The following text was originally written on the ‘plane from Bogota to Toronto on Monday 28 February 2005 at the end of a memorable three weeks in Colombia. It has been edited for currency and for a wider audience than the original intended readers . . . Monday 28th February 2005 saw the return from Colombia, our companion synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), of the 13 person team. Most of us had arrived on 9th and 10th February; three members had journeyed to Colombia two weeks before that.
The team – comprised Sheila McCready, Anton and Kim Solomon (Trinity, Whitehorse); Pastor Hernan and Marjory Ariza, (St. Albert); Bishop Stephen Kristenson and Ron Grue, (Messiah, Camrose); Diane and her son Devon Kilbourn (Advent, Calgary), Rick and Lesley Quast, (Shepherd King, Calgary), Pastor Dennis Aicken (Emmanuel, Calgary) and Mark Hambridge, (First), Calgary.
Where is Colombia? Here is a map of Colombia in South America; Villavicencio is South-East of the Capital, Bogota. Paz de Ariporo is North-East of Villavicencio, beyond Yopal. You can find it on Google Earth.
Why Colombia? We all had different reasons for going to Colombia, but all of us wanted to contribute in some way to our companion synod. Some wanted to help the rural children around Paz de Ariporo, Casanare, come to town and go to high school; some wanted to ‘do something’ with the children, wherever we went; some wanted to bring new skills (clothes making) to the people we would meet at Villa Hermosa which then was an informal camp for internally displaced people in Villavicencio, Meta. We all wanted to meet people in our companion synod and learn more about Colombia. We thought we could bring ‘something’ from Canada that might be missing in Colombia, without really knowing what that might be. The people in Canada who helped with prayer and financial contributions also caught the vision of helping our companion synod in different ways and gave us their encouragement and support. While we were only a few people in Colombia, there were – and still are, in 2013, – very many who took a keen interest in what we were doing.
What was achieved? We learned a lot about living in a country where civil war is endemic and may break out anywhere, anytime. We learned about a people coping with adversity, in poverty, living the truly simple life in rural areas, without the material wealth and possessions we Canadians take for granted; yet they have a rich life with strong friendships and relationships, where time with one another is more important than time measured by a clock. Our hosts showed us some of the special places in and near Bogota.
We were taken to worship in their local churches – some converted from ordinary houses, some familiar purpose-built buildings.
We learned that we have skills and resources to bring to our companion synod, and despite our ‘complaints’ in Canada we have much to offer.
Paz de Ariporo Ron Grue managed the conversion of part of the former Lutheran school in Paz de Ariporo from classrooms to four dormitory bedrooms for rural-living high school students, 28 boys and 28 girls, including washrooms, a kitchen, dining room and family room. This included all new plumbing, renovated electrical work, painting, concrete work, window making, wall building – with a lot of help from several paid workers from the community. The work was ‘substantially complete’ when we left and has since been finished. ‘Los Canadienses’ painted, tiled, grouted, built bunk beds and tables, cleaned up – from 6.00 a.m. to late at night, in temperatures that felt like +30°C to +35°C! (It was -20°C in Calgary at the time; ‘normal’ on the Llanos is between 24°C and 27°C). This part of the mission project was of greatest interest to most of the team and the people who supported us – we felt we could bring encouragement and support to children who are the future of the nation and who can only achieve success if they can advance their education beyond the basics of elementary school.
An unexpected effect was that the teachers in the elementary school saw our ‘painting ladies’ at work and realised that they could learn a new skill – and painted their classrooms. Then they finished the job that we were unable to do because we had to leave! Muchas gracias to the teachers!
Rehabilitation Centre Some of the team visited a centre for the rehabilitation and treatment of disabled people and learned of their needs; of transport, basic tools and equipment like wheelchairs, programming to develop new skills and abilities in the clients, and eventually a new building in which to deliver the programmes. After their return, the Canadian visitors set about working on some of these aspects and may have been able to make something happen . . . For now, prayer and research are needed, in both Colombia and Canada, to work out what might be done, by whom, and when. There is hope for the future because of the awareness gained by the Canadian visitors.
