Othello church members 'go' on pilgrimage to Colombia
By Mary Stamp
Two members of Othello Christian Church recently joined 14 people from the Northwest for a virtual peace pilgrimage in Colombia through their regional Global Ministries Committee.
The team from the Northern Lights Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) spent Sept. 21 to 26 on the pilgrimage—four days for the virtual visit and two days of debriefing among the U.S. team.
The joint regional UCC-Disciples Global Ministries Committee has been searching for a global partnership. Members have been in monthly Zoom conversations with two Colombian organizations, JustaPaz, a Mennonite peace organization, and CIEDERPAZ, an ecumenical peace organization.
Janet Larson, a 20-year member of Othello Christian and member of the regional Global Ministries Committee, invited her pastor, Adam Janes, to join the team.
She was at home, and he was in the church office, "traveling" by video and Zoom, meeting people, hearing their stories and learning of their struggles trying to farm, fish and survive as paramilitary groups disrupt their lives.
Because both relate with some of Othello's growing Hispanic community—now 85 percent—they wanted to learn more about the cultures and circumstances that are the roots of residents, many of whom have been in Othello one, two, three or four generations.
"When our regional committee discussed having a global partnership, I never thought I'd be able to travel to another country because of my age and health. I was interested in the virtual pilgrimage via computer," Janet said.
The "pilgrimage" consisted of two hours a day viewing video prepared by JustaPaz on a boat trip taking bundles of humanitarian aid to six villages along the San Miguel River, unloading it, distributing it and spending time listening to people's stories, translated in captions on the screen. They also talked with staff of the organizations.
Each participant donated $395, less than the $1,500 it would cost to travel there. The funds were used to purchase and prepare bags of humanitarian aid for 700 people in 200 vulnerable families, and to have the technology to make videos to share the visits.
"It was eye-opening to know people living with pressure from drug growers and traders, lacking food and facing threats. Virtually I met people living through these struggles," said Janet, who has lived in Othello 23 years.
She grew up in Western Washington, first near Longview and later near Mt. Vernon, where she raised her children. She and her first husband moved to Prosser to work on dairy farms. After his death, the potato processing plant where she worked closed, so she moved with the company to Othello. She remarried 17 years ago and is now retired.
"I was blown over. It makes me rethink what is going on in our world. We need to pay more attention," Janet said, pleased with the interpreters who helped her understand.
"We had a communion service in one village, led by a Mennonite pastor and Catholic priest together," she said.
Sharing the experience with the church was put on the back burner because of COVID.
"Learning about different cultures and religions makes it easier to relate to someone from another culture or religion," said Janet, who is friends with Hispanic families at the church.
In Othello, she shares recipes, customs and life stories with a friend who is in a quilting group with her.
"Hispanic people are involved in the community," she said, "and we get along."
Adam, who grew up in Coos Bay, Tillamook and Salem, Ore., graduated from Northwest Christian College in Eugene in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in music and ministry. He was youth minister at First Christian in Hermiston before going to Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tenn., where he earned a master of divinity in 2007.
While there, he served a historically black congregation in Rogersville, Tenn. He also served First Christian in Dover, Tenn., eight years before coming to Othello in 2016 to be closer to family in Oregon.
"I was instantly drawn to the church by its desire to embrace being multi-cultural," he said. "We call ourselves a polka-dotted church. Everyone is different but by God's grace we can connect the dots. While we are still a multi-generational, predominantly Euro-centric church, we have some Hispanic families.
"We are not there yet, but our community has evolved to be predominantly Hispanic with some Asian, African and Native Americans," said Adam.
Othello was settled as a railroad watering station. In the 1950s, canal projects led to a shift to agriculture in labor-intensive crops such as apple and cherry orchards, asparagus and strawberry fields. Other crops are mint, alfalfa, corn, potatoes and wheat. It also has food processing plants.
The community of 7,600 people, surrounded by about 13,000 more, has 10 churches.
The Christian Church, founded in 1913, is a community fixture, Adam said. In 1978, it moved to 915 E Rainier St.
For a while, members struggled to stay homogeneous, but now they want to change with the community.
"Until COVID, our building was open for dialogues and groups serving migrants," Adam said.
"We seek to build relationships with the community. Our two yard sales for outreach draw Hispanic neighbors, who come and converse," Adam said.
While there are two large Spanish speaking congregations in Othello, a small Spanish-speaking congregation meets at Othello Christian Friday evenings.
"Our leaders do not speak Spanish. I need to learn Spanish to minister here, but the majority are second-, third- and fourth-generation Hispanics who speak English," Adam said.
Many Hispanics came to Othello as farm migrant workers or to join family members.
Five pastors form the Ministers Association. One is an English-speaking Hispanic. They do joint worship services and serve the community with food and other aid.
Before COVID, 45 came to worship Sundays, in contrast with 100 about 30 years ago.
Since COVID, Adam has led Bible studies on Zoom, recorded church school lessons on YouTube and livestreamed worship to share on YouTube and Facebook.
"We invested in technology and upgraded our internet, video and sound equipment to have quality streaming. All but two members have access," he said. "One comes to the church Sundays, when I record the service, and I visit the other by phone."
Adam thinks the church can reach more people through technology. By recording services and studies, anyone can watch. He estimates 40 participate.
The new equipment meant he had the connections and equipment needed for the virtual Colombia Peace Pilgrimage.
"It seemed an appropriate way to gain understanding of a culture and place with conditions similar to those many in Othello left in South America, Central America and Mexico.
"It was a way to learn about daily struggles, and social and political realities of people in the Chocó region of Northwest Colombia, where escaped and freed Afro-Colombian slaves settled with indigenous people along the San Miguel River," he said, adding that U.S. Hispanics come from many areas.
"There is diversity in the Hispanic population, as in all U.S. populations," he said.
"The pilgrimage was a chance to learn about people I didn't know existed, issues they face and the role the U.S. plays in their suffering," he said. "It was eye-opening and disappointing—incredible to see and hear what is happening there, but hard not to be with the people."
He was surprised to learn about the U.S. role in destroying crops as they spray coca plants in the war on drugs.
As their rice, corn, plantain and cassava plants are killed by herbicide spray drift, and as fish are killed in the river polluted with mining toxins, the people struggle to survive, Adam said.
JustaPaz has sports and other programs to involve boys and young men so they are not drawn into the paramilitary groups or drug trade.
"People want reparations and protection of human rights. They also want the 2016 Peace Accords to be implemented after years of guerrilla warfare," he said.
Adam plans to show the videos before worship and then hold conversations about them.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2021