Building bridges, breaking down walls, sowing seeds

 Columban Fr Martin Koroiciri with migrant women at Grotto. Photo: Fr Dan Harding SSC

Columban Fr Martin Koroiciri with migrant women at Grotto. Photo: Fr Dan Harding SSC

“We want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth from its places of worship…in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity…to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation” –Fratelli Tutti -276.

The Base Ecclesial Community, Monseñor Enrique Alvear, in the Columban parish of San Columbano in Santiago, Chile, has been trying to live out this spirituality, goes forth from “the Centre” out to “the Periphery.”

This means adopting a “Samaritan Spirituality” of encounter, engagement, dialogue and solidarity, exemplified in John 4, by the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well and in Luke 10, in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Here are some examples by this community since 2018  of “going forth”.

  • One of the first important initiatives was to demolish the 3-metre-high concrete wall around 90% of the outside perimeter of the chapel complex and replace it with a fence where one could look out and where those passing by, could see in.
  • A much larger, brand new Lourdes grotto that faced outwards through the new fence was constructed that now attracts large numbers of people. Also, the large 2-metre-high metal cross, previously planted in the ground behind the concrete fence, is now situated on the highest point of the chapel roof and lit up at night.
  • From funds locally raised and from outside support, a large open-sided, roofed, function venue was constructed in the chapel complex grounds. This new gathering space with a large stage area, can seat up to 500 people for liturgical celebrations. It is also offered to local families for fundraising events to cover unaffordable medical expenses. Zumba dance classes are held there twice a week.
  • It is also available for a whole range of job training and income-generating courses such as hairdressing, manicure, soldering and plumbing. Receiving a Chilean High School Certificate and Conversational Spanish are planned for migrants in the post-pandemic period.
  • This gathering venue has also been used for a two-week children’s summer camp, on the theme of the prevention of drug and alcohol addictions for children from impoverished local families. They received three nourishing meals each day and participated in many craft and sporting activities, including fun in the specially erected demountable swimming pool.
  • All the children preparing for their First Communion and Reconciliation now spend a day visiting a large shantytown in the area, where they get to know the children there. Afterwards, they reflect together on this experience. They also participate in an organic gardening workshop, plant seeds and learn to take care of them.
  • On Friday nights, youth preparing for Confirmation visit homeless people, sleeping in parks and spaces outside public hospitals, in order to befriend them and listen to their stories.
  • The gathering venue space has also been used for a discussion and reflection by youth on the social protests and aspirations for change in Chile that began in October 2019.
  • The only Narcotic Anonymous (NA) community in the southern suburbs of Santiago was given a room there, accompanying the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) community which uses the room next door.
  • Members of this community actively participate in running soup kitchens either in another community of San Columbano parish or in a neighbouring parish.
  • Welcoming and reaching out to the mainly Haitian and Venezuelan migrant community in the area has been an important feature of this community’s “going forth”.
    • It began by helping a young Haitian man buy a coffin and bury his young wife, who had died 4 months after giving birth to their baby girl. Having no Spanish, she could not explain her symptoms to doctors.
    • From this tragic situation, developed many initiatives such as a 120 kilometre trip each way to the beach, the first time for the 50 Haitian and Venezuelan migrants to see the ocean in Chile.
    • Another initiative was the organization of a twice monthly communal lunch after Sunday Mass for up to 100 people alternating between a Haitian meal one Sunday, followed by a Venezuelan meal the following Sunday, followed by a Chilean meal after that and then beginning the cycle over again.
    • For the Christmas Eve 2018 celebrations, a special invitation was made to the Haitian community to participate in the Eucharist and in the celebrations afterwards. Invitations cards and posters were printed in Haitian Creole and were personally delivered to the overcrowded boarding houses of the neighbourhood where the Haitians live.
    • A major development occurred when the community with the support and coordination of Columban Martin Koroiciri, began “Casa Betania”. This is a project to offer temporary accommodation within the chapel compound, to homeless Migrant women and their children, many of whom are victims of domestic violence, a problem exacerbated during the Covid-19 lockdown. Supporting services of Counselling. Legal advice, job training and Pastoral Care are made available to these mainly Venezuelan and Haitian women. 
  • There also has been a growing relationship between this community and the local municipal council. The community is now used for Covid-10 testing and a one-day-a-week programme, by the local Municipal Medical Centre, offering services such as midwifery, a nutritionist, nursing care, mental health support, a podiatrist, support for diabetics, aged care and general medicine.

Columban Fr. Martin Koroiciri with new born baby to migrant mother and other migrant women. Photo: Fr Dan Harding SSC

In conclusion, in the words of the Coordinator, Richard Sepulveda, of the community Monseñor Enrique Alvear, “we as a community are really discovering our Christian vocation of service to our local community. In fact, we as a Church are more alive now starting with this pandemic than we have ever been before”.

Columban Fr Dan Harding is the parish priest of San Columbano in Santiago, Chile.

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The Columban Art Calendar is an iconic Catholic Calendar, well-known for its traditional religious paintings and liturgical information and is a major fundraiser for Columban Missionaries. 2022 marks the 100th edition.

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