By Joe Wiebe
Every morning a group of us pile into a van that drives us to the MCC office. Every morning people laugh in disbelief at the way traffic flows: steadily moving bumper to bumper through streets with paved lines that act, at most, as suggestions. A Colombian woman describes this movement as guided by relationships rather than as organized by rules. In Colombia, relationships are not mediated by law. I know this from reading articles, but in the van I feel it churning my stomach.
My stomach is knotted again going to Cazucá, a shantytown in Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá. We have been invited by David and his wife Marina to visit them at their Mennonite Brethren church. Other churches and NGOs are active in and around Cazucá, but only David and Marina live there. We wait at the bottom of the hill for David to accompany us for the last quarter mile. The weather is comfortable and the church is close but we wait without explanation. Later we are told that the neighbourhood is dissected by invisible lines that mark gang territories, the results of crossing which are unclear. Presently, the silence is thick – enough to know that things here are serious.
The entrance to the church opens onto a patio teeming with playing children. They are gorgeous. The tin roof vibrates with their animation and we revel in it, basking in their laughter. They play with broken toys. One child scales the ground doing an army crawl. He pretends he´s playing with an object that explodes in his hands. We’re told these are the younger kids; the older ones play later so they “don’t hit” the younger ones. This, of course, is common to all children. But here it feels like a long shadow; I know the statistics of how these children will end up, and I’m terrified.
David (in photo to left) guides us through the labyrinthine structure to the sanctuary. There are several levels we go through that contain various rooms for different projects: a sewing room for women to make clothes; schoolrooms for the children; one room has a few computers and a keyboard. David tells us how they came to be in Cazucá for the past ten years. It all centers on a local woman whose body was riddled with cancer; her husband abandoned her in fear of catching it. David read the bible with her, and her neighbours started noticing his recurring presence. No other pastors come here, and they are perplexed. They tell him he’s crazy. Everyone tells him and Marina they’re crazy. David retorts, “It’s by being crazy we built all of this.”
The craziness of Colombia itself is palpable, but difficult to describe – hence we tell stories. David tells us about the presence of the paramilitaries (paras) that brings both violence and protection; Marina (in photo to right) informs us about the women whose husbands have been killed (most likely by the paras) and must work from 3AM – 10PM, leaving their children either on the streets to be recruited by gangs or locked in their houses getting so hungry they eat toothpaste. It is only because of the paras´ protection that the church can function, but the law they bring is through selective assassinations that David is trying to stop.
When one of the MCC SEED workers describes the violence – rape, murder, thieving, drug trafficking – David shrugs and shakes his head. It’s crazy. And yet David does not have the world-weariness you see in pastors burnt out by tiresome demands of fickle congregations in Canada. He is tenacious and, well, attractive – both his laughter and his tears are infectious. The source of his virtues is his particular incarnation of Colombian craziness – I might put it more theologically by calling it the Holy Spirit (which it is), but that doesn’t explain anything beyond the stories he tells.
The difficulty is that we often say something is crazy as a gasp of exasperation, a release of tension that is supposed to lead to an explanation, an order or underlying reason for the way things are. Reason fails in Colombia; its reality is contained in the fraught silence of the potential violence that everyone knows is hovering invisibly overhead waiting to be given bodily form – present in the way “para” functions in the word “paranormal.”
Our tour of Cazucá can be given a sequential order: the hanging tree where people are executed, the brown door behind which drugs are trafficked, the rose garden, the dogs barking, the blood splattered in the dirt, the resourceful families, the smiles and greetings, the man with scars on his face, the woman whose stew David describes as “finger licking good.”
What connects them? Each is its own rorschach test: make of it what you will. For a tourist such as myself to say that there is a dignity and happiness in the people we meet (which Marina insists upon) that blots out the despair and redeems the gut-wrenching tales would be patronizing at best.
What I can say is that David and Marina have embraced the insanity by refusing to despair in a world in which communal life is not organized by laws. He does not turn to the government or to violence to make sense of life or enforce order; instead he forms relationships that exceed all social (and legal?) boundaries. In the silence and irrationality that marks reality in Colombia, David and Marina are immersed in a profound inter-involvement with both marginal and powerful lives.
As a Canadian irrevocably involved in an economy that enables the poverty Cazucá is mired in, the temptation to react to these horrific stories is one of guilt and shame. Indeed, during our time together there is a confession followed by tears.
But to feel only guilt and shame would not recognize, and therefore forestall participation in, the complex craziness that built an MB church in a place all others flee after sunset. It would give our transgressions the last word. Like Colombia, we are free from the law, which gives both love and hate incomprehensible fertility.
And so David and Marina say that while resources are needed, what is of utmost importance is that we pray for them. Their lives and mission are sustained in part by our encounters with God, by a continual search for a new life radically present to our community. This is not sentimental or simplistic; it should make our stomachs churn. For if our churches are not organized by laws (rules that tell us who our friends are, who we can worship with, who we listen to) then they are guided by relationships with our communities, which is crazy.
Joe Wiebe is a member of Grantham MB church and professor at McMaster University, both in Ontario. He is one of several Mennonite Brethren church leaders from Canada visiting Colombia, March 4-17, as the invitation of the Colombian church. Read their entire blog.