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People of Faith Rally Against Colombian Free Trade Agreement

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Jose's phone rang. When he picked up the receiver, no one was on the other line. He hung up.

The next time he heard the ring, his wife answered, and a menacing voice said, "Tell that man to calm down his tongue or we will cut it out."

It's not unusual for people in Jose's position to receive threats. And it's far too common for the warnings to become a reality. Jose had just returned from a collective bargaining table. He is a labor organizer in Colombia, a place where 51 unionists were killed in 2010.

But Jose didn't settle his tongue. In fact, on July 11, he stood in front of a backdrop of 51 black coffins and courageously shared his story with 150 people of faith, environmental activists and labor leaders at a dramatic rally in front of the White House. They gathered for one reason: to stop the Free Trade Agreement in Colombia.

Many Presbyterians in the U.S. became intimately connected with the difficulties when Colombian church leaders reached out to the PC(USA). Cooperatively, Presbyterians from Colombia and the U.S. set up the Colombia Accompaniment Program so that Presbyterians from the United States could escort Colombian human rights workers in times when their lives might be in danger. The hope was that an international presence might stem a violent attack.

Many people who have been involved in the Colombia Accompaniment Program, which is run by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, were gathered under the trees on that hot afternoon as environmentalists, labor organizers and pastors spoke out against the Columbian Free Trade Agreement. One by one, they explained how Free Trade Agreements have set up a system where large agro-business moves into a country, small farmers become devastated, indigenous citizens lose rights and the land becomes ravaged.

"This will make the poor much poorer, and the rich unbelievably rich," Rick Ufford-Chase, a former Moderator of the General Assembly, the highest elected office of the PC(USA), reminded us. Then Ufford-Chase explained how he had attended a funeral of one of the labor organizers. At that service, they read 2 Corinthians 6:4-10. He echoed the words, offering them up, as we stood, remembering those who died:

[B]ut as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see -- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The crowd began to process, with the coffins, banners and signs around Lafayette Square. Trumpeters played solemn music as drummers kept the time. At the end of one of the paths, a minister stood with bread and juice, so that Christians could take communion, remembering the Body of Christ that had also been broken.

The procession moved to the front of the White House, where the men and women placed the coffins on the sidewalk. A row of men and women stood with the coffins, singing and chanting.

Police quickly came, placing barricades and yellow tape around the crowd, instructing us to move back to the park and making it clear that those who remained inside the blockade would be arrested. Five people stood firm, singing, crying and praying for the people of Colombia. Rick Ufford-Chase remained among them, reading Scripture. As the Police bound their hands and they climbed into the secure white vans, the crowd sang in English and Spanish, "We will not be moved."

Yet, I think we were all moved, remembering those who had given their lives. We were moved by seeing people of faith standing with our brothers and sisters in Colombia, against the Free Trade Agreements that have devastated so many people and lands in in Mexico, Central America and around the world. Most of all, we were moved with the hope that President Barack Obama would keep his campaign promise to stop this agreement as human rights violations such as these continue.

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