Medellin, Columbia’s second city, was notorious for drugs, crime and violence. When one of Holy Trinity’s congregation told me she was going there to share work on urban regeneration through the use of light and lighting, I was a bit concerned. But she came back with such stunning reports and insight about their Christmas lights that our ‘sermon’ for Advent 2 consisted of a dialogue between us.
Basically, Medellin had had Christmas lights funded by a company, but when things got bad in 1992 and there was rationing and an energy crisis, the lights were cancelled. So the community rallied around and the women taught people how to make traditional Christmas decorations, which were reproduced on a big scale. When they were able to use lights again, they were all set to make an amazing display of Christmas Lights which was based on the community working together.
It’s a real story of re-birth and re-generation. The river was cleaned up and it has now become a lighted pathway to the city at Christmas. Making and staging the light display employs women, young people and those really needing jobs – at least 1500. Tourists have brought money into the city, and street vendors are taught food hygiene and made to feel part of the community enterprise. New energy techniques have halved the electricity used (not insignificant when you realise they have 181 miles of rope lights …)
The Christmas lights festival in Medellin is a place for families to go, for friends to celebrate. Those who have put the displays together speak of their pride in creating something for everyone to enjoy, something that embodies the spirit of Christmas.
I think it was the river that made me think of Medellin as an example of ‘repentance’ for Advent. John the Baptist, crying out at the River Jordan, is often presented as a stark and harsh prophet denouncing our sins and making us feel bad. But actually he is giving a message of hope and possibility. Rivers can be cleaned up and made to come alive with fish – and lights.