How An America Preacher Came To Help The Colombian Rebels Who Abducted Him
As an American citizen traveling through remote corners of Colombia at the height of the nation’s civil war, Russell Martin Stendal offered an enticing prospect for left-wing rebels who often kidnapped foreigners for ransom.
So tempting, in fact, that Stendal was abducted five times by different units of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.
“I would be moving through the countryside and they would see this gringo and –pah! They would grab me,” he recalls.
The first time, in 1983, Stendal was held for five months with his hands tied to a tree with nylon. Eventually his captor – an indigenous rebel commander – recognized him as the son of a man whose lifelong work had focussed on helping indigenous groups in the country. That was enough for the guerrillas to release him – but not to prevent them from seizing him again.
Given the number of times he was kidnapped, it might be natural for Stendal to nurse bitter and resentfulness toward the Farc.
Instead, he claims to be helping the Marxist guerrillas negotiate an end to the country’s 51-year civil war in peace talks being held in Havana.
Aboard his 50-foot sailboat moored at the Marina Hemingway on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, Stendal says his involvement has nothing to do with Stockholm syndrome, but rather his belief that he can “disarm hearts”.
Stendal has not played a direct part in the peace talks, describing his role as that of a “spiritual guide” to the rebel group.
That a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist revolutionary army would receive spiritual counsel of a Christian missionary from the United States might seem incongruous, but despite Farc’s doctrinaire public face, many of its members are in fact Catholic or evangelical Christians.
“I don’t know anything about negotiations and I am not a conflict resolution expert,” says Stendal, sitting below deck on the Viajero del Alba, or Voyager of the Dawn. “I offered to be a friend and to be a spiritual light for them.”
The polished wood table is strewn with bibles in English and Spanish, as well as several books on Christian thought authored by Stendal, known as Russ to friends in English and Martin in Spanish.
Stendal – Havana Marina
(Pictured By Another Boat)
Born in Minnesota, Stendal still keeps a small cabin in the state – but he considers his real home to be Colombia, where he arrived at the age of eight when his father set out to do missionary work among the country’s indigenous groups. Stendal followed his father’s footsteps into evangelism but focused his work on combatants in the country’s conflict.
Stendal does not subscribe to any particular religious sect. He founded a church called Colombia for Christ and is closely linked to a group called The Voice of the Martyrs, a non-profit interdenominational organization that helps “persecuted Christians” throughout the world.
But his experiences in Colombia transcends the spiritual plane. Discussing the current negotiations between Farc and the government, he reveals sharp political insight about Colombia, the actors in the conflict, and the way forward toward ending it.
“We can’t win the battle against political and economic corruption without fighting a religious war as well,” he says.
Colombian government negotiators say they doubt Stendal is playing any role in the talks, but sources within the Farc confirmed that he wields significant influence over senior rebel leaders.
Last week, government and rebel negotiators jointly requested a UN mission to verify the guerrillas’ disarmament and to monitor a bilateral ceasefire once a final peace agreement is signed, which could happen as soon as March. The two sides have reached agreement on four of six main negotiation points since talks started in Havana in November 2012.
Just two months after the peace talks had formally started, Stendal was invited by his former kidnappers to Havana.
“They asked for my forgiveness and asked me to accompany them,” he says.
Wanting to avoid any misunderstanding about his role, Stendal first sought permission, speaking to a high-level Colombian general and political officers at the US embassy in Bogotá. “They gave me the green light to give the Farc ideas for peace,” he says.
US officials acknowledged Stendal as a “player” in the peace process and added that the US “talks to all players”.
Stendal’s presence on the side-lines of negotiations has not been without controversy: last February he was arrested in Bogotá and charged with rebellion. Local headlines at the time read “The gringo missionary who helped the Farc” and “American guerrilla of the Farc captured”.
He was released a day later – something virtually unheard of in a justice system where even the falsely accused spend months or years behind bars before their cases are dropped.
Farc pressure may have been behind the quick release. On his arrest, the rebels issued a statement calling it a “judicial false positive” and adding that prosecutors had “confused evangelisation with rebellion”.
“I have a lot of friends and my friends have enemies, so I won some enemies as well,” says Stendal. The charges against him have not been entirely dropped and the case was bumped up to a superior court in December.
But Stendal denies being a rebel sympathizer, saying that in his missionary work he has dealt with guerrillas, paramilitaries and government troops alike, handing out bibles and solar powered shortwave radios to all sides.
“I meet with rebels, I meet with generals and I met with paramilitaries,” Stendal says.
In between talking to guerrillas on his sailboat Stendal gives evangelising conferences in the US, Canada, Europe and Africa and runs several powerful radio stations that transmit via short wave into the deepest corners of the jungles and mountains of Colombia.
Last Days Of Blood In Colombia
But for now, he spends much of his time on his boat in Havana, hosting guerrillas and army generals participating in the talks. Pulling out his smartphone, he shows pictures of senior guerrilla leaders aboard the boat, which Stendal sometimes takes out for a spin with them. “Not too far because of security restrictions,” he notes.
All the factions in Colombia’s conflict have been accused of terrible crimes against humanity: massacres, rape, kidnapping and forced displacement. After decades of civil war, many Colombians have questioned whether Farc fighters should be allowed back into society.
But Stendal is convinced that the guerrillas are ready to change. “I try to encourage them to do the right thing, to remove the thorns and to heal the wounds of the heart,” says Stendal.
He argues that the transformation can already be seen in some rebel leaders.
“I have seen a change in the looks in their eyes,” he says.