By Anna Vogt
This week’s guest blog is written by Anna Vogt of Dawson City — she claims she is the only MCC worker from the Yukon! Anna is currently serving in Colombia with MCC’s Seed program and she blogs regularly at the llama diaries. In her reflections, she juxtaposes her own ideas about advocacy with the very different ideas expressed by the Colombian women with whom she lives and works. How do you respond to her musings on the advocacy of prayer and fasting?
Advocacy is the focus of the month! What is it, how does it work and who does it are all questions that we Seeders are wrestling through after our big trip to Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala, and of course, our present work in Colombia. Here’s a reflection of working with the church:
I supposedly work with the social organization of the local church in Mampuján. It’s been an up-hill battle for me, as I wrestle with cultural assumptions and too many church services where I feel like an outsider. It’s all just so different from the advocacy-focused, socially-engaged, progressive Mennonite church I attended in Langley!
However, many church members in Mampujan, the majority women, also firmly believe that they are engaged in advocacy. Through praying and fasting, they consistently emphasize that they are changing their world for the better. I have had countless conversations with people who describe the positive changes they have seen because of their actions: husbands have become converted, thus improving family life, vital rain has fallen to provide water for crops, healings have taken place, and perhaps most dramatically of all, no one was killed during their displacement. The arrival of reparations is attributed to both the hard work of the community leaders and the faithful actions of the church as they sacrificed food for the good of the community in many fasting services.
In a world and a political climate where displaced people have very little obvious power, along with the historical marginalization of Afro-Colombian communities, these women are changing the world in the only way they see possible. The physical world seems to have little need for them, but they control what happens in the spiritual. People who the rest of the world views as powerless view themselves with dynamite in their hands. A personal God who is ready to intervene at the cry of his people is a powerful drawing card for this type of advocacy, when there is no easy access to other avenues of power. Their actions recognize the injustice in which they live and the way they advocate for change is also an implicit recognition of those injustices and marginalization. Many times, it is just as effective to dedicate time to prayer and fasting than to write a letter to the editor or to President Santos.
Prayer empowers women and also provides a community space where they talk about their problems. They visit each other and pray for sick members of the community, providing comfort and company to those in need. One woman told me the story of when she told her husband he was no longer allowed to verbally abuse her because she was a “precious jewel to the Lord.” Through her relationship with the church, she found the strength to advocate for herself in a harmful situation.
Enter Anna. Fresh from university and eager to change the world. Ready to bang the church over the head with the gospel of social change and direct action. Straight from meetings with Members of Parliament and protests in Canada and confidant in her ability (and therefore the ability of everyone) to access traditional political power. Eager to tell people to stop fasting and to start walking, to stop praying for change and come to meetings about income generating projects with the real possibility to change their lives.
But, it is not that easy, is it? When I tell people that what they are doing is not enough and does not actually work make a difference, I face the risk of taking away their empowerment and the skill set that they have developed to deal with their unique situations. If I don’t try to understand what they are doing and why, my temporary presence can be harmful, not helpful. They understand the way their world works a lot better than I do.
Does this mean I don’t do anything? No, I don’t think so- I am also a valid person with valid ideas. But it does mean that I need to think a lot more about what I do engage in and what my assumptions are, based on where I come from, especially before I try to engage a world I don’t really understand. I still do not enjoy going to church very much and, like any other institution, the church also has a negative side and impact on the community. However, I’m learning to listen and to understand before I judge and before I act.
More on advocacy to come!