Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Universal Mother > Family Update

Sunday January 25th

Today I listened to a persecuted woman, mother to mother. Idia, the wife of disappeared pastor William Reyes, held Amara on her lap as I fed my 10-month-old (!) a late lunch.

“…Since the disappearance (of my husband William) I´ve held firm in my commitment to our ministry. Even though the mission told me to, I haven’t wanted to leave…”

Amara discovers she likes the cream of carrot soup that I prepared for her, and stops twisting around to pull at Idia´s long, tight ringlets.

“…Maybe our town isn’t even on the map, but our people are wonderful... I was unwavering in my determination to stay, but this changes everything. They tried to take my daughter!”

Amara looks up at the sound of Idia´s gasp. She watches as Idia´s face contorts and tears escape her. I gesture to take Amara, but Idia holds her tight. “No, please…keep feeding her.” We resume.

“…The same man who showed up at the church and demanded that the church secretary tell him our home address tried to kidnap my daughter…´“Is that a picture of your family? You´ll come with me, and I´ll show you your father…´ She escaped.”

Idia shudders and comes up for air. She pauses. Smiling widely at Amara she shares, “Children are my weakness. I used to provide childcare because I love them so. My son was fair like Amara when he was young.” The cloud passes over her face again.

“I want to leave. They can torment me, but I can´t bear the harassment of my children. If something… I want to leave.”

After the meeting and before going into the street I took special care to wrap Amara snuggly to me in the carrier, but it wasn’t until I was putting her to sleep for the night that Idia’s fear and perilous circumstances took hold of my heart’s imagination. What must it be like for the birth giver to feel the life issued forth torn from her care? I held my beautiful little girl as she nursed peacefully, her body fully relaxed on mine—trust, her small hand on my breast—sustenance.

In Colombia, as in other places with life-adverse conditions, giving birth is an act of optimism and faith. I’m told that it wasn’t until recently that Colombia ’s purveyors of violence intentionally involved children in their deeds. Now it is clearly a cruel, calculated strategy of manipulation and trauma induction. The images of dead and maimed children in Gaza play before my eyes. The beauty and power of motherhood ravaged, taunted. Women through history who experience the violent loss of their children must know a profound kinship.

Tonight I began doing my job as a universal mother.

* * * * *

Life is more balanced, but there’s not time for personal writing the way I once did. Now I update my facebook status instead of blogging! But here´s a short family update.

Jess is a wonderful father. It’s a gift for me to learn to know him in this capacity. He continues to enjoy his work with Witness for Peace, but the recession has hit the organization hard and there are difficult decisions to make on the horizon. He travels more this year; he returns from Venezuela tomorrow. The WfP committee tasked with dealing with the financial crisis will meet in DC the weekend of February 7th, the weekend we are scheduled to move into a larger apartment (with hot water!) a few blocks from where we are currently. The timing isn’t ideal on that front, but it will allow him to visit his Dad who slipped on ice and was badly injured, and we have a caring, generous community that will help with the move.

As for me (Janna), the classes I’ve taken so far have affirmed my decision to return to school, specifically seminary at this point. I take one distance course from a US Mennonite seminary and one from the Colombian Mennonite seminary each semester. Limiting time as coordinator of our human rights and peace monitoring program is an ongoing challenge; the original idea of half-time is an impossibility. The challenges are many, not the least of which is the snowball effect of the documentation program: the more people learn of the possibility to speak their truth, the more limited our ability to respond to victims´ universe of needs in proportion to the stories recorded and the desperate needs shared. Tensions easily develop in this environment.

Trite but true, it’s hard for us to believe how quickly Amara is growing up; we’ll celebrate her first year on March 11. She provides endless entertainment and great joy. She “dances” in time to music (her Colombian identity staking its claim). She quickly scoots out of site, only to peak out and wait for the “peak-a-boo!,” and gives very wet kisses. She delights in industriously throwing soil from the houseplants. Her first words appear to be, “hi daddy!” She squeals with glee and looks at those gathered around the table as we hold hands before dinner.

