Medellín and the Beloved Community
In 1989 I went to Medellín, Colombia in South America purely in a self-serving way. I just wanted to improve my Spanish by living in a Spanish-speaking country. To semi-support myself, I was willing to teach English, thereby putting to good use my recent M.A. in Foreign Language Education.
I was incredibly naïve and didn’t research the situation in Colombia before accepting an English teaching job at the Centro Colombo Americano, a cultural center and school. I should have known something was wrong when Andy, the school director, told me (before my acceptance) that the school had just been blown up, possibly by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). However, it could have been the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) or even Pablo Escobar, the famous narco-terrorist.
Since the early 60’s, Colombia had been embroiled in a civil war, complicated in the 70’s by Escobar’s success as a smuggler of cocaine to the United States. When I arrived, I found that the school was “up and running,” although lessons had to be taught amid the noise of jack hammers and drills as the school was re-built and renovated.
Colombia itself was, however, in serious trouble as Escobar waged war against the Colombian state, trying to get it to rescind a policy of extraditing drug traffickers to the United States. In Colombia the narcos could bribe or intimidate judges—a tactic not possible in the U.S.
In 1989, whether planted by drug smugglers or revolutionaries, bombs would go off in Medellín at frequent intervals. Also, disconcerting was the number of political assassinations—radical students being pushed out of military helicopters or the simpler drive-by shootings via assassins riding a motorcycle. Civil order in Medellín had broken down. The city was the murder capital of the world.
Moreover, petty crime was rampant. During my year in Medellín, owing largely to my own carelessness, my pocket was picked 10 or 12 times. I still recall walking toward a young man who reached into my front pocket, thinking that a comb was a wallet. We circled around each other cautiously until he went on his way. Then there was the time I raised my watch hand above the press of a crowd. Someone snatched it off my wrist. No one (except me) went anywhere in the city after 9:00 pm.
I did enjoy afternoons of peace in the Jardín Botánico among the trees and birds. I would then go to the local planetarium, which—curiously—had higher quality shows than any of the planetariums I’d gone to in the U.S. And the Colombian people—despite the violence—found considerable happiness in their friendships and families, the latter being far closer, warmer, and larger than our rough American equivalents. I enjoyed the company of a couple of families who welcomed me into their homes, and I even became the godfather of one young man.
In the almost thirty years since Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellín has undergone a startling transformation. I remember walking through the city and seeing the numerous T-shaped concrete supports, the abandoned beginnings of a proposed light rail metropolitan transport system. That system has now been completed, and what a triumph it is! There are three light-rail lines, and three cable gondola lifts carry people up the steep hillsides of the Aburrá Valley in which Medellín is situated. The poorest barrios of Medellín line the hillsides, and now at last people no longer must climb on foot the equivalent of a 28-story building to reach their homes. There is also a rubber-tired tramway that can negotiate slopes with a 12% gradient. One barrio even has a giant escalator to make the homeward trek easier.
And the murder rate has plunged so that now Medellín is one of the safest cities in Latin America. Of course, partly this decline in violence is due to the end (more or less) of the civil war that so long convulsed Colombian society; but much of the improvement in the murder rate has to do with the transport system. The poorest citizens of Medellín can now travel to all parts of the city for work. Rich and poor mix more than they used to, and the result seems to be less friction between the classes of society. Moreover, the metro cable stations have annexed to them libraries as well as sports and educational facilities. The poor now have at their disposal more public resources than in the past.
And my beloved planetarium has been renovated and expanded so that it is part of a large scientific-technological area in the northern (admittedly well-to-do) part of the city. There is also an eco-arbol, a large tree-like structure that removes carbon dioxide and toxins from the local atmosphere, not to mention Parque de los Pies Descalzos (“Barefoot Park), where people can let their feet luxuriate in mud, grass, and pools of water. In 2013 the Urban Land Institute proclaimed that Medellín was the “most innovative city in the world.” Or you could say that Medellín has made notable progress toward becoming a “Beloved Community,” Martin Luther King’s concept of the idea toward which society ought to be moving.
