25 July 2006

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Hey Rachel, what's all this about you going to Colombia for the fall?

It's true. I'll be living and working in Barranquilla, Colombia, a city on the Caribbean coast, throughout September, October, and November.

2. What will you be doing there?

I'm going to be acting as an international protective accompanier with a group of pastors, union leaders, human rights workers, and internally displaced Colombians.

3. International Protective Accompaniment? What's that?

The situation in Colombia is complicated, but it essentially boils down to the fact that people working for change and social justice in their communities can often find themselves under attack from the powers that be. In the case of Barranquilla, this tends to be members of an illegal paramilitary group. The threats can mean that human rights workers receive threatening phone calls, are illegally detained, and in some horrible cases, kidnapped or killed.

The philosophy behind accompaniment is that those who commit violent acts are less likely to do so in the presence of an international witness. Groups such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International offer accompaniment to threatened groups, individuals, and communities around the globe, including in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, and other parts of Latin America.

In 2004, after a series of threats by the paramilitaries, a collection of pastors and human rights workers affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia asked the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to send accompaniers to spend time in their communities. I'm not Presbyterian, but I feel called to accept this invitation.

4. What will you do as an accompanier?

The beauty of accompaniment is that it creates a safe space for people working for change at the local level to continue to do so, simply due to the presence of international folks standing in solidarity. As a result, I don't expect to DO much. I will, however, be present for meetings, visits to communities of displaced Colombians, church services, and other parts of the daily lives of the people associated with the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. In general, I expect to get much more out of the situation than I give.

5. Will you be safe?

Yes. The Colombians work very hard to keep their accompaniers safe and I trust them completely. They pay close attention to the changing situation in their region and are always alert to possible dangers. I will be living within a gated community and I will always be guided by well-informed and cautious people. Since the program started, no accompanier has been hurt or threatened.

A previous accompanier described this best:
"As accompaniers we are very lovingly watched over by the churchpeople who have invited us to walk with them. Accompaniers are not targets for violence, and we receive constant advice and assistance from our hosts as far as street smarts and sensitivity to any tensions go."

6. How did this happen? Weren't you a grad student?

Last summer, I went to Colombia as part of a delegation with Witness for Peace, during which I came to respect the work of the people in Barranquilla, who live with great hope and great love, despite very challenging circumstances. I loved the idea of being an accompanier, of simply giving my time and attention to people already working for great change, so it felt like a good fit when I decided to take a break from grad school and explore what else the world has to offer.

7. Is this a job? How will you support yourself?

Unfortunately, neither the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship nor the IPC (Presbyterian Church of Colombia) have the funds to fully support the accompaniment program. Therefore, the program is currently thriving due to the generosity of volunteers and donors. I'll be provided housing in Barranquilla, but am responsible for paying for my own food, airfare, and other expenses.

8. How can I help?

Stay informed! One goal of the accompaniment program is to give voice to the experiences of individuals living and working for peace in Colombia. I'll share stories through this blog, and you can also explore the links on the side.

To donate to the Colombia Accompaniment Program, visit the PC(USA)'s Online Donations Page or join the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

To donate to my own living expenses, email me. I'd be grateful for any financial support, especially because I hope to be able to afford to stay in Barranquilla until the end of November.

9. Wait, I have other questions for you.

Leave questions and comments in the comments section. Or email me!

I hope this blog can help me stay in touch with the folks at home.

18 July 2006

Next Stop: Barranquilla

"In Colombia each year, for the corruption, the social and political violence, 30,000 people die... And here nothing happens?"