vocation is finding me

Eyes twinkled like the stars above as we watched curses go up in flames. Curses that had leaked venom into our lives, lying to us that we weren’t enough, that we had enough, that we were unseen, that we had to stay seen. And as the papers crumpled beneath the crackling logs, voices around the circle began to speak blessings into being. We have victory. We will never be forsaken. We will live into the dream. We are freedom.

Earlier this month I had the immense gift of meeting bright young individuals at FTE’s Regional Discernment Retreat in Minnesota. For three days we indulged our curious spirits (and hearty appetites), exploring our questions and questioning our assumptions. And in our exploring and questioning, we found space to dream big.

I had arrived weary. Tired of trite messages about God’s sovereignty, about God. Tired from fears of rejection, of misjudgment, of criticism. Tired of the Church. All I had was a little flame inside that gasped for oxygen. And I prayed, God, fuel that flame.

God heard me all right. I watched with wonder as hope creeped in, dusting the cynicism off my heart and mind. People celebrating God through song, dance, and poetry. People praying like they meant it. People listening. It was the first time in a long time that I could share how the world broke my heart without it dismissed as too sad or too depressing. And it was the first time I was asked, What would it look like if that which breaks my heart was magnificently solved? (Thank you, Rev. Alexia Salvatierra.)

Too often, life feels like an endless round of Whac-A-Mole. Syria is a mess; call out al-Assad. East Africa is suffering famine, again; send emergency food aid. The planet is heating up; bash climate deniers and shop with tote bags. These are over-simplifications, of course, but it can be so easy for us who have more privilege to let “compassion fatigue” stifle our imagination – each of us standing there with our own hammer instead of coming together to create a brand new game.

A game where everyone gets to play, where justice and mercy rule, where swords are beat into plowshares.

So where does vocation fit into all this? I’m on the road to finding it – and according to Dr. Parker Palmer, who crashed our party like a boss, I’ll probably be on this road for a while. In a way vocation is already finding me. It finds me when I make music. It finds me when I weep for the world that breaks my heart. It finds me when I envision weapons of destruction turning into tools of cultivation.

And the best part about all of this is that I’m rolling with a crew. We’ve packed our bags with blessings, and together we’re moving forward.

keeping it real: the hard work of transition

fullsizeoutput_2859TIME KEEPS PLAYING TRICKS on me. Three months have passed – no, flown – by since I’ve returned to the States. I’ve eased back into “normal” life, but unease accompanies me everywhere. How do I integrate everything I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched into my everyday? Can I?

In Colombia, I felt as though I could feel each hour moving, fluid and steady like a small stream, its pace further reduced by the homesickness tugging at my heart each day, gentle and persistent.

Here, time is like sand, slipping through my fingers and scattering across the floor. It wants to be gathered into cupped hands, but there are places to go, people to see, and plans to make.

As time passes, the novelty of Barranquilla melts from immediacy to memory. The desire to sink my teeth into an empanada or to roll my r’s fades into the same tugging, gentle and persistent.

And so the question remains. How do I integrate there with here? Can I?

During my last week in Colombia, I struggled with a similar kind of dissonance – the murky space of in-between:

As a person who likes to live in the present, I find farewells to be tricky. I know I’m supposed to be sad, and I certainly don’t look forward to leaving Barranquilla in just a few days – but that’s exactly my point: my departure is still days away.

And as someone who fears PDA (yes, that includes tears), it’s tempting to keep my emotions in a cage until I’m at the airport. However, having done a fair amount of farewells the past three years (read: life of a one-year-stinter), I recognize the importance of saying goodbye well.

Thanks to my loving friends in Colombia, I did say goodbye well. (I did not wait till the airport to cry; on the contrary, I burst into tears in front of my host aunt and host brother).

But what does goodbye mean in the age of Facebook and Instagram? What does it mean to be present here when everyone there is just one Whatsapp message away?

I’m not sure yet, and I think the answers ebb and flow with time. What I do know is that transition does not justify complacency. Rather, it requires integrity.

Integrity – the fortitude to feel uneasy about “normalcy”.

Integrity – the grace to try again when I’ve given into comfort.

Integrity – the living out of what I so cherished in Colombia: relationship building, self-love, accompaniment, sacrifice, rest.

Integrity – to do all this with the constant internalization of God’s solidarity with marginalized people.

Against time I am no match. I cannot change its current. I cannot hold it in my hands. But I walk towards the tugging, gentle and persistent.

¿qué significa paz?

Pienso que se dará cuando el colombiano pueda vivir de forma digna, cuando con su trabajo pueda vivir cómodamente, mientras tenga hambre, no tenga sus necesidades básicas cubiertas, va a estar insatisfecho y esto va a traer actos de violencia. La paz no llega solo porque se desmovilice un group, sino cuando este país sea más equitativo con todos.

