Not All Prayers And Waffles

Some people just have an aura about them. They don't act any differently from you. They do normal things like ask if you want tea and go and find extra chairs so you can all sit down. They talk about the weather. They smile and make bad jokes.

But there's just something about them.

I met Father Alberto, president of Christian Aid partner Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP), a couple of years ago as part of a trip I made to see our work in Colombia. He is one of the bravest and most inspiring men I've ever met.

People in Colombia can live very different lives from each other. If you're in the urban areas, there's a good chance you have a very high quality of life - all your human needs catered for, a vibrant culture and access to a particularly wonderful restaurant chain called Crepes and Waffles which serves insanely delicious desserts.

But many rural areas have been torn apart by conflict - the military vs the paramilitary with the civilian population caught in the middle. They are being decimated - homes destroyed, land seized, mass displacement and horrific acts of cruelty and fear. In 2001, in an area called Las Brisas, such conflict caused a whole community to flee for the Jiguamiandó river region, leaving their lands and their possessions in a desperate bid to escape the violence. Within months, palm oil companies had swooped into Las Brisas to claim the land and plant their crops.

Little bit suspicious, no? Like perhaps the government, the so-called rebels AND the business owners were all in it together? Like the unconscionable atrocities visited on the rural communities were just a smoke-screen for a land grab to make more money?

Nothing can be definitively proved, of course, but lives are definitely being ruined and this is where Father Alberto comes in. Because Alberto is a priest. He's from that first urban community I talked about. His life could be all prayers and waffles. He could be safe.

But his faith compels him to act.

‘When I go to the Word of God, when I celebrate Holy Mass, when I take part in a prayer and read what Jesus tells me, what the Prophets tell me and what they demand, they are constantly talking to me about demanding justice, bringing justice to the poor, bringing justice to the oppressed, to the widow, to establish the rights. “Let justice roll down like waters”. That shakes you as a priest.’

It shakes Father Alberto into action. The CIJP, under his leadership, has established humanitarian zones for the displaced communities. Areas where they can live together in relative safety and peace and where carrying weapons is banned completely.

‘In the humanitarian zones, people are able to get together. If you get together with all your neighbours, then people know what happens to you, where you are, how you are. And if people know that there is a risk, that there is a danger, then this starts to generate a collective protection system. For a paramilitary or military, it is more complicated to target a whole community than to target a single individual.

The humanitarian zone also enables people to share the pain, talk about their situation, or cry; and creates a space for people to be listened to.’

The zones make people visible. It makes it much harder to quietly wipe out a village-worth of families so we can continue to have cheap biscuits.

Father Alberto is a peacemaker but that title does not come without cost. He has received multiple death threats. He puts his own life on the line most days travelling to and from these humanitarian zones. The man has a bulletproof car for heaven's sake. He has turned his back on the easy life he could have lived to help everyone around him.

'Jesus says, “...feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked.” It is very difficult to read those texts, read those demands, see what we are witnessing and stand still.'

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