Monday, October 1, 2012

September letter to supporting churches

Below is a letter I recently sent to the Bethel College Mennonite Church (BCMC) in Newton, KS; Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church (LAMC) in Wichita, KS; and Shalom Mennonite in Harrisonburg, VA.  These churches have been a part of my life in both Kansas and Virginia and have provided spiritual and relational support to me in these times of transition.

Update on Working with Mennonite Central Committee in Colombia

                Greetings from Bogotá, Colombia!  Two months have passed since I arrived in Bogotá to begin my three-year term with MCC.  Much of my time has been spent reconnecting with different church communities I got to know during my internship last spring.  The churches here are involved in exciting and necessary work that includes a variety of initiatives such as peace education, safe spaces for people in vulnerable situations, food kitchens for youth, and connecting refugees across borders.  This last week was particularly exciting as many Anabaptist churches hosted activities in celebration of International Peace Day on September 21.  A small group of us facilitated peace workshops in a variety of primary and secondary schools in a marginalized sector of Bogotá.  Our time with the students sparked exciting discussions about how peace is a process that people can build together in their communities.  
                As with many MCC workers I am assigned to work with an MCC partner organization called the Church Coordination for Psychosocial Action.  The acronym in Spanish is CEAS (Coordinacion Eclesial para la Acción Psicosocial).  You can visit an online description of their work at  CEAS is an initiative of the Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ Churches in Colombia with the goal of supporting churches in psychosocial and pastoral work.  As a result of the decades long armed conflict in Colombia, many churches receive people who have been displaced from their homes and have lost family members due to the violence.  People come to the cities looking for new opportunities of work and safety.  Unfortunately they have few resources or connections and find themselves victim to the vulnerabilities of urban poverty.
                While churches do not have a lot of resources and are not set up to provide substantial economic support, CEAS recognizes that churches do provide spiritual support and an accepting community.  While this might not seem like much if economic necessities are not easily available, I have been surprised at how animated people become when they find a place where they are accepted and are able to build community and a social network.  I am learning not to underestimate the power of community in the face of destitute times. 
                My role with CEAS involves learning and evaluating how churches can be supported as they provide psychosocial accompaniment for people who have been affected by the armed conflict.  Towards this end I am in the process of designing evaluation tools and initiatives with the goal of understanding the impact of what churches are already doing and what more they could do to attend to victims of the armed conflict.  Earlier this month I held three focus group discussions with three different churches that were part of an interview project I conducted last spring.  Hearing directly from members of the church communities helps CEAS better understand the variety of dynamics involved in working with people in such vulnerable situations. 
                Please keep the people of Colombia in your prayers as the country continues to live through tumultuous times.  As some of you might have heard, the Colombian government is planning to enter into peace talks with the guerrilla group, FARC, in early October.  While many people are hopeful for this process they are also afraid of its failure and an uncertain future. 
Thank you and God bless you all,                                                                                         Nathan Toews

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Listening as part of healing

My work with MCC has prompted me to think about aspects of healing that would follow tragic events.  What qualities do community environments have that promote healing?  What are specific actions within communities that promote healing.  What if people are not in a community that would nourish a healing process? How is healing a psychosocial process?

Reflecting back on the interviews I had with several individuals who had been displaced from their homes as the result of violence or oppression against them by an armed group in Colombia helps me approach these very large questions.  With many of the people I interviewed there was a combination of joy and sadness when they told their stories.  Sadness came from the obvious losses they had suffered.  For some of the participants it was evident that the memories and emotions from the traumatic events were held close to their hearts.  In many cases the sadness would be followed with joy or some type of relief after having told their story.  Often the joy would be expressed through the gratefulness they had for now being in a supportive community and in the gratitude for having someone to listen to their story.  While the end goal of the interview project was not to simply listen to people's stories, the act of listening is a powerful tool that is often used in the church communities with people who have suffered traumatic events.

The process of someone telling a story and having another community member listen to the story can be a psychologically healing experience because they are able to express their emotions and thoughts not only to themselves but also to someone else and potentially to a supportive community.  The act of connecting to others in a community is an important component of psychosocial healing because it gives the individual a sense that they are not alone.  Often Christian communities evoke the image of Christ who is able to carry the burdens of our sins because they are too much to carry alone.  I think of this same image when I think about what a community can do for its individual members.  Traumatic events such as being displaced from your home and seeing family members killed are not events that anyone can handle on their own.  A strong community can help people walk through times of suffering and loss, sharing the burden of the pain through the act of listening.

