My attendance at the Global Baptist Peace Conference in Cali was prepared with enthusiasm. The last year I wanted to go to the Summer Conference in Keuka Park but wasn't able to do so. This year would be different. My son and I could go to Colombia this year, and that gave me the confidence to plan the trip. My 16-year-old son, Carlos David, whom I had promised to take with me, was very excited. How could he not be?! For him it would be his first plane trip and the first time he would leave Mexico. I knew that it would be a tiring journey. We would make a long stopover in Mexico City and spend a full night at the El Dorado airport in Bogotá. It was almost 36 hours to get from our home in Ciudad Madero to Cali, but that wouldn't matter, of course! We could deal with that and more. During the flight my son was continuously tracking our path through each Central American countries on the small screen in front of his seat. He would occasionally direct his gaze toward the window in case there was a possibility of a glimpse of a little bit of land. After all, glimpsing Central and South American was for him a view of a new world, and arriving to Bogotá the beginning of new and exciting experiences. I understood his curiosity. The night in El Dorado Airport in Bogotá was long and cold, contrasting its 11 degrees Celsius with the tropical heat of almost 40 degrees of our home town. I saw many people lying on seats or on the ground, trying to sleep. I wished intensely to do the same but I discarded the idea; I had to take care of my son and our belongings. I took advantage of this situation to cross the airport for a glimpse of the big and bustling city of Bogotá, which showed highly active at dawn. The trip from Bogotá to Palmira was short and in broad daylight, which allowed us to see the beauty and splendor of the Cauca Valley from the sky. Green and leafy valleys surrounded by mountains, as they are described superbly by Grupo Niche in their song Mi Valle del Cauca (My Cauca Valley):
“…This is my beautiful land
garden that sprouted from nature
laughing between two mountain ranges
That jealous protect my precious land
And it was left smelled like coffee..."
Vista aérea del Valle del Cauca, cerca de Palmira.
It is said that Latin Americans in general are warm and expressive, cheerful and supportive. Colombian people certainly affirm that statement! Throughout our stay in Colombia, we received kindness from everyone who crossed our path. In the Palmira airport we were picked up by Néstor Venegas, a member of the Conference staff, who diligently took us to Unibautista and after to our hotel. Monday night we attended the opening worship, and later we took the chance to recover from the long journey.
On Tuesday morning I was touched by the story of Fabiola Perdomo. While thanks to the media I already knew something about the long and tough fight between the FARC and the Colombian government, living in Mexico made me unaware about of the cruel and painful situation that Fabiola had experienced. That day I learned that she became a symbol of the victims who have manifested themselves capable of forgiving the FARC. Yes, the same FARC who murdered her husband. The same FARC that left their daughter without a father. Through her pain, God gave her strength to forgive. She left behind the resentment that slowly stifles God's dreams, hope and purpose in the lives of people. Resentment that keeps people living in the past while unable to live in the present or hope for the future.
Fabiola Perdomo and Senator Victoria Sandino, a former member of the FARC, taught us the value of reconciliation. Reconciliation that restores and reconstructs broken relationships, which has the power to transform a past divided by hate and resentment into a present and a future with common hopes and shared spaces for building peace.
On Tuesday afternoon I participated in a group dynamic in which we shared thoughts about peace, and we painted the flags of our home countries on small stones. I truly wished to do a better job, but any way the Mexican flag is painted it always looks beautiful!
But these small stones would not be simple decorative objects. Inside them each one of us enclosed a little of our homelands and much love.
And then the peace tree was planted. Planted by several people, all very different from each other, of different ages, countries and ethnic groups. People who represented all of us who were there, sowing the peace that -- like a plant -- needs land, sun and water to grow, mature and bear fruit. A beautiful symbolic act that had as a perfect frame this simple and charming song:
May this church be a tree
at the bottom of your house,
Let there be celebration and joy
and prayer under its branches.
With deep roots
and arms to the sky,
May this church be fruitful
bearing fruits of comfort.
Peace is cultivated just like the garden plant. When we build peace from our context, we can say that we fertilize the land for cultivating a new order of things, where peace and well-being are fruits of justice. But cultivating peace requires hard work and patience because it is not possible for the garden to keep producing fruit unless the wounds are healed and humiliations, grievances, injustices are left behind. But we have faith in God and are willing to work. Planting the peace tree was the beginning of a shared commitment that will grow just as the tree will grow.
On Wednesday morning I heard the stories of Henna B. Caipang and Laura Chanchien Parajón, who, in the Philippines and Nicaragua respectively, have helped with love and diligence to improve the situation of many people who have suffered the consequences of natural disasters, as well as those whose poverty and helplessness makes them especially vulnerable and in need.
That same morning I participated in the Workshop "The radicality of love" led by Lizette Tapia. A refreshing and different version of a story told in the Old Testament, the story of the young servant girl of Naaman, (name unknown). In her condition as a slave, she raised her voice with dignity on behalf of those who, like her, had been taken away from their home and their freedom. She offered a healing alternative to the man who had enslaved her. The oppressed, the needy, the vulnerable raise their voices in different ways, let's listen to them.
