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Colombia: forging bonds through tragedy

The funeral of Doña Martha Cecilia in Buenaventura. As tears rolled down our cheeks, Don Mario, a leader and poet from Buenaventura's La Gloria district, approached us, shook our hands and said emphatically: "Whites don't cry for blacks," suggesting with these words that we had become brothers of the community. And so, a lasting friendship was born. (Luis Fernando Gomez — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Monday, December 22, 2014

(Buenaventura, Colombia) December 22, 2014 – Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez describes his deeply moving experience of accompanying an Afro- Colombian community in Buenaventura, Colombia. Drawing on the Christian three-day celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he reflects on how JRS' humble accompaniment of communities in crisis can be a real sign of God's powerful love, through which we are invited to discover life even amid tragedy and death.

First day... Community Participation. 29 June 2008: A wonderful Sunday afternoon. Children ran in every possible direction on the football pitch and community grounds of San Francisco district in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Men and women bustled around, preparing activities to celebrate life as a community, with music, singing and laughter. It was an occasion worth celebrating: the closure of an intensive process of formation and exchange of ideas, of identifying ways to live in such an adverse environment.

Buenaventura has always been a tough place, with a harsh climate, high temperatures and stifling humidity. Throughout history, leaders have tended to forget about this region, except for its harbor, a crucial entry and exit point. Since colonial times, the harbor of Buenaventura has been the world's gateway to Colombia and the country's gateway to globalization; a gateway built on exclusion and structural violence, on the kind of development that ignores the human element.

Today Buenaventura is a fierce battleground of guerrillas, paramilitary and governmental forces, of strongmen and drug dealers, all fighting one another and each other's allies, but mostly manipulated by external actors. In the annals of Colombia's unofficial history, however, Buenaventura has also been a place of revival for black communities, a space earned by the sweat of men and women who sailed the long rivers and carved out a living space in semi-harmony with the jungle, wresting ground from the mangrove swamps to build entire settlements.

That afternoon, as we celebrated the life of black communities, brothers and sisters drew on their shared history to look to the future, agreeing on an action plan that would serve as the roadmap for a resurgent people. I spent the entire afternoon with my video camera, capturing the joy of women in pink t-shirts, proud leaders in the process, and talented boys and girls dancing in traditional costume, bearing witness to the irrepressible strength of joint effort. I filmed faces, smiles, rhythmic movements, applause and speeches. At the time, I could never have imagined I was witnessing the last public words of Doña Martha Cecilia, 'Chila,’ a displaced black woman who had led this and many other initiatives in San Francisco district.

Just as the light of the sun that accompanied us that day disappeared, I received a call from the director of the organization that had enabled the entire process. Deeply distressed, she told me Chila had been killed just a few minutes after the end of the day's activity. Her dead body lay on the football pitch. People were paralyzed with fear; nobody dared go to her. I wasn't far away and all I dared was to make a couple of calls to the authorities and local people who might safely be able to help. Death was back in San Francisco and other districts of Buenaventura just when it had seemed the killers were yielding to the peaceful strength of the community.

Second day... Sharing tragedy. In the late afternoon, in the chapel of the Franciscans, a few meters away from the place where anonymous assassins had killed Chila, her family and friends, known and unknown, gathered to bid her farewell and to share their pain and indignation. Among the unknown were three of us paisas, as they call anyone who is not black around here, vaguely acknowledged as "the Jesuits" and friends in a joint project. The night before, we had prepared a short presentation with the pictures and videos taken that Sunday afternoon, when we thought they would serve a different purpose during a joyful celebration.

In a room behind the altar, we discussed with members of different organizations what kind of words we should use, who would speak and what to say, and whether it would be sensible to deliver a clear message about human rights in the presentation we had prepared. In that chapel, we felt the despair, indignation and pain caused by injustice and the mystery of death. However, from the perspective of faith, we also recognized the risen Christ in that lifeless body behind the altar.

The Afro-Colombian people of Buenaventura do not stand silently in the presence of death. Music, drums, movement and alcohol accompany death, for life and death are not separate but parts of the same reality. There is death in life itself. With the melody of the music, the penetrating drumbeat, the cadence of the poems recited for Chila, and that strange mixture of life and death, my heart burst into tears. What exactly was I doing here, why had life confronted me with this reality, what could we offer these people, what lessons could we learn? What was God telling us in our desolation?

As tears rolled down our cheeks, Don Mario, a leader and poet from Buenaventura's La Gloria district, approached us, shook our hands and said emphatically: "Whites don't cry for blacks," suggesting with these words that we had become brothers of the community. And so, a lasting friendship was born.

Thinking back, this moment is one of many gathered throughout my work with JRS, which I carry within me. There are other memories as well: a very young woman with her children, weeping for their murdered husband and father as they realized they must flee to survive; a peasant leader, living in a region disputed by armed groups, helpless before the power of bullets; a group of women, organized to defend their children's right to education, health and food in the mountains of Colombia, terrified of the helicopters that skim over their village firing indiscriminately against guerrilla forces on the ground.

These images have stayed with me simply because I was there, accompanying that young woman at her husband's funeral, making her journey less difficult; spending the entire afternoon listening intently to the peasant leader, trying to understand his frustration; sharing the women's fear as we heard the helicopters firing close to the school we were in.

In these moments of accompaniment, I felt the presence of God in a rare and new way, just as I had experienced it at Chila's funeral. In sharing the stories and lives of these people, I was no longer an outsider, but an insider.

Third day... Working together – Life reborn! Months after the funeral of Chila, thanks to the seeds of life born from that celebration of death and to Don Mario, we found ourselves sitting under a tree at the Matía Mulumba centre in Buenaventura, to discuss possible ways to give practical form to our friendship.

Since then, our relationship with the community has evolved in many ways. The rural district of La Gloria continues to face many struggles. Situated on the outskirts of the city of Buenaventura, it is a violent place with a high concentration of displaced people. Since 2009, JRS Colombia has been accompanying the La Gloria community in its struggle to win respect for the collective rights of black communities and to prevent forced displacement and child recruitment. The action plan, in which Chila had taken part, remains a point of reference for their shared life. The danger is still there and rises each day like a giant threatening to crush small local initiatives.

Not much has changed in reality. Nevertheless, there is La Glorita, a small farming project, now run by the community alone, which had begun as a symbol of collaboration between the community and several organizations, including JRS.

That afternoon, as we agonized over Chila's death, we found renewed life in the courage that arose from that very injustice. Death is not eternal, life is. After three days, Christ shows us death does not have the last word. Even in moments of despair, when everything seems lost, tenacity and faith in what we believe to be central to life is what makes people start all over again with greater strength and clarity. Even though it may be hard to believe, solid processes of cooperation have emerged from very dark experiences.

Years after we started to accompany the community of La Glorita, a Canadian Jesuit visited us in Buenaventura. I told him about the difficulties the people faced: pressure from armed groups, threats, internal community rivalry, expanding mining interests that were breaking up local organizations, and other problems that made us wonder if our planned 'projects' would ever work out as expected. The Jesuit gently reminded me that the ultimate aim of our support, as well as the challenge facing the community, was summed up in the kind of love we share with them through our accompaniment and service.

It is in the light of this love that I can see how the projects, strategies and actions, implemented by JRS around the world, respond to the call of God to serve. I find the mission of JRS to be based on a consistent understanding of humanitarian response in tough environments and with people who have suffered disproportionately and unfairly. It is a concrete way to find life in death.

by Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez 
JRS Latin America