A Valiant Community

By Fr. Peter Woodruff (with Fr. Michael Hoban and Fr. Gerardo Ouisse from France)
May 18, 2012

Facing Up to Social Problems

Columban Fr. Michael Hoban is presently the Episcopal vicar of an area to the south of Santiago, which includes 38 parishes. Columbans have been working in the southern zone since 1964 and still staff three parishes in the vicariate: San Columbano, Santo Tomás Apóstol and Jesús de Nazaret. They also staff San Matías parish, which is even further south in Maipo Vicariate. This is one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese with 80,000 residents and is staffed by Irish, Fijian and Korean Columbans. Fr. Mike was also Episcopal vicar in the Maipo vicariate for a time.

The Archdiocese is divided into seven vicariates with a priest appointed as Episcopal vicar in each. The Episcopal vicar visits the parishes to support the work of the parish team and encourage them in their efforts to implement the archdiocesan pastoral plan that is A Valiant Community Facing Up to Social Problems By Fr. Peter Woodruff (with Fr. Michael Hoban and Fr. Gerardo Ouisse from France) reviewed and updated regularly in a process of consultation with the pastoral agents of the Archdiocese, which includes priests, religious and laity. He also goes from parish to parish to do confirmations. The Episcopal vicar is an experienced parish priest who helps keep open the lines of communication between the Archbishop and the grassroots church communities of the city.

Fr. Mike first arrived in Chile in 1972, just one year before the military coup against President Salvador Allende that set Chile on a path of military dictatorship until 1989. He has worked in a number of parishes in poor areas of Santiago, Chile. He has also been responsible for a number of non-parish apostolates.

I had not seen Fr. Mike for at least 15 years but found him as active and informative as he ever was. I told him I was looking for mission stories for the Columban magazines that are published in the English-speaking countries where the Columbans have found support since the early years of our missionary enterprise. He took me to meet the parish priest of one of the toughest parishes in his vicariate.

Fr. Gerardo Ouisse, from Nantes, France, has worked in Chile for 25 years and is now in his early seventies. He was also a worker priest in France for sixteen years. He arrived at San Cayetano de la Legua parish nine years ago. La Legua is located four kilometers south of the city center and belongs to the municipal district, San Joiquin. Gerardo had to face a double challenge: take over the direction of a parish that had been run for years by the well known charismatic priest, Fr. Mariano Puga, and work pastorally in a situation mired by endemic and entrenched social problems related to poverty and a criminal culture.

He said to me, “I had to be careful to respect what I found going on in the parish. Yet, I had to relive the dialogue between God and Moses.”

Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” He answered, “I will be with you; and this shall be your proof that it is I who have sent you: when you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this very mountain.” “But,” said Moses to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” (Exodus 3: 11-14)

Gerardo related some of his first impressions, “I was struck by the number of youth gathered at street corners; they dawdled from corner to corner without any apparent purpose; they seemed bored and maybe drugged. There were many children of school age hanging around on the streets. I heard stories of drugs destroying families and provoking armed street violence.”

But to counter this he said of the local parish community, “I also met a very strong Christian community formed in our faith over a period of 60 years. Local church identity was strong – Somos del Señor, somos de La Legua (We are the Lord’s, we are from La Legua). I realized that I had arrived in the midst of a people who were accustomed to fighting for every little bit of communal progress. From this parish 60 people were killed by the repressive forces of the Pinochet dictatorship. Many were tortured, disappeared or shot.”

In recent times La Legua has been plagued by daily shootouts in the street, often at around 4:00 p.m. when the children were coming home from school. Many would call home on their phones to find out whether it was safe to go home. Gerardo told me:
“The Christian community together with local civic leaders organized a march for peace in the area but along the route some marchers insulted the police, so we had to find another approach to the problem. In fact, as a consequence of what happened on that march, fifteen days later 200 police did a search and destroy operation in La Legua, took away seventeen people who were subsequently jailed for drug trafficking, an act for which the criminal element in the community blamed us. That happened five years ago and now their children, who were simply abandoned on the street and did not go to school, are in the street gangs peddling drugs.”

“Through the Latin American Bishops Conference headquarters in Colombia we contacted people who’d had an experience of facilitating a reconciliation process between ex members of the Colombian guerrilla movement (FARC) and ex members of Colombian para military forces, who were living in the same suburb. They came to Santiago and helped us do something similar here and then we were able to organize more marches for peace. Another factor that has helped the reconciliation process among us is that I am quite active pastorally in the prison which for now is home to thousands of prisoners, 600 of whom are from La Legua; I do my best for them and they respect that.”

“However, the community was well aware that we needed to do more than march for peace and facilitate reconciliation. We wanted to look into ways of getting at some of the roots of the social problems of our parish. I believe that I am pastor of all who live in La Legua, not just those who are actively part of our parish.”

“At our 2010 parish planning meeting, we decided that we just had to do something about the constant deaths from shootings and knife attacks. We prepared a letter for the government but no one was prepared to sign it for fear of reprisal from criminal elements in our community, so I signed it and am now under round-the-clock police protection.”

In the letter, our Christian community stated that, “We live each day in a climate of intolerable violence….Drug traffickers control the streets and walk around freely with guns in their hands. Parents usually call home from work to find out whether or not it is safe to return home or should they wait until the current shootout is over. Collective fear is destroying the fabric of social and community organizations that have been developed by decades of struggle and sacrifice…. Many of us in our daily lives live as prisoners of a dictatorship established by drug traffickers….We expect the dignity of any Chilean as regards access to education, health, housing, honest work, but in this letter we are asking for something even more basic: that weapons are removed from our suburbs….We will not be resigned to continue living in this way because La Legua is a place of struggle and dignity. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ we will not vacillate in the defence of the life that has been entrusted to us…. ”

While this letter was sent to the government it also circulated to all parts of the country because many suburbs experience similar social problems that were not being faced up to by the authorities. Government authorities came to verify what was stated in the letter and subsequently entered into dialogue with our community to see how to tackle the problems. Some wanted to embark on repressive police action but were persuaded by the community that this would not work as La Legua and many other poor barrios have an historic memory of resistance to and struggle against the repressive tactics frequently used by the Pinochet dictatorship.

Gerardo smiles as he tells me, “We are in the process of working things out. Something is happening. We don’t feel hopelessly bogged down in a situation that is slowly destroying us. It will be a long road, but we want to walk it together and will do all in our power to encourage the government to work with us.”