It’s 11 am in the Children’s Center. Today is a special day for 11 young people from the persecuted church in Colombia. Today, they will receive their high school degree in an open auditorium, with an exuberant green all around it.
Mario*, a young 16-year-old boy wearing cap and gown, steps up to make his speech. He recalls with nostalgia the events of the last few years with his friends. Then he suddenly goes silent and in a broken voice shares: “Although we arrived with very little, today we leave with a lot. Because here, we were able to start again.”
It is a phrase that summarizes in a simple way the work of the Children’s Center over the past 18 years.
Mario’s* story begins in one of the most isolated towns in Colombia, San Judas Tadeo*, a small village named after a disciple. An ironic name considering the history of persecution and violence against the Christian church.
A Moses Decision
Mario’s father, Pastor Ramiro*, and his wife, Emiliana*, have together pastored a small evangelical church for more than a decade. It has approximately 30 members, mostly peasants and farmers who see the church as a kind of shelter from the bullets. In Pastor Ramiro’s words, they also look for wise counsel and a guide to sustain hope and integrity in the midst of the uncertainty brought by living under constant threat of attack and forced recruitment by socialist guerrillas.
With boldness and bravery, Pastor Ramiro has preached the gospel of salvation in his region, a message of hope that directly contradicts the orders and plans of the armed groups. Pastor Ramiro says that “one more man in the church is one less man in the war” and this is the reason why armed groups in San Judas Tadeo have led a bloody campaign against Christian churches, its pastors and leaders over the last 15 years, including Pastor Ramiro and his family.
In addition to the intense religious persecution, Mario’s family feared that he would be recruited against his will, like so many children in Colombia are, especially Christians. There are numerous testimonies of kidnapped youths and children who were forced to carry guns under threat of death. The moment was critical, the alternatives few and the time urgent. Like the painful decision Moses’ mother made to let her baby go to save his life, only a similar miracle could bring peace to the Ramiro family.
And that is precisely what happened.
A New Beginning
It was 2013 and through one of the persecuted pastors of Open Doors’ support network, Ramiro’s family learned about the Children Center and decided to send Mario far from his home. They knew the Center could give him stability and a new beginning, sheltered by men and women who could disciple him.
Mario wasn’t quick to acclimate, however. But after a few months, the young man began to stand out as one of the most disciplined students, with an undeniable musical talent and ability to solve problems.
Mario has thick glasses, without which he couldn’t read well, or cut hair with so much talent. It’s a skill that has his teachers and colleagues have recognized in him. Mario learned to cut hair just two years ago at the Children’s Center as part of the technical training the Children’s Center provides to 56 children and young people who are part of the Open Doors project.
The children learn dressmaking, mechanics, agriculture and other skills that guarantee labor competitiveness once they finish their training. In the words of the school’s principal: “We prepare children so that they think beyond money and comforts. We prepare them so that they can help their communities, always reflecting the love of God in everything they do.”
Everything Is Possible
It is now ten minutes past 11, and already quite warm in the Children’s Center. Mario is finishing his graduation speech and, even with more than 200 people in the place, the silence in the room is almost palpable. Everyone takes in this young man’s words and the magnitude of this accomplishment. They know where he started. They know how his family gave him up to bring him rescue and hope. Like his 10 other fellow graduates, they came with similar stories and are now moving on to the next chapter. This time with more tools, skills and the peace and support of a family-the family of faith.
Currently, Mario is preparing to begin his university studies in 2019. As a result of his effort and dedication, he received one of the scholarships awarded by Open Doors to young people who demonstrated with their life history that limits don’t exist.
Just as Mark reminds us in his Gospel: “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
representatives names and locations used for security reasons