Of course, robbery and petty crime is still rife in the city. I’m sure that—if I were to go back for a visit—I’d find abject poverty and many beggars in the streets. Still, Medellín has made so much progress toward being a “Beloved Community” as to give us hope for similar progress in other cities and countries. Perhaps there is hope for the United States despite our mass shootings and polarized politics. Perhaps early Quakers who envisioned the Kingdom of God on Earth would not be discouraged about these United States of America. Perhaps we can follow the path Colombia has blazed for us in this old, new metropolis called Medellín.
Review: IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus by Philip Gulley.
IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus by Philip Gulley.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor from Indiana. He has written many novels about small town America and a handful of theological works. The latter have resulted in a concerted effort by fellow Quakers to have him removed as a recorded minister. While most liberal Quakers would find these books unobjectionable, one can (sort of) understand why more conservative Friends in the programmed churches might take offence.
Perhaps the easiest way to summarize Gulley’s book is to list the chapter titles. So, IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN…
In his closing comments, Gulley writes:
If there is a future for the church in America, perhaps it is to raise America’s
collective consciousness, so that injustice, poverty, and tyranny would be
moral affronts to us and we would hasten to eliminate them…. The central
task of this church would not be convincing us to believe doctrines about
Jesus. Rather, it would help us live out the priorities of Jesus—human dignity,
spiritual growth, moral evolution, and the ongoing search for truth and meaning.
So, what is my opinion of Gulley’s book? Surprise! Surprise that it would have to be written today (in 2010). Still, Gulley argues his points well and buttresses his conclusions with apt examples. For those who must deal with evangelical Christianity, this book gives context and perspective.
I hope my last post, Healing, didn’t give the impression that I had any special gifts for, or insights into, the healing of mind and spirit. All of us can be conduits of healing power although there are some few, like Jesus, who even facilitate miracles of physical healing. (I suppose we should remember that body and mind are not really two separate entities.) I also want to acknowledge that there is a limit to being present with someone else’s pain. If the other seems to be using us as a crutch to avoid healing, we are not obligated to repetitively make ourselves available to that individual.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, in any given year about one in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. So, odds are that a Monthly Meeting of twenty members and attenders might have five mentally troubled people at about the same time. Such individuals may even negatively impact the worship and business of the meeting. While I can’t personally speak to that point, I do recall an e-retreat where one participant was overly sensitive and regularly misconstrued neutral statements as personal criticism or evidence of prejudice on the part of others. I also recall a schizophrenic gentleman who sometimes served up a meaningless word salad during a worship sharing group. And I have heard tales of a Friend with anger management issues who literally frightened novice members.
That my musings may have some validity is evidenced by a 2018 pamphlet published by Britain Yearly Meeting. Mental Health in Our Meetings tries to strike a balance between accepting the mentally ill while not allowing their behavior to disrupt the Monthly Meeting. A Mr. Kevin Camp has written a blunter blog article entitled Confronting Mental Illness in Monthly Meetings.
Presumably, members of Ministry and Counsel would be the persons to formally confront or elder a problem member. (Of course, ideally, Quakers should never see anybody as a mere problem!) Perhaps an ad hoc solution could be negotiated. If, for example, a member were engaging in vocal ministry two or three times in each meeting, perhaps that member could be persuaded to speak only once per meeting.
Or, if no ad hoc solution were possible, and the member were willing, mental health resources in the larger community could be recommended. If that same member were financially needy, the meeting might even pay for a limited number of therapy sessions. In fact, these days shorter-term treatments like cognitive behavior therapy are the norm rather than the exception.
In extreme cases, a disruptive member might be—at least temporarily—separated from the meeting. Obviously, this last remedy won’t work if the problem behavior is the person’s withdrawal from meeting activities! Passive aggression is no more desirable than active aggression (although certainly less disruptive). Prevention and education is another possibility. A meeting can certainly schedule workshops on techniques for relieving anxiety or coping with mild depression.
Well, enough of theoretical possibilities! I’m glad to report that, as far as I can tell, Old Chatham Monthly Meeting has dodged the statistical bullet. From my newcomer’s perspective, it appears that Friends at OCMM have long-standing relationships which have only grown in mutual love as the years have passed by.
I was recently made aware of these lines by George Fox:
So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the Spirit that is transgressed and in prison [in other people], which hath been in captivity in every one; whereby with the same Spirit people must be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, and do service to him and have unity with him, with the Scriptures and with one another.
