Monday, March 31, 2008

Lazy Monday Video

I haven't done a Lazy Video in awhile, and I'm not likely to get anything else done today, so I'll post one, even though it is Monday. Plus, I need to get something up quickly, before the comments from my previous post physically catch fire and melt my computer.

So, here's Albi the Racist Dragon, by Flight of the Concords, self-described as “Formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.”

Secretly, though, I like Business Time a lot better, which speaks the truth about the joys of marital sex. However, I like to keep this blog family-friendly, so I will only provide the link.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Words Fail Me

Copied entirely from Ben Smith at Politico:

"The Muslim lie lingers"
A new Pew poll out today reports that the Wright affair hasn't really hurt Obama among Democrats, but he's still having trouble with the older, white, working-class members of his party:

White Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama are much more likely than those who have favorable opinions of him to express less tolerant views on race. In addition, nearly a quarter of Democrats (23 percent) who hold a negative view of Obama believe he is a Muslim.

The survey also notes:

There is little evidence that the recent news about Obama's affiliation with the United Church of Christ has dispelled the impression that he is Muslim. While voters who heard "a lot" about Rev. Wright's controversial sermons are more likely than those who have not to correctly identify Obama as a Christian, they are not substantially less likely to still believe that he is Muslim. Nearly one in 10 (9 percent) of those who heard a lot about Wright still believe that Obama is Muslim.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

John Cole's Mea Culpa

My wife is pretty good at admitting when she is wrong. She is not wrong often, so I especially relish it when it happens.

However, she has nothing on cartoonist John Cole. He listed everything he got wrong about the Iraq war. It is a list that is not very different from what most people believed at the time:

I was wrong about the Doctrine of Pre-emptive warfare.
I was wrong about Iraq possessing WMD.
I was wrong about Scott Ritter and the inspections.
I was wrong about the UN involvement in weapons inspections.
I was wrong about the containment sanctions.
I was wrong about the broader impact of the war on the Middle East.
I was wrong about this making us more safe.
I was wrong about the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq.
I was wrong when I stated this administration had a clear plan for the aftermath.
I was wrong about securing the ammunition dumps.
I was wrong about the ease of bringing democracy to the Middle East.
I was wrong about dissolving the Iraqi army.
I was wrong about the looting being unimportant.
I was wrong that Bush/Cheney were competent.
I was wrong that we would be greeted as liberators.
I was wrong to make fun of the anti-war protestors.
I was wrong not to trust the dirty smelly hippies

I can be pretty stubborn once I take a stand, so had I supported the war, I have to admit that I would have been tempted to continue justifying it, like so many others are doing. It is hard to come to terms with support for a policy that has wreaked such havoc. So, it took a lot of guts for John Cole to stand up and say this, and I appreciate his sentiments. I just wish there were good choices left for an exit strategy, rather than choices ranging from terrible to awful.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hillary Shenanigans

Having been out of the country for two weeks and then on vacation, I’m just now getting hooked back into the presidential race.

With Obama seeming to be back on track after the Rev. Wright flap, it will be interesting to see whether Hillary lying about her trip to Bosnia will hurt her in the polls. The last thing Hillary needs is to remind everyone that we can’t trust Clintons with the truth anymore than we can trust Bushes.

I know this goes against the very essence of who the Clintons are, but I wish they would recognize reality and throw in the towel. She can’t win mathematically, except to steal superdelegates, against the obvious will of Democratic Party voters.

One tidbit I learned on vacation: My brother-in-law recently moved from the Cincinnati area, and heard that a lot of his conservative family and friends had voted for Hillary in the primary, to try to make the race drag on. Their county is overwhelmingly Republican, and they ran out of Democractic party ballots because so many Republicans were voting Democratic. Hillary won overwhelming in that county. The mainstream media missed the boat on that one.

If she does somehow manage to steal the nomination, I will be in a major quandary. I can’t vote for McCain, since I don’t want to go to war with Iran, but at this point I don’t think I could vote for Hillary, either, given all the race-baiting her camp has done. I may have to vote for Nader. Yuck.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

To Give or to Go

My weekly column is up at Smile Politely, where I attempt to justify my trip to Colombia in purely economic terms.

