"Here [in the church], I feel at peace, I feel safe, I feel like I have a family."
March 2020 upended the day-to-day operations of churches worldwide. Teusaquillo Mennonite Church, in Bogotá, Colombia, was no exception. While church meetings and Momento por la Paz (Moment for Peace), the church's ministry with migrants and displaced peoples, came to a jolting halt that month, the church's Comité de Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace Committee, JPC) recognized the need for daily bread had not disappeared. Rather, it became even more urgent.
Many Colombians and Venezuelans make their livelihoods through informal economies: street vending, day laboring, and working other unofficial jobs that bring in a daily salary to meet basic needs. In the sudden absence of crowded streets and busy markets, and with the onset of lockdowns and quarantines, the demands for such basic necessities began to multiply exponentially.
Everyone in Colombia experienced a drastic change when the first lockdowns began. In response, through the leadership of Sandra Sanchez and Ian Horne, the JPC developed a comprehensive food packaging project with support from Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network, several churches in the United Kingdom, and the local food bank. For those who make up this committee, an integral part of the project is not only the monthly food packages, but also the spiritual food that is shared.
Despite the quarantines and the different phases of the pandemic here in Colombia, the project has been able to support many people, including over 60 Venezuelan families each year for the past two years. Thanks to vaccines and various mitigation efforts, life has turned into a post-quarantine reality. The local church is now able to offer discipleship classes, in which Venezuelan families hear the Word of God and are nurtured in their faith.
The crisis in Venezuela is overwhelming: Many who analyze current events have estimated nearly six million Venezuelans have left the country of their birth. Colombia, Venezuela's western neighbor, has received almost two million people.
The cumulative effect of several concurrent crises is just one reason why the JPC's project continues, with food distribution and spaces for spiritual growth to families in critical situations. Each individual has their own story. In an act of solidarity, committee members listen to these stories, support the people spiritually, and learn about their dreams, which often center on the future they have imagined for their children.
"There are better possibilities here [in Colombia] for them [the children]," one individual said. "[In Venezuela], the universities have closed and the professors left." Another recounted, "There is an economic crisis [in Venezuela]; there is no food [and] it is a very different situation. There is a lot of persecution there."
Under no illusions that leaving their home country will be easy, many people weigh the odds, and then begin the long walk toward the border. One person recalled: "We started walking. … I was responsible for the women and children who accompanied us. … We walked in the rain for three days. It was always wet."
Another person, who had been struggling for decades with a potentially lethal bacterial infection in her leg, which eventually required amputation, remembered, "We went with a bus to Cúcuta ... then we walked to cross the border ... I crossed [the border] with only one leg." She went on to say that this was necessary because she could not find any medication to prevent infection in the wound where her leg was amputated.
As many have described, the situation is so critical in Venezuela that school and medical systems are not functioning. Much like the woman who crossed the border with one leg so she could buy pain medication and not get caught by "the [pharmacy] mafia," another person stated, "There is no trust in the medical system. [I left because I was] afraid of losing my pregnant wife and baby." Unable to obtain necessities such as food, medical care, and education, many flee with the hope of one day returning and rebuilding their lives in Venezuela.
After making the unbearable decision to leave loved ones behind, many encounter racism, xenophobia, and face difficulties providing for their families in a new country.
Carmen Chivico, Ian
Horne, Bekah York and Sandra Sanchez package food to share primarily with
Venezuelans in Bogotá. For the past two years, over 60 families in the local community have recieved these monthly bags of food. Photo by Linda Shelly.
Packaging monthly bags of food and distributing them to families can feel like an insignificant act, considering these realities. When people's needs dwarf what the church can provide, what the church provides may seem trivial. Yet, when those in the JPC reflect on this ministry for Venezuelan families, a deeper understanding of what it means to be welcomed and to be a neighbor emerges. A helpful framework can be found in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42).
The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is unique, not only because Jesus — a Jewish man — defied religious, cultural and social norms by talking to a Samaritan woman but also because it shows the reciprocal nature of being a neighbor.
Jesus, tired and parched from his dusty walk, noticed a woman by a well and asked her for a drink of water. He chose to see the woman as a human being of great value.
The story does not tell us if she gave him water, and perhaps she did not. What she does do, however, is have a conversation with this man. Perhaps she curtly insists that they should not be talking. Yet, at the same time, they both see each other. From their conversation, by dialoguing and sharing a space, the woman encounters Jesus in a new way. More precisely, she finds God in the other, which leads her to a deeper understanding of herself. She begins to see herself in a different light — as someone deeply loved and imbued with dignity.
Committee members meet with people, listen to their stories, and distribute packages of food. These actions are a way of humanizing and re-humanizing those stigmatized in society, and a rejection of norms by recognizing their dignity. They also position oneself to see God. Distributing bags of food is a way of saying to each person individually, "I see you. You have a right to life. And as a church, a living witness of the Lord who sees and knows every person, we stand in solidarity with you and say, 'Go in peace. Receive nourishment and know that you are very precious.'"
Being a neighbor is not just about responding to the needs of those who cross our paths. Being a neighbor means choosing to see others with God's eyes, to take on the role of servant, and to be ready to see God in the "other." Even amidst suffering, God is found in unlikely places and people.