Sunday, April 11, 2010

Called to go where one is needed but not wanted . . .

Missioners are called to “go where they are not wanted but needed, and stay until they are not needed but wanted.”

This quote comes from James Anthony Walsh, the founder of the Maryknoll Missionaries. I first heard it from the lay missioner Teresa of the Society of African Missionaries, at Ossining, New York, where the Maryknoll’s Bethany House is located and where we Franciscans were trained for one week. Recently, I heard this again from a Maryknoll priest, Ken (Padre Juancho in Spanish), who is working in a mission site where he feels that he may not be wanted, but needed.

Two weeks ago, I had dinner with Ken and his friends. The occasion was a surprise birthday party for Ken. The dinner was hosted by a longtime friend of his, a physician who has opened her home to one of our fellow students at the Maryknoll Institute. Some of us students were invited to help him celebrate. As it had happened, three of us had visited Padre Ken at his home mission site the Sunday before. As ten of us gathered around the large dining room table to eat spaghetti and a large cake, I wondered at the vast difference between our immediate surroundings, a spacious, well-appointed condominium in North Cochabamba, where the prosperous middle class lives, and the place that Ken calls his home.

Ken lives near K’ara K’ara, the city dump of Cochabamba. The dump is indeed a place where priests are not wanted, at least at this time. There is political controversy about this dump, and although it has been closed three times for its dangerous toxic waste and its unregulated disposal of this waste, it is nevertheless still open. Why? At this point, it seems that the city of Cochabamba needs this dumping ground: when we missioners arrived on January 6 of this year, we noticed in passing that the dumpsters in the city were overflowing with garbage. We found out when we visited Padre Ken on March 14, on a Sunday, that there had been a strike, and for that reason there was no garbage pickup. There is a real need for a dumping ground for the waste of Cochabamba, and there is money to be made by keeping the dump open. Money is made when the town or pueblo of K’ara K’ra fines the mayor of the city for dumping the town’s garbage in its pueblo.

The town can make a lot of money with these fines, but the barrios (or neighborhood districts) closest to the dump get the money, which is held in something like an escrow account until a suitable project worthy of this jointly held money is presented to the mayor or city officials. The issue becomes a delicate one because not everyone agrees about which barrios should receive the money and who will be in charge of how it will be spent. So, to put it mildly, there is a lot of disagreement within the pueblo, and the last priest who lived in K’ara K’ara was asked to leave the town because of his involvement in the town's problems. Ken himself is circumspect about the situation: he has come into the community, living above the dump itself, where we had a bird’s eye view of the pools of toxic waste that actually looked like picturesque ponds from our vantage point above the barrio. Poverty, the determined struggle of humanity to survive, and the ravaging of nature often look pretty from afar. I have seen many strikingly gorgeous sunsets in smog-ridden cities.

We citizens of the United States are very interested in recycling. Here, there is no need to organize a recycling campaign or make it a part of municipal works. The people here rummage through the dump for recyclables, and I would predict that few items that can be sold are overlooked. I was reminded of scenes of garbage dumps from Slumdog Millionaire (and who would have guessed? Sisters from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have a prominent convent nearby. They must feel at home in performing charitable works among the poor in K’ara K’ara).

The problem is, of course, that the toxicity of the dump poses a terrible danger to the health of those in search of marketable goods. The hazardous waste from hospitals had been placed in a special area surrounded by a protective fence; somehow the fence disappeared. The economic need of the people takes precedence over their own health. In milder form, just living close to the dump poses many health problems for the residents there. One recalls the residual effects of Love Canal, where 21,000 tons of waste were buried beneath 36 blocks of a neighborhood in Niagra Falls, New York; the residents eventually developed cancer and their children were born with congenital defects. Many poor people live in this pueblo because it is so inexpensive. Developers have created small dwellings here, and sold it to families who either don’t know that they may be in danger or have been driven to accept whatever dwelling they can afford.

Our Sunday morning with Ken was pleasant, with much talk about his struggle to initiate catechetic classes and celebrate Mass in a district that has other pressing concerns. He pointed out that the people in the barrios do organize on Sundays for community improvements. At the time when we walked up to his quarters on the hill, we saw a soccer (futbol) game being played by the truck drivers who had the day off.

In Ken’s quarters, we had tea and an assortment of cookies, bread, pates, and snack bars while we were there. As we talked, a three-year-old named Oliver came into the room with us. He had stayed at the doorway, playing with his toy dump truck and bulldozer, his play imitating reality, before I could coax him into our company. The little boy smacked one of the two dogs that were lying in front of the doorway a couple of times, the dog obligingly moved, and Oliver came to sit on my lap. Most children are attractive, but Oliver had dimples, large, lovely brown eyes, and liked affection. As I held him, Nora gently lifted his shirt, with his permission, and we saw a complex temporary tattoo on his tummy, matched by one on his back, and one on his arm. I became aware that his clothes were filthy, but that made me feel even more protective towards this little boy.

Oliver is not an orphan, but his father has died, and his mother is an alcoholic. The mother ran off and left the responsibility to her sister-in-law. Her daughter cares for Oliver.Ken explained to us that abandoned children are taken into families and cared for as one of their own. Oliver is such a case. The older sister who lives in the family where Ken resides cares for the little boy. I have one picture of him, playing in the dirt behind the shed in the yard.

