By Stewart Vriesinga
It was a Christmas perhaps more akin to that first one in Bethlehem than the ones I am used to in Canada. No fancy lights—no electricity except for a diesel generator that gets used occasionally at night. No Christmas tree, nor gifts under it. No alcohol. No turkey. And, thankfully, without the cacophony of extremely loud music around our house here in Barrancabermeja, where neighbours set up humongous competing sound systems in front of their houses to celebrate the season.
Our main reason for visiting was to accompany Garzal’s twice-displaced leader and pastor, Reverend Salvador Alcántara and his family, so they could spend Christmas with family and loved ones in Garzal. Salvador and his family had to leave the area again last May because of death threats. They miss Garzal very very much! Salvador described the feeling of being back, albeit for only three days, as like being re-born.
My new Colombian teammate Jhon Henry and I met with Salvador and his family the morning of Christmas Eve. All through that afternoon people came by, both to the parsonage next to the church to visit and extend greetings to Salvador and his family; and to prepare the modest church for the evening vigil to await the birth of the Savior. The vigil went on until past midnight, with song and sharing. Afterwards people went outside to share sancocho—a delicious chicken stew/soup often served at large gatherings made with plantain, yucca, corn, carrots, onions, and other vegetables cooked slowly in a humungous pot over an open fire.
Unlike Jhon Henry, I only lasted for about three hours of the vigil. But it made me reflect once again on the whole Bethlehem story. I suppose the celebration is really about the birth of a King, and, logically therefore, the good news of a new Kingdom. An upside-down Kingdom whose King wasn’t born in a palace, but in modest surroundings much more like those we experienced in Garzal—an alternative King and an alternative Kingdom! A Kingdom that Jesus’ own mother predicted would bring down mighty kings from their thrones, and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52). A Kingdom in which those now first in line for benefits and attention would be last, and those now last would be first (Luke 13:29-39). Paradoxically our host Reverend Salvador (whose name translates to ‘Savior’ in English), like King Jesus and his family (Matthew 2:13-14), ended up have to flee their homes as refugees from death-squads. Jesus ultimately ended up being assassinated by his adversaries. Hopefully Rev. Salvador will not. We can try to reduce the odds, but there are no guarantees. We can expect lethal opposition. Nevertheless, if we are truly desirous of an alternative Kingdom and world order we will persevere and follow the example of the wise men who attended the birth of King Jesus. They opted out of pre-existing kingdoms; they did not go back to King Herod as he had requested, but instead ‘went home by some other road’ (Matthew 2:12), Like these wise men I concluded that celebrating the birth of this King without also welcoming the advent of a peaceable and just Kingdom would miss the main point!
However I am less convinced that the reverse is also true; perhaps those who promote love, peace and justice, like the sheep in the story of the last judgment, will someday discover themselves to have inadvertently inscribed themselves into the Kingdom of King Jesus without even knowing it! (Matthew 25:31-46). I like to think so!
We spent Christmas Day itself with the family on the edge of the muddy Magdalena River, where we had a barbeque and also enjoyed a swim.
Despite hardships Garzal continues find reasons to celebrate: the birth of a King and the long-awaited alternative Kingdom; the return of 63 land titles last spring that were taken from them by corrupt officials and life itself. But they are still awaiting 214 land titles they were promised. Salvador and his family are awaiting conditions that will allow them to return to Garzal. The vigil continues…
Originally published on Stewart In Colombia on Jan 2, 2014