Monday, March 24, 2008

John Howard Yoder In Colombia

My ears perked up during a meeting at JustaPaz in Colombia when I heard Janna Hunter-Bowman use an obscure Yoderian term to describe her work. Janna collects stories from human rights victims and was an energetic (and very pregnant) ball of energy when she talked to us. I also stumbled across her blog while searching for information about Mencoldes (a Mennonite economic development aid agency in Colombia), and was happy to read that the baby is now born and healthy and happy.

Anyway, she was talking about human rights, and mentioned that in their work, they don’t believe in military standards of conduct, because they don’t believe in violence as a solution to problems. Therefore there are no standards for violent conduct that make sense for them. However, they do use John Howard Yoder’s “middle axioms” to hold people accountable to their own standards.

John Howard Yoder is probably the most influential Mennonite theologian of the 20th century. He wrote The Politics of Jesus, a seminal book for theologians that argued how the ethics of Jesus can and should be applied in the real world, rather than as simply unattainable ethic standards that we should ignore.

However, the “middle axioms” term is one Yoder used in a little treatise called Christian Witness to the State, and I believe not used again after that. It is a mapping between religious values and secular values – basically, you find secular values that map onto religious values, and use them when speaking to a secular audience, because it is important to meet people where they are. So, you may not agree with a particular standard that is important to others, but you can at least hold them accountable to their own standards.

Yoder used this strategy very effectively with Catholics and Just War theory. As a pacifist, he didn’t believe in Just War, but he spent a lot of time on it, and challenged Catholics when they misapplied it to contemporary wars. In doing so, he caused them to take Just War Theory more seriously (in theological circles, anyway).

Perhaps this is only interesting to the hundred or so people in the world who have taken the John Howard Yoder’s Theology class at AMBS. But I was tickled to hear the term “middle axiom” in a real-life setting, and with such critical work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ignorance Is Bliss

I have a new post up at Smile Politely today, where I explain how my experience in Colombia demonstrates that ignorance is bliss.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Provokes You?

There will be a continuing Colombia afterglow on this blog until I get back in town and start the regularity of normal life. Here's another quick story about culture and language.

One of the members of our delegation was Pastor Samuel, a Guatemalan who is the pastor of an Hispanic church in Portland. During his stay with his sister church in Colombia, he happened to be alone with the pastor's wife at their house, and she asked him in Spanish "So, what provokes you?"

What a great question, I thought. I should ask more people that - it is very open-ended and filled with possibilities. However, in Guatemala, the wording of it in Spanish could also be interpreted as "So, what turns you on?"

Hmmm, thought Pastor Samuel, I'm not quite sure what she means by this. In fact, this could become downright uncomfortable. After an uneasy silence, she offered some options: "Chocolate, juice, water" other beverage options. Ah, he thought, here it just means "would you like anything?" He gratefully accepted a beverage.

Apparently, miscommunication and cultural differences are not limited to gringos in South America. For that I am grateful.

Friday, March 14, 2008

US Embassy Visit

Despite the frequent teasing Wilmer earned for being on the phone so much while we were in Colombia, he redeemed himself by speaking truth to power at the US embassy on the last day of the trip. We spoke with someone from the department that handles human rights and labor issues.

The US Embassy here is the 2nd largest in the world, behind Iraq, with about four thousand people. Colombia receives the 3rd largest amount of foreign aid from the US, behind Israel and Egypt. One thing I learned is that the “mission” (the embassy) determines many of the particulars of how the money is spent, so even though they are given specific policies to adhere to, they have some power in how Plan Colombia actually plays out in Colombia.

We came with 4 or 5 topics of discussion, including visas for church delegations from Colombia, the free-trade agreement, drug policy, and human rights abuses by paramilitary. Wilmer managed to get a word in most of the discussions, with his basic messages being:

  • Our drug policy doesn’t work – cocaine prices are the same as they’ve been the last few decades.
  • The economy may go up as a whole, but that doesn’t seem to make a dent in poverty.
  • Fumigation is stupid and dangerous.
  • The free trade agreement will be a disaster for poor Colombians.
I’m exaggerating for effect here. Wilmer is, after all, a salesman who knows how to say such things in ways that forestall armed guards from coming in to haul him away. Still, I appreciated his stances and his advocacy.

