Colombian Pastors Caught amidst Invisible War Lines
Residents in Buenaventura, Colombia are struggling for survival in a city divided by invisible battle lines and a booming cocaine trade. The sounds of constant gunfire, threats, and violence fill the air as many residents of the busy seaport city have been forced to flee their homes to avoid the conflict that is consuming the region.
Buenaventura’s unstable conditions and poor economy make it a hotbed of violence and drug trafficking. The city’s once pristine shore is now a hub for the underground drug trade, which moves approximately 250 tons of cocaine through the waterways each year, largely on speedboats headed for Costa Rica and Panama. Amidst the constant fighting between the four illegal armed groups seeking control over Buenaventura and the largely unsupervised youth engaging in criminal activities, an end to the increasing violence is nowhere in sight. The city is also overwhelmed with crimes at the hands of drug traffickers who have no regard for human life; even children in the city are kidnapped or brutally murdered as bargaining chips.
Among those struggling for survival in Buenaventura are 23 pastors whose lives and congregations have been uprooted by the violence. While most pastors have fled Buenaventura because of fear or the threat of financial penalties, a few have chosen to stay. Faced with tremendous pressure, pastors who remain face constant threats of extortion and opposition from guerilla members.
During a meeting with Open Doors, these courageous pastors shared their stories of persecution and how they continue sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the guerilla members.
Pastor Hernando Parra (alias) saw a gospel opportunity in a region notorious for criminal gang violence and chose to reach out to the very individuals who are terrorizing the city. With a team of young believers, Parra obtained entrance to the area once a week, ministering to the troubled individuals within the local gangs. The team continued to work in Buenaventura until December 2013, when members of an armed illegal group told them that they could no longer continue evangelizing.
Another pastor stood up to a guerilla fighter face-to-face when he was ordered to leave his home and his congregation. The man threatened him with extortion, but the pastor firmly resisted. In the face of the pastor’s steadfast refusal to back down, the guerilla member eventually left and did not return.
Some pastors however have been less eager to become targets for these guerilla groups. Some, gripped by fear, have remained silent in the wake of the gruesome deaths of fellow believers who have spoken out. Many believers and residents of Buenaventura who have chosen to resist the guerrillas and report the violence and activities of the warlords have been brutally murdered in killing houses, or casas de pique.
Following relentless acts of violence, kidnappings and blackmail against the Christian community, pastors are seeing their congregations displaced and scattered. Death threats, extortion, and murders continue to increase as guerilla members intensify persecution tactics. The Christian retreat from Buenaventura has now become a mass exodus.
In light of the persecution and violence, pastors in Buenaventura gather regularly for prayer and fasting. Open Doors recently paved the way for the President of the Colombian Evangelical Council to travel to the city to speak with local pastors, showing them that they are not forgotten. Pastors in the region report that through much prayer and fasting, they have seen God’s mighty hand at work.
The believers of Buenaventura continue to share the gospel even in the midst of adversity and fear, resisting both the visible drug war on the streets and the unseen spiritual battle raging on in the hearts and minds of the people of Buenaventura.
Father, thank You for the confidence we can have, that even in the midst of evil and bloodshed, in the midst of persecution against Your people, You are there. You hear their cries. You grant courage and wisdom and peace. You protect their souls from the onslaught of our archenemy, Satan. We pray Your comfort to rest on the families of those who grieve the loss of loved ones who have been brutally murdered. Give them confidence from Your Word; that the slain ones who were in You are now whole and at peace, rejoicing in Your glorious presence. Grant them daily courage and strength to face whatever comes before them. Dispel fear with a growing knowledge of who You are, and grant wisdom to know when to speak and when to remain silent, whether to stay or to flee. And, as they share the gospel of Christ with their neighbors and with their enemies, bring fruit; that a mighty army of Christ might overcome the spiritual darkness in Buenaventura. In the name of Jesus, who in our times of weakness becomes our strength, Amen.