2018 Young Alumni Award Winner
By Carter McKay-Epp ’19
While at Goshen College, Jes Stoltzfus Buller ’08 was the type of student who somehow managed to do it all. Buller played on both the varsity basketball and volleyball teams for GC, while also managing a double major consisting of sociology and Bible, religion and philosophy.
Buller’s SST experience and the unique slate of classes offered at Goshen College were key motivators in her decision to lead a life working with conflict. She is now the Peace Education Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). According to Buller, a Liberation Theology class opened her eyes to her privileges and previously-held assumptions.
“That was really foundational in my desire to leave the United States,” Buller said.
Buller had lived what she described as an easy life before graduating from Goshen, and felt compelled to live in a place where she could not avoid conflict.
“I started hearing lots of people telling me about Colombia,” she said. “They would tell me that the Mennonite church does amazing things there and that they’re really engaged with peace work.”
Shortly after graduating from Goshen College in 2008, Buller moved to Colombia as a part of Mennonite Central Committee’s Seed program. For eight years, Buller worked as a facilitator and community organizer on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
Buller was originally placed in Zambrano, Colombia, a small town of less than ten thousand people near the Carribean coast. In Zambrano, Buller worked with a local Pentecostal church doing community organizing and peacebuilding trainings. After her volunteer years with Seed ended, Buller stayed and worked as the director of the Seed Program for two years, then continued as a succonded worker to the organization Sembrandopaz (sowing peace), on local peacebuilding initiatives.
Buller was amazed at the dedication of the Colombians in the face of decades of conflict.
“These communities, they don’t need peacebuilding strategies. They are intelligent, creative people who already know so much,” said Buller.
Buller often found herself sitting at meetings between community members and local government officials, taking notes and organizing ideas. Thanks to the hard work of her and others at Sembrandopaz, Buller would witness victories such as community peace marches, reparation hearings, and the building of key roads and other infrastructure such as new schools in her time with the organization.
However, in March of 2015, Buller was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in a broken femur, burns and other significant physical damage. The resulting surgeries and rehabilitation put her on a long road to recovery, and she still is not yet fully healed.
“My accident was a huge turning point in my life,” Buller said. “I had to completely freeze the work I was doing and learn to delegate in ways I’ve never done before. After getting out of the hospital and returning from rehab in the United States, I couldn’t get out to rural communities that I weekly visited, and I didn’t have the energy or physical stamina to work full-time for a good while, so the nature of my work took a huge shift.”
Because of this, Buller moved back to Goshen for further medical treatment.
During Buller’s time in Colombia, local leaders were able to get the attention of government officials and, with a good deal of compromise and effort, work side-by-side to improve conditions in their communities.
“I was a small part of really big events,” Buller said. “We could do that because the organization was very well respected.”
Buller believes in the importance of listening to the victims as well as working with the oppressors when in the process of peacebuilding.
“I think that one thing that I learned is that before I was in Colombia, I probably would have been very anti-government, when they have done so much harm.” Buller said. “But we have to work with all the players. The more up and against the other parties you are, the harder that things are going to be.”
Buller is confident that the United States can stand to learn a lot from Colombia as both countries suffer from substantial political divides.
“There’s so much similarity between our situation and theirs,” Buller said. “In the United States, people on opposing sides of an issue don’t talk together.”
Buller wants people to understand that the process of compromise is messy and time consuming.
“Peace is ugly,” said Buller. “Any yet, truly, I believe that a huge amount of peacebuilding is how we talk to each other.”
Buller lives in Goshen with her husband, Willian Murillo, and their young daughter Belen. They attend Walnut Hill Mennonite Church.