I asked about whether the US agrees with the Colombian government when they claim there are no paramilitary left in the country, which is blatantly false. She gave a very clever answer: There are no paramilitary, because they’ve redefined what paramilitary means. They only count as paramilitary if they are “not political”, which apparently means actively trying to overthrow the state government. This, of course, has never been the intent of the paramilitary.

Nonetheless, paramilitary do control certain regions, grow cocaine, and sell it to finance themselves. The last time I checked, controlling some area of geography involves governing of some kind, which makes it political. The answer is about as useful as saying we don't torture people because our definition of torture is "things we don't do."

So, the problem remains that the Colombian government is only interested combating guerillas, and sweeps the paramilitary problem under the rug by claiming it does not exist. This apparently has the blessing of the current administration.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the embassy folks are just people doing their jobs. They want a peaceful Colombia as much as anyone - it is just that I totally disagree with the policies they must follow to try to accomplish it. They did offer to help if there are any human rights abuses that happen to the sister churches we have relationships with, and I believe they are sincere in that.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Back Home

We've arrived home safely, without too many hassles. Wilmer and I had to take a taxi from O'Hare to Hyde Park to pick up a car that stalls at stoplights to be the final leg of our journey, but we got home before midnight. Wilmer claims that all his travels are this adventurous, and I don't need much convincing to believe him. However, he and I had a great chat on the way down, and reconsidered whether we shouldn't have been doing more of it during the rest of the trip. Poor Ken had to watch me and Wilmer type most nights, since we often got back to the hotel so late.

I am already feeling the oncrush of domestic responsibilities, as we are leave tomorrow for a week-long visit to Jill's brother's during spring break. I hope to post some more Colombia stories, but they may be slow in coming.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers and web responses during our time there. It was comforting to know everyone was with us in spirit.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Random Images of Colombia

If pictures are worth a thousand words, consider this a 25,000 word essay. I have lots of other posts I plan to do about Colombia, but before I actually leave the country, I want to post a few random images.

Here's me, on top of Monserate, which overlooks Bogota:

Here's Wilmer on the phone in front of the Bogota Mennonite Church:
Here's Ken holding a baby:

This is JustaPaz, where we spent of lot of time:

This is near Bucaramanga, where one of El Divino Redentor's missions is:

Here's some Colombian boys enjoying a swim:
Here's Wilmer on the phone:

This is for Jill, who likes to take pictures of flowers:
This the truck that First Mennonite helped pay to deliver food:
Here's Wilmer hiding behind the truck, having figured out that we are taking pictures of him on the phone:
Here's LuentroLeandro and Andreas Daniel (Andres' brother). Leandro is the son of Pastor Israel, and both are friends of "Pastor Greg":

Here's Ken holding another, especially happy, baby:

Here's Wilmer on the phone:
Here's our lovely host family, in order: Julianna, Alba, and Valeria
Here's Ken and I with the host family:
Here's Wilmer hiding again while on the phone:

Another Jill picture:
A bridge amidst natural beauty:
Wilmer on the phone:

Our host family's apartment:

A neighborhood in Bucaramanga:

We are all getting tired:

When Wilmer was tired of talking, he would email:

Me, tirelessly working to bring news of Colombia to the world:
Our partners in crime:

I apologize for not including all the pictures I have of Wilmer on the phone. I don't want to slight him, but I'm guessing blogspot has a limit for the number of pictures you can upload.
As much fun as we had giving Wilmer a hard time, I must say that he did a great job grilling the US Embassy worker today. I'll post that story later.
We fly out early tomorrow. I'm looking forward to seeing my family, and drinking tap water.

JustaPaz Documentation Project

The Colombian government has two kinds of competitors to organized violence in the country: insurgents and paramilitary. Unfortunately, the government is only inherently motivated to fight one of them: the insurgents. Their solution to insurgents is to try to kill them and their solution to the paramilitary is to claim they do not exist.

The logic of a paramilitary force is to eliminate the support of an irregular army (like guerillas) that can’t be defeated by a regular army. This is true everywhere in the world – paramilitary doesn’t exist to fight the state, but to fight insurgent groups. Paramilitary may not be directly controlled by the state, but their intent is to eliminate threats to those with economic power (such as plantation owners or drug lords). If the state is not strong enough to eliminate those threats, those wiith money and power will buy or acquire a paramilitary force that will.

