Interview: Amanda Valencia is the pastor of the Ibagué Mennonite Church in Colombia. She is a theologian and psychologist by training and profession, and the wife of Daniel Vargas, pastor of the Seeds of Hope Mennonite Church, also in Ibagué. Amanda has worked with people who have been victims of forced displacement, and her community’s current focuses include work with children and families devastated by poverty and violence.
The theme of peace may sound trite in Colombia, a context where an internal armed conflict has been prominent for more than 50 years. But as a leader within the church, what is your perspective on the concept of peace?
The church must be an alternative in the midst of a very difficult context, like the one in which we live. It is the role of church to spread the message of peace not only verbally, but accompanied by actions: working with those who have suffered the impacts of the armed conflict and with those who are socially marginalized. The church is called to be salt and light, implicating that we must offer alternatives, opportunities, address basic needs, and many more. And we work in these areas.
Colombia is a country with the highest number of displaced people in the world, and Ibagué has become the receiving center of more than 50% of the displaced population from the department of Tolima. Related to this current situation, what is the focus of the Ibagué Mennonite Church towards this part of the population?
From 2000 to 2005, the church’s main focus was a project called “Pastoral Accompaniment of the Displaced Population.” The project was funded the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and existed in four regions, including Ibagué. As part of this project, the community of “Seeds of Hope” was born. Today, our focus continues to be with vulnerable communities, and even though we do not have a project specifically directed at victims of forced displacement, we continue to work with marginalized areas within Ibagué, including Protecho, Modelia and Espinal. In these areas, the main focus of our work is with children and their families, but the doors of our community are always open, without exception, for those in need.
Is the Ibagué Mennonite Church equally ready to receive both victims and perpetrators of the armed violence?
I believe that the church has learned a lot along the way. There may be people that are not ready to join the church or have different fears or perspectives. Up until now we have not had experience working directly with perpetrators, but the church is open and willing to work with both victims and perpetrators, because everyone is part of this reconstruction of social networks process within our country.
How do you explain the impacts of violence, the love of God and forgiveness?
I think that our God is a God for everyone. I don’t believe that there are bad people, but that people who have become perpetrators may not have had many opportunities, and in some cases, their environments had led them to take certain positions and carry out actions that hurt others. But these people also need the love of God. In the Bible we see clear examples of how God met with sinners, like Zacchaeus, and the apostle Paul, who used to persecute the church. The love of God can have positive effects and create positive change, and in this, we are the ambassadors of genuine forgiveness, looking at others as victims of the system, lacking in opportunities.
In a climate of constant violence, how do we learn to turn the other cheek?
It is my understanding that we cannot respond to violence with violence. If someone physically hurts me I am not going to respond in the same way. Jesus taught us to be different, willing to dialogue. If I am violently attacked, and I don’t respond in kind, that person has no justifiable reason to continue their aggression. The Bible says that gentle responses repel wrath, but angry responses create more anger. If I respond violently, then I generate more violence. But if my response is peaceful, the aggressor becomes disarmed. For this reason, the word of God tells us that we need to conquer evil with good.
Today in the 21st century, many people think that prayer, as described in the Bible, is no longer effective. What do you think about this? Has prayer become obsolete?
I feel that prayer is important and one of the basic things for all believers, but prayer must be accompanied by concrete actions. For example, if a family who has suffered comes to us with stories of pain, bitterness, needs and hunger and we say, “come and let us prayer that God will help you and provide for you,” and do nothing else, it would be incredibly insufficient. God wants us to act- prayer must come with actions. If people come to us hungry, we need to feed them. Each part of every human being, body, soul and spirit, has basic needs. There is power in prayer, the God of Elijah and Abraham is the same God today, and prayer has the same impacts as it did in Biblical times. But God wants to use our hands and resources, and the church needs to follow this path, demonstrating that we are a church that prays and acts, all at the same time.
How do you respond to the commemoration of the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia?
Let us not become weary in doing actions that promote peace- we need to work for peace and have an impact wherever we may be. The way forward is peace, and the church needs to raise their prophetic voice and declare the message of Shalom. We need to follow the teachings of Jesus- listening, taking care and providing for those in need. We live within an unjust society, and for this reason, we are motivated to proclaim a different message from what we hear around us. In order to live in a better world, each one of us needs to be committed to announce the true peace, or Shalom that Jesus offers. It is our responsibility to extend this to those who are vulnerable, those who are marginalized, those who have been violated, those who are exiled….