Peace building in the context of the armed conflict, government neglect, and poverty is an enormous and multifaceted challenge, but in my role as a Seeder with the Mennonite Brethren Churches of Chocó, Colombia, I interact with many who are diligently laboring to that end, often far from the spotlight. I sat down with Arosa Palacio, a member of the Jerusalem Mennonite Brethren Church in Istmina, Chocó, to talk about her life and experiences as a person who has been displaced by the armed conflict and has worked for justice in her community.
Originally from Chocó, Arosa and her family were living in another part of Colombia when intense violence forced them to flee their home and return to the department in the mid-1990s. “Chocó was our refuge of peace,” she says, adding that illegal armed groups had not yet arrived.
Protecting their children and removing them from a violent context was their top priority. Upon arriving in Istmina, Arosa and her family sustained themselves through mining and agriculture, traveling down the San Juan River to work in various communities.
Three years after their displacement, she joined a group of displaced persons that had begun organizing, led by a local teacher. Under Law 387 of 1997, displaced persons were recognized and guaranteed assistance and protection in their process of resettlement. But, as Arosa explains, when the people went to claim their status at the level of local government, “they didn’t want to respond or accept the responsibility because they saw us as beggars. They rejected any formal declarations if the people arrived dirty or without shoes, but if you arrived well-groomed, they asked how you could really be displaced if you were clean.” As a result, the group organized trainings on human rights and a trip to Bogotá to meet with government entities to advocate for their situation as victims who had not received legal recognition.
The group’s advocacy efforts enabled them to gain official status as displaced persons but did not achieve the financial reparations that were their right. “They didn’t collaborate with us, economically,” she says, “but with recognition of our status.”
With backing by the Catholic diocese, the association of displaced persons started an agricultural initiative of raising fish, pigs, and chickens. Though it did provide employment for many people during its time, the initiative ultimately proved to be unsustainable.
Arosa continued to work with the organization’s leadership and was later selected as its vice president. “They liked my way of working in respect and solidarity with the people,” she says.
Despite decades of work with the association, roadblocks remain: “I don’t have answers to respond to the needs of the communities…. I’m watching how things are going, but I also see that the government isn’t responding and isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities. The same people who wrote the law are violating it. We have been victims of violence, and now we are victims of the government.”
Acknowledging the power of prayer and the hope that she has for God to intervene in their situation, she states, “Peace is not achieved by saying ‘We want peace,’ but by working for it.” Just as Jesus preached and fed the multitudes, so too the work of the church should preoccupy itself with both spiritual and physical needs. “Jesus, with the little that he had, fed the five thousand and had baskets of leftovers. The disciples who were with Jesus, when they saw the hunger of the people, told Jesus to send them away, but Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, was able to meet their physical needs. This is the Christian life,” she says, “to see reality through the eyes of Jesus.”
In addition to accompanying displaced persons in her community, participating actively in the Mennonite Brethren Church, and her role as a mother and grandmother, over the past twenty years Arosa has served as foster mother to approximately fifty children who have arrived at her door in a state of malnutrition and neglect. Just as Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to feed the multitude, her passion to meet the needs of the people in her community and work towards justice is real and breathing despite the years of struggle and injustice.
Please pray for the Mennonite Brethren Churches in Chocó, their regional projects, and the women and men who work for peace in the midst of such difficult circumstances.