ASHEVILLE, N.C. (ABP) — One night after nine months in Colombia, Susanne Walker-Wilson poked her sleeping husband Greg to tell him a strange man was in their house, speaking aloud in Spanish.
A careful and frightful investigation revealed the strange man was their teen-aged son Caleb who had just returned from a weeklong retreat with Spanish-speaking friends and had emerged from the immersion dreaming aloud in Spanish.
The Walker-Wilsons returned to Asheville, N.C., after two years in Colombia knowing more languages than Spanish. They are now fluent in the languages of poverty, trust, priority, relationships, family and faith that they knew only through the glass darkly before they committed to work through the Mennonite Central Committee.
In large part, theirs was a ministry of presence. Greg Walker-Wilson is a non-profit director who started a micro-loan business in western North Carolina called Mountain Bizworks. Susanne is a social worker specializing in educating parents of babies at risk of developmental disabilities.
They learned that both poverty and wealth deprive young people in Colombia of their childhoods. The poorest scramble for work and food on the streets, while the richest cocoon in high-rise apartments above the mean streets. Poor teens are torn between just two apparent possibilities: para-military conscription or drug trafficking.
The Walker-Wilsons helped them see other avenues. At the same time they absorbed the Colombia culture like sponges to be squeezed out when they returned to the U.S., improving the understanding of both countries with each other.
“One measure of our effectiveness is to ask ‘is our family transformed?’” Greg said. “Are our views better informed, especially our sensitivity to poverty? Can we educate our friends and family here about what we learned?”
Greg found local leaders and helped them identify and articulate their needs, initiate and complete projects and then evaluate them afterwards.
He found ways — often through friendships established by his sons Caleb and Ascher — to engage young people. After age 12 local kids are not eligible for the feeding programs sponsored by USAid funds, and so they hang around the edges of those programs, avoiding soldiers and trying to steer clear of drug recruiters.
Greg arranged for an Asheville friend to bring portable recording equipment and train young people to use it. Not used to having adults pay any attention to their interests, the young people wrote and recorded songs illustrating their angst, fears and hopes.
Susanne said her and Greg’s relationship “in a marriage where no one hits each other and where the kids are respectful” demonstrated a strange and wonderful affinity.
Displacement from war, poverty and international corporation land grabs is a severe issue in Colombia, whose 5 million displaced citizens are outnumbered only by Sudan. Susanne counseled women traumatized by displacement and by any of the 52 massacres that have taken place in the past 10 years.
New Christians learned it is an uncommon faith that “asks something of you every day of the week and a Jesus who asks you to put yourself at the margins to serve,” she said.
When confronted with Christ claims, some young Christians in the desperate slum had to ask themselves, “Am I going to be a thug and help my sister get something to eat? Or will I be Christ-like and go to bed hungry tonight? That’s what they face,” Susanne said.
Christians deal with competing emotions when gangs doing “social cleansing” murder a bad guy on the street. While neighbors delight that the man is no longer around to threaten and harass them, they are torn to hold their relief against Jesus’ admonition to love their neighbors.
In self-help workshops or Bible study classes leaders encourage participants to “make a commitment that we’re not going to kill each other.”
The Walker-Wilsons interacted, too, with the other extreme. Their going-home party was attended both by business executives who take their families to Disney World in Florida every year, and by people who spent more on bus fare to get there than they would spend on food that day.
Normally the two factions never interact, never exchange a word or direct eye contact. It took “outsiders” modeling Christ to bring them together.
“God used us as a bridge for them to connect with one another,” Susanne said.
The Walker-Wilsons are members of Circle of Mercy in Asheville, N.C., a church dually aligned with the Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ. The church stayed in close touch with them during their sojourn in Colombia, providing Sunday school lessons and communications to keep them in touch with family.
Only about half of Americans who serve with the Mennonite Central Committee are Mennonites, Greg said.
They came back from Colombia even more detached from possessions. The boys weep at all they have and don’t use. They noticed after two years away that “everyone is fat” and even cars and roads are fat.
After two months back in Asheville, this family for whom “the world is smaller and faith is bigger” remains “unsettled.”
But, said Susanne, “There is no more appropriate posture after this experience than to be unsettled.”
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder