This past weekend, I took a short trip down to Colombia to attend the 4th national gathering of the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network in Colombia. I helped establish this network in 2008. I had arrived at USIP in 2007 and been told to build on the work of my predecessor, who had tried to launch an ecumenical effort to push for peace talks. I went to Bogota for a week, asked a lot of questions, and discovered that his efforts had hit many walls. Particularly those erected by the Catholic Bishops. I did not encounter much enthusiasm for reinvigorating that effort, or any ecumenical effort with the church leadership … at least the male leadership. With the ladies it was a different story. They were much more enthusiastic to connect across lines of difference, and in many case already were. They rolled their eyes at the efforts of the men, and the way those efforts were often handicapped by egos. They desired to be supported and to collaborate with others to enact their dreams. So a seed was planted, in their minds and mine, and within a year, the Ecumenical Women’s Peacebuilding Network had been launched — to strengthen and support the work of women building peace through their religious institutions, and to promote understanding and collaboration between Catholic and Protestant women, who don’t often work together (and whose relationships have been strained with the rise and spread of Pentecostalism).
Colombia is one of my favorite places on earth. Despite decades of violence, the emergence of armed group after armed group, the narco-trafﬁcking, the abuses of the State, the seeping of violence into the domestic and criminal spheres, there is such openness and expressiveness in its people. When you visit a conﬂict zone, I’ve found it either goes one way or the other. Either you walk off the plane and your guard immediately goes up because you feel something in the air — some violence, mistrust, poison — or you visit a place where you would assume people feel that way, given what they’ve been through, but they confound you with their openness, willingness to trust, their easy laughs, their warmth. there’s rarely a middle ground. Sri Lanka and Iraq are places that feel like protracted conﬂict zones to me: tense and unhinged. Myanmar and Colombia, despite their decades of violence and authoritarianism, don’t (I’ve heard Libya is like this too). What is it about these cultures, these nations, that makes the people so resilient? So full of hope and warmth, despite everything? Despite the traumas? I ﬁnd spirituality to be a common denominator. Not religion. Certainly Iraq and Sri Lanka are very religious places. But their religion often feels ceremonial, ritualistic, formal. In Colombia and Myanmar, their religious practices are deeply spiritual, deeply infused and embodied, lived out by the lay. The divine is thick in the air in these places. Is this a consequence of their cultural resilience, or a cause of it?
In any event, this weekend I went to spend time with my religious women peacebuilders in Colombia, who are truly an incredible group. These women are living in the crucible of machismo and violence; they are working at the front lines to pull the Kingdom out of the scorched earth. They are Catholic nuns, Mennonitas, and Pentecostal preachers. Some wear habits, some wear tight jeans and deep v-neck shirts. Some drink, some don’t. Some murmur during collective prayers, their appeals growing in pitch and fervor as the prayer continues, their bodies swaying and heads looking heavenward, and some sit silently, their head bowed, still and reverent. These are some of my favorite religious peacebuilders in the world. They work hard (for victims, in the prisons, doing advocacy, etc.), and they pray hard, and they dance hard.
One thing that always sticks with me is their way of referring to women from the tradition when they come together. They dramatize the stories of the women from the Bible who have been victims of male violence — those raped, those killed, those stoned. They identify with these women. They see the story of Colombia’s women in these Biblical accounts. And they also lift up the stories of women leaders from scripture. In this workshop, they spoke of Esther as a political advocate for peace. They broke open their Bibles and they explored how she identiﬁed and leveraged her power to save lives, how she convinced others, made her demands. They sketched out her methodology – how a woman persuaded a ruler to choose peace. Then they asked themselves how to live up to Esther’s actions in their context. They made plans to take actions to demand more women be represented at the current peace talks between the Government and the FARC — to push a campaign on the one-year anniversary of the start of the talks. They went to the plaza in town and collected 300 signatures for a nation-wide Covenant for an Ethical Peace. And then they came home and danced. At 11pm, after being in a workshop since 8am. They are indefatigable.
On Sunday morning, we opened our day with worship and communion. Ana Mercedes sang. We read scripture. We reﬂected. Women from each region of the country came to the front and offered a prayer. And then a woman walked up to the communion table, lifted the loaf above her head, and broke it. The body, broken. The bodies. The body of Christ, the body of Colombia, the bodies of too many women. She took the cup and lifted it above her head. The blood of Christ, the blood of Colombianos, the blood of too many Colombianas, spilt. We prayed for peace, we prayed for the peacemakers, and we prayed for peace. And then we danced.