By David Agren
Catholic News Service
CHIQUINQUIRA, Colombia (CNS) — Kids in this Colombian community — named for the country’s patroness, Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquira — kick soccer balls on a cement court under the watchful eye of a student physical education instructor. The instructor-trainer, hired through a Caritas program known as Seeds of Peace, promotes skills, but also values such as teamwork, fair play and punctuality.
Such programs to promote values in young people and keep kids from falling into vices such as crime and drugs are common the world over. But in Colombia, the church’s charitable agency Caritas and many dioceses are promoting these programs with another purpose: building peace in a country consumed by conflict for more than five decades.
The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, signed a peace accord last year. But those trying to plant seeds of peace among children and youth say the such attempts at pacifying Colombia need to start with families and at the grass roots and in cities such as Chiquinquira, home to 72,000 residents.
“I’m in favor” of the accord, said the trainer, Oscar Paez, but he expressed reservations and said social issues such as poverty and a lack of opportunity persist and threaten to undermine the peace process.
“This problem (in Colombia) also is seen in children. We’re trying to fix the problem with the older people. If we don’t work with children, what’s going to happen in the future? Another conflict,” he said.
Colombia, where Pope Francis visited Sept. 6–10, is promoting reconciliation. The pope’s trip had the motto, “Let’s take the first step” toward achieving peace, with all citizens playing their part.
Pope Francis addressed youth in Bogota Sept. 7. He urged them to, “Dream big,” and, “Help us elders not become accustomed to pain and death.”
The pope later urged members of the Latin American bishops’ council: “Make (young people) part of your local churches. Invest time and training in them.”
Church officials in Colombia see young people as key players in helping the country move forward. For one thing, they do not carry as many old resentments from the past, unlike their parents, who experienced the worst of the conflict. Some activists, who were victims of violence, are also trying to teach young people about what occurred.
“It’s a new generation, a generation that in many cases did not necessarily grow up with conflict,” said Msgr. Hector Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombia. “They see it as something distant.”
Colombia’s armed conflict never consumed Chiquinquira, popular with pilgrims visiting shrines to the national patroness, although displaced persons arrived over the years.
Locals say wildcat emerald mine operators formed paramilitaries, which fought among themselves, but also repelled attempts by guerrilla groups to enter the area. When the government imposed order in the mining sector several years ago, the paramilitaries disbanded, but sought other illegal sources of income.
“Paramilitaries demobilized, but they became drug dealers in the country’s smaller cities,” said Wilner Cortes, a university professor and lay volunteer with youth in Chiquinquira.
Diocesan volunteers started their youth outreach five years ago. Cortes said they were unsure where to start, but women in some parishes spoke of their children being lured into drug consumption.
Since the children all liked soccer, the social ministry in the Diocese of Chiquinquira started a league. Some of the laity also visit homes in rough barrios, figuring peace starts with the family.
Young people interviewed after a soccer session expressed hope for the future, though with reservations.
“We all want peace,” said Adrian Heredia, 16, but added. “Colombia is a society that doesn’t forgive.”
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Follow Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.