The first thing I must say is that Peru has captured my Heart, a feeling that is difficult to explain in so many words, and which may even seem perverse in the light of the negative aspects to life here.
Lima is not an attractive city on the whole and suffers greatly from contamination, including an excess of noise. Traffic is a nightmare and inter-provincial travel a lottery given the incredible number of accidents; at least one a week. Violence and mistrust are ever present. Poverty and inequality are the reality for the majority of Peruvians, with many families separated in the search for work, education or a better life. Healthcare is a luxury for many and ill health involves great sacrifices on the part of the family. Those unable to find the necessary resources must suffer the consequences; some recover, others develop chronic conditions, whilst others die. For this reason health is a great preoccupation and most Peruvians are able to offer any number of home remedies or advice and alternative therapies are common. Health is literally a matter of life or death.
Machismo is ubiquitous and many women and children suffer as a result. Violence within the family is very common and it is not unusual to find men who have more than one “family”. The Peruvians have suffered much as a people, despite the great and diverse resources the country has to offer, which includes a rich cultural diversity. The 20 years of internal conflict have left their mark on a country where racism and corruption are a constant feature; there exists a high level of destructive pessimism in the sense that many people view the condition of the country as hopeless or beyond redemption. There is indeed a sense of a loss of values and a great preoccupation with security, the latter would tend towards a preference for a more authoritarian government, which is not necessarily a cultural phenomenon, but rather that there appears to many that there is no other alternative. Both the government and Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) perpetrated violence and intimidation against the population as a whole and particularly against those who had active roles in civil society, in such way that it has contributed to a serious deterioration in community, solidarity, social confidence and communication. Sendero conscientiously attacked, both morally and physically those social movements already established and Peru has never recovered from this fragmentation.
But my experience here has been one of great hospitality and affection. The ability to celebrate, despite great adversity, is at the heart of Peruvian life and culture. I have witnessed and participated in the great acts of solidarity, friendship and sharing undertaken in my community and parish. We share our lives and our hopes. Gustavo Gutierrez speaks of mission as “hacienda amistades” (literally “making friendships”) and for me that has been the foundation of my work here. My mission is my life; to be myself even when I am not sure what it is I might have to offer.
The areas in which I work have brought me into contact with different aspects of Peruvian life. My 2 years working with an NGO in San Benito, although somewhat challenging with my then newly acquired Spanish, took me into a very poor and undeveloped “pueblo jóven” (literally a “young [or new] town”), where, although most houses had electricity, none had running water or sewerage. There was not one woman in the group of 20 for whom I was responsible that was untouched by the problems to which I have referred above, but despite that we shared some wonderful moments of celebration and hope. For the last 3 years I have been visiting the Maximum Security Prison in Ancón, where I work with a small group of prisoners, most with long histories of criminal activity. This involves a mixture of Gospel reflection, psychology and conversation. I end each visit with a short liturgy.
Much of my time is spent accompanying one of the 12 communities of the parish. This involves Gospel reflection, liturgy preparation, personal accompaniment, a weekly women’s group, the various parish meetings and assisting the various pastoral groups. As coordinator of the “Pastoral Social”, I am hoping this year to facilitate a parish project in one of the communities. I also preside at the lay led Sunday liturgies, or perhaps undertake to do the homily.