressing social problems through political, educational and community efforts. And, as my host dad pointed out to me, these churches’ location has put them on the front lines of caring for victims of the armed conflict. They have offered material, emotional and spiritual support to people displaced by violence from guerrilla, paramilitary and state forces. I myself have received these churches’ hospitality through simple conversation and food — breakfast, bread, coffee and vegetables from recent harvests — that seems a requirement of every gathering. These churches are an example of Christian love in action.

Haleigh with a group in Nariño planning her devotion for the next day. Photo from Haleigh Olthof.

The local leader’s comments in Nariño about the “divine feminine” certainly caught me off guard, and while I consider it important to highlight the bleeding woman’s agency in Luke 8, I still believe the divine power in the story is that of Jesus. But something else this leader said did change the way I think about social transformation. When I brought up women’s “lucha” (struggle or fight) for justice worldwide, she suggested using the term “cuidado” (care) instead. Ultimately, she explained, the goal of our advocacy and social action should be caring for ourselves and others. When I thought about this, I realized this comment deeply aligned with the example of Jesus — he flipped over exploitative vendors’ tables and challenged oppressive religious and political leaders, but always acted out of love for his people, who were like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Although some of this leader’s beliefs made me uncomfortable, listening to her brought me to a deeper understanding of my Christian faith and practice.

The young people I met in Cali, the evangelical Christians in Colombia’s conflict zones and the local leader in Nariño all have significant differences from me: religious, political, educational, ideological and geographical differences that make us think and act differently. But these differences are not barriers to building peace in Colombia. Rather, each perspective contributes something essential and enriching to our common work for a just and peaceful society.

Haleigh Olthof

Haleigh Olthof

Guest Contributor

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