— Jorge Penagos, presidente de la Junta Comunal de Bolo Azul, vicepresidente de las 54 juntas comunales de Pradera

kyrie eleison

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en una finca de café en el Eje Cafetero, Colombia // on a coffee plantation in Eje Cafetero, the coffee growing region of Colombia

imploramos tu piedad o buen Señor
por quien sufre en este mundo.
a una gime toda la creación.

tus oídos se inclinen al clamor
de tu gente oprimida.
¡apura, o Señor, tu salvación!

sea tu paz bendita y hermanada a la justicia
que abrace al mundo entero.
¡ten compasión!

que tu poder sustente el testimonio de tu pueblo,
tu reino venga hoy.
kyrie eleison.

\\

a rough translation:

we beseech your mercy, oh Lord,
for those who suffer in this world.
all of creation groans.

may you incline your ears toward the cry
of your oppressed people.
hurry your salvation, oh Lord!

may your peace, holy and united with justice,
embrace the entire world.
have compassion!

may your power sustain the testimony
of your people.
Lord, have mercy.

\\

i learned this beautiful song during my time in Barranquilla.

haikus for my dad

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ALMOST EVERYTHING
I love to do I learned from
You, my best teacher.

“Left foot here … now kick.”
Dribbling, passing, shooting with
You, my first coach.

Training wheels off, I
Wobbled as you ran behind
Me, your little girl.

Words you do not waste.
Praise you pass on with purpose.
Hours you do not hoard.

Before bedtime we
Danced with toothbrush in hand and
You, the goofy one.

Peanut butter and
Ham, experimenting with
You, the breakfast champ.

Four-hundred meters
To thirteen miles: Breathe, you told
Me, your little girl.

Words you do not waste.
Praise you pass on with purpose.
Hours you do not hoard.

Snowflakes move with your
Baritone, my fingers on
Keys. The performers.

Tupperware filled with
Berries your eyes found by the
Road. The explorers.

Feet propped up, Pringles
In lap, Shrek and Nemo on
Screen. The young spirits.

Because of you I
love to learn and learn to love.
You, Daddy, yes, you.

 

 

russian roulette: the unlawful eviction of el tamarindo

BENEATH THE SHADE OF a tree we stood, freshly chopped sugarcane in hand, gnawing on that chewy plant and sucking the juice out of each bite. No matter how much noise we made, it was not enough to cover the whir of the bulldozer plowing down Nelson’s plantain trees right before our eyes. His was one of the last plots of land to be destroyed in December 2015, when a private company unlawfully evicted over 70 campesinos from an area formerly known as El Tamarindo.

My heart was all over the place that day. Temporarily relieved by the smiles and hugs of those who were about to be evicted, the heaviness in my chest turned into resentment at the sight of the corporation’s representatives arriving to finalize the eviction. How could they live with themselves for the suffering they had caused so many families?

DSCN1278Despite the tension, everyone exchanged casual banter. Small groups of people conversed in hushed voices, but there seemed to be an unspoken effort from all parties to remain civil. Marisol, one of the campesinas, even handed me a snack (see photo on right). A gift of comfort in the midst of an ugly situation. It captured so perfectly the resilience of El Tamarindo.

The final signing of documents occurred with little fanfare. The leaders of the community went about it methodically and silently. After recurring threats of eviction throughout the previous weeks, they’d known this day was coming. There was nothing left to do but to acquiesce to the demands of the powerful.

DSCN1282For years the families fought to remain on the land, which had been abandoned when the campesino Colacho made the first settlement 14 years ago. They came from different parts of the country, forcibly displaced from their previous homes. Over time they worked the land and filled it with crops of all kinds: plantains, yucca, corn, cantaloupe, tomatoes, pumpkins, sesame seeds, papayas, mangos, guavas, and more for miles and miles. Their productivity gained such a reputation that customers used to come directly to them to buy groceries.

Then their government made a deal with the United States of America. Signed in 2006, the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, 2012. That same year the first invasion of El Tamarindo took place. But why? What does a bilateral trade agreement have to do with a community of small farmers living on the outskirts of town?

The trade agreement expanded the boundaries of existing duty-free zones in Colombia. Duty-free zones are areas where foreign goods are imported without being taxed, i.e. without import duties. The district of Atlántico, of which Barranquilla is the capital, has three permanent duty-free zones. Guess where El Tamarindo was located?

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The woman on the far right is the lawyer of the company that evicted El Tamarindo and offered them money to buy new land. The man next to her kept eyeing me suspiciously before telling me to put my camera away. I may or may not have complied.

A community that had lived in relative obscurity quickly became a magnet for opportunistic businessmen. Strangers, including representatives from the aforementioned corporation, Inversiones Agropecuarias Los Turpiales S.A.S., began showing up at El Tamarindo to claim title to this previously uninhabited land.

According to Colombian land laws, if a self-proclaimed landowner tries to claim a piece of land after campesinos have lived there for more than five years, the “landowner” along with the State must indemnify the campesinos, e.g. insure them against their loss or provide reimbursements. That did not happen with El Tamarindo. On the contrary, on more than 40 occasions at the request of so-called landowners, the police tried to move the campesinos off the land.

