I had only been 21 for a couple of weeks. For all intents and purposes, I was an adult. However, deep down inside I felt like an imposter. There I stood at the counter in Miami trying to understand the paper the attendant had slid across the counter for me to sign. It was from the United States Department of Defense. I’m no legal document expert but from the looks of it I was signing away my rights as a US citizen. Phrases along the lines of, “You are knowingly entering a country hostile toward the United States,” followed by, “you will not receive assistance from the United States in situations like abduction,” littered the document. I hesitated in signing but knew it was the final hurdle to getting on the airplane. Why not? The worst thing that happens is I die, right? I guess that’s the price of admission for adventure in God’s Kingdom. I signed my name full of fake, manufactured confidence and in the most official way I could imagine. I buried the feelings of fear and inadequacy. Moments later I walked down the tarmac to board the airplane headed to Medellin, Colombia.
The idea was to visit a new home church in Medellin to lend support, participate in outreach and get to know the culture. We were there to meet other brothers and sisters in Christ and serve them as best we could. We expected to be a novelty seeing that not many people from the United States had spent time in Colombia. In fact, we were told that we were the only “Americans” most people had met. As a result, and from the moment we landed, we stood out and tended to gather a crowd.
There were about a dozen of us from the United States and we were told by our team leader Pastor Dave that two conversation topics were guaranteed to get us shot or abducted: religion and politics. The fact that we were there for “religious” purposes seemed problematic to me. To avoid any unnecessary gunfire, our main ways of outreach would be music (sung in English), skits with no words and general religious topics that would not be offensive to the highly Catholic population of the city. Basically, I had to learn to be a 6’ 4” pale skinned mime in a sea of shorter, less pale people. There was no hiding.
The reason political discussion was discouraged was due mostly to Pablo Escobar. Those who have seen one of the numerous documentaries on him know that in the late 80’s and early 90’s Pablo was known as the “King of Cocaine.” His drug empire provided an estimated 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. However, what we knew as the smuggling, kidnapping, massacring drug dealer was not how he was known to the people of his home town, Medellin. To those, especially the poor, Pablo was more of a “Robin Hood” figure. He provided money for infrastructure to the city and gave a lot back to the people. To say he was popular is a bit of an understatement. The overall feeling was that Pablo was a Man of the People and the Son of Medellin.
Around the same time as Pablo Escobar’s rise to power, George Bush Sr. was elected president of the United States and enacted his “war on drugs” policy. I clearly remember the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs at school with tag lines like, “Say nope to dope,” and, “Say ugg to drugs.” Internationally, the new anti-drug policy put pressure on the Colombian government to extradite drug lords to the United States for trial. In December 1993 Pablo Escobar was killed by Colombian Police attempting to capture him for extradition. The money he was contributing to Medellin quickly dried up along with the benefit to the people. To those who lived in Medellin, the United States was responsible for killing one of their most generous contributors. Political conversation was off limits!
We arrived in country a little over 5 years later, in time to see the effects of Pablo’s death through the slow decay of the city. Roads were in disrepair and infrastructure was not being maintained. Guerilla warfare and cartel violence plagued the entire country. It felt as if a once beautiful city was slowly dying. We were told to be careful traveling the city due to the potential risk to us for now obvious reasons. When we weren’t traveling in a large group, we traveled in pairs. We slept in a small house that had gated windows and doors.
The first night in country was spent building rapport with the younger people of the church mainly through music and a $20 electronic Spanish/English translator I bought just before the trip. I fell into an uneasy rest that night as the realities of where I slept set it. I was locked in a house in a city hostile to my country without knowing the language. I was banking my whole hope on a group of people I hardly knew and a cheap translator. It was as exciting and adventurous a spot I had ever found myself up to that point in my life. We woke the next morning to news that someone, unknown to the church, was shot and killed overnight less than 100’ from our front door. This place was far from tame.