There are a myriad of religious expressions in Colombia. Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is impossible to overlook the mark Christianity has left on Colombia, be it a journey to Montserrate, the pilgrimage church overlooking Bogotá, or the number of holidays each month, celebrations found within the church calendar. One of the most beautiful expressions of faith, peacebuilding, however, cannot be easily observed on a tour, yet its influence is necessary for any sort of a peaceful future.
Christian conversation and faith form a common framework for life in Colombia. More than 97 percent of Colombians self-identify as Christian, ten percent of these as Protestant and ninety percent Catholic. This shared vision of the world, based in biblical language of reconciliation and peace, has provided many churches with the capacity to be powerful actors for social change in their society.
Yet Protestant and Catholics often engage in parallel work, both interested in conflict transformation, but not together. Even though the Protestant reformation took place in Europe 500 years ago, the impacts of the division between Protestant and Catholics can still be felt in Colombia. The prevalence of Catholicism as what was, up until 1991, the official state religion, has created suspicion and mistrust between the two different groups.
For a small gathering of women in Bogotá, this divide has gone on for too long. The Ecumencial Women’s Peacebuilding Group (or as they are known in Spanish, GemPaz), engages in peacebuilding as women and as believers, by starting with the personal: their own inner beliefs and faith practices. The impetuous for the group is the call that they believe their faith makes: to live in harmony with one another and to work for the greater good.
“It is a project that is based in the churches, but also in the women and this has given it a unique character.” states one of the founders, Virginia Bouvier from the US Institute of Peace, “I believe that through the years, the women have discovered a unique spirituality to be found with peacebuilding and also resignifying what it means to be a woman seeking peace, which has a different meaning from being a man.
In fact, the original idea for the group was a general initiative, not one solely focused on women. “There were many groups working on the same thing. What would it look like to try to strengthen the mission of both these groups? To search for convergence between the religions and spirituality in peacebuilding? To think about these themes in a different way?” As Bouvier remembers, however, “After our first exploratory meetings, we realized that there was a certain resistance among the church hierarchies, who were all men. So we decided to try something with the women.”
“The group is a healing and liberating space. For the women of Gem- Paz, this has been a transforming experience, in the area of faith but also politically and ethically,” says Monica Velásquez, one of the original members and a current leader. While Colombia’s conflict has impacted every sector of society, none have been as disproportionately affected as women. Not only are women victims of sexual violence, they also face the challenge of sending their children into war, either as members of the army or recruited by illegal armed groups.
“Daily peace, not simply peace as discussed at the dialogues in Havana is a very important part of this project.” describes Velásquez, “Yes, it is important to involve many women in the talks in Havana, but also in peace in their barrios, in rural sectors, within daily lived life.” Women are daily seeking change, whether demanding the return of a captured child or organizing with others to advocate for the participation of women in Colombia’s truth commission; members of GemPaz have participated all of this and more.
“Many of the women work directly with victims or are victims themselves and we have learned how to accompany and support each other.” continues Velasquez. “As women we have been part of a history of war, we have been victims. Recognizing and transmitting this knowledge to our lives, both individually and collectively has been very important.”
Part of the work of GemPaz is to draw women of faith together, and encourage them to learn from one an- other. They are able to take their new knowledge, be it in advocacy, mediation practices or reconciliation, back to their communities and organizations, multiplying the impacts of the group and showing that interfaith work is not only possible, but a valuable tool for transformation, nationally and locally. As the peace dialogues continue, this is one faith practice that may not be found in a guide book, but that has the potential to change the landscape, for good.