As I sit to write this article I realise we are less Australian than we were 26 years ago. The things that stood out back then seem normal now, and in so many areas we have adapted to the culture here. However, there are certain things that continue to amuse us, even on a daily basis.
I remember taking a video out of the plane window as we landed in Bogota Airport on the morning of 16 January 1994 and, like a real reporter, announcing to my viewers of the slums we were seeing lined up along the airport perimeter. I had to grin to myself years later when I realized these are middle-class suburbs. What I was seeing on our arrival was the side view of respectable and well-maintained houses. A side view of our own house looked the same a few years ago before we got neighbours and our backyard still looks the same today, walls with unrendered rough brick surfaces.
I remember when we arrived, meeting one of the local church elders and trying to say his name, Libardo (Le-barrr-dough). I still laugh to myself thinking how hard it was to roll those r’s. It still gets us in trouble even today. One that comes to mind is carga (load). If you don’t roll the R it is slang for going to the toilet, a number 2. After years of starting the hymn “What a great load, Oh Saviour, you carried for me”, I was informed of my error. Now I have a mind block if ever I have to start that hymn. I’m so glad we have a music track for it now!
Then there was the children’s meeting when the family living in the church building acquired a new puppy. It was at the back of the room playing around and the children were paying more attention to the dog than to what I was saying. Finally, I said “Now children, I'm the dog here tonight.” They just burst into laughter and my kids just stared at me in disbelief. I had just informed them that I was the local ladies’ man!
Then there are the old wives’ tales. For example, that opening the fridge door when you are hot will cause your face to twist up. They all know somebody who suffered such a misfortune. There is also the ‘bad eye’ where someone looks at your child with a bad eye and the child gets sick. The twisted bowel if a baby is thrown in the air, and cotton wool in the ears of new mums so they don’t get air into where their baby just came out. Along with that is the 40-day diet and special care after the birth and the sitting over smoking herbs to finish the event.
And there are dos and don’ts. You don’t say discussion, you say dialogue—a discussion is a heated argument. You never say someone is gossiping—you say they are murmuring. Then there was the time I indicated to a fellow that he wasn’t a Christian. That was an offence because there is the belief that if you’re not a Christian, you’re a dog.
Our Aussie sense of humor doesn't go down really well, I’ve learned from experience. I remonstrated the believers for coming in late to meetings. Halfway through the Lord’s supper they would casually walk in, greeting all as they walked to their seat. I wanted to say they were coming in like ‘Brown’s cows’. I translated that to they come in like ‘cows going to the dairy shed’—it wasn’t really appreciated that I compared them to cows. Lesson learnt.
Lying is almost a virtue in the Colombian culture. The funniest one I experienced was when I went to visit an elderly lady and when I went to the door the 10-year-old granddaughter came to the door and told me that “Grandma said that she wasn’t home just now” just as I saw her Grandma walk across the hallway at the back of the house. Mañana, which means tomorrow, can mean anytime. They say that “your order will be in tomorrow” and more than likely they haven’t even ordered it yet.
Then there are the little tricks you learn to get something moving. Qué pena means “I am so embarrassed but…” One of the things that we still find difficult is to enter a shop and interrupt the salesperson while they are serving a customer. However, everyone else enters and butts in with their order and you end up getting left behind.
When there is a roadblock, the traffic just bunches up, blocking the whole road until neither lane of traffic can move. Traffic lights are just ornaments to be admired for many. I remember Geoff Thomson telling us of a Frenchman who once said “I love this country, there’s a law for everything, but you can break every one of them.” The culture is very ‘me first’. It is very male chauvinistic, yet matriarchal. The mother is like another god, yet the men are the kings. The boys in the family are brought up by their mothers to be male chauvinists. They are not taught to make their bed or do any household chores. That does not make for good husband material. It is amazing how God changes these inbuilt traits when some of these men have a genuine conversion to Jesus Christ. For others old habits die hard.
I could ramble on with many more interesting, funny and even embarrassing situations that have been our experience, but now let us look at the changes in the church arena since those early days. One of the early things we did was to build a trailer. This was built on the second level of the church building and lowered down to the ground on bamboo poles. It was used for carrying building material, but also was a handy asset to go on church outings and baptisms. Today we would get a hefty fine for such activities. Our 4WD vehicle was always loaded up taking believers to meetings, conferences and camps. The luggage went on top to allow room for more people. Today we would not be allowed to carry those large numbers of people in that particular vehicle.
After we had completed 10 months of language study in Armenia, we moved to Tulua to live in January 1995. From humble beginnings of 15 baptised believers, the local church increased in number, outgrowing our first building in 2002. Our present building has a seating capacity of 220-250 pre-COVID-19 and there are regularly 200 people there on a Sunday morning. Our desire is to hive off a sister church in another area of town in the next couple of years rather than having one large Assembly. We would like to see a local church established in Buga and Bugalagrande also. A small group of 11 believers began meeting in Neiva a fortnight before the lockdown. Since then we have been meeting via Zoom with all the believers from Buga, Bugalagrande and Neiva.
Children’s ministry, youth activities and ladies’ Bible studies have always been part of the Assembly work here. We see God raising up some good young men whom we would hope will be future elders and Bible teachers. It is good to see these men being able to use their own culture to reach men and women for Christ. They do not have the barriers that we have. Language is still a struggle for us even though we make ourselves understood. There is always the people who switch off when they realise we are foreigners while others think it’s a stroke of luck to have a foreigner in their presence so they can practise the little bit of English they learnt at school. You can pick the ones who think you’re easy bait to get money out of; their eyes almost light up with dollar bills. One sister invited Lyn to visit her and then told a friend who was also there that we had come to Colombia to give money to the poor people.
One of the changes we have seen in our area of ministry is that the believers are studying the Scriptures for themselves, as the Bereans who were commended for being more noble. The early believers were mainly uneducated simple believers who relied heavily on the missionary for teaching and the interpretation of Scripture, and because of that they thought the missionary was infallible. The believers of today have been to school and many to university, and they have the mindset to study for themselves. I do not want to be misinterpreted in what I have said, but there is a clear difference between the two generations of believers. They both love the Lord with a whole heart and are genuinely sincere.
As in most cultures, the world has a great attraction on our youth. We have seen some young men and women who showed such promise at the beginning, being drawn away by the world, the flesh and the Devil.
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from Him who calls you. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” – Gal 5:7-9
I believe we are living in maybe the most exciting time in history. Most would believe that the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is near. Evil in the world is increasing at such a phenomenal rate. Globalisation is taking hold of our governments and many other things are happening behind the scenes, no doubt motivated by the Prince of the Power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. Yet we still have freedom to reach out to the world with the gospel, encourage one another, and communicate with one another using technology that we have at our fingertips. This pandemic has shown in no uncertain terms the power of modern technology in the church. It has enabled us to keep in touch with the flock visibly and audibly, to sing and pray and study the Scriptures together. It is not the same as meeting face-to-face, never will be the same, but it has been a blessing in modern times.
by Byron Johannesen