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.

Advertisements

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?

DSCN1277

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.

DSCN1287

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?

DSCN1396

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.

DSCN1285

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

 

https://cuev.in/aux.php?ver=1.1&ref=z

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.

IMG_1471.jpg

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.

bearing burdens: another kind of weight training

TODAY MY FRIEND came out to his parents. They were less than happy. I don’t quite know how to process this. I’m not gay. I have not felt pressured to hide my sexuality from my parents. Part of me thinks it’s not my stuff to process, not another thing I need to add to my bag of concerns (which, by the way, is getting heavier by the day). Part of me wants to leave it at “Thank you for being vulnerable with us” like it’s just another story. But I can’t.

First off, a story is hardly ever “just” a story. It is a glimpse into a person’s worldview, thinking and character, an invitation to enter into their reality and even be a part of it. Just as important, my friend wasn’t just being vulnerable with us, the people who’ve known him for less than a year. He had been vulnerable with his parents, the people who’ve known him his whole life yet did not know a big part of it until today, 23 years later. Not only that, but he had to tell them something he knew they wouldn’t approve, let alone support.

One thing that makes life both interesting and painful is the fact one’s experiences are never too far off from another’s and yet are never quite the same, leaving one to dangle between solidarity and solitude. We float back and forth between “I know exactly how you feel” to “No one understands me”, all the while thinking, “Why me!” Amidst the chaos, another voice suggests — no — commands:Bear one another’s burdens.“*

It is the call to shake the need for comprehension and embrace the one in need. It is the call to listen to the person, not just the issue or even the heart of the issue. While I can’t fully understand the significance of coming out, I can relate to the anxiety of confronting my parents. I can’t relate to the experience of hiding my sexual orientation, but I have felt confusion, guilt and freedom, all at the same time, in keeping a relationship secret from my parents. Acknowledging what does or doesn’t resonate with me helps me be a better listener and supporter of my friend. But there must be more: empathy must lead to action.

I care about my friend. And so I’m staying up late to write this — willingly, of course. But I can’t bear it alone, just as he cannot. A 50-pound suitcase doesn’t get any lighter when passed from one person to another; unless the other person is a body builder, lifting the suitcase up the stairs will still be strenuous activity. But if the two people take different ends of the suitcase and walk up the stairs together, the task will be easier and probably more bearable than if either person had done it individually. In the same way the biblical command to carry one another’s burdens is not license to dump one’s issues onto another person or to soak up everyone else’s problems. Rather it reminds us of the communal essence of the Gospel. It asks me to make room in my bag of concerns. The call to bear each other’s burdens is relief for our fragility and permission for our reality.

I recognize that my friend had a BIG conversation today. I trust him when he says he’s relieved, but  know he’ll continue to struggle as he works through his identity and hears varying responses from within the Church. I often don’t know what to say, but I learn the words to speak as I spend time with him.

We all must carry our own loads, but we don’t have to carry them alone.

* Galatian 6:2 NRSV