Churches, MCC partner to aid displaced families
By Shalom Wiebe
Thanks to the excessive amounts of rainfall typical to the area, the town of Istmina, located on the Pacific coast of Colombia and in the province of Choco, regularly experiences floods. In early 2008, the town, located on the banks of the San Juan River, began to experience a new kind of flood: a deluge of forcibly displaced families.
Seven entire communities, caught between the gunfire of rival illegal armed groups fighting for control of territory, abandoned their land and traveled by river to Istmina. Over 1,500 people fled in the first three months of 2008, arriving in Istmina in two massive waves. The first families arrived in January and the second in late February and early March. Nearly 400 more people arrived in May.
Although the massive arrival of displaced families was enough to shake the community, the 14 Mennonite Brethren congregations in the Choco were particularly shaken. A large number of the displaced families were members of rural Mennonite Brethren churches from the towns of Basuro and Baudó.
“We had never seen such massive displacements before, we never imagined it would happen here, in our communities,” says Yuli Mosquera, coordinator of the Social Service Ministry of Istmina’s Jerusalen MB Church. “We never thought it could happen to us.”
The traumatized families were able to carry little with them in their small boats when they fled, and they desperately needed shelter and food. The local municipal government began to organize an emergency response effort, providing lodging in schools, the community center and other public buildings.
Partnering with MCC
The MB church in Istmina wasted no time in getting involved. Church leaders communicated with Bonnie Klassen, the Mennonite Central Committee country representative, to ask for assistance in their emergency response. MCC agreed to send the Mennonite Brethren churches in Choco $7,500 for their emergency response.
“You can’t imagine the happiness we felt when we found out we were going to receive the support from MCC to help the displaced communities,” says Mosquera. “We are so thankful to our brothers and sisters around the world that made this emergency aid possible. Even though we may never meet each other, their giving made it possible for us to help our Chocoano brothers and sisters in their time of need.”
The church coordinated their response with the municipal government, providing perishable food items and grains to complement the dry food aid provided by the local government and other nongovernmental organizations. Because the displaced families were sheltered in two different sections of the city, the Jerusalem congregation volunteers alternated between locations in two-week intervals, carefully following a menu prepared by nutritionists from the Colombian Family Welfare Institute.
When the third wave of displaced arrived in the region, the families did not reach Istmina, but the Mennonite Brethren church quickly found a way to send food down the river to the site where the nearly 400 people sought refuge.
Willing to serve
Mosquera recalls the positive effect that assisting the displaced families had on church members. “People became more willing to serve…. In the church we always hear about and talk about service, but this gave us an opportunity for people to really get involved.”
The experience of accompanying the displaced families impacted the Mennonite Brethren church in Istmina and their community in general, says Mosquera. “What we did was a great testimony to the community, especially the other churches,” she says. “Other churches saw what we were doing and started to ask how they could get involved too.”
The pastors from the community worked together to plan a full day ecumenical health brigade to the displaced communities. Doctors and a psychologist attended the physical and psychological needs of the families while church members across denominational lines worked together to coordinate children’s activities, distribute clothing and lead worship services.
By September, some five to eight months after arriving in Istmina, the majority of the 450 families were able to return to their lands. Their return was not easy. During their absence the jungle had encroached and cultivated farms had gone wild. In some cases, armed groups involved in growing coca prevented farmers from returning to their land. Leaves of the coca plant are essential in the production of cocaine.
The care continues
With MCC’s support, the churches built chicken pens for families whose livestock had been lost or for those who could no longer access their farmlands. Several families have begun participating in an agriculture project run by the Mennonite Brethren church.
“The mission of the church is integral,” says Rutilio Rivas, president of the MB Council in the Choco region. “Jesus’ gospel message was to bring the good news to the poor. Jesus was sensitive to the physical, real needs of the people,” he says.
“The church is called to be an example to society, to guide the people and seek justice and equality. The church needs to be more active, not just behind our four walls. We need to be out serving the community,” says Rivas.
“Service to the community is the mission of the church, it is part of our Mennonite identity” says Manuel Mosquera, a Mennonite Brethren pastor and local coordinator of the emergency aid response.
Members of the illegally armed groups are also present in Istmina, and Mosquera and his congregation are well aware that assisting those harassed by these groups could put them in the line of fire. “As long as we are alive there is hope, and there are opportunities to serve,” says Mosquera.
Shalom Wiebe is a Mennonite Central Committee service worker. Wiebe reports that with over 4 million displaced people Colombia has the second highest rate of internal displacement in the world, after Sudan. One-third of all displaced people are Afrocolombian or Indigenous; the great majority of people affected by displacement are women and children. The predominantly Afrocolombian region of Choco has been hard hit by violence and has seen significant internal displacement.