QUITO, Ecuador (Mennonite Mission Network) — In Colombia, guerilla warfare brought assassination threats and a dead body to their front doorsteps. In Ecuador, refugee status and the wrong skin color brought discrimination; poverty brought malnutrition.
Christ brought compassion and a new understanding of commitment.
Two couples—Fernando and Julia Rodriguez and Carla and Elias Garcia*—made a promise to God and each other on June 8. The Colombian refugees married at Iglesia Menonita (Mennonite Church) in Quito, Ecuador, after 15 and 17 years of common-law marriage, respectively.
“[The couples] know that to be committed to Christ should also lead to a commitment to each other as husband and wife,” wrote César Moya and Patricia Urueña, co-pastors of Quito Mennonite Church.
Moya and Urueña helped begin Quito Mennonite Church in 2001, a year after they arrived in Ecuador from Colombia through a partnership involving Mennonite Mission Network, the Colombia Mennonite Church and Central Plains Mennonite Conference.
They facilitate Quito Mennonite’s refugee attention program that provides housing for families of Colombian refugees. To date, the program has housed 10 families, each one for several months at a time.
Both the Rodriguez and Garcia families benefited from the refugee attention program.
Fernando and Julia Rodriguez, along with their two sons (ages 14 and 11) and 6-year-old daughter, moved from Cali, Colombia. Cali has the highest index of violence in Colombia and their neighborhood housed members of guerilla forces.
One day, the Rodriguez family woke to find the body of a dead person outside their house.
“This had a great impact on the children and produced an atmosphere of insecurity and fear for the family,” wrote Moya and Urueña.
In 2003, guerilla threats forced Fernando Rodriguez to Ecuador. Two years later, Julia and children joined him in Quito. Julia found work as a domestic helper and Fernando worked in eastern Ecuador as an assistant engineer. The job took him away from the family for two months at a time.
Because of their African descent and Colombian nationality, the Rodriguez family also experienced discrimination. Quito Mennonite was a welcoming presence amidst hardship.
“The church accepted Julia and her family without reservations,” wrote Moya and Urueña.
Despite the difficult situation, Julia involved herself in many church activities. She led worship services, taught a children’s Sunday school class and was especially active in the Education for Peace Project in the city’s Inca neighborhood.
When Fernando completed his work in the east, the Rodriguez’s funds were soon depleted. They were unable to pay rent and the children showed signs of malnutrition.
During a worship service, they shared their economic situation with Quito Mennonite. The church provided the Rodriguez family shelter in the refugee attention program house, easing their economic burden.
Julia and then Fernando chose to attend discipleship classes and receive believer’s baptism. The choice to become followers of Christ led them to desire marriage after 15 years of living together.
“[Living together] is something very common in Latin America, especially among the poorer people … [Julia and Fernando] realized that they should be an example for their children, providing a home established and blessed by God,” wrote Moya and Urueña.
After a year spent acquiring necessary documents, Fernando and Julia married in a civil ceremony on April 29 and in a religious ceremony on June 8.
Carla and Elias Garcia were the second couple married in the June 8 ceremony.
The Garcias moved to Ecuador 1½ years ago. In Cali, Colombian guerillas forced them to pay a monthly sum “with the understanding that their lives would then be respected,” explained Moya and Urueña.
The Garcias sought peace but failed to find it. One night, a group of guerillas appeared and gave the family 24 hours to leave the country or suffer assassination.
Carla and Elias left with their three daughters (ages 12, 8 and 4) and son (age 6) for Ecuador that night, taking only the clothes on their backs.
In Ecuador, a fellow Colombian refugee invited them to a service at Quito Mennonite. They accepted and continue to attend consistently.
Carla and Elias had lived together for 17 years, but after hearing the gospel they chose to become legally married. The civil ceremony took place on May 26.
Like the Rodriguez family, the Garcias suffer discrimination because of their refugee status. Only the oldest daughter has been able to find steady work.
The family will be moving to Argentina through Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). Moya and Urueña say that the move is an opportunity for the Garcia family to reestablish themselves.
However, the Garcias are reluctant to leave.
“They say that the Quito Mennonite Church is their family and they do not want to begin a process similar to what they experienced when they moved to Ecuador,” write Moya and Urueña.
Following the witness of the Rodriguez and Garcia families, several other Colombian and Ecuadorian couples in the church are applying for documents to be legally married.
*Names have been changed.