By the afternoon my personal interest in visual arts motivated me to enroll in the workshop "Photography and Peacebuilding", led by Susi Franco. Susi talked about her experience as a photographer and communicator, and how she used the tool “Fotovoz” (Photovoice) for telling the story of how ex-combatant women of the FARC integrated into civilian life. She explained that Photovoice is an ally in peacebuilding, because people in the midst of conflict or poverty can tell their own stories through photographs, images that tell about their daily existence and backgrounds. In this way they engage in a journey of self-discovery that ultimately makes their thoughts, feelings and needs visible through images. All this information becomes available for faithful reflection on who these people are and what they want the world to know about them. This awareness of their own reality can be a starting point to stimulate a social transformation focused on peace.
On Thursday morning, I was impressed by the story of Manal El Tayar, a Lebanese woman who, despite her young age, has a very extensive training and experience in peacebuilding. The story she told about the Lebanese mother who lived the horrors of war and whose son was brutally murdered by the Syrians broke my heart. Manal's brave and risky struggle to achieve reconciliation between peoples separated by hatred in the Middle East is really inspiring, and without a doubt she has achieved something that seemed impossible: that people who for historical, ethnic and religious reasons hate each other inevitably can meet and dialogue peacefully.
On Thursday night I discovered some of the richness of Colombian folklore. It was a "Colombian night" full of color, dance and songs that transported me through the vast and exuberant geography of Colombia. That invited me to delight in the culture of that beautiful country. My son immensely enjoyed dancing to Colombian folk songs, and although I don't have dancing skills, I tried to learn a few steps in the enjoyment of the moment.
On Friday morning Francesca Nuzzolese, Lizette Tapía and Javier Ulloa, from Italy, Phillipines and Mexico, told us their stories. Three people deeply involved in different ministries, who come from different countries and from very different environments, but who are united by their interest in transforming people and communities through peace and justice.
Later I participated in the Workshop "I am not racist, but we are", led by Douglas Avilesbernal. I was interested in this workshop because, in the context of the complex relationship between Mexico and the United States of America and its clash of cultures and socio-economic realities, expressions of xenophobia and racism are becoming increasingly brutal. The recent massacre of migrants in El Paso, Texas is a clear example of this. And in Mexico we express racism towards the people of Central America, it's a common evil. Douglas told us about how racism is a method of oppression embedded in power structures, and that fighting it with a supremacist approach ("I am a better person than you, because I am not racist!") does not work. It just divides and leads to confrontation. To eliminate racism, a change that begins in individuals is needed in order to gradually transform into a movement that revolutionizes the conscience of an entire country, and Douglas gave us a practical example of how this kind of approach led to much change in his church.
That same afternoon I attended the workshop "the church as an agent of reconciliation in the face of current challenges", led by Luz Cortés and Juan David Morales, from the Foundation of Education for Peace and Conflict Resolution. They explained to us in depth how they developed their project to generate a healing process for communities affected by the guerrillas in Colombia. This process is intended for churches to be agents that build spaces for forgiveness and reconciliation, turning support for peacebuilding into concrete actions of community service.
Friday night was special. A multicultural night, full of joy and musical expressions that showed some of the folklore of the countries that were represented at the Conference. Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Cuba and Venezuela among others, and of course Mexico. All the performances were amazing, but none like the the one of the Mexican group! We sang the Mexican folk song "cielito lindo" with an enthusiasm that spread to the audience, while we proudly waved our three-color flag.
And Saturday came, the day the Conference ended, the day of our farewell. The conference concluded with a worship in which the reverend Aundreia Alexander preached to us about how blessed the peacemakers are, which spoke to the hearts of all people present. I think that more than one of us asked ourselves if we would meet again with the new friends we had the opportunity to make in those days. At that time we didn't have the answer and we still don't, but what we do know is that a friendship deepens the shared experiences, stories of incalculable value that each one keeps as a treasure. That leads us to want to keep that bond of friendship. “but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24.) May God allow us to see each other again!
There is a chapter in these memories that I cannot stop telling. A chapter that touches my heart to the deepest. A chapter that refers to my son. I felt moved by the song the youth sang in the Saturday worship, and thanks to the work World Vision does with children and youth, my son learned a lot about peace. I am also sure that the seed that the teachers Olga, Claudia, Michelle, Melissa and Ditmara planted fell in good soil, and it's my turn now to take care of that seed so that it grows and becomes a leafy and fruitful peace tree. I was also moved almost to tears that my son could make new friends, that he could immensely enjoy the entire week, and that he could take small objects back to Mexico that will allow him recall his experience in Colombia.
There are few things I will remember with more yearning and happiness than this Summer Conference in Cali. Everyone in attendance joined together as a great family in Christ and discovered how wonderful and enriching it is to be peacemakers. There is no doubt that we return to Mexico with more things than we took to Colombia, not just in terms of souvenirs, but in what we learned and experienced and for the friendships we made throughout the week.
There were many others not mentioned here who participated actively during the Conference, and I apologize for ending my story without mentioning them as well as other important events that happened. But each of us keeps our memories inside of us as treasures to be recalled throughout our lives. I hope with all my heart that God will allow me to be at the next 2020 Summer Conference in San Diego, and to meet up with old friends and share new stories. For now I hope to practice what I learned for becoming a peacemaker, to the glory of God!
Hortensia Azucena Picos Lee is the Spanish Resource Manager for BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.