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Colombian missionary urges a ministry of accompaniment

by Louisville Seminary | Oct 31, 2008

By Toya Richards Hill

Just as Jesus dwelled among us and accompanied those in need, so too are we invited to come alongside the poor and oppressed in Colombia, said The Rev. Alice Winters, a longtime missionary and professor in South America.

“Jesus Christ lived the life of the people here, suffering when they suffered,” she told a group gathered at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on Oct. 22. “He was an accompanier.”

“We can be the presence and the reality of God for the people who long [for a life that is not threatened by violence and displacement], said Winters, who has served for 30 years as a mission co-worker in Columbia for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “God lives and works through us.”

Winters’ remarks were given for The Henry H. and Marion A. Presler Lectureship on Christian World Missions, which was part of the Seminary’s annual endowed Edwards-Presler Lectures on Justice and Mission. Dr. Henry Presler studied for two years at Louisville Seminary, and he and his wife served as missionaries in India.

“Goels for Colombia” was the title of Winters’ talk, with the focus centering on the Accompaniment Program in Colombia, which helps protect the lives of endangered Colombians working for the human rights and care for thousands of displaced persons.

Building on the Hebrew word Goel, which means a close kin who had the right of redeeming or repurchasing a family member, Winters stressed the role everyone can play in stepping up for and accompanying those in need.

“The function of the Goel is to watch out for the poorer members of the clan,” said Winters, who teaches Bible and biblical languages in the School of Theology of the Reformed University of Colombia. “The Goel is there to find a solution.”

The Bible gives examples of God as Goel, working through mediators such as Moses and Ezekiel, “and today God is speaking and God is acting through accompaniers,” she said.

In Colombia, where almost three million people are displaced, “the people who suffer are the civil society,” Winters said.

Militarized life brought on by guerilla groups, paramilitary groups, and the army has made violence commonplace, forcing people from their homes. Factors including land poisoning from pesticides sprayed “supposedly … to destroy drug crops” and the building of a new canal in Colombia near the border of Panama also are driving people from their land.

People are displaced “by threat, by massacre, by murder of elected leaders in the community,” Winters said. “All of these things are part of the reality of Colombia today.”

“Huge communities” of internally displaced persons have fled to the city, but there is nothing there for a person who has spent his or her life growing crops on the farm, she told those present for the lecture “These people are in a desperate situation.”

“It is here that the church and other organizations have found a special ministry,” Winters said. Accompaniers “affirm the human dignity of those people whose rights and hopes and dreams have been trampled on.”

The Accompaniment Program in Colombia was born out of the work of former Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, who himself acted as an accompanier to help protect leaders in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, whose lives were threatened.

Options for getting involved include permanent accompaniment, where one actually joins the community; short-term accompaniment, which involves four to eight weeks of service; and accompaniment at a distance, which encompasses actions here at home including advocacy and education efforts.

Accompaniers “initiate or join in projects that will enable the community to take its life in its own hands again,” Winters said. “Accompaniers work with the community to seek justice.”

“Go forth and become Goels for [the people of] Colombia,” she said in her charge and blessing to lecture attendees. “I charge you to make a difference in their lives.”

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