They then engage in a variety of atrocities, like going into villages and areas where there is a guerilla presence and massacring everyone there. If the state were to do this, they would get blamed for human rights violations. But they can claim they have nothing to do with it if they allow paramilitary to do whatever they want.

In addition to fighting insurgents, the paramilitary in Colombia in the 80s and 90s destroyed almost all legitimate opposition groups. For example, they assassinated over 3,000 members of a legal opposition political party, plus scores of union leaders, peace activists, etc. In the end, the only opposition left was the insurgents, so there is now the assumption that whoever is against the government must be a terrorist. Gee, that sounds kind of familiar.

Another twist in Colombia is that drug money took over the country. Both paramilitary and insurgents started growing coca to finance their own operations, and the government benefits from massive military aid to fight drugs (or terrorism, depending on the political climate in the US). With an unending supply of money flowing in, the violence was and is able to continue indefinitely, because everyone can afford to continue buying more weapons to fight each other.

However, the insurgents have lost most of their popular support by acting more and more like paramilitary over the years. This has made it a little easier on the government. The military aid and political support they get from the US (“Plan Colombia”) is supposed to fight insurgents and dismantle the paramilitary. They certainly get the “fight insurgents” part. They are so aggressive in going after insurgents that President Uribe has fired dozens of generals because they were not able to kill them fast enough. This has lead to the military attempting to pump up the numbers by killing civilians and dressing them up as insurgents in order to get their numbers up.

On the paramilitary side, they have made some strides, by getting a lot of the paramilitary to disband. However, the disbanded groups have often just formed different groups, and gone on as before. And yet, the official government line is that paramilitary no longer exist, and that the killings are mostly happening by and to insurgents, or are random acts of violence.

The first step in counteracting official government misinformation is to collect real data and make sure it people have access to it. JustaPaz is one of the organizations in Colombia doing the unpleasant work of collecting stories and counting victims. It has released two volumes of its report “A Prophetic Call” that documents human rights violations that happen within the context of Protestant churches. There are also plenty of Catholics and people not associated with a church who are victims, but JustaPaz has very limited resources, and the Jesuits and others collect info on other populations.

JustaPaz investigates each violation, and talks to the victims. It tries to do so in an anonymous way, but last year, its offices were broken into, and its database was stolen. The government is classifying it as an economic crime of a few stolen computers, and isn’t doing much to investigate, despite the problem that victims who come forward often do so at considerable risk to themselves. Stealing data that can identify them is at least an act of intimidation, and possibly much worse. Other peace and justice organizations have also had their computers stolen around the same time, so obviously the documentation process is getting some unhappy attention by those in power.

They say it takes as long to get out of a war as to get into one. Colombia’s has been going on at various levels of intensity for 60 years, so recovery is going to be a long process. However, despite the continued violence, it is good to know there are committed people watching and counting, and it is good for them to know that people support them in their work.

Monday, March 10, 2008

El Divino Redentor

We had un rico time in Bucaramanga, where “Pastor Gregory” Springer is beloved by all. I’ll post later about all the programs that El Divino Redentor is doing, but for now, I want to post some pictures about their worship services.

Here’s the front of the church:

The building is both the church and the residence for Pastor Israel and his family. This is a problem with the government, because they have a newish policy that requires churches to be in “real” buildings, with parking lots, and approval from neighbors. We are told it is a way to discourage Protestants churches and support Catholic Churches, which are 90% of the churches in Colombia. Pastor Israel is trying to raise funds so they can be in compliance, but it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so, and will take away from their service programs.

Here is the inside:

And here is the alter area (what is that area of a church called, anyway?)

The church day starts at 9:30am with Sunday School, which is more like a Bible study for everyone. It is actually a lot like SS at First Mennonite, with some poor, harassed teacher trying to get a point across while lots of people point out objections and complications. The message this Sunday was a passage from Matthew about being a servant like Jesus and feeding the poor. A concern for service is another way we are similar.

However, even though the content is familiar, the form of the worship service is very different. EDR is a Lutheran church, and it is very much what I grew up with as a Catholic. The sermon was delivered by Maria Elena, who visited FMC a few years ago, so it was nice to see a familiar face. She is the pastor at one of EDR’s “daughter” churches that is now completely self-sufficient.