Here's wishing you could all join us around the table to be buoyed by Amara’s exuberance, to pray healing for the many broken hard spots, and to give thanks for all that is right.

Peace and hope,

Friday, October 31, 2008

Unarmed Civilians Assasinated, Reported as Insurgents

(As on Justapaz website)

Editor’s note: Pastor Reinel Martinez serves with the Ebenezer Evangelical Community church in Cesar, Colombia. He was in Bogota last week to speak out about the death of his brother at the hands of the Colombian military.

“If no one speaks out, the violence is going to continue. Someone has to give voice to what is hidden. May the anger and grief produced by this absurd death serve to stop the killing.” – Pastor Reinel Martinez

On Wednesday Pastor Reinel Martinez spoke out about the October 1, 2007 disappearance of his 23 year-old brother, José Ulises Martínez Medina. Jose was apparently another “false positive,” the term used to describe military homicides of civilians killed, dressed in military fatigues and armed, and then reported as subversives downed in combat. Pastor Martinez says that accompaniment from Justapaz lawyers provides the strength he needs to break the silence a year after his brother’s disappearance.

Jose left his professional military career as counterinsurgency soldier behind in late 2006 “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to Pastor Reinel. Upon leaving the army Jose served as a young adult leader at his church and worked in a recycling center. He was killed, allegedly by Colombia´s armed forces, about a year later.

An army acquaintance who was still in active duty had convinced him to go to Bogotá and pick up his last military paycheck. A second active duty contact gave him a lift from his home in Cucuta to Bogotá, a 12 hour drive. He never returned. Official reports leaked to the family show evidence of the Armed Forces´ responsibility in the murder. Several days after José Ulises left for Bogotá the military reported him as a guerrilla killed on in combat. Pastor Rienel recalls through tears the pictures of his brother’s corpse dressed in guerrilla camouflage.

In the last year Colombian nongovernmental organizations have registered more than 535 extrajudicial executions and more than 800 since 2002. The pattern repeats itself across the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, asked the Colombian government to provide results in the investigations of military personnel related to the executions. Last week, human rights and church organizations publicized the trend in public events and a press conference in Bogotá. Pastor Reinel did multiple interviews with TV news and print media.

Moments after Pastor Reinel´s interview aired on the midday news he started receiving phone calls from friends congratulating him on his bravery for speaking out. Not everyone will be so pleased. “I know that I may be putting myself at greater risk. Speaking out about my brother’s senseless death may lead me to my own, but someone must stand up and say ‘stop!’”

Extrajudicial murders in Colombia were front page news in Thursday, October 30, New York Times. That article and others in the main stream press do not consider these “false positives” a military strategy, but rather report the civilian body count as a tactic for military personnel to win favor and rise in the ranks in this counter-insurgency war. This is true, but it glides over a deeply disturbing national trend that signals political responsibility at a higher level in the military chain of command. For example, according to his family José Ulises essentially retired as a conscientious objector, deeply troubled by what he had seen and what he was expected to do “in the line of duty.” The responsible parties went to a fair amount of trouble to orchestrate the disappearance. They were after more than a corpse. Jose represents those victims considered "dangerous" by the political and military establishment.

A second victim type characteristic in the false positives are the socially marginal and "disposable"--such as the homeless and young men with police records from poor neighborhoods. Extrajudicial executions provide a mechanism for both purging of these "problematic" members of society and winning favor with military superiors.

This rise in extrajudicial executions may not be the result of an official, albeit secret, government policy. That is not necessary. It is part of political culture understood and assumed by those operating within the government system. Colombian President Uribe’s flagship program is “Democratic Security,” a public policy of “achieving peace” through a military approach based on killing. The recently changed reward system which gives incentives for producing downed guerrillas is only a part and the false positives only an indicator of the result of this public policy.

