My eldest son received his First Holy Communion this year, after months of preparation, both for him and me. At the last session we heard how the closing words of the Mass, “go forth,” tell us to put faith into action. This reminded me of Pope Francis’ words, a few weeks after his nomination, when he urged priests to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” I thought about the inspiring church partners I have encountered through working in the Latin America team at CAFOD. Many of these partners have for decades been quietly and humbly transforming communities. They nurture the human dignity of those who have little else, often in extremely challenging circumstances, and regardless of personal risk. One such example is the Sisters of St. Clare, who work in El Salvador in an area called La Chacra.
La Chacra sprung up as a shantytown many years ago, on the steep banks of a large river. Parents struggle to make ends meet and to keep their children safe. Gangs have a stronghold on La Chacra, recruiting children who may be under pressure from older family members to join. The Sisters work with people of all ages in the community to build a peaceful society. But it is long, hard, difficult work. So it was with some trepidation that I went to visit. On arriving, the bullet hole in the wall of the Sisters’ house did little to settle my nerves. Sister Mark, however, gave me a warm welcome, eager to show me the community and people she loved. She began by quoting a lady who went to one of the project workshops: “I never had a childhood. I never had a chance to play and laugh. I am 52 years old and today I had my first day of childhood.”
The project tackles root causes of the culture of violence: economic – equipping people with skills to earn an income; social – encouraging positive and respectful relationships through recreation activities and parenting classes to reinforce strong family units; and psychological – counseling groups and family workshops. These all help to rebuild a culture of peace. I visited a workshop where women were making piñatas to sell. Some of the women were young, but the eldest, Graciela, was 86. Graciela said: “It might seem selfish, but I ask the Lord to grant me a long life so I can keep on doing his work here in my community.” I walked on to the community centre for a family workshop, where the room could barely contain all the parents and grandparents taking part.
Music and dance to combat violence
The Sisters’ project works with a local school, providing music, theatre and dance workshops. The children, oozing with pride, put on a show. Their drama presentation conveyed messages of peace, unity and non-violence. I seemed to be the only one who noticed the juxtaposition of an armed soldier hovering round the door of the school during the performance. In fact he walked boldly across the playground a couple of times and no-one reacted. The army had been sent into La Chacra to subdue the gang violence.
Afterwards, Sr. Mark told me one of the young boys in the show was the nephew of a gang leader and under tremendous pressure to choose the gang life. The workshops were giving him another social circle. A teenager in the music group had recently come to her saying, “Sister, I have made a decision; I am not going to join a gang.” During the show, all I saw were children doing something they enjoy. But the reality is that it’s so difficult to be born free to develop your own potential; these children have been subjected to external stresses, labels and stigmas from birth.
Sister Mark, after many years of service to communities in El Salvador, is no longer in La Chacra, but her Sisters keep up the work there, instruments of peace and faith in action, sowing love and hope.
Sowing seeds for the future
There are no easy solutions to the problems facing the communities in La Chacra; the Sisters’ work is hard and long. It is often gifts in wills that make these long-term projects tackling complex issues possible. Legacies give CAFOD the funding and flexibility to be there for communities in the future, but not only that; they are a way for you to put your faith into action, helping generations to come live in dignity and peace.
Tania Dalton, CAFOD