The Choco region of Colombia, home to 14 Mennonite Brethren churches, experiences regular flooding due to rainfall, but in early 2008, the town of Istmina experienced a new kind of flood: forcibly displaced families.
Caught between rival paramilitary groups fighting over land used to cultivate coca (key cocaine ingredient), more than 1,500 people fled their homes and farms. A large number of the displaced families were members of MB churches from the towns of Basuro and Baudó. The local government began to organize an emergency response effort, and the MB church in Istmina wasted no time getting involved.
The church coordinated their response with the municipal government. Church leaders received $7,500 USD from Mennonite Central Committee for emergency response.
“We are so thankful to our brothers and sisters around the world that made this emergency aid possible,” said one Colombia pastor. “Their giving made it possible for us to help our Chocoano brothers and sisters in their time of need.”
Another wave of displacement occurred in May, but since the families did not go to Istmina, the MB church sent food aid to the site where the nearly 400 people had sought refuge.
Assisting displaced families affected Istmina church members. “People became more willing to serve,” says Yulie Mosquera, coordinator of the social service ministry of Jerusalen MB Church. “We always hear about service, but this gave us an opportunity to really get involved.”
“An integral part of our identity as Anabaptists is service, and that is why we see this kind of community project as part of our mission as a church,” says Manuel Mosquera, MB pastor in Istmina.
Assisting victims of paramilitary groups could put the MB congregation in Istmina in the line of fire, but they aren’t shying away. “The church is called to be an example to society, to guide the people and seek justice and equality,” says Rutilio Rivas, president of the MB council in the Choco region. “Jesus’ gospel message was to bring the good news to the poor. The church needs to be more active, not just behind our four walls.”
In September 2008, the majority of the 450 families were able to return to their lands. Their return was not easy, however. Some found their farms had become overgrown, and others had their lands blocked by the armed groups.
With MCC’s support, MB church communities have formed cooperatives to raise pigs, chickens, and yucca. MCC’s programming in the region offers education on sustainable practices and provides materials to help farmers make a living by growing crops other than coca.