The fact that Colombian President Uribe fired 27 army officials allegedly involved in 23 “false positives” from a slum of southern Bogotá is a positive step. But even identifying who is giving the orders will not curb the trend. The cases in the news are not aberrations, but rather the calculated result of a policy. The products will not change until the orientation and strategy fundamentally change.

One of the hot-button questions in Colombia right now is the effect of the U.S. presidential election outcome for Colombia. Regardless of who is elected, they are likely to support a military strategy to bring peace. This is counter to the way of the Kingdom of God. It is wrong. It may lead to the defeat of one of the parties, but it won’t bring real and lasting peace. Human rights training is good as it ameliorates the damage (as does firing the 27 army officials), but it does not solve the problem. Pressing Colombia’s military to adhere to international humanitarian law is a step forward, but it still misses the point.

When the political culture affirms peace through killing, death will be the result.

Beyond the Headlines & on the H-B Homefront

Friends and family,

Greetings from the Andes . As I write this chilly Sunday evening, Jess is off giving a radio interview on the indigenous march (see below) and congested Amara is finally sleeping soundly. Having a precious daughter means less personal time, so I’ll share a smattering of highlights from our family life and peace ministry with telegraph-style brevity (hopefully).

Beyond newspaper headlines:

v Tierralta, Cordoba (northwest Colombia ) is the municipality where the government and paramilitary leaders brokered a disarmament and reintegration agreement for an umbrella paramilitary group in 2004. You´d hope that the physical location of the peace talks, a sub-tropical setting of small towns and large cattle ranches, would reflect something of the desired results. Unfortunately, the ongoing threats, assassinations, and forced displacement of local church leaders speak to ongoing paramilitary operations in collusion with government officials and armed forces. I’ve been working with local church leaders and international partner organizations to shed light on the alarming situation to our constituencies and the US State Department, which has been highly responsive. Click here for more and an opportunity to repond.

v Colombian indigenous communities in northern Cauca (southwest Colombia) and the sugarcane workers on strike in the neighboring province of Valle de Cauca are asking for an honest dialogue with the Colombian government to address the serious social problems they face. Rather than listening to the concerns of these marginalized communities, the Colombian government- backed by U.S. military funding—has responded with repressive force. Jess is keeping members of the US Congress abreast and helping Witness for Peace call for action to stop the repressive violence.

v On September 25th Pastor William Reyes was traveling back to his home in La Guajira (north east Colombia ) from a neighboring province when he disappeared. No, it was not a whimsical magic act. He had called his wife to report on his travel progress earlier in the day, and he has simply not been heard from since. Idia Miranda, Pastor William Reyes wife, is still waiting to learn the whereabouts and fate of her husband. Forced disappearances are a regular occurrence in Colombia . The victims are taken by one of the armed groups—most often by government forces or the paramilitary. But not always. Click for a sample letter if you’d like to respond. Through accompanying Pastor’s Reyes family we’ve learned about other horrific situations. This perverse tragedy has stayed with me: a pastor’s son was disappeared last year. She heard nothing until just last month when the government investigative unit reported him as killed in combat by the army, who claim he was a guerilla. Problem with the story: the military reported him killed before he disappeared from his home.

On the home front:

v Have I mentioned that we love Amara? Today my grandma asked me if Amara was well-timed. I never asked myself that before, but I am unspeakably grateful for her presence in our lives now. How could I ever have anticipated the depth of joy, sheer happiness and fierce love that I would feel for our daughter? She keeps the calculated cruelty and repression that we deal with from penetrating my bones as it once did. Her laughter, babble, squeals of glee and affectionate pats display the Sacred’s smile and make our days pretty.