The captivity of which Fox speaks is a bondage to demonic powers. Of course, these days we would replace demons with psychiatric categories. In any case, Jesus “cast out demons” and healed people who were mentally ill. Perhaps those so cured were originally psychotic, perhaps they were physically affected by mental conflicts, perhaps they were afflicted by some other neurosis. But Jesus, the miracle worker, the minister of souls, healed them. We, who are ordinary people, can hardly do the same. Our ministry must be humbler.
After all, no one can control another person. If someone else chooses to remain in bondage to a psychological or spiritual problem, we cannot force them to embrace a cure or solution. If an alcoholic doesn’t want to stop drinking, nothing we say can force that person to stop. And we won’t have much better luck with someone who’s self-deprecating or even depressed. “Stop running yourself down” will not instill self-confidence and self-respect. “Snap out of it” is exactly what a depressed Friend can’t do. And if someone is psychotic, they may not even understand what we say.
Even so, words may occasionally be helpful, especially in a therapeutic relationship or a close friendship. But that will be the exception, not the rule. Really, all we can do is set a good example in our own lives and allow others to face problems—ultimately—on their own. Or is that all we can do?
Many times, most times in fact, we can sit in silence with those who are distressed. We can listen to them. We can be present to their anguish or sorrow. This kind of comfort may be just what someone needs to finally come out of, or start to come out of, a psychic malaise. God or Spirit—a Healing Power—can rise through us and into those who need the healing. Perhaps we will even say the word or words that strike a responsive chord in the other.
Really, what we are doing by sitting with another is to accept that person, be they ever so flawed or psychologically sick. We are saying, in effect, “You are worthwhile despite this problem of yours. I accept you as I accept my imperfect self.” In that moment, the sufferer may consciously or unconsciously feel accepted by God. When a Friend is healed or begins a healing process “because of” our intervention, it is really the Holy Spirit that is the healer.
The traditional Christian word for such healing is “grace.” Paul Tillich explains the concept in beautiful, poetic language:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you….
Non-theist Friends may not be comfortable with words like “grace” or “Holy Spirit.” To such Friends, let us simply speak of “love.” When we lovingly listen to someone or even lovingly and actively try to help, that person may experience renewed hope and a very real healing of mind and spirit. If a person slips or falls psychologically or spiritually, Isaac Penington tells us to help them up with a tender hand. Tenderness—love—may do wonders if patience and time are given a chance.
~ Richard Russell
Bajo la lluvia del sol,
La brisa del océano,
El calor con el fresco.
Sobre Mar y Tierra
Mueve el Eterno.
Y el ser dormido
Sale del sueño.
*Below the sun raining down,
The ocean breeze,
Heat that’s cool.
Over land and sea
Moves the Eternal.
And the being that’s asleep
Comes forth from dreaming
~ Richard Russell
He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Verily, I say unto you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.
Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy mother.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
It is finished.
Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.
Get away for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today. Why would you...? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn't do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me Selling cigarettes. I'm minding my business, officer, I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don't touch me. Do not touch me. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
Mama, mama, mama, mama.
Mama, mama, mama.
Mama, mama, mama.
All right, all right. Oh my God. I can't believe this. I can’t believe this
I can't believe this man. Mom, I love you.
Tell my kids I love them. I'm dead.
I can't breathe or nothing man. This cold-blooded man. Ah - ! Ah -Ah! Ah-Ah !
Mama, I love you. I can’t do nothing.
My face is gone. I can’t breathe man. Please! Please, let me stand. Please, man I can’t breathe.
My face is getting it bad.
Please, I can’t breathe. Please, man. Please man!
I can’t breathe.
I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Ah! I'll probably just die this way.
I can’t breathe, my face.
I can’t breathe. Please, I can’t breathe. Shit.
I will, I can’t move.
My knee, my neck.
I can't breathe. I can't breathe. Ah! I'll probably just die this way.
Some water or something, please. Please? I can't breathe officer.
You’re going to kill me, man.
Come on, man. Oh, oh. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. Ah! They'll kill me.
They'll kill me. I can't breathe. I can't breathe
Ah! Ah! Please. Please. Please.
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