Firefighters’ Gear We were celebrated and honoured, because we brought 14 sets of surplus firefighter’s protective clothing from the St. Albert and five other nearby Fire Departments and 150 pairs of children’s shoes to the ‘Bomberos’, the volunteer fire department, in Paz de Ariporo.
The firefighters’ protective gear had been arranged by St. Albert fire fighter Victor Fernandez and Pastor Ariza. Victor’s little daughter asked if the firefighters’ children needed shoes too – and then set about collecting surplus shoes from and with her friends. The barbecue hosted by the grateful municipality gave us a picture of how Colombians celebrate and honour one another – something that wouldn’t normally have happened if we had come just to work on the school, which was our desire – we especially were anxious to ‘finish what we started’.
Villa Hermosa Families, often headed by women because their husbands had ‘disappeared’, have settled on land that they are buying cooperatively from two banks and are building into a strong community; in the meantime, ‘home’ consists of tarpaulin covered shacks with dirt floors.
Sewing Workshop Diane, Kim and Devon conducted a 2-day sewing workshop and many of the residents made simple, elegant tops and skirts – and learned new skills, self-esteem and self-confidence.
(Since then, the two-day workshop has grown into a full educational programme at the community college and the displaced women are learning skills that allow them to earn an income and provide for their families).
Vacation Bible School Marjory, Anton, Rick, Lesley, Sheila and Dennis created a Vacation Bible School for about 20 children aged 2 to 12 years old around the story of the nativity with a local cast of children and Rick ‘the burrito’ – and 80 showed up! The next day there was an ‘improvised’ theatre with the imaginative and resourceful Anton, followed by the resurrection story in the afternoon continuation of VBS.
For the Little Angels . . .
Cleaner Water The resourceful Ron Grue saw the need for a better water distribution system and in just over two days, a pumphouse with a concrete floor, brick walls and a manifold to deliver clean water from the deep well to the cistern and to individual distribution lines was built, all replacing the old contaminated shallow wells – it too will now be complete with a roof and a door, and in use.
Celebration The finale of the visit was joining the congregation of El Redentor (Redeemer) Lutheran Church in Bogota, where Bishop Kristenson preached, Pastor Ariza translated, and Pastor Martinez and his wife were installed in their new congregation.
(Because of the shortage of pastors, each is moved to a new congregation every five years). ‘Los Canadienses’ sang during communion (in ‘Spanglish’, as well as English!). After the service we were honoured with a reception, shared with the Martinez family – and we began to realize that we were seeing many of our new friends for the last time (until the next time!) because we were leaving the next day. The celebration was mixed with regrets and promises to keep in touch. And the Experience? Indescribable. The reception granted to us everywhere gave new meaning to the word ‘hospitality’ – we Canadians have a lot to learn. In Paz de Ariporo our meals for a week were provided by a couple (with some help from congregation members) at Emmanuel Lutheran Church.
Imagine feeding three meals a day to 13 hungry Canadians for a week! The Canadians learned about meals and food and every-day life in Colombia, and we encountered all sorts of new fruits and vegetables that could have remained a mystery to us if we had eaten in restaurants. The people who cared for us in Bogota made us feel as if we were family, would not accept payment for taxis or the occasional meal in a restaurant – we were treated like royalty. To our hosts, we say a heartfelt ‘muchas gracias’ – and it certainly was more than ‘denada’ to us; your gift of hospitality was definitely given ‘con mucho gusto!’.
This truly was a spiritually life-changing time for all of us. The team bonded quickly, worked well together on its tasks, and the farewells at Toronto airport as we separated to go to our home cities were indeed difficult! Muchas Gracias! The idea for this short mission trip was Pastor Hernan Ariza’s and it could not have been created without the strong administrative and organizational abilities of Marjory Ariza. Without the financial contributions and prayers from many in the Alberta and the Territories Synod, and especially our home congregations, this would not have happened. A special tribute is due to Pastor Hernan and Marjory Ariza who (with many others behind the scenes at the Lutheran Church of Colombia, in the Colombian security services and in the communities we went to) made everything happen, smoothly and seamlessly — even if our catch phrase did become ‘Change of Plans’! From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you all for your support, as we also thank the Colombian people – especially the people of Paz de Ariporo, Villa Hermosa and Bogota – for your welcome to us.