A ministry of inclusive hospitality

Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas is a lawyer and a member of the Colombian Mennonite Church, with more than 45 years of experience in peacebuilding from a community and ecclesial base. He is director of Sembrandopaz (Planting Seeds of Peace) and works with returned communities in the Colombian Caribbean.
Release date: 
Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Hospitality: Exploring what it means to offer hospitality as followers of Christ

Shocking photographs published in the news media awoke the Western world to the refugee crisis on September 2015. With a heightened awareness of the issue, the Anabaptist communion worldwide considers what it means to welcome the stranger as those from different religious backgrounds enter our neighbourhoods.

The April 2016 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier seeks to discern the variety of reasons why Anabaptist communities from around the world come together to form MWC. In the articles that follow, writers reflect on the question: How does Christ’s love for us motivate and guide our response to strangers in our local context?

A ministry of inclusive hospitality

A Scripture: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49, NIV).

A story: A refugee complained bitterly to God because they had not let him in a church and God responded: “Don’t feel bad. They don’t let me in either.”

Using this Biblical passage and short story as reference points, I write this simple note from my own personal testimony to contrast these texts.

Colombia, where I currently live, is a country with an internal war for the last 60 years and has the last internal armed conflict remaining in the Western hemisphere. With more than five million internally displaced people, it has the second highest rate of internally displaced people in the world according to the United Nations, plus has another million external refugees in other countries. Twenty-five thousand violent deaths occur each year, thousands of persons are disappeared and kidnapped, and the Colombian government recognizes more than six million victims in general.

If there were oil or any other economic interest of the multinationals in our conflict, this impressive social scenario would have appeared in the mainstream news in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The Anabaptist churches of the North would have heard about it.

Threats and uncertainty

After living for many years in Bogotá, in 1986, my wife, our children and I moved to a small town called San Jacinto, in the northern part of the country in the Caribbean region.

There we acquired a farm, house, agricultural machinery and vehicles, and with my wife and four small sons, we lived from my law practice, agriculture and journalism. We supported the social and grassroots work of the peasants in the region.

Due to my work with the campesinos (local peasant farmers), I was accused of being an ideologue of the guerrilla movement. The local police commander, and later a paramilitary group called “Death to Kidnappers” (referring to the guerrillas), began to persecute me and threaten me on a regular basis.

In March 1988, the Colombian National Army and the police joined forces to raid our home. The death threats increased. Our friends avoided us. The banks wouldn’t serve us. Living there became unbearable. Because of the death threats, we found ourselves forced to move to the nearby city of Cartagena, losing everything we had acquired with our labour.

There in Cartagena, we received hospitality from one of my uncles, who opened his home to us. In his patio, with support from the Mennonite church, we built a dwelling to reside in while the storm passed.

But the situation of a displaced person, whether displaced internally or internationally, is quite difficult. You are leaving behind your territory, friends, family members, job, belongings, culture, contacts and good name. Additionally, you enter an unknown territory, which is threatening and inhospitable; a world full of prejudice and stigmas.

From being considered an upright person, suddenly, you are suspected of terrorism and criminality which creates great fear among your neighbours. You enter into an environment of fear, not only due to your displacement, but because all the people surrounding you – your friends, relatives and churches – all fear that they may be mistaken for or pointed out as the enemy and declared “military objectives,” threatened and hurt.

The fear impregnated in others is what most affects the person who is displaced as it paralyzes those people and hinders hospitality and solidarity. Many church people want to be hospitable, but they have families, small children, debts and mortgages, and are afraid of endangering their lives and threatening the stability of those who depend on them. They say that if they were alone, they would give their lives to help, but in these conditions, it would be irresponsible of them and unfair to their children.

In July 1989, we arrived once again to Bogotá; beaten down, but not defeated. A displaced and threatened couple with four children. We arrived in a city affected by terrorism, full of the living dead begging at every intersection, boys and girls abandoned in the streets, the threat of crime; surrounded by areas of racist and discriminatory poverty.

The central government had used the excuse of war to suppress most civil liberties and ordered raids and arbitrary detentions each day in the city and in the country. Distrust and fear reigned in the city. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said “War is the art of deceit,” to which American politician Hiram Johnson famously added, “where truth is the first victim.” This makes it difficult to believe in someone and even believe in God.

Shelter and welcome

However, today my family and I are alive thanks to decisive action by a group of people belonging to the Teusaquillo (Bogotá) Mennonite Church, headed by pastor Peter Stucky. Although they had young children and people under their responsibility, they overcame fear of stigmatization and of being declared supporters of the guerrillas, and organized themselves to offer inclusive hospitality that sheltered us and gave us enough energy to awaken our power of resilience and recover.

It is when we practice these acts of hospitality that the damnation of Sodom is broken and the beautiful phrase of Jesus becomes reality: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35–40, NRSV).

But it did not end there with the assistance to one family who were members of the church. The concept of inclusive hospitality expanded. No one was excluded and there was always a place for the stranger, the traveller and those who suffer. Inclusive hospitality opened the doors of the church and created an entire ecclesiastical ministry to support hundreds of displaced people who arrived fleeing their lands after losing their belongings and their hope. “The refugee [or displaced person] is the living messenger of misfortune, bringing with him the image, smell and taste of the tragedy of war, genocide, slaughter and abandonment of their home because of violence.” (Javier Jurado, member of the Arjai Association, an initiative of philosophy students).

For many years, this ministry of the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church has functioned in Bogotá. Hundreds of people have been assisted and comforted. From there, dozens of displaced people have been sponsored by the Canadian Mennonite church and today enjoy a new and tranquil life in that country. This ministry also expanded to the city of Quito, Ecuador, which receives hundreds of Colombians who flee the country seeking refuge.

To create, initiate and maintain a ministry such as this, open to any person regardless of where they come from, what they believe, what political ideology they have, whether their persecutors are guerrillas or paramilitaries means a great risk. Sometimes, members of the congregation stop attending. However, we are convinced of the coherence between the mandate of Jesus and the right of asylum. The community is strengthened and new leaders emerge open to hospitality.

It is gratifying to be a historic, Anabaptist peace church where no refugee will protest to God for being denied entry, and like Job we can say, “I have never turned away a stranger but have opened my doors to everyone” (Job 31:32, NLT).

—Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas is a lawyer and a member of the Colombian Mennonite Church, with more than 45 years of experience in peacebuilding from a community and ecclesial base. He is director of Sembrandopaz (Planting Seeds of Peace) and works with returned communities in the Colombian Caribbean.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2016



Geographic representation: 
Latin America and Caribbean