Becoming an Indefinite Peace Accompanier

There’s no unshocking way to say this: I heard a young man shot and killed yesterday.

Before you panic, I was about a block or so away on the second floor of the presbytery offices at the before/after school program that they run in partnership with Compassion International.  I was waiting for lunch and talking with some of the teachers.  We heard the shots through the open windows toward the street.  As far as what we’ve heard, it was a gang related shooting.  The young man was known to be the head of one of the neighborhood gangs and it seems that someone was waiting for him to get out of school.  I assure you I am safe.  If my hosts and the presbytery thought we were unsafe, we would have been moved immediately.  Deeply sad but true, this equally could have been something I experienced on the south side of Chicago.

The situation unfolded as most shootings do in the area.  Parents from the neighborhood were running to the scene hoping it wasn’t their child.  They then searched for their children coming out of school and walked quickly home.  People gathered around the body.  The family and loved ones were not far behind to embrace and cry over the dead man.  The police finally arrived but not before a large crowd of people had gathered; the ambulance was much too late.  Most of this I picked up from the teachers.  I could not stand at the window for long.

I am certainly aware of the many ways that violence threatens youth in Colombia, in the States, and around the world on a daily basis.  But I’ve never been this close that I know of.  One young man came out of school yesterday on Calle 94 and never made it home.  This is horrible, tragic, sad, wrong, heart-breaking, and many other awful things.

I have searched around for a headline the news.  We’re not in a big city here and I doubt it even made any regional news coverage.  Why?  Because it will be written off as gang violence.  He was just another kid in a gang.  I don’t think this is a Colombia only problem.

With gun control a big political issue in the States right now and living on the south side of Chicago, I’ve been contemplating violence, especially violence as it affects children and youth, for a while now.   To be honest, I think that gangs are only part of a much larger problem.

The question that rings in my mind is: Where have we failed?  How have we allowed this violence among us to become an epidemic?  And statistically one that is much more likely to affect or take the life of a young person of color?   I think we have failed.  I really do.  And above all, we have failed our youth.

We’ve built up cultures of violence where guns and taking power by force are seen as normal and the best way to get things done.  We’ve built up a world that glorifies this culture through music, television, movies, video games and many other forms of entertainment and social media.  As communities and social structures have changed, we as a society have been slow to respond so that gangs and similar groups function as aggressive defense but also family and social support structures.  We are quick to insist that we must uphold personal rights while we overlook the fact that these personal rights are very much contributing to the killing of our fellow citizens in the streets.

So one young man was killed leaving school yesterday outside the office where I’m staying here.  A teacher told me that at least three youth were shot over the Colombian Independence Day weekend here; one of them has died and the others are in critical condition.  Over the July 4th weekend in Chicago, 67 people were shot and 11 people were killed.  And these are just a few of the places I have been recently.

This has got to stop.  As long as humans continue to wage war on each other, gun violence will never come to a complete end.  Choosing to look the other way must also stop as well.  Just because it is a huge and complicated problem does not let us off the hook from trying to defend and stand in solidarity with our fellow humanity.

The church must step up and be at the forefront of this movement for safety and change.   Thinking biblically for a moment, we have accounts of Jesus telling Peter to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17) and the sheep and the goats discourse that includes, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).  I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say “I was in danger and you stepped in to accompany me and find ways to make the world safer for me.”   Food and drink are fundamental needs.  As are safety and the protection of life.  Ideally, all of the above are allowing a person—a child of God—to live well and abundantly, not worrying about if he or she will make it home alive and if there will be food to eat when they get there.

Yes, this involves gun control.  Yes, this involves political, societal, economic, cultural and other macro-level changes.  Yes, this involves rebuilding and strengthening our communities, especially some of the most fragile.  It also involves a refusal to glorify and promote violence as a normal and legitimate method of communication and relating to each other.

As I sit here and reflect on the violent and heart-breaking state of our world, I listen to the kids on the floor above me at the before/after school program.  They talk, laugh, greet each other, run around, and play as kids do.  As I sit here and think, I am glad for the sounds of pounding feet and laughter coming down through the ceiling.  I hate to imagine that one or more of their lives will end too soon because of violence—and most likely with a gun.  I cringe at the thought of all the opportunities, beautiful moments, time with family, and time spent just living that will never be because a young man was killed within sight of my front door yesterday.

Honestly, I was talking with a mother one day.  She has many legitimate worries about the multiple ways that her children might experience violence and conflict in their lifetimes here in Colombia.  She was quite puzzled about how there could also be so much violence in an affluent place like the United States.  I shook my head and had no good reason for her.

Friends, it has to stop.  The violence has to stop.  In places like Colombia, there are both political internal conflict as well violence from gangs and individual citizens.  There is no official internal conflict in the United States but there is very much ongoing violence that kills people everyday.

This has got to stop.  I am here in Colombia as an accompanier with the Colombia Accompaniment Program for Peace.  This program is very much needed here.  It is a manifestation of the strong partnership between the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in Colombia.  A presence for peace is also needed on the south side of Chicago, in New York and LA, in so many other towns, cities, and countries around the world for so many reasons.

So from here on out, I intend to be a peace accompanier indefinitely.  I have no idea what that means or what it will look like.  Ask me in a few years, a few decades, or maybe a lifetime.  But life is a gift given to each and every person by God and each and every person—be it our best friend or a stranger we will never meet—deserves to enjoy and live the holy and precious gift they received from God.

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Some children receiving communion at the church in Cartagena.

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