The way back
Brutalized by wars of nationhood, guerilla chaos, landowners’ paramilitary bands along with government armies, Colombia still travels a road of social upheaval. Long known in recent years for its brutal and controlling drug cartels, Colombia is now on a road to recovery. In observing that recovery I unearthed an interesting story of one who faced guerillas in his own backyard, defending those of faith.
Colombia is not for the faint of heart. Its inner complexities and religious unevenness is part of its fabric, and the conflict was not just because of the cartels. As in many countries with a religious majority, often the minority faces unusual and unfair practices. This was true in Colombia and has been in part corrected.
To understand the stories that follow, a brief explanation of terms and groups will help. To the outsider Colombia seems like a snake pit of armed conspiracies and factions. FARC, the Marxist group, presses a leftist political agenda and, like their enemies, is armed to the teeth. Priests espousing Liberation Theology formed the ELN which is much less predisposed to arms. Those in M19 were followers of former president Gustavo Rojas Inilla. Paramilitary groups were set up by right wing capitalists to protect their investments. Cartels are mixed up in all the groups as they use, produce, and sell drugs to help fund their activities.
First, the persecution of Evangelicals. In the late 1990s various gangs within the cartels killed some 400 pastors. They assumed that because they helped guerillas when hurt or dislocated that Evangelicals were on their side. Pastor Hector Pardo, working alongside the Mennonite Peace Initiative, went back into the highlands and met Salvatore Mancuso, second in command of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group. Pastor Pardo, now 75, was not unfamiliar with the power gangs of his country: in the 1950s his father was a founder of a guerilla movement. Pardo, having grown up among gangs knew their ways. As he said, “I was with them until the Lord rescued me.”
He faced Salvatore Mancuso with the question, “Why are you killing our pastors?” “Well, you support the guerillas,” was the response. “Why do you say that?” asked Pardo. “Because when they are injured or hurt or their families are in trouble, you are there to help,” replied Mancuso. “Ah, now I understand. Of course. That’s what Jesus calls us to do. Everyone is made in his image. He died for each of us. He taught us how to love, even our enemies.”
The two men made an agreement and the pastors were no longer persecuted. But that wasn’t the end for Pardo. He wanted to tell his story, so he wrote From the Other Trenches, an account of his life, making sure it got into the hands of FARC. His argument was this: arms were not the way forward. Only Jesus could bring change and peace. The book did what he hoped it would. FARC leader Zacharias Valencia, nicknamed “The Old Man,” read the book and turned his life over to Christ. Late one evening representatives from FARC, M19 and a guerilla movement arrived at Hector Pardo’s home. Their request? That Evangelicals support their causes. While they never did get a promise, before they left, Hector led them in the sinner’s prayer and they walked away, each with a new Bible. With a twinkle Hector noted, “And no money exchanged hands.”
Evangelicals have faced a substantial challenge in a Catholic-majority country, especially on two issues. In the 1950s the traditional parties, Liberals and Conservatives, faced off. The Conservatives teamed up with Catholics, writing plans to eliminate non-Catholics from the country. Of course, there was enormous pressure on Protestants to the point that they feared for their lives. Evangelicals in turn joined the Liberals, made up of progressive Catholics who viewed non-Catholics as legitimate citizens. Doing so positioned Evangelicals with the Liberals as political partners and served to antagonize the Catholics and Conservatives.
There was an additional problem. Article 53 of the Constitution recognized the Catholic Church as the official religion and gave it statutory privileges. Hector Pardo knew this needed to be changed; in 1990 he and other Evangelicals formed the Christian Union Movement to win a seat at the table of the Constitutional conference designed to rewrite the Constitution. And for their efforts they won two seats.
As the debate on the Constitution pressed forward, Hector and his associates argued that while Catholicism may be regarded as the official religion of the country, Article 19 (which was to replace Article 53) needed to define freedom of conscience and worship, offering not only religious tolerance but also religious equality. Also, that special treatment given to the Vatican by the government be eliminated. That was passed and now by law, there is freedom of faith. Hector and his colleagues knew the way to bring about change was to be seated at that constitutional table.
In 1990 there were approximately three million Evangelicals. Today there are eight—a statistic that prompted a quick, “But why?” One pastor made this comparison: “In South Korea after WWII, the church exploded in response to the Good News of Jesus for the poor and those suffering from foreign domination. In Colombia our people were collapsing under hopelessness—political infighting, guerilla movements, thousands upon thousands of people being killed every year, drug cartels ruining the economy and nation, and four million Colombians, many from the upper middle class, leaving. We were drowning in hopelessness. The Gospel of the Good News gave hope, which set off a wave of conversions and ministries.”
From this uplift of faith rose many mega churches, some of which have spanned offshoots in North America, Africa and Asia. Not all are necessarily healthy, as we have found: the transplanting of a culturally valid and effective model into a foreign setting has its drawbacks.
In country after country, especially those which have experienced heartbreaking and spirit-crushing times, I hear stories of grace, which defy even the writing of award winning novelists. The Spirit, wending his way in and out of lives, writes of faith. Rooted in struggle and sorrow, these stories show how God intersects with the human condition, as willing lives journal the great metanarrative of God’s love. Hector is one such scribe.
Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador
World Evangelical Alliance
Featured Image: Leaders of Evangelical Confederation in Colombia