Colombians pray with rebels who’ve laid down their weapons

Mennonites and former guerrilla fighters have found common ground in seeking peace for their country

Nov 19, 2018 by and

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BOGOTA, Colombia — The group stood in a prayer circle, holding hands. Some of the hands, figuratively, were likely bloody. They were the hands of guerrillas — high-ranking, longtime members of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The prayer circle, which took place Sept. 28, was the fruit of more than 25 years of patient ministry by Colombian Mennonites who risked their lives to put their nonviolent faith into action.

Clockwise, beginning with Robert J. Suderman (with raised hand); Andres Camilo and Jorge Ernesto, FARC representatives; tour members Hank Landes of Pennsylvania, Mary Quapp of Ontario, Iyo Kunimoto of Japan, Sharon Harder of Minnesota and Frieda Wiebe of British Columbia; and Carlos Sanchez, Colombian Mennonite coordinator of the gathering. — Robert J. Suderman

Clockwise, beginning with Robert J. Suderman (with raised hand); Andres Camilo and Jorge Ernesto, FARC representatives; tour members Hank Landes of Pennsylvania, Mary Quapp of Ontario, Iyo Kunimoto of Japan, Sharon Harder of Minnesota and Frieda Wiebe of British Columbia; and Carlos Sanchez, Colombian Mennonite coordinator of the gathering. — Robert J. Suderman

The group included two Colombian Mennonite leaders and 11 international visitors from Canada, the U.S. and Japan on a learning tour organized by TourMagination of Waterloo, Ont.

One tour member asked the two FARC representatives why they were willing to meet with the visitors. The reason was simple: They wanted to be heard, and the visitors wanted to learn.

For more than 50 years, they said, such a meeting was impossible. Indeed, less than two years ago, it would have been criminal. But with the signing of peace accords in 2016, laying down of weapons, reinsertion of insurgents into civil society and guarantee of participation in the democratic process, it was possible to meet in a public space.

Jorge Ernesto shared a bit of his story. His father was a campesino, head of his family, whose land was taken by military action. He, along with 60 other destitute campesino families, decided to resist. Their movement, organized in 1964, would eventually grow into an insurgency force of 15,000 well-armed participants.

For more than four decades his father led and participated in the brutality of the civil war in Colombia. He was killed in a bombing raid in 2010.

Both of Ernesto’s parents were FARC insurgents. At the age of 16 he too joined the revolution.

“I participated in the insurgency forces for six years,” he said. It was clear that he was struggling to honor the memory of his father. At the same time, he was trying to create some distance between his own convictions of democratic participation and the legacy of brutal violence.

“My father made war,” he said. “I signed up for peace.”

Spotty implementation

Implementation of the peace accords is not going well. Andres Camilo, the other FARC leader in the circle, said the Colombian government has implemented only 18 percent of what it promised.

“We have implemented everything we said we would,” he said of FARC. “We gave up our weap­ons. These accords are all we have. They are our life line: the only guarantee for the future we want. We would be foolish not to implement what we promised.”

When asked how the government could be held to account in this process, Camilo replied: “It will need to be the civil and faith communities that exert enough pressure to keep the government to its word.”

Ultimately, peace depends on the common people, not on political parties, armed struggle or carefully designed structures.

Common interests

A common agenda made the prayer circle possible. Both Mennonites and FARC speak of a commitment to justice for all and a more egalitarian society.

Both speak of the critical role of faith communities as the backbone of any promise for implementation of the peace accords.

Both understand hope — a commitment to what is not yet seen — to be a key ingredient for peace process success.

Both have demonstrated fierce persistence, patience and commitment in spite of risk, suffering and death.

These commonalities do not obscure profound differences, especially the strategy needed to move forward. For decades FARC was dedicated to armed resistance, massacres, kidnapping and obstruction of truth. Mennonites, in turn, have become ever more convinced of the futility of violence.

A historic moment

Carlos Sánchez, the Colombian Mennonite who pulled together this encounter, began the meeting with an open Bible.

“Our approach to conversation with armed groups,” he said, “is solidly based on the Bible as the Word of God to us. It is there that we learn of our commitment to allow Jesus to be the Lord of our lives as he is the Lord of history.”

Ricardo Pinzón, the other Mennonite in the group, led the closing circle of prayer.

“All our encounters with armed groups, be they guerrilla, paramilitary or military, always end with prayer,” he said.

Pinzón reminded the group of the historic moment they were experiencing together.

“Seventy years ago,” he said, “Mennonites from the North came to share with us their understandings of the gospel. What we are doing today, which would have been impossible a year ago, is fruit of the initiatives taken 70 years ago. And we are grateful.”

Tears flowed from the group, and tears were evident in the eyes of Ernesto and Camilo. The group reflected later on how it felt to embrace FARC representatives, in spite of their violent traditions and involvements.

“That’s what the early Christians did with the Apostle Paul,” said one person. “Why would we not do the same?”

Another responded: “An embrace does not mean alignment in all things. But it does signal common humanity.”


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