Click here for Partners Spring 2012 Index
One Country, Four Worlds
By Alex Kournetas and Ann Greene
Click here for Partners Spring 2012 Index
Peru is one country with four distinct regions. Since arriving in the 16th century, Jesuits have had to contend with 500,000 square miles and geographical difficulties from the heat and humidity of the Amazon Rainforest in the north to the dry, desolate conditions of the desert in the south.
In the past five centuries Jesuits in Peru have established a remarkable array of ministries that include 10 parishes, distribution centers for food and clothing, and 72 Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy) schools.
The Fe y Alegria system offers free education to more than 86,000 children using a combination of classrooms and radio broadcasts (for those in the outskirts) and served as the inspiration for the Cristo Rey Network in the US, which now includes 24 schools. Since 1968 the province has had a special “twinning” relationship or commitment of service with Peru that continues to evolve and flourish today.
The first destinados (those assigned to Peru), Frs. Robert Beckman, SJ, and Benjamin Morin, SJ, arrived in Lima on October 28, 1960. Since then more than 50 US Jesuits have been missioned to one of four areas: El Agustino, Ayacucho, Cusco, and the Amazon. American Jesuits missioned to Peru not only serve the poor, but also fully embrace the culture and live in poor communities.
About 450 miles southeast of Lima, in the Andean Mountains, lays Ayacucho. Devastated by internal war between the government and the rebel group Shining Path in the 1980s and 1990s, Ayacucho was a zone that was forgotten for many decades. Jesuits arrived in 1986 in the midst of violence and destruction and sought to rebuild and bring hope.
“The first thing my brothers did in the 80s was something very traditional, but quite necessary in that troubling time: they took charge of an old Colonial church in the center of Ayacucho, which served as a place where so many people could come and find a priest who would listen to them and give them strength to keep going amidst the bombs and shootings all around them. That very traditional Jesuit work continues today and still does a lot to help people find their bearings. It’s not just simply a lack of material things, it’s being a ‘nobody,’ unimportant, and not taken into account . . . that’s poverty and that’s what these people are facing. My experience here in the Peruvian Province has been exceptionally positive in my life as a Jesuit. The commitment to Peru, a crazy country in so many ways, is now for me a permanent part of my life.” - Fr. Frank Chamberlain, SJ, 49 years in Peru
Living at high altitudes and in desert conditions are the Quechua people of Cusco. Working out of a small town called Urcos, Jesuits attend to 30 or 40 outlying small casadios, or collections of houses, mostly along the road but some much less accessible. Today, Jesuits are finding creative ways to respond to the challenges of the poverty of this region.
“When you get into the outback and mountains in Peru what you don’t realize is that there are people behind every rock. It isn’t just vast expanses of land, it’s tremendous populations with little means of communication or education. These people are living a harsh reality, in extremely inhumane, austere conditions with very little hope of alleviating the situation, yet they are indomitable. That says a lot about their spirit. This is one of the best places Jesuits can be because it’s where the need is greatest. We have very dedicated people who have been there for years who have not only learned the language but taken on the hardships. They don’t just preach it, they live it.”
- Fr. John Foley, SJ, 34 years in Peru
El Agustino, a crowded and poor district in Lima, is home to more than 150,000 inhabitants. Poverty, unemployment, and poor nutrition are serious problems. Jesuit- run Virgen of Nazaret parish helps address these problems.
to a four-minute interview
with Fr. Kevin Flaherty, SJ, as
he discusses his service
“My hopes for Lima are that we might find a way to be in a city of 8 million people and live in harmony and not in chaos. There are 8 million people and 6 million don’t have enough to live with. That makes for a very difficult living situation. In the midst of poverty, it is our job as Jesuits to reassure the people of Peru that God is with them and is calling them to life, that as they struggle together to be a community and to help other poor people, they are sharing in the very mission of Jesus who came to offer us his life and liberation. After more than 25 years in Peru, 6 in El Agustino, my work has allowed me to be aware that God is especially present in those who are poor. We are a world church and we are called to share what we have received from the church with those who have less.”
- Fr. Kevin Flaherty, SJ, 25 years in Peru
Long before the highway reached the jungle, the first Jesuits entered the Amazon by mule and on foot into the world of the Aguarunas, the natives who live there, crossing almost nonexistent mountain and jungle paths that only the Indians knew existed. Jesuits who were first met with hostility are now known and accepted in almost all of the communities. Formal conversion to Catholicism is slow, but Christian values, the improvement of living conditions, and human rights in general have grown greatly.
“The world of indigenous people has helped me realize that ‘civilization’ has robbed us of some wonderful things. The slow motion movement of life in the jungle allows you to see and hear the chords of nature’s symphony that most city people are not even aware exists. The first world would say that these people are the poorest on earth. If money were the means of evaluation, they would be right. In the interior of the jungle they never use it. Sharing and helping one another solves all needs. For God, there are no unimportant people. All are of equal value and he loves all. If God put so much emphasis on the importance of the poor, shouldn’t we who call ourselves companions of his Son, do the same?”
- Fr. Patrick Casey, SJ, 41 years in Peru
Photo Gallery: Peru
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