QUITO, Ecuador (Mennonite Mission Network) – Luis* entered the Quito Mennonite Church burning with hatred, an anger fueled by armed combat in Colombia. That was before he crossed the border into Ecuador running to save his own life.
However, instead of finding a haven in the congregation, he encountered the enemy – members of the Rivera* family, also Colombian refugees, but from a rival faction.
Living out Christ’s peace in Ecuador can become dangerous, members of the 5-year-old church discovered.
All that glows is not gold
Liliana Ocampo guided Don and Shirley Kempf through the glowing golden interiors of Quito’s cathedrals, a tour that carried her guests from Nebraska back 500 years into Ecuador’s colonial past. The discrepancy between the opulent sanctuaries and the obvious poverty of those who came to pray saddened the Kempfs.
A few hours earlier, the Kempfs had participated in a very different worship service with the Quito Mennonite Church where the glow radiated not from gold overlays, but from faces lifted in praise.
The Kempf couple, members of Salem Mennonite Church in Shickley, Neb., spent the month of February in Ecuador as part of an Ecuador Partnership exchange visit.
The Ecuador Partnership serves as an intercontinental highway permitting South American missionaries to travel to North America and vice versa. While the Kempfs learned, worshipped and worked in Ecuador, Ocampo’s co-workers – César Moya and Patricia Urueña – are ministering to Mennonite Church USA congregations.
Making Wellman, Iowa, home for seven months, Moya and Urueña combine work on their master’s dissertations with mission, speaking in 20 Mennonite Church USA congregations during this time. Their dissertations explore Christian ethics and theology in 21st-century Latin culture.
Ocampo, Moya and Urueña have been sent by the Colombian Mennonite Church to share pastoral responsibilities at Quito Mennonite Church and to live out an Anabaptist presence through teaching, working with indigenous groups and welcoming refugees and others in need.
This small congregation, led by three Colombian mission workers, provides a home for some of the Colombian refugees who flee into Ecuador to escape the violence of their motherland.
The Quito Mennonite Church is supported in its ministry through the Ecuador Partnership, a Mennonite Mission Network ministry that includes Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombian Mennonite Church) and the Central Plains Conference of Mennonite Church USA.
Liliana Ocampo, the pastoral coordinator of the Quito Mennonite Church, said her congregation takes the risk of welcoming refugees because of the example lived by Jesus, first-century Christians and early Anabaptists.
“Our ancestors lived for the gospel in exile; through persecution, discrimination, oppression, silencing, displacement and death. Today, the migrants, refugees and displaced people are our brothers and sisters. The Mennonite church, faithful in service and love to our neighbors, will pick up this work as an example of discipleship and solidarity,” Ocampo said.
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports, Ecuador receives more Colombian asylum seekers than any other country in the region. More than 23,000 Colombians have sought safety in Ecuador since January 2000.
Luis’ life began to change as he heard the word of God preached and as he experienced the touch of God’s love through the ministry of the Quito believers. He allowed them to pray for him and, during the prayer, he sensed “the spirit of violence” departing from his body.
When accused of being the perpetrator of violence against the Riveras, Luis said, “Although I continue to feel annoyed with the Rivera family, I can no longer attempt to end their lives, because I am a new person in Christ.”
Not only does the Quito Mennonite Church offer housing and food to the Colombian refugees, but members provide psychological care, educational services and assist families in finding ways to support themselves through small businesses.
Many of the refugees have witnessed the violent deaths of family members, endured physical suffering and lost everything they owned.
María’s* family is one of the four currently welcomed by the Quito Mennonite Church. She, her husband and their four children have been on the run for six years because of her husband’s leadership in an organization that spoke out against the government’s human rights violations of peasant farmers. During these years, María has lived in constant fear that something will happen to her three daughters and her son.
María’s husband was kidnapped and held for a day in an apparent attempt by the paramilitary to gain information. The family fled to Quito, where María is now living with the children. Her husband didn’t feel safe in Quito and continued his journey to Spain, where refugees sometimes find more job opportunities.
María’s family first encountered Mennonites in Colombia through the ministries for displaced people organized by the Teusaquillo congregation (see "Christ's love comes wrapped in banana leaves"). There, in addition to material assistance, María and her family attended Bible studies and learned to make bocadillo, a snack made from guava pulp. Income from the sale of these snacks permits María to buy food and pay bus fares.
Finding a school for her children has been painful for María.
“As soon as school authorities heard my [Colombian] accent, they told me there was no room for my children,” María said. “The people of Ecuador think all Colombians are violent robbers.”
Ocampo tutored María’s children along with five other refugee children until they were accepted into a school recently.
“I don’t know where I would be without the church,” María said. “I have suffered much, but God has not forgotten me. Through the church, I’m able to keep moving forward and find a new life.”
María hopes someday soon she and her children will be able to join her husband in Spain.
César Moya and Patricia Urueña, two members of Quito Mennonite Church’s leadership team, are on leave (see sidebar) making this an intense year for Ocampo. However, if she feels fatigue, it is masked by the exuberant joy she finds in her ministry.
“I am delighted to be able to give testimony as a woman, as a leader, as a Colombian,” Ocampo said. “Our church has a clear Latin Christian identity modeled on Jesus. We identify with the God of life who cares for the poorest and most vulnerable people; women, children and victims of violence.”
Ocampo takes great pleasure in shattering the Ecuadorian stereotypes of Colombians.
“The most special thing is that God invites us to break these barriers and borders that divide us. Today the city of Quito can say that some Colombians are an influence in building the kingdom of God - people who are just, tolerant, organized and happy.”
*Refugees’ names have been changed to protect their identities.