Going to Bogota ’s lush fruit and vegetable market with her is my favorite Saturday “chore.” As we approach our vendor friends they greet Amara by shouting, “The Princess has arrived!” “Look, our baby-doll Amara is here!” Yesterday one elderly vendor acknowledged that Amara is good for business, since she attracks potential customers to her stand. A few video clips are available on Jess' utube channel.

v Trip to the heartland, Decade of Servant Leadership Award. I’m still overwhelmed by the generosity and support of the Bally Mennonite church community (and beyond) that made it financially possible for our family to travel so that I could accept the Goshen College Decade for Servant Leadership Award. (Note: There is something uncomfortable, at least, about personal recognition connected to the suffering of others.) The whole experience was humbling and a great fun. My effort to articulate the essentials of what Colombia has taught me and my invitation to GG students is available here, in the acceptance speech.

Trip Highlights: Amara met her Aunt Maria and great-grandparents Witmer for the first time! Lively theological and political conversation around kitchen tables with family and the GC community. Being back in the classrooms, sharing with current GC students and alum about Colombia . Enjoying Amara with family.

An update would not be complete without noting that Jess is pretty excited about baseball season and I’m thoroughly enjoying my seminary classes! Our lives are well balanced. Our cups are full and running over. We give thanks.

Thanks for staying in touch, for your friendship and caring shared across the miles.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Faith in the Midst of Cruelty. Decade of Servant Leadership Award

Goshen College awarded Janna the Decade of Servant Leadership Award during homecoming weekend, October 3-5. Thanks to the generous contributions of several dozen friends and scattered community members, all three of the Hunter-Bowmans traveled to Goshen so that Janna could receive the award and to spend time with family.

Since a few people have requested it, here is Janna's statement shared at a GC chapel.

Oct 3 2008
Faith defined by hope and courage in the midst of cruelty. That’s what attracted me to Colombia, South America, a country of contrasts in the midst of armed conflict. I had graduated from Goshen just months before I left for Colombia. The Goshen College core values resonated with me then as they do now. We are Christ-Centered, passionate learners, servant leaders, compassionate peacemakers and global citizens. I was freshly equipped with a social science tool kit, a burden for a hurting world and a fierce determination to be part of the solution. I was captivated by the radical peace witness of Colombia’s Mennonite Church.

In the six years that I’ve worked in Justapaz, the justice and peace ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church, I’ve held various jobs. I established a sister church program. Later I monitored the impact of the 5.5 billion dollars US military aid package best known as Plan Colombia. Currently I coordinate a national human rights and peace monitoring program.

We record stories of victimization and make known the war crimes suffered by non-Catholic Christian communities, complementing the work of sister Catholic organizations. It takes personal interviews to gather meaningful testimony because phone lines may be tapped and e-mail is not secure. For many, the government’s formal procedure for receiving testimonies of abuse is neither trustworthy nor safe.
Actions perceived as questioning – and therefore challenging—civil order and authority, be it formal or informal, are grounds for harassment and persecution. This includes public criticism of government authorities; assisting war victims and social organizing for peace movement building. These are all forms of nonviolent resistance, as counseled on the Sermon on the Mount.

We also highlight the acts of resistance and constructive alternatives to violence implemented by church communities. Through sowing and living out “seeds of hope,” churches are agents of transformation in the midst of armed conflict. These efforts aim to contribute to a culture of respect for human rights and a nonviolent solution to Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict and profound social injustice.

There are consequences for challenging the ruling powers and seeking social transformation. I have friends who are living under death threats and others who have been killed.

I’ll share a few stories. Investigators have officially made no progress on either of the following cases.

First, one that affected me personally. On June 14 of last year, intruders entered through the roof, disabled the alarm system, and stole two computers from Justapaz. One was mine. What they apparently wanted—given the items of value left behind—was highly sensitive information on war victims, those who document the cases, and local churches working for peace. The hundreds of victims who had dared to share their secret truths with us feared reprisals for speaking out. The volunteers who take risks to document cases were the most likely targets after the political theft. But in their words, “these are the consequences of following Christ in an insecure environment.”