I noticed that after Oliver left our room, his sister changed his shirt. When we left the property, I said a few words to her in Spanish, and she didn’t reply. At first, I blamed her lack of response on my poor Spanish, but later, I reflected that she might speak Quechua.

While we sat there in Ken’s humble room, which actually had molding around the ceiling, along with finished walls, I noticed that Ken was nonetheless connected more than I would want to be with the natural world. A pigeon house just outside his room allowed the pigeons to perch on his windowsill and keep an eye on us. The friendly, but dirty, dogs wandered in and out of the room, and the dishes were washed outside, with the usual cold water that people here use for washing, and dried in a tub placed on a rock. The bathroom facilities were also outside, but the outhouse was private and the toilet flushed extremely well. These were Ken’s digs, where he lives in order to be present, available, for the people in this poverty-stricken barrio seriously close to the toxic waste of the dump. I am including here the view from Ken's big back yard.
After enjoying morning tea, we hiked over to the Maryknollers’ picnic, held at Padre Poncho’s church, where I had some of the best barbeque that I had ever tasted, along with an add-a-dish lunch that reminded me of church picnics in Tennessee. It was the best food that I had had since coming here, and I wondered if Padre Poncho’s origins in Kentucky had anything to do with the perfection of the barbeque. We met Maryknoll priests, missioners (and their families, some of them having young children), and the sisters who had been in Bolivia for at least 45 years. We Franciscan lay missioners were welcomed into the Maryknoll family, and all of us are family unto one another here. We learned about each one of them as they introduced themselves. We too made our introductory speeches. After lunch, there was an organizational meeting of a male and female scout troop by one of the Maryknoll sisters, and for some of us who had missed church that morning, an intimate and moving Mass with Padre Ken, our guide, mentor, and host for the day. Here is a picture of Nora (a Franciscan), Minh (a Maryknoll missioner), Padre Ken, and his two dogs.
At this early stage of my introduction to Bolivia, I am glad that I am not exposed to such outings on a daily basis, although I expect a daily exposure to such poverty and hot-button issues. But the day seeped into my sub-conscious, where so many of these experiences are residing since my arrival here. The beautiful boy, Oliver, came into my mind as I prayed. A prayer for Ken’s well-being and sustenance from God also came to mind (Ken says that God has been very present to him during his 22-month residence at K’ara K’ara). But I pray that he will not lose heart in his poco a poco work there, where it is evident to me that the villagers there know him and like him. A priest sometimes takes quite a psychological beating in these hinterlands. Finally, how are these desperately poor residents at K’ara K’ara to be helped when their immediate need for food, clothing, shelter, and money overshadow their long-term well-being?

I found it necessary to arrange a short dinner with Fr. Ignatio Harding, our mentor (“Iggy”) just to get some stability in my sense of the Franciscan mission here. The Maryknoll fathers and sisters have been immensely supportive spiritual leaders, but I needed to hear from St. Francis, so I turned to a Franciscan priest.
To sum up Iggie’s words, we Franciscans are called to walk with the poor. This occurs on many levels. Some people are called, and actually desire, to be among the poor, living among them, even taking on their poverty. I thought of St. Damian living among the lepers and taking on their illness at the end of his life. Others are called to come nearer to the poor, to be there among them but not take on their poverty. Still on the next level, some are called to have a heart and mind for the poor, to be able to imagine their needs and to feel stricken in the heart when any injustice against God’s poor has been perpetrated.
When Padre Ken read my blog, he agreed, and let me know that he was well aware of those people who brought about change in this world, people who live in comfortable houses but who work through political and social systems to change legislation, as well as people whose prayers are heard by the God who hears the cry of the poor.
I knew that before coming here, I tried to have a heart for the poor, trying to be aware of their needs, as well as the needs of orphans, the suffering of people in violent situations, in war, and the needs of the aged, infirm, diseased, and dying. But I am here to live close to the poor, to be with them in spirit and in daily life. But no, I am not able to live near K’ara K’ara, and knowing my own limits, I continue to pray for and be a friend to Padre Juancho (Ken).

1 comment:

  1. Lynn,
    it is always good to check in on your time in mission. It is good to know that you are out and about, active and engaged in the reality surrounding you. Clearly you have a gift for writing - please keep up the dialogue.

    Fr, Iggy certainly has it correct, but I would also add that one core charism of Franciscans is also to make the poor visible. Here in Tampa we have the highest per capita homeless population in the country. Hillsborough County alone has 10,000 homeless (with only 1500 over night beds). We are in a downtown business district and while we have no facilities to house or feed the homeless, they are welcomed to sleep at our property - which is located at one of the busier intersections of downtown. That simple thing helps make the normally invisible, visible and keeps the community dialogue going (while we continue in our daily ministry out of sight) - so keep blogging and help make the poor visible to a North American readership

    Here in the US, we just completed a returned missioner retreat in Colorado - 31 returned missioners came, sharing their stories of mission, adjusting to life in the US, and integrating mission into the US landscape. One missioner from "Class 1" as well as the crew just returned from Bolivia were present - all in all, 20 years of FMS. You were in our prayers and thoughts. Be well and know God's peace.
    Fr George Corrigan, OFM