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"God Never Lets His Sons Be Lost"

The Embera Dobida people of Colombia, South America, have been forced from their homes, but their faith in God remains strong.

(Excerpted from “Colombia: United by Christ” by Kristel Ortiz in the February 2018 WorldView magazine.)

In the violence that gripped Colombia for nearly 70 years, rural Colombian Christians have long been viewed by armed groups as a threat to their ability to control a region. Pastors are often key players in civil life, and many took courageous stands against both guerillas and vigilantes.

Franklin Lana Conde is one such pastor. His people are the Embera Dobida — one of seven subtribes of the Embera tribe. Around 80 people comprise the group, all of whom accepted Jesus after North American missionaries came by way of Panama and spent two years among them. Conde serves as his community’s spiritual leader and works closely with their appointed tribal governor.

Originally from an isolated forest area called Bojaya, Conde’s tribe has twice been driven from their homeland, first by guerillas, and then again by paramilitaries. Two of his friends were murdered during the first crisis. During a second confrontation on Dec. 12, 2016, Conde’s cousin and childhood friend were murdered after refusing to work in the paramilitaries’ cocaine fields.

Conde’s black eyes are stoic and his voice low. “We feel these losses very, very deeply,” he says. “Also, we are proud of our indigenous heritage, and we believe we should have our land. In our first displacement, the guerillas threatened us and ordered our children and youth to join them. We do not have weapons. We are not aggressive. There were no police, no army, nothing to help us. And so, the guerillas drove us out. We had to go away from our farms, homes, and animals. We were given food by other people the first time we fled, but not the second.”

Now staying under flimsy plastic tarps on a beach in the northern coastal town of Bahia Solano, the Embera Dobida live in limbo and uncertainty. “In the past, our ancestors never had walls, only roofs,” Conde says. “But now the world has changed, and walls are going up all over.”

“Our people do not use money or pay bills at home,” he continues. “We live by hunting, fishing, and farming. It is a very difficult life. We see God’s hands sustaining us through the work of our own hands. But in Bahia Solano, we are not free to do that. Yet still we see God’s hand at work, providing for us. We know He has not left us.”

Daily Conde reminds his people that even while living in crisis, they must not leave the Lord. “Though we have been displaced and cannot work, somehow we have what we need. Our fellow tribes have not been displaced, yet so many times they do not have what they need. That is because they do not trust the Lord. We have plans to go to them and evangelize them so that they too can learn to trust Him.”

Women make artisan baskets and jewelry to sell, and they hope to grow plantains for more income. They desperately need a medical clinic. A small Assemblies of God church there gives them what aid they can, and the governor has granted them temporary permission to stay, but still they yearn to return home.

Paramilitaries still inhabit Bojaya, and Embera farms and homes have been destroyed. The threat of being forced to work as drug runners or cocaine farmers is all too real. Paramilitaries first offer money for the work, but once the work is done, refuse to pay. Tribal members who refuse to do any further labor are murdered.

Conde explains that because of such threats, his people have considered permanently moving closer to a larger town for safety. This poses many challenges, as the rift between Colombians and the country’s 110 indigenous people groups runs very deep. But it would also allow the Embera Dobida easier access to schools, food, and hospitals.  As Conde says, many in the community die needlessly of snakebite and malaria.

The community governor and Conde both hope to obtain further education to help them guide their people through increasingly difficult times. The two men were given some college-level Bible courses, but because their formal education stopped after the third grade, they find the courses difficult to study.

In March 2017, Conde traveled to Bogotá to meet with AGWM missionary Mike Lawrence. Never in his life did he imagine traveling so far, he says. The trip required an airplane ride.

He grins. “I am the only person I know of in our tribe who has flown in an airplane. We only know about walking. We do not fly. I was a little afraid. My mother was very afraid and said to me, ‘Who knows what might happen to you so high in the air?’ I told her, ‘Don’t worry. God never lets His sons be lost. If He is with me, I can find anything.’”

Conde’s faith was rewarded, and he was not allowed to be lost. Upon landing in Bogotá’s bustling airport, Conde was astonished to run into a friend he met in Bahia Solano. That friend helped him navigate the airport and secure a taxi to his lodging at Central Bible Seminary, Colombia’s Bible college.

Once safely in Bogotá, Conde could begin building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with missionary Mike Lawrence and Colombian believers.

Mike and Naomi Lawrence’s hearts beat for people like Conde. They have served in Colombia since 1992, weathering the nation’s upheaval and walking alongside its people.

“The peace treaty the Colombian government signed with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016 has opened the door to many rural communities that before were completely inaccessible because of violence, and that therefore have zero gospel witness,” Mike explains. “The Colombia AG plans to plant 1,000 new churches in those communities. But that requires 1,000 trained pastors, and a huge infrastructure that we don’t have. Those pastors must be willing to sacrifice.”

Note: For more information, please read the February 2018 WorldView magazine, “United by Christ.” Many opportunities for ministry exist in Colombia today. There is need for short- and long-term service at multiple locations, including construction, medical and counseling services, teaching, children’s and youth ministry, church planting, and much more. To learn more, visit wideopenmissions.org and select “Latin America & Caribbean” and “Colombia” in the filter options.

Kristel Zelaya

Kristel Zelaya is a freelance writer and editor with global experience. She served as marketing manager for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions and as a writer and editor for Assemblies of God World Missions. These experiences have led her to numerous countries and cultures — far from beaten paths — on behalf of many who did not know how deeply their stories matter. Zelaya is also a licensed Assemblies of God minister.