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Living out mutual transformation in Colombia
Jes Buller is currently serving with MCC in Colombia through Seed, a two-year program that focuses on connecting young adults to refl ect, serve and advocate. Buller is from Goshen, Indiana, where she is a member of Walnut Hill Mennonite Church.
My theology and educational experience have taught me to believe in community work and change from the bottom up. Looking at the history of the church, I am horrified by the all-too-common approach of entering a community and developing a model of domination and imposition to do community work, where the outsider imposes his or her methods and information, and the community sits and receives with minimal participation.
Paul Freire calls this the “banking” model, using classroom terms, where the teacher deposits all their information into the student, and the student receives and stores it. I, like Freire, crave a different model, one that understands teachers and students (community volunteers and the community) as both educators and educated. MCC names this model “mutual transformation”.
I came to Colombia in January of last year (2009) with the SEED program, excited to not only work, but also live in community, and do peace work with communities in this model of mutual transformation. I certainly have been transformed, as I hope have been the communities I have worked with. But in this attempt to “work from the base”, as we say here in Latin America, I have found that it is much easier to write about such theories than it is to live them out.
After three months of orientation and training in Bogota, I found myself transported to a hot Caribbean Coast, where I was to finally put to practice all this belief about community work. I arrived in a community and quickly realized that they had different expectations of what my job and participation would look like than those of my own. They understood my role to be one more of evangelistic and “missionary” work, while I understood I would be working with social programming. For this reason, as well as a lot of encouragement to “build relationships before working” from the leader of the partner organization with whom I was placed on the coast, I spent much of my first year without what I would have considered to be concrete work.
Boring into the back of my head was my conscience telling me not to impose my ideas, not to force anything on the community, although I was dying to busy myself more, start projects and be active. I sat tight, determined not to use the banking model, and I just kept building relationships. What I did do was grow very close to the community where I live, I participated in congregational life of the church community, and I worked on small projects, such as teaching piano lessons.
Also throughout these months, we (Sembrandopaz, MCC’s partner organization) began to look at what project we would develop in the community and in the region. Over time, a project of transformative education arose – one that would work at building trust within the community, would start grassroots projects from different sectors of the community and would create a center of reconciliation for the town, accompanied by respected community members trained as mediators.
I was excited. It seemed like a great project, just the kind of thing I had thought I might be doing when I envisioned my participation in community work. However, when the moment came to begin concrete work on the project, I found that perhaps this wasn’t the project the church community most wanted. Their energies lie elsewhere…mostly in projects of evangelism, which is not the emphasis of Sembrandopaz, nor is it the focus of my work.
And so the dilemma – what does it mean to work from the base? Should we enforce our programs on a community when they are not the priority of the community, even if we are convinced they are good for the community? How do we develop programs with communities when our goals and objectives are different?
Looking back, I see that up until now I have opted for a model that was so careful not to impose its own methods and projects, that the project actually has not developed in the community hardly at all. Through Sembrandopaz, I am heading the Educational component of our projects in all the communities where we are working, so I find myself very busy, and traveling, currently. I plan/write workshops with a team, systematize our work and lead the workshops in different communities, as well as support the sub-projects each community has.
However, in Zambrano (my community, where I live), I am such an insider that it seems as though I don’t hold the power (can I say that?) an outsider has in terms of developing programs. It seems like it should be the other way around, but I believe that (to use educative vocabulary again) the “teacher” can get so engrossed in letting the students be the teachers that they lose the influence they had with their pupils.
I am working to find the balance, and am filled with hope. I believe we are all experiencing “mutual transformation”. I believe I am doing meaningful work in the region, and I have faith that as an insider, I can also advocate on what and how we do things in Zambrano, without taking charge and demanding projects to be done in my timeline and with my method.
The relationships we have built will allow us to create together. Mutual transformation takes time. I am participating in a process that will continue and take new and different forms as different lives, experiences, minds and ideas are added and taken away. After all, Godde was here and active long before I arrived, and will remain long past when I leave; and thank Godde for that.
- Jes Buller
For more information about the Seed program: seed.mcc.org