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Feeling the bumps on the road in Colombia

Brendan McManus SJ recently revisited Colombia for the first time since finishing his theology studies there 15 years ago. Here, Brendan shares his experience of culture shock and says that Colombians have a lot to offer the West, including the finding of real happiness in the midst of extreme poverty and struggle.

Wake-up call: revisiting Colombia in 2017

Brendan McManus SJ

For most people Colombia conjures up images of drugs, chaos and danger. This is vividly captured in the current Netflix hit series, Narcos, which revolves around Pablo Escobar and his cronies running wild around Medellin in the 1970s and 80s. However, this is all ancient history now as Colombians like to remind you; Escobar died back in 1993, and the country has changed dramatically. The government has wrestled back control of the country from the guerrillas, the peace process is up and running, and you can drive almost anywhere without fear of kidnapping. There is a real sense of things improving and attempts being made to address the radical social inequalities. Pope Francis’s current visit at the time of writing is buoyed by news of Colombia’s other main rebel group, the National Liberation Army, having agreed to a cease-fire. There is still a long way to go however with bitter divisions over the peace process’ approach to the rebels, that even Pope Francis will struggle to reconcile.

I had studied theology in Bogota 1998-2002 and had not been back in 15 years, so it was with some considerable joy that I returned this summer with another Irish Jesuit, Gerry Clarke SJ. We visited Jesuits and my old friends in Bogota for two weeks and then had another week in touristy Cartagena on the Caribbean, and a few days in Cali in the humid Cauca valley. More than just a holiday, it was a chance to reconnect with people, places and memories, brush up our Spanish, and find out what was happening in the country. I had deeply desired to make this return journey and had long sought an opportunity to do so (i.e. with my 25th anniversary of joining the Jesuits). When I went to Colombia first, almost 19 years ago, it was with great trepidation and also certainty that there was a call in it for me. It presented enormous challenges of language, culture and adjustment. It was a kind of reinvention for me, a being made over, and a deep spiritual experience of reliance on God and especially trusting in providence through all the various trials.

When I first arrived, Colombians would explain to me how often nothing works as it should in the country and the only thing that can be relied on is God. Basic western expectations around electricity, transport, buildings, roads, systems etc., had all to be revised. It jolted me out of a comfortable complacency. I had to adopt an adventurous spirit, an open mind, that helped me to break with old habits and to learn new things. Being open to the unexpected was key; anything could go wrong and usually did! I fought hard against being called a ‘gringo’ in Colombia, a derogatory term for a Westerner, who fixated on their own culture, typically models a very restricted, narrow world view. I dearly wanted to be the opposite of that, to be more like a Latino. I remember being taught to dance salsa- it took a long time to let go of the conditioning!

Being back in Bogota was like reliving this cultural adjustment process a second time. I was again and again reminded of how different things are in Colombia and how I have to adjust my cultural perceptions. For example, people turned up late to pre-arranged meetings (often there were strong reasons for this e.g. accidents, traffic, chaos). Other issues like the plethora of street vendors, the lack of formal bus stops, the poor condition of taxis (e.g broken seats) and the airport chaos caused by a tropical storm were normal inconveniences! Many things had improved as well, Bogota’s TransMilenio rapid transit system, the amount of new construction, and the pedestrianized area around the Gold Museum and Plaza Bolivar. I was happy to see Bogota and Colombia gradually emerging from a dark past and embracing a brighter future, though there is still a long road to travel to guarantee peace and to ensure adequate living conditions for all its citizens.

There were three experiences that really struck me this time though as symptomatic of where the country was:

1. I was present at the 50th anniversary of the priesthood of my old theology lecturer, Alberto Parra SJ. At the celebration of the mass, he preached on the Gospel. Like in many of his lectures, he pointed out that justice is a necessary demand of the Gospel. The Good News is not simply an affirmation of the status quo or an escape from the world of injustice and division. To quote the Jesuit General Congregation 32, it concerns “The service of faith and the promotion of justice”. Rather than have faith set itself up as an alternative to the world, it is rather an engagement with the world that seeks to address issues, to bring about the Reign of justice and peace, and to incarnate Christian values of solidarity, respect and dignity for human life. It is quite easy to forget this in the West as Parra reminds us, thinking that faith is a world apart, an escape or a platitude. Our faith and theology needs to reflect a God who suffers with the poor and cries out for equality in a world of privilege.

2. We went for a day trip to the famous white sand beach, Playa Blanca, near Cartagena. The heat was ferocious and even the water was too hot for swimming, though it was an amazing iridescent blue green. We had a great day visiting the National Aviary, seeing some of the many species of Colombian birds, and eating a fish dinner in a shady bar on the beach. On the way back from the public beach we passed the exclusive Decameron Barú hotel with its air-conditioned rooms, exclusive beach access and network of swimming pools. It seemed like such a desirable luxury (especially when melting in the heat, humidity and fleeing mosquitos!), a real ‘get away from it all’ for mostly westerners or wealthy Colombians. Money buys privacy but also isolation as you realise that you are removed from how most Colombians live. Viewed from our standpoint, it was a type of high-class ghetto, and it is completely beyond the reach of most Colombians (over 50% live below the poverty line). In this exclusive resort and upper class world, you are protected from the chaos and wilds (and beauty) of Colombia, and your money protects your privacy but also insulates you from normal life.