They had us introduce ourselves during the service, and when we mentioned that FMC was singing Psalm 130 in Spanish in their honor this morning, they asked us to sing it for them. Unfortunately, we had no idea what it was. So they asked us to sing something else, since it is well known how lovely Mennonites can sing. They didn't get the memo that Wilmer and I are terrible singers, and Ken is not good enough to save us. We decided on the doxology, because it is simple, and we all knew the words. Or, at least we thought we did. We started out with confusion over gender (“Praise Him all creatures here below” vs “Praise God all creatures here below”), and then we started singing different lyrics entirely. I thought perhaps there was some other verse that I didn’t know about it. I think mostly we cracked under pressure.

The good news is that EDR may not have noticed, given that we were singing in English, and that, while they have many gifts, congregational singing is not among them. Earlier they were singing a hymn where the bass line is supposed to echo the melody, and Ken was singing it, correctly as far as I could tell. Our hostess got this horrified look on her face, and pointing out to Ken the melody that he was supposed to be singing, thinking he was hopelessly lost and off-beat.
Afterward, they had on the schedule “Tinto & Diologs” which means “Coffee and Conversation,” another thing that made us feel right at home. The also gave a very sweet presentation about Colombia, the message being that Colombia is not just drugs and violence – it is natural beauty and welcoming people, of which EDR has been such a gracious example of. I got a copy of it for our Vacation Bible School this summer.

Here's the Martinez family: (Loraci, Daniell, Paster Israel, and Leandro):

The bad news is that Pastor Israel developed a fever Sunday evening, and went to the hospital, because they are not taking any chances, given that he is recovering from cancer treatment. Keep him in your thoughts are prayers.

Oh, I almost forgot: We presented the JYF photo album, and it was very warmly received. Here's one of the families that provided Gordon and the Kellogs hospitality during their visit (I didn't get their names), and the girls were happy to see the photos:

Finally, here's Ken with his new friend Valeria:

Sunday, March 09, 2008


I lived for 9 months in Venezuela when I was 12 years old, and I was unfortunately not diligent enough in my studies to pick up enough Spanish to make it last a lifetime. It meant I did pretty well in Spanish class in high school, but it was not of much use to me otherwise. However, last year I was in Guatemala for 3 weeks, and was surprised by how much had come back to me. And this time around, it seems like I am picking up where I left off last year, which is good, because Ken and I are staying with a host family that doesn't speak much English.

Ken´s Spanish is more rudimentary than mine, but we make a good team. When my brain starts to lock up on long sentences, he will pick out a word, and we will be able to piece it together, along with hand gestures and a not very useful Spanish dictionary I brought. We are staying with a single mom and her two kids, and they are a lot of fun to be with. The 12 year old likes to play Uno and Clue, and the 6 year old now has a special bond with Ken - I wish I were able to upload some cute pictures right now. Two things I´ve learned about Ken during this trip is that he is unable to pass by a baby without holding it, and that children naturally flock to him. Oh, also a third thing - he is unable to pass by any kind of woodworking shop or lumber area without peeking his head in, too.

So, here are a few language observations/stories:

1. Upon arrival, Wilmer wanted to say how much he loved something or other. I can´t remember what now, but for the sake of an example, let´s say it was his phone. He used the Spanish word for "I love", which is "Amo," so he said Yo Amo Mi Telephono. However, in Spanish, Amo is reserved for romantic love. So, what he said was I am amorously in love with my telephone. He meant Me Gusto TelephonoMe gusta el telefono, which means "I like my telephone", but after seeing how much he uses his phone, I think both could apply.

2. I keep confusing the word hermosa with esposa. Hermosa means beautiful, and esposa means wife, but hermosa is often used as a pet name for one´s wife, like honey, or my beautiful wife. Alba, our hostess, always laughs when I say this, because it is cute to always refer to one's wife as my beautiful. I keep trying to learn it the right way, but it is now imprinted on my brain the other way. Besides, my wife is beautiful, so I shouldn´t mind so much if I get laughed at for it.

3. Me, standing on a sidewalk atop a cover that says peligro: "Hey, what does Peligro mean?"
Amanda: "It means danger"
Me, quickly stepping off cover: "OK, thanks!"

