In Colombia, Outspoken Pastor Bravely Fights for Community

January 6, 2019 by Lindy Lowry in Latin America

[In Colombia, Mercedes Galarza struggles to rebuild her home and family.]

In Colombia, church leaders often play a dual role as de facto community leaders, especially in small rural communities. This recognition often makes these leaders and their families a target of paramilitary forces, guerrillas and criminal groups wanting to control the region. Open Doors recently met a family who knows this reality all too well.

It was a hot Sunday in the town of El Cedro* in northwestern Colombia, a small town inhabited by fishermen, farmers and the occasional merchant who carries goods for small gasoline boats popularly known as “Johnsons” (the brand of the engine used in most boats).

Like every Sunday afternoon, Pastor Hector Galarza* had boarded his small boat to make his way to the small church he had led for eight years, preparing to preach that weekend’s worship service. Reaching the area, he bent over to tie his boat on the pier when two men approached the dock. They demanded to be taken to the other side of the river.

The men were not completely unknown to the pastor. Weeks ago, they had been bothering the villagers with complaints and demands. They are known for the violence of their words and unkind behavior and are part of illegal armed groups that, for some time, have wanted to regain control of the area Pastor Galarza pastored.

“They were two men, one was known in the area,” said Hector’s wife, Mercedes*. “They were investigating the area for some time and finding out information about everyone.”

A Known Community and Church Leader in Colombia

Pastor Galarza, like most of the region’s inhabitants, witnessed the violent and bloody actions of illegal armed groups against the civilian population. Fortunately for four or five years, the situation in the region had improved. The population lived in relative peace.

Through the church, Pastor Galarza began to influence the development of the town positively and peacefully. His leadership was so strong that the local community ruler invited him to help make important decisions. Little by little, Pastor Galarza became known as the social and religious leader of the region.

In the last two years, paramilitary groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs have taken on the task of “colonizing” new regions to make them a bastion of armed struggle to control the drug market, arms trafficking and other criminal acts.

Given this strong attack, the rural Christian church has been seriously affected because, in the absence of a public force (such as the police or army), church leaders defended the population peacefully, preventing illegal groups from regaining control of the place.

Killed to Prevent the Spread of the Gospel

Pastor Galarza was the only one on the front lines opposing the intrusion of armed groups into the community—a recognition that would become tragic that Sunday afternoon.

In broad daylight in front of onlookers, the men that Pastor Galarza refused to aid took his life with two gunshots. Reportedly, the gunmen slowly walked away, no doubt feeling untouchable. They had murdered a pastor and the outspoken social leader and community defender who stood in their way.

According to Pastor Galarza’s daughter, Angela, the murder of her father was premeditated, carried out to prevent the advancement of the gospel. Pastor Galarza’s influence helped decrease illegal activities in the area. Also, he was killed, Angela says, to counter the growing number of people going to church and their opposition to armed groups.

Struggling to Rebuild

That same afternoon, the pastor’s wife of 25 years, together with the children and grandchildren, removed her husband’s body. Then they fled to Rio Crecido*, a town near El Cedro, to take refuge.

The small house in a depressed neighborhood is now the new home of the Galarza family. There, hidden from those who murdered her husband, Mercedes struggles to rebuild her home. She cries often. She also has nervous attacks. So do her grandchildren who run to hide whenever they hear a loud noise.

“The children often cry when they remember their grandpa, they do not understand what happened,” Mercedes says.

Angela adds: “Unfortunately, they saw their grandpa dead on the floor. This memory sometimes does not let them sleep.”

To Serve the People God Loves

Their faith in the God Hector dedicated his life to serving has been the only source of strength and healing for this grieving family who, despite the pain, feel a deep pride for the man the pastor was—a man who served Christ with all his heart and all his might; a pastor who gave his life for the defense of the message of peace he learned from Jesus; and a loving father and a faithful and loyal husband.

Pastor Galarza was a leader whose blood is now the inspiration for young Christians in the region who continue to learn about a man who loved God so deeply he gave his life to serve the people His God loves.

The Galarza’s story recently came to the attention of Colombian Open Doors researchers who visited the family to bring them pastoral and financial support, as well as spiritual encouragement. In the coming days, Open Doors will provide the family with psychological support and eventual relocation to a safer and more comfortable area. There, they can begin to recover from their wounds, strengthen their faith and join a new community.