This is the first in a series of less-than-obsessively-edited posts about my recent experience on delegation in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. My goals are to share the stories I heard and to more fully process the experience. Thanks for reading (goal #1!) and I hope you’ll leave thoughts or questions in the comments below to join this community of process (goal #2!).
On our third of ten days in Colombia, one of the delegation leaders asked us all to share how we had been feeling about what we had heard so far. Just saying I was “tired” wouldn’t cut it -- although it was accurate. This trip with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship was organized on a punishing schedule. We had already visited four towns, spending more than 15 hours on a bus, and were preparing ourselves to keep up the pace for a full week more. Our opportunities to process together were scarce, and all the more precious when they came up.
Sitting there in the Presbyterian Church in Apartadó, I closed my eyes to try to identify some deep feelings in the midst of a host of complicated sensations.
I felt gratitude and humility at being invited into intimate spaces. Over the course of the delegation I sat in church sanctuaries and on living room couches, shared meals with two groups of disarmed guerrilla members, accepted cups of coffee in a school chapel and an United Nations boardroom. One woman said, “many people have a mental barrier and don’t want to talk about the past, want to just be in the present.” But over and over, people broke open their past experiences without us asking.
I felt, feel, completely inadequate. My social location - white, U.S. passport-holder, heavy participant in institutionalized education, worker in the non-profit industrial complex - have taught me that leveraging the right grant will change the world. This is both a) not true and b) a deeply unhelpful lens, particularly in the context of this delegation. I continue to struggle to understand that the way I’ve been trained to approach the world is wrong, or at least incomplete. There is no grant, no intervention, no SMART goal that will “fix” Colombia. I don’t have the answers.
And, even more importantly, “fixing” is not my place (c.f. colonialism and Christian mission). My place is to listen, bear witness, and respond only as requested. I encountered how I have internalized U.S. imperialism in my desire to focus on ways that the U.S. has “caused” the situation in Colombia. Wanting to ascribe all violence to the actions of the U.S. is a form of paternalism and, perversely, doesn’t acknowledge the personhood, independence, and agency of Colombians as people and Colombia as a nation.
I felt discomfort at bearing witness with nothing to do (c.f. culture of white supremacy) and at trying to confront all of these things inside my own life while trying to understand and empathize with and respect the experiences of others. I still feel the discomfort in my body, the struggle of trying to articulate how I felt and what I am thinking. I still feel sad, about the personal experiences we heard and the ways that more than sixty years of violence have impacted the whole of Colombia; I still feel angry, at my own impotence, my own ignorance, and the lack of political will in the U.S. and Colombia to fully realize peace; I still feel - oh, fine, I’ll say it - tired.
I’ll be writing more over the next week about what I saw, heard, and experienced, trying to make meaning out of the complexity and honor the gifts of stories I received. I am of a society and a generation that wants the sound-bite, the tweet, the instant solution. Those don’t exist here. I aim to immerse myself in the complexity, the contradiction, the questions. Join me, won’t you?
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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