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PNC-Disciples team makes virtual pilgrimage to Colombia

Sixteen from the Pacific Northwest Conference of the UCC and the Northern Lights Region of the Disciples of Christ “journeyed” virtually on a pilgrimage to Colombia to “visit” partners of Global Ministries, Justapaz and CIEDERPAZ.

Ed Evans of the Global Ministries Committee, who skypes with Byoung-gil a pastor friend from the East Seoul partnership, joined the virtual pilgrimage to Colombia. Photo courtesy of Ed Evans

The regional joint Global Ministries Committee and the potential partners in Colombia had wanted to visit in person before deciding on a partnership.

The goal was to listen and learn about the life, culture, joys and sorrows of the persons in Chocó, the department (state) in far northwestern Colombia.  It is a department populated by Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups, said Mary Olney-Loyd, one of the “pilgrims.”

“The President of Colombia was elected after the 2016 Peace Accords were finalized two years ago, but has not implemented them or allocated funds for those who laid down their arms.

“The virtual pilgrimage was not a cultural deep dive. We just visited two hours a day for four days from Sept. 21 to 26, with two days for the U.S. pilgrims to converse,” she said.

Aid went to 700 people in 200 families in six villages. Photos courtesy of Justapaz

Ed Evans, who is also on the GM Committee and has been active in the partnership with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea in East Seoul for about 30 years, has been participating in monthly Zoom calls with leaders with Justapaz and CIEDERPAZ.

Justapaz is a Mennonite nonprofit working with churches to improve living conditions of communities recovering from 60 years of armed and social conflict. CIEDREPAZ is the peace commission of the Evangelical (Ecumenical Protestant) Council of Churches.

Group prepares humanitarian aid packages in San Miguel.

The committee had planned an in-person visit in September.  The partners in Colombia are church related, but not a church as previous global partners.

For two years, the committee has been looking for a new partnership, because of losing contact both with leaders of the Evangelical Church in Berlin, a partner since 1987, and with leaders of the PROK in East Seoul. Since his last trip to Korea in 2016, Ed has only maintained contact with a pastor who hosted him but has since moved to a church in the southern Korean peninsula.

Each participant paid $325, half used for

Volunteers load aid packages from the boats.

humanitarian aid packages of rice, sugar, cooking oil and COVID supplies that were given to 200 elderly and vulnerable people in six villages.  Half of the funds were used to cover the costs of preparations, translation, videos and establishing a website.

Organizers in Colombia prepared aid packages in early September, then took them by boat to six villages along the San Juan River in El Chocó, a region of Northwest Colombia in the Pacific Coast and bordering Panama. The area is the home of descendants of African escaped and freed slaves, and the Wounaan indigenous people.

Volunteers unload aid for elderly and vulnerable villagers.

Violence continues in that area from paramilitary groups supporting coca growing and drug trafficking by sea and land routes to the U.S.  Illegal mining in the area and spraying herbicides to clear the coco crops—supported by U.S. tax dollars—has polluted the river. 

The river is a source of drinking water and fish, a food staple.  The river is also drying up, affecting their ability to water the crops of small farmers who grow rice, corn, cassava, plantain and cane to make a living and for their families.

Team members listen to stories of people in the villages.

Mary said the visit allowed “our friends in Colombia to make a trip by boat to provide food and supplies, and to document stories of the struggles and violence people in the villages experience. 

“In the last village, they were not allowed to do anything but drop off the supplies because of the paramilitary presence,” Mary said.

In videos Justapaz took along the way and at the villages, U.S. pilgrims saw the Colombian representatives deliver humanitarian aid packages, share in a meal and join in an ecumenical worship.

Mennonite and Catholic clergy lead ecumenical worship.

The pilgrims also listened to documentation in testimonial stories of their lives and issues as they face in displacement from their land, pollution from herbicides and mining, paramilitary violence, human rights violations, struggle to survive, anger at injustices, difficulties under COVID, as well as their gratitude, hopes, joys and resilience.

Ed said he was moved by the joint worship led by a Catholic priest and Mennonite pastor, sharing in communion.

Rick Russell, co-chair of the Global Ministries Committee, previously had participated in a mission pilgrimage to Puerto Rico to help paint and rebuild after hurricane damage several years ago.

He said Angel Luis Rivera-Agosto, the executive for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Lorna Hernandez, administrator for Global Ministries People-to-People pilgrimages, joined the Northwest pilgrims, along with two people who have long connected with Colombia, Charlie Pillsbury of New Haven, Conn., and Geri Foltz of Virginia.

Rick said the virtual pilgrimage was a successful model for people to connect, and gain a glimpse into another culture and setting without traveling in the pandemic

“It changes the face of mission,” he said. 

“We learned how the U.S. is complicit,” Rick continued, “because our tax dollars fund the spraying defoliants to kill illegal coca crops.  However, hey also hit legal crops, making the soil unable to be used to farm. 

“We appreciate tho courage of those trying to document abuses and violence of paramilitary groups prevalent in rural areas.  Ranchers hire paramilitary groups to protect their land for grazing,” he said.

“We don’t know our next steps yet,” he said, “But the fact that we were able to do a virtual pilgrimage during the pandemic is a hopeful sign that Global Ministries are alive and well.”

Those participating from Seattle were Steve Claggett, Wayne Daly and Mary of All Pilgrims UCC and Disciples of Christ Church; Cora Trujillo, Meighan Pritchard and Rick of Prospect UCC, and Dick Cunningham of Queen Anne Christian Church.

Other participants were Jan Kinney and Ed of Suquamish UCC; Ruth Brandon of Everett UCC; Janet Larson and Adam Janes of Othello Christian Church; Sandy Messick, Northern Lights regional minister, in Spokane; Bill and Connie Roby of First Christian Church, Puyallup; Gloria Soja of First Christian Church, Helena, and Annette Bratke of Grand Ave. Christian Church in Bozeman.

“We can help tell their story,” said Ed, “and it’s important that the people there know that someone cares and is walking with them as they seek to make peace a reality.”

The presence of U.S. partners helps the people in Colombia know nothing separates them from God, as God helps them work for reconciliation.

Sandy said that while she learned about the hardships and realities of the people, she also learned about their resilience as the ecumenical organization diverts youth from joining paramilitary groups or falling into drug use by organizing soccer teams and teaching God’s Word.

“I saw women singing joyfully. I couldn’t understand their words, but I heard their joy and resilience,” she said.

Steve said he first felt overwhelmed thinking how “we could solve their problems,” but then set that idea aside, realizing their job was to accompany the people, listen, learn and share, and never underestimate the power of the presence of the witness of a person of faith.

Videos from the pilgrimage, which are on the website, allow anyone in other congregations to share in part of the experience of the pilgrimage.  They are translated and include recipes, Mary said.

For information, call Rick at 206-999-6968 or Ed at 360-670-1073 or visit


Copyright © December 2020 - Pacific NW UCC News




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