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Peacemaking path leads young man to Central, South America

By Stephanie Blumhagen

The path Jon Phillips walks as he follows his faith-inspired call to peacemaking has led him to Central America, South America and home again.

Active in local peacemaking, he joined the Presbyterian Guatemala Task Force on two trips and participated in a recent travel seminar to Colombia.

Jon Phillips
Jon Phillips

Jon feels he has always been a peacemaker.

“I’ve always tried to stop conflicts. Even as a child I didn’t like to see my friends fighting. I’d say, ‘You guys, you shouldn’t do that,’” he said.

In elementary school, he was an acolyte at Manito Methodist Church. Later his family began attending Manito Presbyterian Church.  After high school, he studied architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman.

“In my fourth year of architecture school, I did a travel-study semester in Europe,” Jon said.

Visiting Geneva and Edinburgh, he reflected on Presbyterian history and his own faith.

“Praying in a side chapel at the cathedral in Geneva where John Calvin preached, I understood for the first time the connection between my individualistic faith and the saints who preceded me since the time of Christ,” he said.

Back in the United States, Jon became involved in campus ministries, and his calling became clearer. 

“In 2004, I felt God calling me into peacemaking. Now, it’s not really a choice,” he said.  “I can either follow God’s leading and accept the call or lose my faith.”

In choosing God, Jon chooses what comes with the calling, knowing “Christianity isn’t safe, easy or always fun.”

After graduating from college and returning to Spokane, he attended the 2003 missions fair at First Presbyterian Church, where he learned about the Guatemala Task Force from Ron and Marianne Frase, missionaries and members of Manito Presbyterian. They told about the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest’s partnership with the Associacion Presbyterios Maya K’ekchi in Guatemala.

Their description of it as a relational ministry and a ministry of presence—as opposed to a mission of going to do something for people—intrigued Jon, who had not seen what poverty looked like in two-thirds of the world.

Presbyterians in Guatemala
Jon, right, with Ron Frase and Guatemalan children.

With the Frases’ encouragement, Jon signed on for the trip and participated in three training sessions before going to Guatemala with a delegation of 12.

“A U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker and a young adult volunteer there traveled with us and translated,” he said.

Jon returned to Guatemala in 2004 as one of two Inland Northwest Presbytery delegates for a partnership-networking meeting between the Presbyterian Church  (USA) and the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG) on Lake Amatitlan just south of the capital, Guatemala City.

Jon was taken by the contrast between the beauty and the sadness he encountered there.

“An incredibly beautiful setting, with amazing people and incredible hospitality were juxtaposed with the horrors of their history of genocide and the violence that continued until the war ended in 1996. Parts of Guatemala are still run by mob violence,” he said.

The poverty Jon had seen in Spokane was nothing compared to the poverty of people who live on less than a dollar a day in shacks with dirt floors and chickens running around. 

“Children who are starving and have a glazed look grow up without any shoes,” he said.  “I’d never seen that before. I’d also never seen people with massive physical defects that could have been picked up early and treated.”

Jon recalls a shy young man who had severe facial and bodily disfigurement and a young woman who, at the age of 22, looked like an eight-year-old. A doctor traveled with their group and performed medical checkups.

Jon in Guatemala
Jon with two Guatemalans

The delegation also distributed reading glasses donated by a Spokane Lions Club.

“For as many people as we helped see just a bit when they read, we turned away many people we couldn’t help, people who probably have vision problems worse than mine. There aren’t any services there. We take medical services for granted here in the United States,” he said.

Jon planned to go to Guatemala again in February 2006, but in October 2005 he received a letter. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Jean Marie Peacock, vice moderator of the 216th Presbyterian General Assembly invited him to participate in the 2006 Presbyterian Church Young Adult Peacemaking Travel Seminar to Colombia on the theme, “Rebuilding the Household of God – Understanding Globalization, Peacemaking and Nonviolence in Colombia.”

“I had less than two weeks before the deadline to apply.  It was rushed, but I had the sense I should go,” Jon said.

Although he knew about Plan Colombia and knew people working for human rights were being persecuted and assassinated, he didn’t know the scope.

Jon went to Colombia with 10 others, including Jean Marie. They met with human rights workers and young adults from the Iglesia Presbyteriana de Colombia who are working for justice.

He learned that Colombia is in a state of turmoil because guerilla groups, such as FARC—Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerrilla organization—paramilitary forces and Colombian military forces are continually at war.

The group spoke with Presbyterian peacemaking accompaniers, U.S. citizens who live among Colombian people and accompany human rights workers when Colombian government officials question them.

One man, Mauricio, particularly inspired Jon.  As a law student in Baranquilla, Mauricio had been involved in human rights work. The second brigade of the Colombian Army accused him of being third in command of FARC. Imprisoned for four months, he couldn’t leave his cell for fear of being assassinated. His grades and law school records had been erased by the paramilitaries who infiltrated the university faculty and administration.

After being released from prison, Mauricio was forced into exile in Geneva, Switzerland. There he had a comfortable life, more schooling and a good job, but he knew that wasn’t his place, Jon said. So Mauricio went home and continued to work for human rights despite persecution.

He told the young adults that many people don’t have the choice whether they will live under violence.

“Every day there is fighting around them. Mauricio had the choice, but knew if he was going to follow God, he had to choose to be among his people. That struck me deeply,” Jon said.

Young adults on the trip stayed with host families. On the second-to-last day they left their host families and flew from Baranquilla back to Bogota.

“As we arrived in the airport, we found that Mauricio was trying to get a friend, who had been in prison with him, out of the country.  After his friend had been released from prison, two human rights workers accompanying him were assassinated,” Jon said.

Reflecting on the poverty he encountered in Guatemala and Colombia, Jon said: “If we as a society wanted to, we could do something about that poverty, but we choose not to, because of how our political structure and economy work. 

“Too many simply say, ‘We can’t turn back now,’” he said.

It’s hard for Jon “as a good tax payer” to realize he is part of that mindset. 

“When I buy a shirt I now know how that affects people elsewhere. I have seen the people it affects,” he said.  “I don’t know how to deal with it.  I struggle with it every day and may struggle with it for the rest of my life.”

Jon meets regularly with the Guatemala Task Force and the Presbytery’s Peacemaking Network.  He has given presentations on his experience in Colombia at some Presbyterian churches and at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

He is still discerning where his calling to peacemaking will take him next.

“I don’t know if I’m waiting for God, or if God is waiting for me, but I trust that God will lead me to where I’m supposed to be,” Jon said.

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