By Emilie Teresa Smith
I am lost on Sexta Carretera, going one way, then the other, with growing frustration. My cell phone is dying, and the red pin on the map showing the cathedral seems unclear. At last, I catch a flash of bright purple. Bishop Elias Garcia Cardenas comes out from around a corner and finds me. He leads me gingerly through a parking lot, then into a labyrinth of construction material, dust, and waste clogging the basement of the Catedral Episcopal-Anglicana San Pablo in Bogotá, Colombia.
“The church is under construction,” he says, apologizing as we pick our way through in the semi-dark. “Here’s where the library will go. And the meeting room. And a place for coffee after church.” He sounds hopeful, motivated. He greets workmen, and they call back with a friendly “Obispo!”
We go up another floor, to the offices. I wait while he goes to fetch me a tinto, a particularly delicious Colombian style of strong coffee served in small cups. I snoop around, scanning the photos on the walls: previous bishops of Colombia, five of them, the first two from the United States, the last three, indigenous Colombians. And there’s the long horizontal photo of hundreds of bishops at Lambeth. I check the year: 2008. Across the room there’s another Lambeth photo, bright and new: 2022.
Elias Garcia Cardenas was consecrated as fifth Bishop of Colombia on February 16. Before coming to his cathedral in Bogotá, he was the rector of San Lucas Anglican Church in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city.
“These are early days,” I say as we settle into comfortable chairs. “But what would you say are your greatest hopes for the months and years to come?”
“The last few years have been hard times, since the pandemic,” he says, his eyes warm. “In Colombia, and in the world.”
“We are ready to take some steps forward. Our focus now is with our youth, and our families. We are trying to make our connections solid. We have new projects, like a construction in Barranquilla, apartments, and a house of hospitality, a kind of hostel. We have a new gardening project just to the south of Bogotá, in Cundinamarca. Like all churches, like all communities everywhere, we are thinking a lot about the environment.”
Colombia, a country of almost 50 million inhabitants, has been identified as particularly vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. Most Colombians live either in mountainous areas of the Andes or in low-lying coastal communities. Both regions face severe challenges: erosion, flooding, and rising sea levels threaten millions, while government support for infrastructure has been limited.
“The five marks of mission are where we are focusing,” Bishop Elias says. “Everything we need to do is there.”
“What would you say is the most important of the five?” I ask.
Bishop Elias hesitates. “That is a hard question,” he says, then pauses for another minute.
“Colombia is a huge country,” he says. “There are so many challenges, at a national level, and with our families and parishioners. They are all critically important. Care of creation is central to the survival of us all, and the questions of injustice and violence speak particularly to our nation’s history.”
“Do you think the new government will make any difference?” I ask. As I made my way to the cathedral, I spied an enormous mural depicting a close-up of the determined face of Colombia’s newly elected vice president, Francia Márquez. Ms. Márquez is of Afro-Colombian heritage, a community leader, a feminist, and environmental activist. Great hope has been placed on her, on the freshly minted progressive president, Gustavo Petro, and their new government.
But historic forces of opposition — dirty money and drug-fueled elites and their paramilitary forces — threaten any advances in environmental, racial, and economic justice. The church, especially the Episcopal Church, is small, but can play an outsized role in offering a Christian community focused on active love. Since 2012, the Episcopal Church in Colombia has been a part of the ecumenical group Mesa Ecumenica por la Paz, strengthening the unified presence of Christians in the national peace-building movement.
“I’m not holding out all my hope in the political arena,” Bishop Elias says. “But we are present and we pray.”
The church is focused on important local things, he says. “We are really small. We have 12 parishes and 10 missions. And none of our clergy receive a salary. Our goal is to be self-sustaining. By 2024, we are going to begin a formal separation from [financial dependence on] the Episcopal Church in the United States.
“Our five-year pastoral plan includes these points: women’s full dignity; children; ethnic groups; liturgical improvements; displaced people — we’ve had waves of Venezuelans coming into Colombia — and full inclusion of all.”
Does his church have a position on folks who define themselves as LGBT? Bishop Elias does not hesitate: “We are all children of God. No one is excluded. We have a deeply inclusive and profound commitment to love one another, in all of our diversity.”
Our hour is winding down, but Bishop Elias wants to show me the sanctuary. We head through the offices again, and into the dark, cool space of the cathedral.
“It is small if one is thinking cathedral,” Bishop Elias says. The space is beautiful, quiet, peaceful. “But it is just right for us. I know people look to us, and say, ‘Here they are. These ones who love one another. They are the ones building the kingdom.’”
The Rev. Emilie Teresa Smith is rector of St. Barnabas Anglican Church, New Westminster, British Columbia.