Fear used as a political tool was denied its victory. Justapaz stood firm. “We are convinced that we have no choice but to work toward true reconciliation, not only in this case, but in the thousands of life-stories of violence and victimization that have taken place.” (Justapaz communiqué) And, praise God, we have not experienced additional harassment.

The outpouring of responses from the international community was decisive. Colleagues from other organizations that do not enjoy international support have suffered additional break-ins, attacks and personal death threats. Many of you were a part of that response that contributed to the grace we now know. Thank you.
I want Colombian sisters and brothers “walking through the valley of death” to know that same grace. The advocacy component of our program aims to intervene in individual situations within a longer term goal of just peacebuilding. Emblematic cases highlight failed government policies we want to transform, trends we want to reverse. Or, in the following situation, individual stories shine through the political smokescreen aimed to ensure the continued flow of funds to the government of Colombia and its political and economic elites.

Second case. Location: steamy tropics of Tierralta, Cordoba in northwest Colombia. Tierralta is the site of negotiations between the government and leaders of the paramilitary umbrella organization AUC held in 2004. (The paramilitary are an illegal armed groups on the US list of terrorist organizations.) Date: Events occurred between February 2007 to 2008.

Paster Rosendo was hunted down by four heavily armed men, allegedly rearmed members of a paramilitary group that had formally laid down their weapons and reintegrated into civilian life. When the police went to his town to “investigate” that same day, they travelled in a vehicle owned and operated by the paramilitary commander responsible for ordering his assassination. Later two of his neighbours were killed. Death threats persisted. Pastor Rosendo, his wife and their children eventually fled for their lives.

The widow of a related case said: “…We are fearful that everybody is at risk, because we have dared to speak out and denounce what happened … Now if we go back to our community, I fear we won’t come back alive.” Additional information and action response sheets for this situation are available at the exit. I invite you to participate. Vox victimarum vox Dei: the voice of the victims is the voice of God. Identifying with and responding to people who bear the brunt of violence, enflamed by our government’s official policies, is a meaningful way of being church. I’ve learned that it’s not a matter of “struggling for” the oppressed, the victimized. In important ways, we are the oppressed. In the post 9-11 era we are more aware than ever that our fates are interconnected. Our salvation is intertwined.

Walking with my Colombian community that willingly, passionately “carries the cross” is a privilege. Sharing in their joys and struggle is deeply fulfilling. The faith modelled by Colombian Mennonites has provided a provocative personal and political theological home for me. It invites and challenges a fresh interpretation of personal and social transformation based in Jesus’ message—the Kingdom of God present, Here. Now. Victims who are also prophets inspire hope in Jesus who embodied God’s passion for justice and wholeness in all things (or shalom).

That is something of my passion. What is yours? Identifying your passion will lead you to your truest vocation and the most fulfilling way to live your core values.
Ask yourself, what am I willing to live and die for? According to Hebrews 11, Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see. Find your faith; live inside your hope.

Where is injustice that tears you apart? Don’t run from suffering; go to her. Walk alongside the affliction that makes your blood boil. Let it hurt.

Take risks. Colombia has much to offer GC and its students, and I hope you come to us again. But Colombia, as a geographical place, is not for everyone. But do cross over. Live beyond the half-truths and cosmetic facades shielding you from the brilliant light of Life that exists most brightly at the brink of death.

Go to the place where suffering and hope meet, and live there. Perhaps you, like me, will find your salvation where the two meet. But, and this is important, discern and speak truth in community. This is very different than the peace Rambo approach.

And so I modify the words of Audre Lord that hung in the sociology/anthropology department when I was a senior when I say, “When we dare to be powerful - to use our strength in the service of our vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Through living Hebrews 11-style faith in community, circumstances change.
To students and to Goshen College, I say:
Find your passion.
Cross over to the heart of suffering.
Live in bold hope.
God is with us.