Accompanying Newcomers

Fr. Chris Baker
September 7, 2010
Faith Community in Las Laderas (On the Hillsides)

Lima, Peru, is a city which has grown rapidly over the last 50 years from around one million inhabitants to nearly nine million. Thousands of new families are still coming in from the country or moving out from overcrowded suburbs closer to the city. There has been no overall city planning, with the result that the newcomers quickly buy or simply squat on empty lands, no matter how barren, sandy, rocky or sloping the terrain may be. Almost overnight hundreds of new reed matting huts spring up, and a new human settlement begins. Often it is a little beyond previous settlements, so at first it has no water, sewerage, lighting or roads, let alone a school, medical center, community center or chapel.

An annointing

For more than 50 years, the Columbans and our associates have been devoting their time to these new and generally very poor settlers. Great emphasis has been placed on inviting and empowering the newcomers themselves to share actively in forming a new Christian community. At the same time, they are encouraged to reach out to all newcomers and work together with them to obtain the basic services for their “young town.” As a result, they come to appreciate how the reign of God calls all Christians to play their part in public life, such as in the areas of health, education, the economy, local and national political life.

Aparecida now stands for the General Conference of Bishops from all Latin America and the Caribbean, which was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2007, in the pilgrimage city of Aparecida, Brazil. Aparecida’s final recommendations have put into inspiring words what the Church sees as its mission and its pastoral plan to meet the urgent needs of this “new epoch,” for which the “old skins” are no longer adequate.

Accompanying Newcomers

In fact they are already bursting. For instance, Aparecida has urged that the parish in Latin America and the Caribbean should be “a community of communities.” In other words, a parish will encourage smaller communities to form in each distinct geographic area but join together on special occasions as a united parish. Aparecida also calls on each and every Catholic to be a “missionary disciple,” first to others in their neighborhood and then carrying the Good News far beyond their own boundaries.

Over the past ten years the Columbans have also been encouraging committed youths and adults to go out each Sunday from their own parishes to new fringe settlements. These driven young adults, who are known as “Columban Missionary fellowworkers,” have completed formation courses on the Scriptures, theology of God’s kingdom and daily living. They have become true “missionary disciples.” For them the word of God as proclaimed through the Scriptures and enriched by tradition is the heart of their mission.

Usually they gather the people in the open air or in some provisional shelter, where they can lead the liturgy of the word of life, explain it as applied to daily life and distribute the Bread of Life. Others may start up classes of preparation for Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation and invite local people to get involved in that ongoing mission. As Paul says to the Corinthians, the body of Christ has all kinds of different members with different ministries entrusted to them. Yet each one has a vital role in continuing the mission of Jesus with the wisdom, love and energy of the Holy Spirit.  The group really does share actively in the mission of Jesus as prophet, pastor and priest.

Schools kids gather for a photo

Three years ago I was happy to be invited to celebrate a monthly Mass in one of those little emerging communities at Las Laderas, located just north of Lima. Las Laderas means “the hillsides,” an accurate name for the sides of some Andean foothills where these newcomers have set up their new homes.

The Christian community there had been started by a Columban Missionary fellow-worker, Genaro Choque, from a previously established Columban parish in Las Palmeras. Genaro went from door to door inviting the locals to come along each Sunday for a liturgy of the word and Communion. Later another fellow-worker, Laura Marqez, from a parish where Columban Father Dermot Carthy is pastor, joined Genaro each Sunday to share her faith with the children. In the beginning, they gathered with about 30 people in a flimsy, temporary chapel on borrowed land. I was thrilled to find that within a year they had managed to obtain a few hundred square yards of a rocky hillside on which they had already erected a light wooden chapel.

Some of the local people were also involved in organizing a Bible group, liturgies, baptisms and a choir. One strong grandpa, Augustino, was devoting much of his week to pounding away with a sledge hammer at the rocky hillside to level more ground for an extended chapel. Augustino’s son Augusto and Augusto’s wife Marilyn are also constantly helping to strengthen the new community in line with their local parish organizations. Of great importance
also is their ability to involve these Catholics in the wider community projects to work together to procure roads, light, water and sewerage, schools and health services, etc., for their village.

In 2009, Genaro kept going to that community until a few weeks before he died of cancer. His apostolate was continued by two fellow-workers, Victor Araoz (from Tupac Amaru where Columban Father John O’Connell is pastor) and Georgina Barrientos (from Condevilla parish where she was leading a parish youth group when I was pastor there 30 years ago). They prepare children for First Communion and the youth for Confirmation. In early December 2009 their efforts were rewarded as the groups received those sacraments in the presence of many relatives and friends. Fr. Bernie Lane had the joy of conferring Confirmation on behalf of the bishop.

Some of the youths just confirmed want to become pastoral agents among their local communities. The Sunday congregation has grown to around 70 people with fresh enthusiasm to raise funds to extend their chapel. We are confident of being able to hand over full responsibility by the end of 2010 to this vibrant faith community and their local pastor. Our team of Columban Missionary fellow-workers will then be free to move on and accompany some other group of newcomers on the outskirts of Lima.

Fr. Chris Baker lives and works in Peru.

This article first appeared in the August / September issue of Columban Mission.