By Shannan Vance-Ocampo
Presbyterian accompaniment in Colombia
“In a culture of death, we choose to live the Resurrection.”
This is the phrase we hear over and over again from our church partners in Colombia as they describe how to live in a country of rampant violence and fear. And this is the phrase our volunteer accompaniers say inspires them – because as they serve in Colombia, they see these choices lived out in the actions of our partner church communities.
In 2004, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – my denomination (also known as PCUSA) – received a letter from the leadership of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia (IPC), our sister church. The letter described threats that the church in Colombia was receiving and requested accompaniment so they could continue in their ministry and nonviolent social witness.
Following a period of discernment, a new partnership in mission was formed. The PCUSA joined forces with a group outside the church’s formal structure: the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). Through PPF’s leadership (which includes a part-time accompaniment program coordinator), we recruit, train, and send people from the United States who practice community accompaniment – walking with church-based communities under threat.
Our accompaniers are considered “short-term mission volunteers” by the denomination, with a length of service of one month. They serve in teams of two or three people, and partner with the IPC in its daily activities to “see and be seen.” Eight years into the effort, we have trained 133 people for accompaniment service, of whom 84 have served in Colombia to date.
Our model is different than others. Many organizations send accompaniers for long periods (often a year or more), and they serve in different ways and even live in different situations. There are several reasons for our unique approach. We are in many ways a “hybrid” mission partnership – between a U.S. church denomination and a U.S. faith-based advocacy organization, together with a Colombian denomination. Structurally, alongside our program is a full-time mission position: a pastoral accompanier for the IPCsent by the PCUSA’s world mission unit, and a half-time staff person, Linda Eastwood, who works forPPF to coordinate the accompaniment program. Most importantly, we practice this model of short-term accompaniment because it is what the IPC asked of us. So, while it might look different than other accompaniment programs in Colombia, like others we are committed to following the lead and direction of our partners.
Eight years into our program, we see a number of benefits to short-term accompaniment:
- It allows for people who cannot dedicate a year or longer to living overseas to be of service and to experience first-hand human rights issues in Colombia.
- It allows for growing mission relationships for the IPC, as diverse people representing many areas of the U.S.church visit Colombia.
- Our relational and theological framework gives us a strong foundation for increased advocacy work on U.S.foreign policy issues related to Colombia.
- We now enjoy support throughout our denomination for work that just a few years ago was not widely understood. The stories of our accompaniers, who live throughout North America, have changed that.
- But most importantly, short-term accompaniment creates the space for people to understand at a deep, transformative level what it is to live your life as a person of faith while under threat, and what it means to make the daily choice of nonviolent witness in a culture addicted to violence. That is a powerful witness for North Americans to see – so often we do not even recognize or question our layered addictions to violence. Sometimes, seeing a choice to live nonviolently in another place opens our eyes to what nonviolence can look like in our own context. Relationships change people – and such relationships begin to change our culture. We believe that relationships built on mutuality and trust are what God in Jesus Christ has called us to.
I see our accompaniment program as a powerful witness to our faith as Christians. It is a way of being true partners, and it is a way of learning as we actively live out our faith. Every year we ask the IPC, “Do you still want us here? Is this still working?” And every year the answer comes back, “Yes.”
We have each gained a new way to speak in concrete terms to our larger church about the transformative power of nonviolence that faith in Jesus Christ invites us to. Too often we have lost sight of this calling, but our returned accompaniers stand as a network of people who have seen nonviolent witness with their own eyes and participated in it with their bodies. They now help to tell the story of the power of nonviolence in Christian community – and to be promoters of peace and renewed faithful living in their local contexts.
Along with our partners in the Iglesia Presbiterna de Colombia, we believe that our lives are meant to be examples of transformation. We offer a witness and a testimony to what a choice for Resurrection means in the midst of the death-dealing cultures of violence we are called to transform.
Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo is director of Colombia programs (volunteer) for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and pastor of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. Vance-Ocampo is married to a native of Bogotá, Colombia, and has traveled regularly to Colombia since 1999. For more information about the Presbyterian Accompaniment Program, visit www.presbypeacefellowship.org/colombia.