These people are heroes. It is not what they set out to be, or how they strive to be recognized. It is the challenge of their everyday existence, which they live with simple grace, that highlights their bravery and determination to live life on their own terms, with harm to no one.
Set in the Abibe Mountains, a two hour hike from the nearest town, the people who live in La Union in northwestern Colombia are farmers. The land is lush, verdant, and produces multiple crops with the watchful guidance of the people who live close to this land.
The cluster of roughly three rows of one story abodes comprises the physical living space, which includes a school, and also a child care/preschool. The men rise early to head out to the farms, stopping on the way at the home of Maria Jesus who bakes breads (arepas), and lunches for them to take with them, which they stop and purchase. Because of the close proximity to the equator, there is little variation in the time the sun rises or sets, thus the routine continues year round, as does the production of crops.
There are a number of communities such as this one, who need to not only hike an hour and half to a store, but must also take an open air jeep to get to the city of Apartado to find supermarkets, clothing stores, or a reliable internet cafe.
What sets this village apart is its declaration of peace. Living in the country with the most displaced people in the world, they have come together to lay claim to their desire to farm their land, and live their lives while supporting neither the military, paramilitary nor the guerrillas. While this sounds simple and straight forward, it is not so. Each of these groups can perceive this stance as a threat, and react accordingly, which sometimes means occupying people’s land, eating their crops, and in some cases, rounding up leaders and shooting them. Such was the devastation experienced by the community in 2000, four years after its formation. Likely it had been the hope that by violently and graphically removing these leaders, that the community itself might perish.
There had previously been no recourse for these actions. Rather than responding with violence, after intense grieving and regrouping, the community decided to engage the help of an organization called Fellowship of Reconciliation/Peace Presence. This organization, almost 100 years old, although in Colombia only thirteen years, sent people to live in the village. They are accompaniers and witnesses, providing no counsel, but only a presence and connection to headquarters in Bogota, as well as a link to much more global organizations like the United Nations. The village is no longer invisible, but has transformed into a beacon of hope for what can be.
The community must accept that if they are going to travel to one of the other ten sister communities that populate the mountain, that the FORistas will literally walk with them in their bright blue tee shirts, whether it is a hike of an hour or six hours.
For its part, FOR/Peace Presence, too, seeks to maintain neutrality. While they are clearly there as a form of protection, they are not bodyguards, nor are they attempting to control or sway the community’s decisions in any way. (think Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference as much as possible, in some ways). At the same time, they inevitably develop relationships with these friendly people while still maintaining their own role as witness and accompaniers. They cannot be too friendly, or favoring particular community members, but it is only natural that closer bonds will form with some rather than others.
They get to know each other, come to trust one another, and this is important in any community, but particularly one of a couple hundred people total. The community accepts Peace Presence while I can imagine it must sometimes feel challenging to consider that it is too risky to simply go count cattle on their own, or take a trip into town. Thus the more they can be considered as a part of the community, the less it might feel like being watched or watched over, both of which necessitate some distance in the relationship. They are clear that without these additional people in their village, they remain at risk. Though one might wonder whether there may at times be some resentment, this does not appear to be the prevailing reaction.
Thus, these people who are making history with their insistence on being Switzerland in a world that tries to demand otherwise, who are devoted to the land they love and the life that surrounds and supports it, are heroes. It is their unassuming and openhearted willingness to persevere that inspires a profound hope for what is possible. With the cooperation between FOR/Peace Presence and La Union they have created a model from which we can all flourish.