4. Sometimes it only takes a single word at the end of a very long series of sentences to get the basic meaning. This morning Alba said a whole bunch of things before bringing out our hot breakfast, ending in frio. Frio, frio - that means cold, right? Oh, she wants us to eat now so it won't get cold. Got it.

Last year, something similiar happened when Aaron and I were ordering our daily ice creams at the store. We asked for some flavor (probably Mango), and were told a whole bunch of incomprensible things, ending in mañana. Good enough, we guessed they were out, and will be getting some tomorrow.

5. Smiles work in every language. I sure do notice smiles a lot more when I can´t understand what it going on. They almost always mean the opposite of peligro.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Arrive en Bucaramanga

We made it to Bucaramanga without incident, and I´ve snuck into an internet Cafe while everyone is touring old Giron (which is right next to Bucuramanga). I must say that Bucaramanga is very fun to say aloud.

Actually, I am now being called away to go to lunch, so this will have to be an aborted post. More later...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bogota Transportation

What I should be doing is writing about the fair trade dried fruit company we toured today, or describing the displacement area we visited yesterday, or any number of other meatier topics. But, I'm too tired. Instead, I'll post easy pictures of transportation in Bogota.

The most numurous and visible are the taxis:

The taxis are cute, but they are no Tuk Tuks.

There are also motorcycles everywhere:

I was impressed at how they all responsibly wear helmets and vests with big numbers. But there is a dark side to this: There were so many drive-by murders by anonymous motorcyles, that everyone is now required to wear ID on their vests and helmets. I would expect it is pretty strict, since everyone wears one.

There are also packed buses everywhere, and plenty of cars:

Here's how we get around, quite comfortably, in our tourist bus:

Well, early tomorrow we head off to Bucaramanga. I'm not sure how often I'll be able to get to an internet cafe there, so don't call the embassy if there are no new posts for the next few days.

The Quietness of Bogota

Bogota is big. When we flew in, I didn't see too many lights, but that's because the airport is on the edge of the city, and I was on the wrong side of the plane. Wikipedia has a good picture here that is too wide to put in a blog.

But for a city of 8 million people, Bogota is surprisingly quiet. We’ve been told that Colombians go to bed early and get up early, but at night in the hotel room, it is more than just quiet - there is complete silence. It’s almost creepy. There are no noises from cars, birds, air conditioners, heaters, dogs barking, or even crickets doing whatever crickets do. The only sound is the occasional random sentence in the middle of the night from a sleeping Wilmer. It makes it hard to go to the bathroom without bothering everyone.

With the general silence and occasional creaks in our hotel, it’s like being in No Country For Old Men, except without a determined psychopath hunting us down. I guess we were right to leave that bag of found money where it was.

Speaking of the hotel, here are some pictures of it. It reminds me of European hotels Jill and I stayed in during our trip to Europe almost twenty years ago.

Here’s the outside:

The lobby:

And our room, which is as good as three sloppy guys could hope to expect:

All in all, very appropriate for a Mennonite learning delegation - simple, not opulent, and very functional (showerheads are optional, though).

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Information Overload

Giant vats of information about Colombia have been dumped on our heads in the last 3 days, in the hope that some small part of it will seep into our minds. It is starting to, but I’m too tired to write any pithy analysis of it all.

First of all, here’s the group:

In order: Ken, Jim, Amanda, Linda, Me, Bonnie’s cute 2 year old, Wilmer, Bonnie, Alice, Linda, Irene. Not pictured is John, who is taking the picture.

Amanda is the JustaPaz sister church coordinator and Bonnie is the MCC representative, and both are our constant companions during the Bogota part of the trip. They tirelessly arrange everything, keep us informed and out of trouble.

Linda, Linda, and Alice are from Portland Mennonite, and Samuel is from the Hispanic Portland Mennonite church that meets in the same building. Actually, one of the Lindas is here for a year to teach Spanish at their sister church, so technically, she is from here.

Jim is from Kirchner Mennonite, Ontario. I would call him the token Canadian, except that Amanda and Bonnie are both Canadian, and have all the power. Luckily, Canadadians are not very good at abusing power, so I think we’re OK. Also, Bonnie's parents, John and Irene are tagging along and are also both Canadians, so we can legitimately claim to be a Canadian group if we get kidnapped. In fact, Jim offered to sell me a maple leaf lapel pin so I could convince others that I was Canadian to be safer, but I pointed out that selling your country actually makes you more American than Canadian.

