Friday, October 2, 2009

Praying with our feet*

In a small town bordering Bogota, there is a community made up of many families that have been displaced by violence in other parts of Colombia. These families have fled to Bogota in order to be closer to additional work opportunities, and with hopes for a more secure life. Many families arrive as single-parent families because one of them has been killed, are in hiding, or have joined an armed group and left their family behind. Because of this, the single parent (often the Mother) is put in a position to work long hours at tedious jobs in order to obtain food, shelter, and clothing for their children. As a result, many young children are left alone all day long, without the financial resources to attend school, or have other care.

One of the Mennonite Churches here in Bogota started a program in this small community called the “Comedor.” This program started four years ago, when a worker from Habitat for Humanity built a house for the purpose of developing a program that would help the children in this community with productive activities during the day, and provide a modest lunch for them. The Comedor is completely run by volunteers, who facilitate activities for children and cook the food. They serve lunch daily to over 80 children in a small dining room. Initially, this program was designed for children ages 5-15, but frequently the children bring along younger siblings from birth through 5, as they have been charged with the caretaking of these siblings.

This community is located near the mountains, where several armed groups make their homes. In the evenings, there is no law enforcement or official government protection. Instead, these communities are “run” by those with the most influence and armed power. A real fear in this community comes from the phenomena of “false positives.” Certain armed groups are given financial and other incentives for numbers of people that they kill. As a result, it is common for the armed group to take civilians (including young children), dress them up in the official uniforms of the enemy group, kill them, and then collect the reward for their deaths. This is one of the reasons young people are scared at night, and are looking for protection wherever they can find it.

There is also a significant problem with “forced recruitment.” Different armed forces approach towns like these and look for young people to recruit as members of their armies. Boys and girls as young as 11 or 12 and older are offered incentives to join…the promise of new boots, good food to eat, a clean official uniform, perhaps some money for the family. Sometimes, these incentives are enough to recruit. Other times, the children receive threats in the form of “formal invitations.” These invitations are quietly slipped under the door, and inform the recruit where and when they will need to report for initiation. If they refuse, the armed group may threaten to kill a younger sibling. Last year, this was a significant issue for this community, and in six months 22 children ages 6-10 were murdered.

The community’s immediate response to this was silence. If they were frozen, and did not respond to these deaths, than maybe no more would occur. However, the volunteers from the Comedor decided that that something more needed to be done. They created a template of a peace dove. Wherever a child was killed by armed forces, they painted a white peace dove to represent that child's life. It was a tangible way for the community to mark the terror in their lives, as well to demonstrate a need to a peaceful change. In honor of the International Day of Peace they organized a Peace March for children. Last year, they marched for life. This year, they marched for bread and peace. Several schools in the surrounding community sent school representatives. Signs were created. Bands marched. Jugglers and rappers performed. Children chanted “Queremos la paz.” There were several in the community who simply watched from the guarded space around their homes. Street children joined the walk. Many community organizers and church volunteers (including Aaron and I) walked with them.

When I asked one of the Comedor volunteers if they felt like their response had made a difference, she was convinced that it had. No young children have been targeted recently, which she attributed both to prayer, the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, the countless volunteer hours and care poured into the project of “pan y paz,” and the importance of a public outcry for maintaining life in this small town.

So for me, it brought a new meaning to the phrase "Praying with our Feet." I have been to many peace marches in my life, but none have touched me so profoundly as these young children, with the simple hope for survival and a better life.

(*Praying with our Feet is a book and song written by Lisa Weaver)


  1. Oh Jen, I am so thankful that you are there and a part of such needed change.

  2. Oh this post made me cry. And it made me well up with pride for what you are doing. What you have sacrificed.

    The next time I feel sorry for myself, I'm going to read this post.

  3. The many children of this community are lucky to have you, Jen! What incredible change and hope you are able to help bring to them!

  4. This is so deeply disturbing that it takes my breath away. My heart breaks for those children and their families. It brings an extra dose of tenderness into every interaction I have with my own kids. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the desperation there. It helps to understand the importance of your work.

    How do your children respond to this?

  5. Oh my. Thank you for sharing this part of your lives, your work. Those childrens' faces, and the painted image of the dove on brick, are very powerful.

  6. Thank you for sharing this is so powerful. The images of the dove and especially all of the young children is so moving. Thank you, thank you for your work in Colombia.

  7. this is why you are there.

  8. What a moving blog entry. I'm so glad you are there.

  9. I completely missed this entry. Wow.

    Thank you for being there. I cannot even comprehend that the story and photos are real.