Year after year they saw sections of their territory destroyed, homes and crops alike uprooted. The initial evictions were violent. On my first visit to El Tamarindo in September 2015, community members recounted these horrific experiences. Guns, chainsaws, bulldozers. Motorcycles and cars zooming by their houses late at night to harass them. A member of their community lost her life due to the depression that resulted from experiencing these cruel evictions.

I couldn’t understand their words, but I felt the distress in their faces and voices.

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This used to be fertile farmland filled with houses, livestock, crops, and families. The gold dome in the background is a giant concrete mixer that has become for me a symbol of the oppression of El Tamarindo.

By the time I arrived, only one section remained. Called El Mirador, this last strip of land gained recognition as a United Nations humanitarian zone. With the help of religious leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders, and local supporters, El Tamarindo’s case was taken up in Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Considered the highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court guards the constitution of Colombia and protects individuals against violations of human rights.

Meanwhile, El Tamarindo received notification from the police of an eviction scheduled for December 4, 2015. On December 1, the Constitutional Court issued a three-month stay of eviction to give the families time to relocate to lands that met their needs. When I visited El Tamarindo two days later, uncertainty hung in the air. Would the police obey the court’s petition?

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Rev. Chris Lieberman (lower R) and his congregation in Louisville, KY, hold signs and candles in support for El Tamarindo in Dec. 2015, as part of the solidarity campaign I helped launch.

Yes, but not really.

The December 4 eviction was suspended. We rejoiced. We regained hope.

The following day, the eviction was rescheduled for December 7. We continued our advocacy campaign. Our US partners got in touch with the US Embassy in Colombia.

The December 7 eviction was also suspended – and rescheduled for December 9.

On December 9, the local authorities decided they’d had enough fun playing Russian roulette with El Tamarindo. The local police and the anti-riot police arrived to begin the evictions. How I wish I could have been there standing side by side with the families, offering my presence as an international witness and sharing their pain. I was told to stay in the office in case the situation grew violent as had happened so often in the past.

During the rest of the week, the atmosphere in the office felt subdued as we went about our daily tasks and received updates on the situation from afar. I was thankful for our US partners who called for the end of the evictions, demanded responses from the US Embassy, and expressed their support for El Tamarindo.

DSCN1283The toughest part for me was that nothing seemed to make a difference. God knows how long and hard the campesinos of El Tamarindo had fought to stay on their land. They got organized and set up meetings and demonstrated in public. When staying on their land proved unattainable, they rightly demanded help in relocating to new land where they could continue farming. For years the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, my ministry site, walked alongside El Tamarindo, building trust and advocating for them at both the district and national level. Numerous other actors, including the British Embassy, visited them and heard their stories.

Yet there they were, standing at the same table with their oppressors to sign an agreement that offered only a fraction of what they had asked for: money to buy 10 hectares of land for 10 families instead of 400 hectares for the 100+ original families of El Tamarindo.

When the leaders of El Tamarindo had signed all the papers, the lines on their faces loosened with relief. It wasn’t until later, when I talked to my co-worker Germán about it, that I understood why they smiled: Yes, the agreement fell way short of their initial proposals, but with it came the end of fighting a losing battle. At least for these 10 families, the dream of living on their own land without harassment was becoming a reality.

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Members of El Tamarindo and of the company posing with the checks that would pay for the campesinos’ new land.

 

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i went to a funeral today

IT IS A GREAT mystery that each of us is both unique and not at the same time.

Not a day goes by that I don’t come across an aspect of life in Colombia that stands in stark contrast to my experiences in the US. Communication styles. Jokes. Notions of personal space and autonomy.

Then there are moments that shake up my comparison game and remind me that, at our core, we share similar desires and sentiments. I had such a moment today.

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This afternoon I attended the funeral of a beloved member of our presbytery. Dr. Ángel Quintana recently passed away at the strong age of 89. I never had the chance to talk with him, but I saw him at church a few times. From getting to know his son’s family (they are super nice), I could guess that Dr. Quintana was a noble man.

That he was, and more. Upon arrival, my host aunt and I had to weave our way through the crowd to find a seat. (There were just a few couches lined against the walls. Everyone else stood.) There must have been at least 100 people.

I couldn’t grasp every word that was shared during the service, but grief doesn’t need words.

The mild, subdued atmosphere. The faces of those who loved Dr. Quintana. The way his daughter-in-law asked me, “¿Cómo te ha ido?” as if it was just another day. The emotion that shook the speakers’ voices and the shoulders of his children and grandchildren.

It is true that followers of Christ who lose a loved one can find comfort and hope in the promise of eternal life with God. Jesus’ solidarity with humans in their suffering is really good news. But until the promise of heaven is fully fulfilled, the hole left by that loved one remains. The desire to see them again remains. The pain of living without them remains.

This afternoon I was glad I couldn’t express myself well in Spanish. I gave hugs and squeezed hands, offered silent tears and prayers. Because although I didn’t know Dr. Quintana, I have grieved the deaths of my aunt, my last piano teacher, and my friend in DC.

Losing someone makes you cry regardless of the language you speak or the country you live in. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that one can witness a sad event and walk away unaffected. It is only when we choose to enter into our shared experience of sorrow that empathy abounds.