Obviously the act of listening is not all that should be done, but its power to relieve pain is often underestimated and it is a place to start.  So, if listening is such a powerful tool, what qualities exist in a community that would promote listening to its members?

Monday, July 9, 2012

What will I be doing?

What will I be doing in Colombia?  In the months preceding orientation I have answered this question quite often and I am not always sure how people interpret or understand my explanations.  One of the issues is that sometimes the context of events and conditions in Colombia can be very confusing and I am not always explaining this very well either.  For those who are interested, I would recommend visiting the websites below to help give more context.

General descriptions of what is happening in Colombia should not be hard to find on wikipedia or other internet sites.  This information can give one a start in beginning to understand Colombia.

So, what will I do in Colombia?  I will be working with Anabaptist churches in their efforts to provide psychosocial support to people and communities that have been affected by the armed conflict in Colombia.  My position with MCC is titled, Accompaniment Worker with Victims of Socio-Political Violence.

What will that look like?  I can't give a lot of specifics about what this will look like because it is a new position for MCC and will develop as the needs become more apparent.  I will be part of a committee that has church representatives who are also thinking about what it means to provide psychosocial support to people and communities.  In the context of these church communities I think of psychosocial support as including the development or strengthening of community and social networks for people that have few resources and fostering an environment in which supportive and personal relationships can be formed.  Within these networks and communities people can more easily support each other socially, psychologically, economically and spiritually.

As I begin my work with MCC I hope to have more specific examples of what I will be doing.  For now, I can give an example of an interview project I have already done with MCC in Colombia.  I completed this interview project as an intern in partial completing of my master's degree in Conflict Transformation.  The interview project involved talking with church leaders in Bogotá and with people who had been displaced from their homelands and were now living in Bogotá.  In talking with these groups I was able to gain a better understanding of some of the dynamics around providing psychosocial services.

And example of one of my learnings is that some church leaders are nervous about the amount of support they can provide for people that have been through such tragic events in their lives such as loosing their homes, family members and a livelihood.  Without a trained expert such as a psychologist there seemed to be an insecurity about what a church could provide other than the spiritual guidance that they are accustomed to providing.  When I asked the people who had been displaced what were the most meaningful and helpful types of support they received from their church they talked about people listening to them and being present and attentive to what they were saying.  This didn't necessarily mean that they needed a problem to be solved immediately but rather that there were people and a community available for them to share their lives with.  The congregation of people in building relationships together is what seems to be most important... not that there is an expert psychologist around to handle difficult situations.

I hope this post helps to provide some more understanding of what my position with MCC will be like. Inevitably there are many ambiguities but in time I hope to provide a more complete picture.  Please feel free to ask any questions you might have.

The pictures in this post are of a section of Bogotá where many people who have been displaced have to come to live.  Often they begin building a home out of recycled materials on the side of the hill in hopes that they can someday build a house out of brick.  

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sharing with the wider community

As I prepare for my three-year service term with the Mennonite Central Committee I have arranged to share my experiences with three different church communities in central Kansas.  This is an important step in preparation for my term for a couple of reasons.

The first is spiritual.  While I have many vocational and occupational reasons to join MCC I must not forget the spiritual world in which much of  MCC's support and work resides.  For church communities both in my homeland of central Kansas and in Colombia where I will be living, MCC is an example of how God is working in our world through human connections and love.  While I can get excited about theoretical ideas of conflict transformation and psychosocial wellbeing, I must not forget that I am also part of a vision of how God is working in our world; we are all a part of that vision.  

The second reason for sharing my experiences is to communicate and inform communities in central Kansas of what MCC is doing in Colombia.  Many people in these church communities are strong supporters of MCC both financially and spiritually.  They should know as best they can how MCC is affecting change in Colombia.  They, as well as all of us, should also be aware of what life is like for people in other regions of the globe; they should know what life is like for people who don't share the same life as we do, for people who have been marginalized in our global world.  Through my sharing, I am advocating for change in the lives of Colombians.  As citizens of the United States, we play an important role in how our global world treats citizens of the world.