The Gospel Transforms a Child Soldier into Pastor in Colombia
*representative image used
“Neither war, nor communism, nor death can separate me from the love of God”
Since childhood, Ruben* was a fierce and feisty fighter who learned to deal with weapons, war and death. He never imagined that, years later, God’s plans for his life would lead him to leave the illegal army, begin a pastoral journey, and today, evangelize to those in arms.
From child to soldier
Rubén’s story begins the same way as many of the stories of poor children in rural Colombia—a dysfunctional family, physical and emotional abuse, and absolute poverty and hunger. It is for these reasons that joining the guerillas often seems like the only option for these children. Criminals see the children as little combatants who faithfully obey in exchange for food, money, protection and inclusion—things they did not find in their families. “You go to the guerillas because it seems to be the only option,” said Rubén. “You want respect from people, which is why it is easy to be deceived by guns, uniforms and camaraderie. You don’t realize the deception until it is too late.”
Guerilla training is hard. Rubén was only 7 years-old when he was given men’s training. He had to take long walks through the jungle, go whole days without food, and he faced constant pressure. The rawness of the training and hatred in his heart made Rubén a violent and rude child. “Most people who endure traumatic and violent experiences eventually turn into perpetrators themselves when they go uncared for,” shared trauma expert Agustina Mantilla. “This is even more likely if the experiences took place in childhood.”
Three years go by and Rubén is 10 years-old. He is already well-known for his aggression. This characteristic has made him worthy of leadership positions within the guerilla. He soon commanded more than 80 armed men. In rare quiet moments, Rubén would remember his life before war. He remembered how his grandfather took him to church and taught him about Jesus and the Bible. These memories seem so distant and blurry in his mind. They seemed like delusions.
One day, Rubén was sent to do intelligence work in a nearby town. His job was to extract information from the army to plan future attacks. He was also to identify the wealthy people in the region in order to plan extortion and kidnappings. At this time, Rubén was a 12 year-old spy for the guerilla. He worked as a peasant during the day and acted as a spy by night. He worked on one farm where there was a group of pastors who regularly worshiped together. They would bring with them guitars, tambourines and smiles on their faces, and they would give Rubén strong and sincere hugs. “These things amazed me,” remembered Rubén. “This showed me that not all people were bad and that the guerillas were not always painting an accurate picture of people.”
“My thoughts are higher than yours.”
Rubén began to attend the pastors’ Sunday services regularly. His curiosity about knowing God started to grow when he began to realize that God cares for the poor. He decided to memorize Psalm 41:1 which says, “Blessed is he who thinks of the poor, on the day of evil the Lord will deliver him.” During these days, the guerillas had plans to kidnap one of the wealthiest men in the region. With a knot in his throat, Rubén agreed to participate.
The day of the kidnapping arrived. The plan was carried out as expected, but suddenly the group was surrounded by gun shots. One of Rubén’s companions was shot and killed. He tried to flee but was unsuccessful. His legs were not fast enough. One by one, Rubén and his companions were brought to their knees. The Army had managed to rescue the wealthy man. They shot Rubén’s companions one by one. The sound is something that Rubén remembers to this day. “At that moment, I knew they were going to kill me,” said Rubén. “I was last in line and didn’t quite understand what all had happened, but I knew I was going to die.” In the midst of his anguish, Rubén recalled the words of Psalm 41:1. He looked up to heaven and surrendered himself to his destiny.
Suddenly, gunfire erupted again and the Army soldiers were confronted by a large guerilla group. Rubén fled for his life and was rescued by his comrades. As the group celebrated their victory over the army, Rubén knew that it had been God who had saved him. Tears poured from his eyes. He was wounded and covered in blood and dirt, but he knew in that moment that God loved and accepted him. “I had never felt anything like this before,” said Rubén. “My comrades told me that I had been saved by the ‘spirit of the revolution,’ but I knew that God had saved me because he loves me and wants something different for me.”
