In the first two blogposts (part 1 and part 2) in this series, you have learned of some of the ministries of Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotá, Colombia, and how this congregation has been willing to get out in the streets and share with others. In this final article in the series, I will share with you about the Comedor Pan y Vida, a children’s ministry in the barrio of Soacha, and how sharing the Good News with families has taken root and born fruit.
Bread and Life
Teusaquillo Mennonite Church’s experience in a barrio (neighborhood) called San Nicolas is yet another remarkable experience. About two years after starting the Pan y Vida feeding program, Carmenza Campos, a woman from the church, started talking about the need for feeding children in a very marginalized barrio of Soacha, an adjacent city to Bogotá, where some years before she had worked with Habitat for Humanity. Soacha is a large urban area, now approaching nearly a million people. Although it is adjacent to Bogotá, it has been a nest of political corruption. Many internally displaced people from the war have settled there since there are more possibilities for finding housing either through squatting or lower rents in poor shacks. Many problems plague its inhabitants: drug trafficking, guerrilla and paramilitary recruitment, low government presence and services, poverty, and hunger. There are even what is euphemistically referred to as false positives: deceitful offers of the armed forces offering young men jobs in order to take them to another area of the country, dress them in uniforms and kill them as insurgents in order to claim benefits from the army hierarchy. San Nicolás is the furthest barrio of Soacha, beside the Bogotá River, a foul smelling waterway, and is more like a sewer than a river.
Carmenza and Jonathan Stucky collected a few pesos and rented a house in San Nicolás, and started feeding some 30 children every noon. The dining room has grown to feed 127 children and about another 15 adults from Monday to Friday.
There the children learn Biblical values that modify their behavior, teaching them the value of “please” and “thank you,” to teachings on nonviolence, respect, and discipline. They receive much love and attention during this time. Mothers of the children come and help in the kitchen, and other volunteers from the church and even other countries take part in the Comedor Pan y Vida.
The Gospel is good news. It is good news to receive food when you are hungry. It is good news to have someone give you affection and good news to be provided with a safe place to practice breakdancing and rap. It is good news to have a church community with whom to share your fears and who will pray for you when death threats from paramilitary groups circulate in the streets. It is good news for the women of the barrio to discover they have worth and dignity, and for the adolescent girls to have an alternative to getting pregnant when they are 13 or 14. It is good news to know the liberating power of Jesus Christ and belong to a loving church community like the Church of the Resurrection which was started three years later in the same site as the dining room by the Teusaquillo Church.
Besides the miracle of being able to offer lunches every week day to some 150 children and adults, every day individuals find hope, a miracle in the midst of a deadly violent barrio with few opportunities to overcome what seems to be the destiny of life (see this video).
At Teusaquillo we are conscious that the problem of hunger in a given society is not just a matter of handing out meals. There are theological, political, economic considerations and priorities that a society decides on. We need to make statements and give testimony that things must change. But in San Nicolás, the children learn to sleep in late to put off feeling hungry during the morning hours. Moreover since they are used to eating little, their stomach seems to shrink so that when there is more food available, they can’t eat very much. So for the children of San Nicolás, getting a square meal before or after school (morning or afternoon shift), means the possibility of a different life, a life which might break out of drug gangs, teen pregnancies, and endless cycles of poverty.
But this community also knows the power of miracles. For instance, there is Blanca Nieves (yup, Snow White), a heavy-set middle-aged woman who started sending her children to the dining room. There were seven of them. So of course the family was nicknamed Snow White and her seven dwarfs. But behind the humor there was an immensely tragic story. In 2001, in the department of Putumayo, near the Ecuadorean border, Blanca’s husband was murdered by a paramilitary group. Additionally, three years later they came back and kidnapped her four daughters, between 12 and 19 years old. They disappeared. She and her six grandchildren and one son, became part of the six million estimated internally displaced people in Colombia, and ended up in Soacha in San Nicolás. The Comedor Pan y Vida became a life saver for her family. While the food was important, so too was the community of love she found at the Comedor and within the congregation. As the good news of Jesus took root in Blanca’s life, she began to live again.
Some years later, there was a ceremony at the United Nations office where they gave four little coffins to Blanca containing the remains of her daughters. They had been raped and their throats slit. Still a few years later, when the government began to insist on truth processes, Blanca went to a hearing for one of the murderers of her daughters. Her first impulse when she saw the man was to think how puny he was and how she could knock him off his feet with a blow. In spite of her first instinct, in spite of what the man had taken from her, she found it within herself, through the power of Jesus, to forgive him. And she moved on with her life.
Then there’s the less dramatic case of Rosalba, who had no self-esteem when she came to the Pan y Vida program. But through the program she discovered that she had abilities, and her sense of self-worth began to grow. She eventually decided to study and finished high school, even though she was over the age of fifty. Rosalba furthered her education in electrical installation through a government vocational training program.
Or there is Ruth, who showed up one day with her teeth knocked out by her husband. She was able to replace her teeth through the support of donations. But, even more importantly, she and other women have since taken a stand against marital abuse, and, in her case, has placed a police complaint against her husband.
Through the Pan y Vida program, volunteers and a few donations have helped four families improve their precarious shacks. Several of the young people are studying in Bogotá in a government vocational program which may help them find better jobs in the future.
Miracles? How in the world does a church dining program stay economically afloat without any help from the government or outside agency? Where do all the volunteers who pour out love to the children and women of the barrio come from? For volunteers from Great Britain and Central America who have come under programs like Latin Link and Mennonite Central Committee to live and work in the barrio, this has been a life changing experience. How can it be that a young man from San Nicolás and the church, not only entered the National University to study language but is currently in the MCC International Visitor Exchange Program in the U.S? These are amazing things to us.
One of the financial sources for the Comedores Pan y Vida is an annual church sale in which many of our church people participate by cleaning out their closets and donating everything from refrigerators and books to furniture. They then turn around and buy used but new-to-them items through this large sale. Even this mammoth sale has been a countercultural learning experience as people recycle goods and discover that it’s not so bad to wear second-hand clothes while at the same time raising money to feed others.
“What is the essence of the Bread and Life Feeding Programs?” I asked Leticia Rodríguez, who wisely and maternally gives them guidance. “Service, love toward neighbors, seeking the best for others, being sensitive to the needs of others—all of which end up rebounding and giving back to you everything you give. Because one also receives so much.”
If you have not already, please do read the first two articles in this series.