3. In Cartagena we were staying in the Saint Peter Claver residence in the heart of the old colonial city. It is a beautiful weave of narrow, streets, balconies and colonial buildings. It is safe for tourists and especially at night, when the heat subsides, it is comes alive with street traders and entertainers. A Jesuit friend of mine, Jorge Ivan, was the parish priest of Santa Rita barrio, in the opposite end of town. An evening there was very instructive as it was almost the complete opposite of the old town: a poor neighborhood (barrio popular) without a sign of a tourist. The houses were a basic breeze block construction, people thronged the potholed streets and the simple church was protected by iron bars. Jorge showed us that further up the hill there were even poorer neighborhoods where internally displaced people fleeing the violence had occupied the land (barrio de invasion). There was no public transport up there so local youths provided the service on motorbikes; they were lounging around the front of the church waiting on fares. Jorge kindly brought us through these poor barrios, some very basic plastic and wood dwellings, where the road was washed out and his four wheel drive struggled to cope. At the very top was an Augustinian monastery (La Popa) with a spectacular view over the city – all the twinkling lights of cars and buildings looked different now knowing that some reflected people of great wealth while others came from shacks and people barely scraping by. How such divisions peacefully coexisted was a mystery.

Yet Colombia is a place of paradoxes and great extremes: it has the highest Andean mountains and the deepest valleys, tropical rainforest and snowy plains, the most amazing biodiversity (the second highest biodiversity in the world) and yet terrible ecological damage, great natural resources and wealth and yet crushing poverty. It is hard to remain unaffected by such contrasts, and normally people react one way or the other. I like to think that Colombia has something to offer the world and that it has a lot to offer us in the West. I offer these following points as trying to capture something of the essence of Colombia:

• Seize the moment, Colombians know that it doesn’t pay to hold things in reserve or to hold back, the level of uncertainty means things have to be done now. This means people need to know now how much you love them; you won’t regret living a full life, no one knows what the future holds and trust in providence is your only hope.

• Get stuck in, trust your instincts, push yourself forward. Seeing Colombian drivers in action is like a game of chicken to see who will back down first. The only way to survive is to be assertive; timidity literally gets you nowhere. Life is tough and you have to go after what you want; positive assertion is called for.

• ‘Just do it’, despite whatever ails you or what obstacles seem to exist, you need to keep going. Colombians forge on against huge odds while often I find myself complaining about aches and pains. These minor complaints obscure our vision about what is important and what is possible; we are capable of great things with the help of God. • Money is a false god. Possessions, wealth and all its trappings are a poor substitute for what is really valuable: community, creativity and human dignity. Colombians generally have large, extended families, live for others and love passionately. Things can’t love you back.

• God is in the real (Pope Francis); we often create a whole variety of distractions, technology and protection from life. Colombians know that life is difficult but that is where consolation (God) is found in embracing it, testing your spiritual freedom to let go and let God. Understanding that it is people, relationships and family/community that is important changes what you do with your time. Similarly religion, prayer and liturgy has to engage with real life issues to have real power and meaning.

• Social justice matters: how we treat the poorest and marginalised measures how compassionate we are. The differences in lifestyle are so staggering in Colombia that it points up how we can get trapped in a comfortable middle class living without realising what a privilege it is, and how many others are excluded. We need to live in inclusive ways and show solidarity with others.

• Faith in action: faith is about transformation of people and unjust situations. Western secularism looks very narcissistic and selfish from Colombia- seeking one’s own private good. Rather faith is about finding hope and meaning in acting to resolve difficult situations. Faith allows us to live fully in spite of what happens around us; ‘impossible is nothing’, to God.

• Paradoxical living: western consumerism seduces us into a life of purchased comfort and ease, but this is nothing but a new slavery. Colombians know that real happiness exists in gratitude, strong faith, and generosity. Why is it that the people who have least are the most generous? There is something here about the paradox of the Gospel: give in order to receive, richness in poverty. The consolation of being generous and compassionate.

• Wake up. Plato has a brilliant image of people enslaved in a cave where lights and objects are projected onto the wall for them; not knowing anything else they think that these projections are real. The philosopher’s job is to wake them up, get them out of the cave and teach them how to see in the initially blinding light of the world. Colombia is a wake-up call to see things in perspective, to see clearly the effects of contemporary culture, and to make a personal journey of discovery. Don’t get stuck on the externals; turn off that passive entertainment (TV/tablet/smartphone) and make something happen!

• Exposing the Prosperity Gospel: smaller Colombian evangelical churches often offer a tempting spirituality of seeking God’s favour, seeing prosperity as a blessing, and aspiring to get rich. Even though it’s not normally so blatantly presented, this thinking often creeps into Christianity. The idea that God’s will and prosperity are linked is a subtle form of capitalism (reward for good behaviour), and yet it betrays the freedom of the individual, the giveness of the world and the nature of God. This is not to romanticise poverty but to put some freedom back into our relationship with God, rather than trying to manipulate or bargain with God. Making a prayer always as to end with ‘your will be done’.

Visiting Colombia was more than just a holiday; it was an education on how the relationship between faith and economics. It is ironic that in such a ‘wealthy’ country, it is also “one of the most inequitable countries in the world” and the majority of the population lives in poverty, amid great natural resources and wealth. Fifteen years ago when I was visiting some poor villages in the south of Colombia with virtually no infrastructure, a Jesuit friend commented that when the road is damaged or deteriorates through lack of repair, the easiest solution for a rich local is to get yourself an expensive four wheel drive so you can’t feel the potholes. This works up to a point in solving one’s personal issue, but fails to recognize the social need to fix it for everyone concerned. This is a more challenging option politically but one which has the common good in mind.

In the West, we are the ones in the four-wheel drive, with air conditioning and extra suspension so we can’t feel the bumps in the road that others are subject to. It is easy to ‘party on’ in these situations as access to money and technology allows us to live in our own little world, unaware of what others are going through just outside the window. The problem is that it is in everyone’s long term interests to address the problems of inequality and social justice, as morally, economically, ecologically and politically we are bound to the fate of each other.

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