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Honoring Colombians: Why Did Dolls Work?

by Anne Barstow, Rutgers Presbyterian Church of NYC

Having tried a number of ways to make the Colombian displaced persons crisis real to our congregation, I thought I was open to any approach. But when I was told last year that we should honor Colombians by making paper dolls, I said no way. I thought the idea was silly and inappropriate and that it denigrated a very serious crisis in the lives of millions of people.

Still, having nothing better to offer, I took the project to our congregation’s Peace and Justice Committee. To my surprise they took to the idea and even carried it further. They argued that since the crisis is so urgent – the second worst internal displacement crisis in the world – we must dignify it by making the paper dolls during the Sunday morning worship service. I was aghast. I figured that people would walk out! But the Committee was enthusiastic about the idea, so I was stuck with it.

On the appointed morning I gave the usual Moment for Mission, full of my personal witness of having been in the displaced persons’ communities, explaining why, although Colombia is a rich country, thousands are hungry and homeless there. Then I dropped the bomb: “We are going to cut out as many paper dolls as we can. Each one will stand for 1,000 displaced persons. Make them young and old, black and white, but make them all painfully poor. We will send them to the White House, asking for a more humanitarian policy towards Colombia.” Ushers passed out scissors and paper, and the congregation got to work.

A deep hush fell over the sanctuary; people were focused on writing messages on the back of the dolls. I remember seeing business men in pin-striped suits jostling to get their turn with the scissors. Maybe eight or ten minutes passed; it didn’t matter, no one wanted to hurry. Finally the organ broke into a Latin American hymn, ushers collected the dolls and brought them to the communion table, we offered prayers of dedication that these gifts of ours would speak to the powers in Washington who can affect the fate of the displaced. A small miracle had occurred – our well-heeled congregation had heard the message of the dispossessed, had reached out and touched them, as it were.

Next day one of the Elders told me that the service “rocked,” that it was one of the most memorable worship experiences he had ever had. I am still pondering why it “worked.” Of course “doing something” always makes us feel a bit better. But some projects seem like a Mickey Mouse waste of time, whereas this exercise had moved people right out of their comfort zone. Was it that we had held a Day of Prayer for Colombia twice before, with the opportunity for petition signing, and that this had prepared us for a deeper experience? I’m still not sure. But I am now convinced that everyday activities, even the children’s game of cutting out dolls, belongs in worship, even in our sanctuaries, when we are rightly prepared for it.

I am looking forward to this year’s assignment, constructing displays of photos of the displaced themselves. Their faces will speak to us, I am sure.


From Dolls to Faces

Help your faith community take a stand for Colombia in this year’s Days of Prayer and Action:

1. Hold a Colombia-focused worship service in April. Click here for a packet of sample sermons, prayers, scriptures, and other helpful materials. Email if interested.

2. Host a “Face the Displaced” gathering in March. Get your adult education class, peace and justice committee, or university club together to frame the faces of those currently displaced in Colombia. Thousands of the poignant portraits will later be unveiled in eye-catching displays and delivered to representatives of the Obama Administration. Email for an organizing packet.

For more information, visit


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