I got unbelievably good news today. My novella, "Memories of Green Rivers", has been selected for publication by Running Wild Press. It's about a refugee worker in Chicago struggling to rebuild his life, and make sense of God, after a brutal divorce and war trauma. It's a slow-burn pace because I wanted it to be realistic, but it's always had a special place in my heart. It's one of my more personal pieces, and mainly it's about learning to find the courage to love, be loved, and to start again.
I wrote the very first draft two years ago. I asked myself what would it mean to start over. It was March of 2021, and the snow was falling outside my hotel room. It was during St. Patrick's Day week. I was still in Wisconsin after COVID and everything seemingly crashing down on me.
The river was dyed green earlier that week, and I remembered the last time I saw anything like green rivers was in northern Iraq. I then imagined someone who went through much more trauma than me starting over in Chicago, and the novella started writing itself. Oddly enough, the main character's profession - refugee worker in Chicago sponsored by Anabaptists - wasn't too far off from what I would eventually be doing. It ended up being a sequel piece of sorts to my first published story, "The Best of Weed and Whiskey," but they're both standalone pieces.
After writing it, it felt like I sat through an encouraging sermon - and I knew I had something very special on my hands.
It ended up being rejected thirty-five times over two years. I knew it would be a hard sell. It's both a piece about wrestling with Christian spirituality and a piece that takes an unflinching, honest look at the effects of unhealed trauma. It has profanity, horrific flashbacks, and it gets incredibly depressing when the main character, Eric, is acting out of numbness - whether it's through one night stands or self-hatred. But I knew it was a story worth telling, so I stuck with it. Redemption isn't found in sanitized fantasies - but in the actual mess and dirt of life. I finally found a press that got what I was about, and the rest is history.
I'm beyond excited to finally see it come to fruition, and for others to read it as well.
Pic: a guide taking the team around showing them the community development projects that sustain women survivors of the civil war.
This is the first of several posts about my delegation to Colombia with Community Peacemaker Teams that will be sporadically written over the next few months. This is a blog mainly for my writing, but this is a part of my life that I'm passionate about - and it's where much of my theological and political themes in my writing comes from.
I don't believe in building platforms off of other people's oppression and trauma, as that is unfortunately common - especially in faith-based spaces. To me, that's just gross and it's one of many reasons I don't immediately tell people about this side of my life until they get to know me better. Most folks have a hard enough time wrapping their heads around the pastor-scholar-fiction writer schtick that's also normal in my life.
However, I do believe in amplifying the voices of those who are not intentionally being heard. These stories provided will be focused on the struggles of the Colombians in their journey towards freedom, with some highlights provided by my experiences there.
With all that being said, my trip began rough. Spirit airlines decided to live up to their reputation and delayed my flight by two hours, making me miss a connecting flight to Barranca. That was no big deal ultimately because I could just hop on an overnight bus from Bogota. That's one would think, at least.
When I got to the bus station, I asked a security guard to order tickets from me in Spanish. After a brief exchange with a teller, he communicated with Pierre, a CPT worker, about the situation - shaking his head. I knew immediately it wasn't exactly the best news I was about to hear.
"They don't have any bus tickets to Barranca," said Pierre.
"You're kidding," I replied.
"Protests have blocked down the road - they don't want to risk it. Paramilitaries are involved. Oh my, oh my..."
"Well. What do we do?"
"Just a hang out for a while. Someone will be there to meet you."
"Okey doke, I guess."
I was eventually able to find a bus ticket there from the Bogota airport thanks to another CPTer. That was the first of three separate incidents where paramilitary groups blocked cities or communities off during the delegation. The other two incidents were successful in keeping CPT out due to our partners in the region telling us it was too risky to visit with paramilitaries present.
In the past, human rights workers were usually respected and not harassed. However, due to the ongoing fights in the Antioquia region with their gold mining operations, human rights workers have become targeted. Delegations and human rights organizations used to be considered safe enough to visit communities without many issues - now, it is much more practical to harass and target organizations like ours.
I was in Colombia in 2018 with CPT beforehand, so I was familiar enough with the feel of the region to know that things had been escalating. The last time I was there, a peace agreement had just been reached and a reparations agreement was being enacted to victims of the civil war.
Due to the election of a far-right government, the peace agreements were tossed aside - making many of the paramilitary groups, such as FARC and ELN, take up arms again.
Community Peacemaker Teams, a Christian-rooted interfaith human rights organization, has had a presence in Colombia since 2002. The organization places teams in conflict zones and areas of high oppression to do accompaniment work and to amplify voices of those who are marginalized. We have presences currently in six countries - Greece, Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, Canada, the US, and the Borderlands. We also have served, in the past, in eastern Africa and Haiti. It’s a 35 year old organization that was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 by our sibling organization, American Friends Service Committee.
My role is on the steering committee as a Friends United Meeting representative, although I have previously been on delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan and Colombia. This was a specialized delegation for steering committee members. Delegations are short-term trips for people to come and learn from the work CPT is doing on the ground, as well as finding out about the results of colonialism and oppression. These delegations help amplify voices of the communities experiencing censorship and violence.
The main work CPT does in Colombia is accompaniment of marginalized communities and reporting human rights abuses. One main organization they accompany, OFP (Popular Women's Front in English), is a feminist organization rooted in Catholic liberation theology. They organized in response to seeing how women were marginalized and demeaned during the Civil War. They found that women had no source of income and struggled with trauma from armed conflict and human trafficking.
OFP advocates on behalf of women survivors, and teaches them self-sustainability through community development projects. Because of this very visible presence, they are a target of paramilitary groups. Regular death threats have been sent to the leaders and, as a result, organizations like CPT accompany them in public. Many have already survived assassination attempts.
Assassination to silence political opponents and activists is a common tactic. It's a way of trying to establish control, and it's often done intentionally to send a message to the wider community about the cost of standing up to the paramilitaries (or any other oppressor.) Murders and assassinations are thus a normal occurrence.
When I was at the team house, there was a hitman arrested on the street next door. He wasn't after us. He was on the run from the police, and he just so happened to pass us by. The night before that, there was a murder about seven minutes from the house. We assumed that was connected.
However, OFP provides a powerful testimony of what happens when women, using theology and their understanding of a radical Gospel, unite against oppression. More stories will be shared about them in the coming weeks and months, as well as the political backdrop of the situations described - and how the USA's war on drugs led to further problems in the region.