In the last few days, we’ve met with folks from JustaPaz, MCC, Mencoldes, a Mennonite Brethren church in a displacement area that also runs a school, an ex-Colonel from the Colombian Air Force who is now a pacifist, and a 13 year old displaced Colombian girl who like Algebra. I am deeply impressed with them all – the number of programs that they are running and the commitment and integrity with which they advocate for peace, justice, education, and humanity. I plan to sprinkle in posts about some of these when I get the time, except that it doesn’t look like there will be much time.

I guess the two most important things I’ve learned so far are:

1. Drug Money Runs Colombia. It drives the economy, elects politicians, and finances the violence. While Colombians themselves do not have much of a drug-use problem, they do a drug-money-corruption problem. Of course, as one of our speakers said (when he noted cases of US military and diplomatic personel caught smuggling drugs): “Drug trafficking money can corrupt any nationality.”

2. Economic Interests Drive Displacment. Over 10% of Colombia’s population is currently displaced due to violence or threats. However, it is the economics that drive this, from paramilitary or insurgents forcing people off farm land so they can grow coca, to multinational corporations being given rights to develop land that people already live on and must be driven out for money to be made.

Once again, it comes down to the corruption of power. It's too bad there aren't more Canadians in the world.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Revolution Is Not In The Air

So, I guess I should acknowledge the big news here in Bogota - Colombia and Venezuela have decided that this is the right week to poke each other in the eye to see what the other one will do. I don’t think the presence of 3 additional gringos from Illinois is what has tipped the balance, but it did start the day we arrived, so I guess I shouldn’t make assumptions.

Last Saturday Colombian military forces entered Ecuadorian territory (to its south) and killed a Colombian FARC guerilla leader and a bunch of his men. The encroachment angered not just Ecuador, but Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, which borders Colombia to the north. Chavez and Colombian President Juan Uribe can’t stand each other because one wants to be Fidel Castro and the other wants to be George W. Bush, and it doesn’t take much to get them riled up.

So, Chavez decided to mass troops on the Colombian border and threaten war yesterday. Despite his saber-rattling, it seems unlikely that he is crazy enough to start a war with Colombia. “It would be a very short war” is what one person told an MCC worker here, given that the US has been wanting to install a new government in Venezuela since roughly January of 2001, and even tried a CIA insurrection to accomplish it in 2003, which most Americans have forgotten about. There's no way Bush would pass up an opportunity like that.

What I learned at Justapaz today is that the FARC actually negotiates through Chavez. Some background is in order: The FARC started out as a perfectly respectable communist insurgent group, who wanted to rain flowers and sunshine down on everyone. However, after 40 years of not succeeding, they have lost their popular legitimacy by engaging in such unpopular activities as selling drugs and kidnapping people to finance themselves, as well as murdering people who talk to the army and other human rights abuses. That’s what happens when you lose sight of your core values. The paramilitary may be far worse, but their core values are to protect the powerful and wealthy from the masses, and they have at least been consistent about that.

Nonetheless, Chavez likes them because they are a burr in the side of Uribe. Another tidbit from our MCC rep is that Chavez would like to see himself as the one who ends the conflict in Colombia, by brokering a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC (who are in bad shape, and probably want a negotiated settlement). Uribe’s solution to the FARC is to try to kill them all, and doesn’t negotiate with them. However, it is not as easy to ignore the president of a neighboring country, so it becomes an international relations issue if the FARC uses Chavez as their negotiator.

Although Chavez’ revolutionary and anti-American rhetoric is popular in most of Latin America, he doesn’t get much support in Colombia. It might be because Colombia has already killed everyone who might have been interested, or would currently harass or kill anyone who publicly says they are interested, but it also might be that Colombians are tired of violence and patriotic enough to rally behind their leader when a neighboring country threatens it.

I’ve been a Colombia expert for all of 10 minutes now, so take all this with a grain of salt. The upshot is that I am in Bogota, and don’t feel particularly unsafe about being here, or that Chavez is peeing on the border up north. Maybe I’m just being naïve and uninformed, but at least I’m not stressed out. We are certainly being careful and taking all the precautions our hosts have drilled into us. But I can say that war fever has not swept the streets of Bogota, as far as I can tell. If it does, I promise to blog about it immediately.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Quotes of the Day

"I guess I forgot to bring a shower head" – Ken, after discovering there was no shower head in the shower.

