“Youth for others” in Colombia

By Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez

Eight years ago, after completing sociology studies in Bogotá, I felt powerless as I watched Colombia bleed daily due to our 30-year conflict. Thanks to the generous invitation of a Jesuit friend, I started a journey to serve as a volunteer in war-affected communities. I never thought this journey would last so long, that it would take me to different lands and, above all, that it would impact the depths of my heart. I was also surprised to meet so many young people who, like me, were looking for an option in life of service of others.

In 1973 Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ told a group of alumni from Jesuit schools that the goal of the Society of Jesus was “to form people for others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God; people who cannot conceive of love of God without love for their neighbours, an effective love with justice as its first criterion.”

 The JRS music project in action (Photo: L. Fernando).

The JRS music project in action (Photo: L. Fernando)

I write these words, almost 40 years after that conference, from the border region between Ecuador and Colombia, where as part of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) – which was founded by the same Arrupe in 1980 – I contribute to building opportunities of justice for thousands of people who have fled from war to find a place where they may live in peace.

Within JRS in Latin America and the Caribbean, I’ve been able to realize my option of service, learned at home and illuminated by faith, in the example of Jesus. I have the opportunity to share with others, most of them young, a simple lifestyle in small communities in the places where we reach people affected by violence. It is a lifestyle based on generosity. Many young people offer voluntary service for one or two years, committing their intelligence, capabilities and a very strong love, to build together alternatives for peace and justice amid the violent reality.

One of the most regrettable things about the irrationality of war is the use of adolescents. It’s as if everything has been planned: lack of education, poor living conditions, offers from warlords… all leading up to drawing young people into illegal activities. The best years of their lives wasted. Many don’t even survive their youth.

Music is one means of communication we use to strengthen war-affected communities. In Buenaventura, a port in the Colombian Pacific that has been home to death and violence for a decade, where young people have been the hardest hit, working with talented musicians has brought hope of salvation for many. One artist, who arrived in the Colombian city a few years ago as a commander of groups of armed youth, told me: “If it were not for music I’d already be dead. Now I am a role model for other young people who have before them the same path of violence I experienced.”

This article by Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the same title. Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez served as the Latin America advocacy coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).