Rubén’s life changed radically in that moment. Everything he had believed suddenly vanished. The ideals of the revolution, the hatred towards the wealthy, the use of weapons and violence—all of these seemed suddenly empty and meaningless. God’s love had changed him. He decided to give his life to Christ and begin congregating with other Christians regularly.
“Like waters that have already passed.”
No one in the church knows about his guerilla background except for the pastor who encouraged him to be courageous because he knew his journey would not be easy. At just 13 years-old, Rubén’s story took a new turn. The boy who had become a war man was not God’s child. After his conversion, he renounced the guerillas altogether, and from that moment, persecution began. “They could not accept that someone they had trained since childhood would abandon them,” he shared. “I worked in intelligence and had a lot of information about them. For this reason, they could not let me go easily. From the day of my conversion, they wanted to kill me.”
At the age of 15, he became a pastor. He began to preach the gospel of peace and reconciliation. The discourses of hatred and anger were left behind. Those days were over “like waters that have already passed,” Rubén would say. His services are attended by people of a variety of ages and backgrounds, including guerillas dressed as civilians.
“Your rod and cane inspire confidence in me.”
Days pass in a tense calm until, one day, men arrive at the church door. Unbridled violence is visible on their faces, and Rubén immediately understands that these men are not guerillas. “The paramilitaries had been following me for a long time. They knew about my past as a communist guerilla. This is why they came looking for me. They believed I was continuing the revolution. They wanted to end my life and the lives of my family members. I knew I had to leave immediately.”
With much sorrow, the pastor left his native land in search for security for his family. On the way, he met many people who helped and supported him. In a distant village, Rubén was once again named a pastor and was greatly respected as an honest man in the community.
On a warm June afternoon the pastor received a notification from the Colombian justice system. He was being summoned due to his participation in illegal armed groups. With courage, Rubén took responsibility and prepared to hand himself in. “I knew it was in God’s hands,” he said. “If God wanted me to go to prison for the time I spent breaking the law, I would do it. If I was incarcerated, I planned to continue sharing the Gospel with the people around me.” But because his illegal activities took place during his childhood, the justice system did not punish him with imprisonment. However, he was prohibited from doing any public work for three years, including his pastoral work.
After the three years, Pastor Rubén returned to the town he had fled. He knew there was still much work to be done, many people to help, and many guerillas to evangelize. This is how he began his church once more.
A New Seed
During one Sunday service, several young visitors appeared. They were young guerillas who had stumbled across small bags hanging on trees along the road. These bags were full of Christian books. This was shocking to them. They wanted to learn more about the God spoken about in the books. “I know the common routes of the guerillas. I often leave such books alongside the road. I want them to know God’s heart for them. It is my hope that they will want to seek God and pursue true life.”
Pastor Rubén’s actions have not been overlooked by guerrilla leaders in the area. They have not hesitated to threaten the pastor’s parents and his entire family. To date, there have been four threats against the life of Pastor Rubén. The guerillas see a large number of young people refuse invitations to join the guerilla because they have become Christians. They have also seen many leave the guerilla for the same reason. The impact the pastor has had with his message of peace and reconciliation is enormous.
At this time, the pastor’s situation remains difficult because the leaders of the armed groups have forbidden the people of the region from giving work or sustenance to the pastor and his family. “Many have told me to leave the region,” said Rubén. “Even though I was afraid, God showed me his powerful protection over my family. That is enough to continue his work. I will not leave here because the region needs to know much more about God.”
This family has been supported by OD Colombia so that they might complete their secondary education. This provides them with better employment opportunities. OD also supports this family so that Rubén can continue his ministry. They receive trauma support as well. These sessions have strengthened the pastor and equipped him with the tools he needs to remain strong in the face of persecution. Please join us in praying for Pastor Rubén and his family. Pray they might be strengthened in the midst of persecution. Pray for protection over his family.
Continue to pray for believers in Colombia, like Ruben, by visiting our World Watch List | Colombia page to learn more.