As a teenager raised in the tension and fear of Colombia’s years of armed conflict, Osmery Tejedor loved to hear people talk about the time before. She soaked up stories of how people in her small coastal community of Libertad used to leave their doors open late into the night and how, if someone was planting yuca or rice, others would come to help.
She and other youth longed to see the community rebuild that trust and togetherness, and they began to meet to see how they could help make that happen.
But even meeting was difficult. For years, residents of Libertad lived with the terror that expressing opinions or sharing views could spark a threat against their lives by an armed group. And that feeling lasted long beyond the most direct dangers to the community.
In 2014 when Tejedor, then 16, and others started forming a youth group, 10 years had passed since Libertad had regained independence from the armed group that had occupied it. Yet a deep fear remained.
“We were scared of sharing with people we didn’t know,” she says.
As if this didn’t make meeting hard enough, Tejedor and others had no experience leading or even being part of group activities.
That’s where MCC came in.
Around the world, MCC partners with local organizations, communities and churches in projects that empower and equip people to work for change for themselves and their neighbors.
So when MCC worker Lani Pickard was invited to Tejedor’s group, her role was not to take the lead or set objectives, but to ask questions and provide resources that would help Tejedor and others move the group forward.
“I didn’t do things for them, but I helped them know the route,” recalls Pickard, who is from Excelsior, Minnesota, and was living and serving in Libertad through MCC’s two-year Seed program.
Tejedor and others who formed Organización Juvenil Fomentadora de Paz, or Youth Organization for Promoting Peace, had big aims. They knew they wanted to help reweave the social fabric of trust that had been torn by the conflict. But how?
Support from Pickard and Sembrandopaz (Sowing Peace), the Colombian MCC partner organization that Pickard worked with, was critical. “They were the base of our own formation,” Tejedor remembers.
Sembrandopaz works throughout the region in communities affected by the armed conflict and emphasizes discussion, reflection, grassroots projects and advocacy. Pickard helped youth look at their strengths and challenges and decide what tangible actions the group could take to bring people together and improve Libertad.
Today, four years after forming, a core group of 10 young people continues to meet about once a month, carrying out projects from community cleanups to partnering with the local police in establishing a recycling program. The group has sent letters to universities and the government entity for technical and career training, asking them to bring educational opportunities to Libertad.
“Now we’re creating our own processes and projects we can carry out as youth,” Tejedor says.
With this group, as with other youth organizations that MCC workers and Sembrandopaz have encouraged throughout the region, the lessons run deeper than activities or plans.
MCC and its partners are striving to build the kind of leadership that mirrors Anabaptist values of respect and care for others, of service that is grounded in humility and dedicated to listening and learning.
“This is really the essence of Anabaptism — how we can serve with humility,” says Ricardo Esquivia, Mennonite peace activist and founder of Sembrandopaz. “Jesus said follow me and serve others.”
Through years of war, Esquivia says, Colombia has seen heads of armed groups, narcotraffickers and others impose their own paths on communities and put themselves over others.
“That’s why we need this type of leadership that is humble and comes from the community itself,” Esquivia says. “With MCC we share the same ideology.”
Building the skills of others, along with listening and reflecting individually and as a group, are cornerstones of MCC’s Seed program.
Seed brings together teams of young adults, ages 20 to 30, from around the world to live in local communities and serve with churches or MCC partners such as Sembrandopaz for two years.
In a world where tangible tasks and goal-setting are prized, Seed asks young people to enter a community with as few expectations as possible — to not assume they know what is best for the community or even what is most needed — and to spend the first few weeks investing intense effort in listening, learning and building relationships with local people.
“There are many ways that can look. It can sometimes feel like it’s beneath you, like it’s not part of the work. But that’s part of your job too,” stresses Giles Eanes of Harrisonburg, Virginia, a former Seed participant and co-facilitator for the Seed program in Colombia from 2015 to February 2018.
Workers live as part of the community. The families of Libertad don’t have regular access to running water. So neither did Seed participant Albin Sanchez as he lived and served in Libertad from 2016 to February 2018.
As he returned to his Mennonite Brethren church and community of La Cumbre, Colombia, he carried with him lessons from this time — from how to treat others with deep respect to seeing how people maintain hope even in the face of steep challenges.
“Thinking in a spiritual way, I can see Jesus in the people — a humble, simple Jesus that can relate to anybody,” he says. “Even though I’m from the outside, they welcomed me as a son. I see Jesus reflected in this warmth.”
Like other MCC assignments that include living in a community or with a host family, service in Seed is holistic — encompassing aspects of life far beyond a job description.
Take Pickard. A fan of the sport of Ultimate and longing to be more active, she began taking out a Frisbee™ and inviting others to play.
Ultimate doesn’t have a referee and requires players to work with each other to figure out how to resolve conflicts, which, she recalls, at first provoked a lot of yelling and frustration.
But the tools needed to work through conflicts on the field were the same ones that Sembrandopaz was promoting to sow peace in communities — whether respect, teamwork, honesty and responsibility or an emphasis on gender equality and including all.
Ultimate became a creative way to start conversations about deeper values, and some of the youth attracted by the sport then went on to become involved in other initiatives to improve their communities, such as Tejedor’s group.
Additional teams formed in other communities. And as Pickard and youth from Libertad taught others how to play, they incorporated the lessons they had learned in resolving conflicts and respecting others. Today, youth continue to spread lessons in both Ultimate and peacebuilding to new communities, and an annual tournament brings players together.
Last year, Pickard was visiting another community in the region when some young people, seeing a foreigner, called her over and offered to teach her how to throw.
“That was great,” she recalls. It’s exactly the aim: The tools brought through MCC are put to work by entirely different groups of people.
And as Tejedor and others use what they’ve learned, they continue to work to build opportunities not just for themselves but for all.
“I know that the problems that I have are not only my problems, but most of the youth in the community have the same problems,” says Tejedor. “The way I look at it, it’s better if we can bring opportunities to the community so everyone can take advantage of them instead of looking for single opportunities outside the community.”