Mission Co-Worker Speaks On War and Peace in Colombia
Global Ministries Mission Co-Worker Michael Joseph has spent the later part of October touring local churches in Connecticut to share the impacts of his work in the war-torn nation of Colombia. On Wednesday, Joseph spoke to a group of people at the Middlefield Federated Church in Middlefield.
For more than 20 years Joseph has worked with several international peace building organizations. Since 2007, he has been a Mission Co-Worker for the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ joint Global Ministries, working with two mission partner organizations. He worked with the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL) and Justapaz as the coordinator of Cafepaz Peace Studies Center – a organization that studies the intersection of Christianity, war and peace-building in Colombia.
Colombia is in the midst of a civil war reaching back more than 50 years. The conflict is generally three-sided. Government Security forces face guerrilla militant groups who seek to overthrow the government in response to widespread inequality and poverty. Several groups, including the largest force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC), make up guerilla units. Paramilitary groups and private armies, representing wealthy landowners and businesses who feel threatened by the guerrilla groups, have added to the conflict by targeting guerilla leaders, supporters, union leaders and left-leaning academics, and often clash with Colombian security forces as well. Since the war began, more than 7 million Colombian have been displaced either to other parts of the nation or as refugees to other countries due to the constant violence.
The goal of the Mission Co-worker is to partner with local people and groups who know best the context of the community and the situation, and to join them in their work. CEDECOL has been involved since the early 2000s with a primary role of documenting human rights violations by all three sides. Joseph explains in his talks that the reports generated from this documentation effort helps groups seek support and emergency aid for victims of the violence, provide legal aid, and to advocate for peace with the local government and internationally.
In 2012, FARC leaders and Colombia officials began peace talks with the hopes of coming to an accord. Cuba and Norway were invited to act as hosts and guarantors for the process. CEDECOL responded to this positive shift by producing a report showing the human rights violations for which all sides were responsible. The more than 9,000 documented violations were nearly equally committed by all three sides. CEDECOL also organized an international and ecumenical gathering of church leaders around the world who had been through a peace process to ask them to share their experiences, best practices, and what can be done to prepare and to respond to the peace process.
More than four years later, an agreement was reached when FARC leaders agreed to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate FARC combatants into society. The group also agreed to transform FARC into a political party instead of a militant group. Over 12000 combatants gathered in 26 camps throughout Colombia where they turned over weapons and began the long, difficult process of reintegrating with local communities. CEDECOL again was present and, through funding made available by the Disciples of Christ Week of Compassion campaign, was able to start working with 2 of the camps, bringing together FARC combatants and local civilian leaders to talk through conflict transformation and restorative justice.
Though the accord was a tremendous step toward peace, the FARC agreement has not stopped the fighting. Other guerrilla groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest guerrilla militant group after FARC, have continued the fight though some efforts at peace talks have taken place. In addition, the 2017 peace accords themselves are not free of challenges.
"It's something that we have to accompany and monitor for a long time and continue to build peace in Colombia for decades to come," said Joseph in September in a video conversation with CT Conference Minister Rev. Kent Siladi and Rev. Martin Silver, an Associate Conference Minister in the Central Atlantic Conference, UCC.
The presentation at Middlefield prompted many questions and some surprise by attendees at the large numbers of displaced people in Colombia – the nation currently has the second largest population of displaced people next to Syria – and the history of U.S. aid that has been given to the Colombian government over the past 2 decades. When asked what response he would like to see from churches, Joseph responded that he just wanted people to act.
"In terms of a local church or an individual sitting in a room thinking what does this mean for me, what does this mean for my local church, what does this mean for my denomination, I want folks to do some good in the world and that can go in many, many directions."
Middlefield Pastor Bekah Forni attended Wednesday evening's presentation and said people like Joseph and the work he does help all of us be the church needed today.
"We live in a time when our attention is pulled in so many different directions and the suffering of the world feels like it is more than we can hold. Michael's visit to [Middlefield] has been a reminder to us that church is still a powerful, healing, peace-making presence in times of war. Being church is bearing witness to the suffering of the world. We might not be able to fix the problems that we see, but our prayers, presence, attention, solidarity, and advocacy make the brick and mortar of God's holy, human, living, temple that we are commissioned to build in the world. That work starts with education, awareness, and meeting people like Michael who come to share Gospel: Good News about what God is doing for people who others have forgotten."