In early 2019, a car bomber drove into a police academy in Bogotá, Colombia, killing 22 and injuring 68. Neither the culprit, nor the purpose, were identified. The country had just begun to emerge from 60-plus years of civil war, so this act was a reminder that full peace had not been achieved. Would these acts of violence become common again in a country that had begun to hope for a more peaceful future?
The day after the bombing, my wife, Kelly, and I (serving with Mennonite Mission Network at that time in Colombia) were in the city of Riohacha, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It is the location of a Mennonite church that sponsors a ministry that houses elderly adults and where 45 Venezuelan refugees sleep each night. The church owns another site where 1,200 people are fed each day in a ministry coordinated by the Red Cross and World Hunger Project.
Over the past several years in Venezuela, corrupt power, inflation, and a struggling economy mark life for millions of Venezuelans. As a result, more than 2 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia to better provide for themselves and their families. The new immigrants find a mix of empathy and fear. Colombians know well what it is to be displaced by war and economic factors, but they do not want jobs and opportunities to be taken away from them.
This unrest and struggle formed the back story to the bombing in Bogotá. Across the country that evening, citizens held vigils in their city's central plaza to remember the bomb victims, and we joined a vigil in Riohacha. After a short prayer service in the Catholic church, we moved to the outdoor plaza. It's where a dove with an olive branch in its mouth (strikingly similar to Mennonite Mission Network's logo) was painted on the ground. We lit each other's candles and placed them on the outline of the dove.
It soon became clear that our attempts at showing solidarity for peace would be a struggle. A constant breeze wafting from the nearby ocean kept blowing out our candles. A little Venezuelan boy quickly tried to relight the flames with the few candles that were still lit. Soon, his dad, several other Venezuelan refugees, and people in the crowd joined him. Just as soon as we relit some flames, wind gusts blew several other flames out again. The comedy transformed the somber mood into joy as people smiled and laughed. The job of keeping candles lit became a labor of love. We did not want another thing to die too quickly.
The Venezuelans were the first to attempt relighting the peace candles. They probably did not feel the tension about the bombs as acutely as did the Colombians. On the other hand, perhaps they more deeply felt the interconnection between their suffering and that of their neighbors. They modeled how flames that signify love, compassion and solidarity can be transferred to others without extinguishing our own.
This time of pandemic-induced uncertainty and anxiety is deepening our sense that we are not islands unto ourselves. Rather, we are intertwined in a web of human connection and interaction. Yes, we are forced to be physically distant from one another, but we do not need to remain distant with our thoughts, prayers and compassion.
As more choices about interactions are opened to us, may we continue to embrace how our neighbor's health and well-being also affects our own. May we better envision how God's work in the world extends beyond ourselves to include all of creation. May we tirelessly light candles of peace that winds of injustice, suffering and pain cannot extinguish.