Christian Aid

Harvest, Colwall

Isaiah 65:17-24; James 3:13-18

To hear the address as delivered:

I love Harvest Festivals. I am a real townie, so for me it’s a great opportunity to appreciate and understand a rural context and to set time aside to think about where my food actually comes from. Normally at a Harvest service, I would talk about Christian Aid’s agricultural projects, providing seeds and tools, or helping communities adapt to changes in the climate and diversify their crops. But today I wanted to talk about harvest in a different way.

Harvest is about reaping what has been sown. If we plant seeds of wheat, the crop will be wheat; if we plant an apple tree (and I know there are many orchards here), we will enjoy apples. And just as this is true for crops, vegetables and fruit, it is also true in life. Proverbs 22:8 says “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” And conversely we read “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love.”

I spent this summer in Colombia, which is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. They have an abundance and variety of flora and fauna unrivalled anywhere else. I ate fruits that I had never seen or heard of before; I even learned how to know if Yucca is good to eat or bad. In Colombia, there isn’t a Harvest season, since the weather is more or less the same all year round, the harvest is continuous. Rich, fertile soil and all year round harvests make for a land which is coveted by many.

In his letter, James said “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And this is what is happening in Colombia. Let me explain a bit more. Colombia has been suffering from a war between the state, the army forces (both official military and paramilitary) and the terrorist guerrillas for over 50 years. Many innocent people have got caught up in the violence; more than 70,000 civilians have been killed or have disappeared in that country over the last 20 years and Colombia now has over 5 million internally displaced people, second only in the world to Syria.

Two years ago, when I first visited Colombia, I met some very special people; they are of Afro-Caribbean descent and have lived, farmed and fished this remote part of northern Colombia near the Panama border for generations. On 28 February 1997, their lives were devastated. Paramilitary forces stormed the area and forcibly displaced the whole community, under the pretence of wiping out the guerrilla resistance movement. They were told that if they did not leave, it would be assumed that there were guerrillas and they would be killed.

These people all fled their homes, leaving crops and animals behind in their haste to avoid the mass destruction. 83 people were killed in this initial displacement. Many of them ended up in the coastal town of Turbo (it took us 3½ hours by boat) where they were forced to live in a sports hall. 3,000 people were displaced at that time and they most of them lived in the sports hall for 4 years: crowded, cramped, with hardly any food, no health or toilet facilities. During that time, they dreamt of returning to their land, they talked about it, they planned it, they composed songs about it.

In fact, the military and paramilitary forces were and still are in the pockets of large corporations who want the land for palm oil and banana plantations and for logging. The war provides the perfect opportunity for them to steal land and they use many means to do so. It has been accepted practice for armed groups to take land from peasant farmers and during the course of the conflict, between 9 and 15 million acres of land has been taken illegally.

Christian Aid’s partner, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, supported the communities during this time. And they helped them to lobby for restitution of their land. With ICJP’s help, they managed to gain the collective title for the land, although they were too scared to actually return. So, ICJP helped them to set up Humanitarian Zones which are recognised under the Inter-America Court for Human Rights. They slowly started to return to the land that they call ‘home’ and with funds from Christian Aid built houses within the Humanitarian Zone.

The Zone is fenced off with big hand-written signs that serve as protection for the community. The signs read “Humanitarian Zone of …. Protected under the Court for Human Rights – no armed groups allowed.” Justice and Peace have a presence in these Humanitarian Zones and this gives the community visibility and protection. Most of the families have land that they farm, but they travel each day to the farm rather than live on it because they only feel safe in the Humanitarian Zone; they are still afraid that their land will be taken or worse that they will be killed themselves. But at least they are able to plant and harvest their own crops again.

The displacement in Cacarica was in 1997, almost 20 years ago. Yet, these forced displacements are still taking place. This summer, I met an indigenous community who had left their rural community farms en masse last December due to threats, deaths, violence and fear. They came to the nearest city to seek refuge, and once again, have ended up in a sport hall. I saw how these people were living; people who are used to growing their own crops, and being self-sufficient are relying on food aid; people who are used to living outdoors with their children running around enjoying the fresh air are now cooped up inside, unable to move around freely; people who are used to eating a good variety of food and nutrients are living on rice, flour and oil; people who have their own customs and culture are having to conform to a way of life that is totally unnatural for them.

Harvest for them is a distant memory and yet a hope for the future. They are now in a position where they are fighting for the right to return safely to their land. And Christian Aid’s partner, Justice and Peace is standing alongside them, helping them to address the issues with the relevant authorities, accompanying them to meetings, advising them of their rights, etc.

These words of the reading from Isaiah is so relevant to these people’s situations:

For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
   and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
   or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

Other people are living on the land that was theirs. Other people are reaping crops that should be theirs. This passage was written at a time when the Israelites had been in exile. They longed for a return to their homeland, Jerusalem, and God promised them their return.Equally, with the support of the Commission for Justice and Peace, the people of the region of Cacarica are now seeing their dreams come true. They have built their houses and are living in them, they are planting their crops and enjoying the harvests themselves.

Isaiah 65:17-25 expresses hope in the midst of pain and anguish. It spoke of hope for the people who had lost so much in the time it was written. The Israelites did return to their land; the people of Cacarica returned to theirs. And it still inspires a new hope for us today. It inspires hope for the Wounaan people in Buenaventura. And I pray that they will soon be able to return to live in houses that they have built and eat the crops that they have planted.

That is what the Isaiah passage creates – a sense of hope and promise for a better future. As Christians we hold onto that hope for us all, but we are also called to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and bring that hope to those who need it. As we share our harvest gifts locally, we can also share our gifts across the world. By giving to Christian Aid, you are playing your part in bringing hope to the hopeless, and justice to those who have suffered injustice. [At this point there was an unscripted addition, thanking the congregation for their financial support in Christian Aid Week, in committed giving and in legacies.] But it’s not just about money, necessary though that is.

The most inspirational person I met in Colombia and probably that I have ever met, was Father Alberto, a missionary priest who is a leader within CIJP. Because of his stance against injustice and defending the human rights of those communities, he has been threatened on several occasions. Death threats have been made against him. We asked him why he continued to do this work when it is so dangerous, he said “To see what I have seen and know what I know and not act, would be treason against my Christian belief.”

Our Christian conviction causes us to act when we see injustice just as Jesus did. We can take action individually. Maybe when we buy things, we can look for items that don’t contain Palm Oil, and we can buy fairtrade bananas and coffee. And we can take action as a church community – supporting Christian Aid through fundraising, through campaigning and through your prayers. James says “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” So, let’s sow our gifts of hope and love and see a harvest of peace and righteousness.