“Not having a shower head really cuts into your shower singing” – Wilmer, who unwittingly revealed that there is something good about not having a shower head.

We're Different, We're The Same

We went to church today at Teusaquillo Mennonnite Church in Bogota. This is the very same church featured in the latest issue of The Mennonite on developing spiritual roots, which focuses on the story of Juan Gomez. He was on the run from paramilitary troops in Colombia and showed up at Teusaquillo, who took him in, and eventually helped him make his way to Canada as a political refugee. It underscores how Colombian churches are tested in their commitment to peacemaking in ways that North American churches can hardly imagine.

Our hosts translated much of the service in real-time, so I was able to mostly follow along. It’s always interesting to note ways in which we are the same and ways in which we are different (First Mennonite of Urbana-Champaign and Teusaquillo):

  • Heartfelt sharing by people describing God working in their lives (same)
  • Laying on of hands during prayer for those whose needs are desperate (same)
  • lots of verbal encouragement during corporate prayer, like “Amen” and “Si, Senor” (different)
  • Communion where everyone is invited to the table (same)
  • Prayers for kids who need operations (same)
  • Prayers for family members who have been kidnapped (obviously, different)
  • Jokes masquerading as announcements (same)
The latter was actually a nice respite from the serious social problems the congregation has to face everyday. A guy stood up and announced that he had two plots of land sell, and also, that he had a 79 year-old uncle in Miami who was looking for a wife, and if anyone in the congregation was interested, to let him know.

The sermon was delivered by (I think) the president of the Mennonite Seminary, which is right there in the same building as the church, and Justpaz. The message was that Lent is more than avoiding bad habits, but about preparation for what Jesus invites us to. It is a time to review whether we are doing what Jesus wants and expects of us, like being peacemakers, even in the face of violence and dissappearings. Also, Jesus’ peace is not the world’s peace. The world's peace is absence of conflict, but real peace comes from within by God to practice in our community. At least that is what my notes say, after the double translation from Spanish to English to my tired brain.

Finally, I understood almost nothing in the bulletin, except one item which revealed one way in which Colombian Mennonites are ahead of many CU Mennonites:

POR FAVOR APAGUE SU CELULAR para no interrumpir su comunion con Dios ni la de los demas.”

I understood the intent, but using Babelfish for a direct translation yields a Hannibal Lector-like pronouncement:

PLEASE IT EXTINGUISHES ITS CELLULAR one not to interrupt his comunion with God nor the one of demas."

I'm hoping Greg Springer or Eric Sink can provide a less creepy translation.

Next Sunday, we’ll be at El Divino Redentor, our sister church.

    Saturday, March 01, 2008

    In Colombia

    Wilmer, Ken and I have all arrived safely in Bogota. I’m even posting a picture of us to prove it, appropriately next to a La Policia car, so that Wilmer and Ken don’t get any funny ideas.

    The flight down was fun. I was 3 rows from the back in the cheap seats, surrounded by friendly, happy Colombians ready to go home. Someone had their laptop up and playing latino music (is that the right term? Am I already being culturally inappropriate?) and folks were milling about, snapping photographs of the view and each other. I had an empty seat next to me, and someone put their large Elmo doll in it. Then the guy next to me put Elmo’s seatbelt on, and I tucked him in with my coat. That’s amusing in any language.

    I decided to be honest on my customs forms and declare that I am bringing about 50 books that are not for my personal use, plus items that are plant or animal in origin (in the form of granola bars). Luckily, I was not punished for my honesty. When the customs guy realized I didn’t speak Spanish, he just waved me through.

    Ken and Wilmer and I are bunking in the same hotel room. Dannie Otto claims I will have a lot more sympathy for him (Dannie, that is) after I spend a week with his brother Wilmer, as I will see first hand what Dannie had to go through growing up. So far so good, as neither Ken nor I have been traumatized by Wilmer. But, it’s still only technically the first day.

    Tomorrow we get oriented, and get to know the other folks in the delegation. More later...