It has been 30 three years since I first traveled from Boston to south of the equator. I was a seminarian at the time and went to Peru to spend the three months of summer with the priests of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. I was assigned to Andahuaylas in the Sierra region, very high in the Andes Mountains.
I learned very quickly that it was winter on that side of the equator, and further that at 10,000 feet above sea level the nights were cold and the sunshine wonderfully warming. The experience changed my life, and ever since that first immersion I have been returning to South America.
A week ago, 10 of us left Boston to spend several days in the immersion retreat program I founded in 1989 called Rostro de Cristo (The Face of Christ, rostrodecristo.org). The group of adult men and women, five from our parish and four from other parishes in the city, arrived to spend these days in our retreat house in El Arbolito, a very poor neighborhood in the city of Durán on the coast of Ecuador. Durán is a sprawling sector of hundreds of thousands of people, just south of Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador. There are two houses in our complex, a retreat house and a house for the volunteers who come to spend one year in service among the poor. Accommodations are basic but adequate, and the food excellent, mostly prepared by the group with some assistance from locals.
The days are spent moving around the neighborhood and being involved with some of the works of the volunteers. Groups visit neighbors, spend time with the children in the after-school programs, visit different institutions (like hospitals and schools) that minister to the poor and needy of the region. Members go to the market to purchase food and supplies and manage the house with meals and necessities. Most of all, members are urged to BE in the community and in the group, and reflect on the “face of Christ” in the experience of the reality around them. Most of the groups we welcome each year are from colleges, universities and high schools. So our group of adults presented a different experience—and a good one for all of us.
The reality of living among the poor—in an unvarnished and authentic encounter–is unsettling, to say the least. Few North Americans have ever seen such living situations—not even in documentaries or National Geographic. But behind the shacks and caña houses are people–beautiful, loving and wonderful families known for their ability to be supremely hospitable even in their poverty. And so it was that we were welcomed graciously into the simple homes of families who shared some time and conversation. Such moments were precious gifts to each one of us and, upon later reflection, examples of profound faith and love on the part of our new neighbors.
One may wonder what the purpose of all of this is. Well, some 33 years ago and, ever since, I have been so blessed to come to know the reality that characterizes the majority of the people on Planet Earth. It is a reality of grinding poverty and profound injustice that cries out to be heard. For no child should ever go hungry and malnourished. No mother or father should ever have to be unable to provide needed medicine for a sick child. No parent should ever have to be in a position in which he or she needs to decide whether to buy shoes for a child so that they can go to school (a substandard one at best), or buy food, or obtain other necessities for the rest of the family. No family should live in fear of the violence that plagues huge urban barrios, the fruits of evil, gangs and drugs often spawned by hopelessness.
And so our teaching and our hope at Rostro de Cristo is that participants who see and live in the midst of these difficult and ongoing dynamics, and experience the warmth and graciousness of the people, will have their stereotypes of poverty crushed. Then, having been changed by this encounter, they will return to the United States to work to change the world.
Simple enough goal? Perhaps it may seem preposterous. Yet one needs to approach this work through the eyes of Faith. I have become convinced that the Grace of God is profoundly present when we seek to learn how to make the world a better and more just place. Christ is explicit in His teaching of His presence in the poor, and that He appreciates those who work to relieve the sufferings of the poor. When any one of us opens our hearts and our minds to become more aware of global poverty and suffering and seeks to make some difference, we are the recipients of God’s Grace at work in us.