Today’s readings ask us to live as children of the light; to see with our hearts (the deep perception that we are all connected); to understand that love and justice take precedence over rules; and, to realize that so often God chooses the lowly, unsuspecting person over the one in high places. These are deep-seated and oft-repeated lessons from the Scriptures that, sadly, are in palpable contrast to the politics, practices and underlying premises that have characterized what has been taking place in recent months within our country.
How are we to live faithfully, lovingly and justly in these times? A well-known quote of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
His words, in turn, summoned images in me of an experience I had in December of 2014 while visiting Maryknoll Affiliate chapters (small mission communities) in Peru and Bolivia.
After visiting Affiliate chapters in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba (two cities in Bolivia) and in Lima, Peru, Patty Barneond de Garcia Tres, an Affiliate board member from Guatemala, and I traveled to be with members from the three chapters in Arequipa, Peru’s second most populous city. The morning after arriving, the Affiliates arranged to take us to their special mission service project in Chiguata, a small village about an hour bus ride outside Arequipa on the slopes of the volcano Pikchu Pikchu. The ride took us through several semi-arid mountain passes with adobe dwellings precariously perched on the slopes and a tiny market place or two popping up along the way. We arrived in the small plaza of this once vibrant 475-year-old village, now with a much-reduced population of very poor indigenous Quechua families.
Photo: María Farfán, Patty Barneond, and Alida Tejada in Chiguata, Peru. Photo courtesy of Bob Short.
The Affiliates from Arequipa had been working with the people of Chiguata for over three years at that time and were excited to show Patty and me some of the wonderful fruits of their labor. Almost immediately after walking up the hill from the plaza we could see the substantial cement community hall they had built for the people to gather. To collect the funds for this project, the Affiliates had committed themselves to go to businesses, friends, and family in Arequipa over a stretch of several years. It was easy to see how very proud they were to have this gathering center to show us.
Their pride was not so much about the structure, but that this space allowed them to bring the community together for education, prayer, fun activities and food. Perhaps most importantly, it provided a space to help the people gain a sense of their dignity and rights. A few years back mining companies from North America and Europe had come to the area promising to provide the people with potable water, electricity and better infrastructure if they allowed the companies to mine the rich minerals on their land. In the end, the minerals were mined, but the promises never kept.
The Affiliates’ special focus was on the ancianos (village elderly) and los niños (the children). Christmas was getting close and that next morning we joined in with the affiliates to prepare food and decorate the inside space for the festivities that were to follow. The elderly came in the morning to share stories, old and new, in their Quechua language about the village, to sit together for a Christmas feast, and leave with food-filled Christmas baskets prepared by the Affiliates. The children came in the afternoon accompanied by their parents. There were games and contests (Patty and I got cordially coerced into being judges), lots of food and laughter (the restrained laughter common to indigenous peoples) and prizes for the children. It was a very special time for everyone there.
These Affiliates go to Chiguata regularly throughout the year as well as spend time on service outreach and reflection together in Arequipa. At a moment when we were all together in that hall, I couldn’t help but recall something one of the Affiliates from a Lima chapter said a week prior about her work with the people of Pamplona Alta, a very poor barrio on a sandy mountain within Lima’s city limits, “Somos los pobres apoyando a los mas pobres.” (We are the poor helping the more poor.)
With all the Affiliates we met with in Bolivia and Peru, there was never any pretense, chance of financial gain or manipulation for power or prestige. These were children of the light who saw with their hearts. A bit of darkness and hate had been pushed aside by light and love.