Father to gang members

Wiebe's Witness

Drawing from his travels to visit MB churches around the world, ICOMB executive director David Wiebe offers insights on faith.

Colombian pastor shares Jesus in the slums

WW-kids-hug-David-Dave-o-s-picA shout went up from a dozen kids aged 5–9. It sounded more like a high pitched scream, but it was obviously positive.

It was September 2013. We were visiting El Progreso, a church plant by the Mennonite Brethren conference of Colombia in partnership with MCC. It’s located in Cazucá, a shantytown that’s part of the increasing urban sprawl of Bogota, Colombia.

David Bonilla and his wife Marina started this project.

The children literally jumped on David, whom they hadn’t seen for a while. He wrapped them up in his arms – one at a time, three at a time. Unbridled happiness.

Except I could see a tear escaping from David’s eye.

Families flee violence

Precarious housing in the neighborhood of El Progresso, Bogota, Colombia. Families displaced by rural conflict began to settle on the slopes of Cazucá, Bogotá, in the 1980s. Credit: Daniel Hernandez

Precarious housing in the neighborhood of El Progresso, Bogota, Colombia. Families displaced by rural conflict began to settle on the slopes of Cazucá, Bogotá, in the 1980s. Credit: Daniel Hernandez

Why? Well, let’s start with why he was visiting in the first place.

Cazucá exists because Colombians have been migrating to the cities to flee violence for decades.

In large part, it’s because of FARC, the guerrilla force that began in 1964. It has been a thorn in the side of the government and the country, kidnapping thousands and breaking up families and
communities for 50 years.

For 20–30 years, drug cartels have strengthened, muscling farmers to switch from growing coffee or cacao (to make chocolate) to coca (to make cocaine). If a farmer says no, he or she must leave – or face serious violence.

The government tries fumigating drug crops but hits rice paddies with their indiscriminate methods. Farmers give up and join the throngs heading to Bogota, Cali and Medellin.

David Bonilla, founder of the Education Brings Hope Children’s Centre, walks with Isaac Friesen during his family’s visit to the a Global Family project in Cazucá, Colombia. Credit: Cynthia Friesen

David Bonilla, founder of the Education Brings Hope Children’s Centre, walks with Isaac Friesen during his family’s visit to the a Global Family project in Cazucá, Colombia. Credit: Cynthia Friesen

Lately, foreign gold mining companies (mostly Canadian) have moved in. They extract gold using efficient methods that quickly exhaust the ore – and leave ghost towns behind.

Cazucá beckons. There, you can construct a shelter with found items. Get a start. Hope to find a job.

But what do you do with your kids? You’re a single mom. You get up at 3 a.m. to organize for the day, then take a long bus ride, work all day and don’t get home until late evening.

“Father” makes slum his home

Children at Education Brings Hope show off their artwork for the camera. Education Brings Hope is a Global Family program that provides salaries, food and teaching supplies for a preschool and primary school of the Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church. Credit: Colombia Mennonite Brethren Church

Children at Education Brings Hope show off their artwork for the camera. Education Brings Hope is a Global Family program that provides salaries, food and teaching supplies for a preschool and primary school of the Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church. Credit: Colombia Mennonite Brethren Church

Enter David and Marina Bonilla. Literally. Several churches and agencies operate in Cazucá, but David and Marina chose to live there.

El Progreso provides a spiritual home – and offers sewing classes, a computer lab, a youth drop-in and a school.

David is not just a pastor, he’s a father figure to many kids whose home might be barely stitched together.

But why the tear in his eye?

David and Marina had to move out some six months earlier.

Family picture of David Bonilla, Rosa Marina Forero and their children Ian and Aysha. Credit MCC

Family picture of David Bonilla, Rosa Marina Forero and their children Ian and Aysha. Credit MCC

At the drop-in, David had corrected a youth who pulled a knife on him. Another youth acted rashly in defence of David and hurt the aggressor – who in turn swore to kill the young man. Turns out the two youths belonged to rival gangs. The one who defended David unwittingly identified David with his gang.

Despite years of successfully avoiding ties to any of the many rival groups, this fragile balance was wiped out, and David’s life was in danger.

An MCC report says, “Urban violence caused the exit of the Bonilla Forero family who previously directed this project. The family refused protection from any movement or illegal armed group as that would only cause more violence. A leave taking service was held, but those affected continue to mourn the loss. Sadly, some behind the violent actions were killed and others are in juvenile detention.”

Participants of Education Brings Hope perform a song at their graduation. The El Progreso neighborhood still has no water or sewer and faces regular gang violence. Education Brings Hope is a Global Family program that provides salaries, food and teaching supplies for a preschool and primary school of the Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church. Credit: Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church

Participants of Education Brings Hope perform a song at their graduation. The El Progreso neighborhood still has no water or sewer and faces regular gang violence. Education Brings Hope is a Global Family program that provides salaries, food and teaching supplies for a preschool and primary school of the Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church. Credit: Colombian Mennonite Brethren Church

Our short visit was the first time David had been back in six months.

New workers have stepped into the void. The church and project continue. David and his family now live in Mexico to start a similar program under MCC USA’s Global Family.

On Father’s Day, we bless dads – and all men – who love and invest in families. Here’s a dad who risks his life investing in families besides his own. The kingdom of God has a way of always raising the bar for us. As it should!

—David Wiebe has been a member of a Christian rock band, a pastor, and an MB conference executive. Since 2011, he has served the International Community of Mennonite Brethren as executive director.

Did you know?

ICOMB-icon The Colombia Mennonite Brethren Conference has about 45 churches, 1,800 members. Diego Martinez of Bogota is their president.
ICOMB-icon The conference has three regions: Bogota, Cali and Choco. The latter is a rainforest region, suitable for growing coffee, cacao and coca (source of cocaine).
ICOMB-icon One church in Choco “disappeared” some years ago due to violence. Everyone left the region and moved to the city.
ICOMB-icon Canadian and U.S. governments have pounded money into Colombia in the “war on drugs.” This deposit of cash simply arms everybody. The Colombia Mennonite conferences got together in 2008 to ask U.S. and Canadian Mennonites of all stripes to appeal to their governments to stop sending money into Colombia targeted to this “war.”
ICOMB-icon A strong connection exists between MCC and the Mennonite/MB church bodies in all three regions.
ICOMB-icon Cali is home to an MB high school. Principal Alexandra Rojas helped start a church in the school in 2012. She told me, “We already had our first baptism and first miracle!”

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See more
Colombian church planters embrace “crazy”

From model to minister

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Read more of Wiebe’s Witness

Christmas all year-round [in Angola]

Valentines from Panama: A church in the rainforest

Faithful together in civil conflict [Ukraine]

The man in the soup bowl [Southeast Asia]

The power of the Cross(es) [Lithuania]

Women of valour in DR Congo

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