Introducing the ITC Platform among one of the most highly displaced people groups in the world
Suffering economic and political turmoil, more than 7 million Venezuelans have left their country and 3 million have made the arduous 60-mile crossing to resettle in Colombia. Colombia has one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the world, with 5.2 million desplazados, internally displaced people (usually from rural to urban contexts). Servant Partners Strategic Coordinator Mark Cloherty began researching Colombia’s urban refugee crisis with one key question: How can we support the church in Colombia?
“60 percent of the world’s refugees live in urban communities,” Mark said. “The church in Colombia has had so much experience of responding to conflict and displacement over the last 20, 30 years, which has given them a unique perspective and voice on this major systemic challenge.”
In Cúcuta, Colombia—a border city that has grown by 35% due to Venezuelan refugees—stands Iglesia para la Frontera, a church located just 100 meters from the international border crossing in an urban poor community. At least 50% of the church are refugees, and they are focused on holistic ministry. This was precisely the kind of church Mark wanted to support by bridging with other churches and organizations doing similar work.
“The church in Colombia has had so much experience of responding to conflict and displacement over the last 20, 30 years, which has given them a unique perspective and voice on this major systemic challenge.”
Through Servant Partners’ National Movements Initiative (Vision 2030), Mark began this work and visited Barranquilla, Colombia,where he met with Daniel Bravo, director of Fundacion Doulos, a nonprofit organization building grassroots capacity among church and community leaders for holistic work among migrants.
“Daniel was already starting to think about connecting churches on a national level,” Mark recounted. “He talked to me about the idea for 15 minutes and asked, ‘Do you think I'm crazy?’ I responded, ‘I don't think so. I think we can work together on this.’”
In a partnership between Servant Partners and Fundacion Doulos, Mark and Daniel initiated the ITC Platform as a “Biblical grassroots movement of church planting and mission connecting churches and organizations through the development of the ITC Platform in key strategic areas.” The ITC Platform is a hub of connections, including digital connections, regional gatherings, and national conferences happening at various points every year. It aims to catalyze a movement of churches to be agents of transformation across Colombia and other parts of Latin America.
The project has six strategies to mobilize the church within a local context: (1) Water, sanitation, and hygiene; (2) Sports, recreation & arts; (3) Advocacy and civil responsibility, especially with local government; (4) Humanitarian support; (5) Holistic support for the migrant population; and (6) Business and entrepreneurship as mission. The ITC Platform is already connecting and equipping churches to address the holistic needs of urban refugees.
The Villa Caracas community of Barranquilla is an informal community with nearly 12,000 refugees and extreme poverty. The ITC Platform is supporting a few local churches responding to this population by establishing grupos de apoyos (support groups) that address various needs.
“One consequence of migration is that people have to be in survival mode, and quickly become isolated,” Mark said. “There’s been real progress with establishing connection points in the community. There are several support groups focused just on women. One group has started a cleaning business to employ some of the population. Another is coaching local youth in baseball. Venezuelans often have to pay daily rent in Colombia, which the community is also organizing to change. ”
While tourists flock to Colombia’s port city Cartagena, roughly 70% of its population–including Venezuelan refugees–lives in poverty.
“What we’ve found is that some people are already doing incarnational ministry in these neighborhoods,” Mark said. “There’s been amazing reconciliation work around music in Cartagena, as Colombian and Venezuelan youth are learning and performing one another’s traditional music. One nonprofit organization opened a restaurant that employs both Colombian and Venezuelan people, which is giving a livelihood to Venezuelans who have found it challenging to make ends meet upon migrating.”
When Mark visited Montería, a city on the Colombia-Panama border, he encountered several Colombian pastors who had been displaced from other parts of Colombia, and were now reaching out to Venezuelans. One pastor’s church was planting groupo de apoyos among Venezuelan women, who were living with their children while their husbands had left ahead to the United States.
“This is a common story in a context like Colombia,” Mark said. “This pastor has his own suffering by displacement, but is taking on the role of welcoming the stranger by caring for refugee women and their families. These testimonies of some 40 women were all about the local church, and the difference it made in their lives.”