On Sunday, September 21 and throughout the preceding week, churches, communities and individuals around the world celebrated the UN International Day of Peace. It is a general call for peace around the world, but also a specific call for communities caught in the midst of ongoing conflict, violence and war.
Every year on this day in Colombia, where I have been working with MCC for almost three years, various churches, including Mennonite churches, come together for forums, marches and vigils as part of a national campaign called Pan y Paz or Bread and Peace.
The idea behind this campaign is that peace cannot thrive at the national or local levels without economic and social justice. It is why our events include a symbolic action — offering bread to all who pass by. Peace from this perspective demands that everyone has access to the necessary resources in order that all can live in dignity — that no one goes hungry.
Pan y Paz is a call to action for the Colombian state, but also to society in general. The impacts of 50 years of conflict, which has left over 200,000 dead and approximately 5.5 million internally displaced by the violence, run deep throughout society. As peace talks between the Government and the FARC (Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) enter their third year, it is critical that issues of economic and social justice are central in any movements forward. However, communities and individuals also need to become involved as well, promoting peace, dignity and justice within their own neighbourhoods, and caring for those around them.
This focus on peacebuilding and the conviction that all people are image bearers of God and deserve to be treated with dignity is what originally drew me to MCC — leading me to work with MCC in Winnipeg, three years in Colombia, and now joining the Ottawa Office team. I love to engage and analyze overarching political and social issues, but what has been most rewarding and inspiring are the personal connections to communities. I am inspired to think about what peace and justice look like within a community, for a family, in the life of a friend.
For the past two years I have participated in Pan y Paz with the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas, a neighbourhood of Soacha, just south of Bogota. San Nicolas, as with Soacha in general, is an area in which many displaced people live, having fled violence in other regions, with more people arriving every week. As a result, issues like poverty and urban violence, especially among the youth, are rampant. Families are struggling to start over and many youth are seeking and finding their sense of community within gangs or armed groups.
Children and youth well outnumber the adults within the Mennonite Church community in San Nicolas. Many of the children joined due to participating in the church’s daily lunch program. The youth have also found a community within the church, forming music groups, and taking on leadership roles.
This year, before the church community marched through the streets with their banners, candles and bread to share chanting “¡Más pan, Menos balas!” (More bread, Less bullets!), there was a mixture of celebration and sadness. The celebration came as the children led the time of worship, singing songs of God’s hope and love, all while dancing and jumping.
But as the service came to a close, the pastor shared the news of yet another young man, known to many in the church, who had recently passed away. It appears that he killed himself. This is not a rare occurrence in the area, as young people are frequently lost in the despair of their circumstances, or others killed for their involvement in gangs and other violent activities.
One of the youth led the congregation in a prayer for all of the youth in the area. He prayed for peace in the community, for joy, happiness and purpose in the lives of the children and youth, so they can bring change within their neighbourhood, their city, their country. The children and youth within this church community are struggling for peace and for change and are refusing to give up hope.
As the community lit their candles and marched in the streets, I kept thinking of something the pastor said to me as we walked out onto the street, making the high level peace talks reach down to the community level — “ Solo queremos la paz.“ We just want peace.
By Rebekah Sears, new policy analyst for the Ottawa Office. Originally from New Brunswick, Rebekah is still in Colombia where she has been serving as policy educator and advocacy worker for MCC; she will relocate to Ottawa in late October. She has a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and has completed policy analysis and research for World Vision and Citizens for Public Justice, and has also worked briefly on Parliament Hill.