Bogota, Colombia. Creative Commons CC0

With the Eyes of a Child

In the country known for the war against drug traffickers, it is possible to meet people who are “visibly...happy.” We find them in three schools, in a milk products factory, and encounters along the way in a friendship starting with a magazine article.
Davide Perillo

Red bricks and dense blue sky with grey-black clouds. I look at the tidy uniforms of the children as they get off the buses and are greeted in the courtyard by their teachers, and for a moment think it could be elsewhere, maybe Ireland, or England. It’s enough to turn around and look at the panorama from above–to the populated hills all around–to suddenly realize that it is Bogota, Colombia, an ocean of houses and human lives 30 miles long and 18 miles wide, one next to the other, set on a high plain 7,800 feet above sea level. It is packed with 10 million people, divided into the rich North and the poor South, infamous for serious trouble: narcotics traffickers, guerilla warfare, criminal gangs, and roads where you must not go after a certain hour because you risk attack or, worse still, kidnapping. Instead, what strikes one here is the gaze of the children and their teachers: they are happy, visibly so. We are at the Alessandro Volta School, in the Usaquén zone of the north. This Italian school offers a complete academic cycle through high school. It does not take much to understand that it is the heart of the CL Movement in Colombia, and less to realize that behind the impressive walls–the structure opened only seven years ago that today hosts 420 children and has space for 300 more, with classrooms, gyms, an auditorium where they practice for the Christmas play, and soccer fields–there is another impressive presence, a greater beauty. This is marked on the groggy faces of the littlest ones, already gathered at 7 am in the atrium for the morning greeting (five minutes and three simple thoughts) with Fr. Marco Valera, 62 years old, who has been in Colombia for 8 years, where he is the CL community “responsible.” It is marked on the faces of the Headmistress, Patrizia, and the teachers. And in the hearts of children like Mariana, a 9-year-old who already devours books. The other day, after having received a written reprimand from her teacher, Marta, Mariana wrote her a letter: “I have only you, my mother, and my little sister to talk to. If you can, look me up.” And in Isabelita, who at 15 plays piano and through her teacher Benedetta has discovered the Russian pianist Maria Judina; now she wants to dedicate herself totally to piano. And in Juliana, also 15, who tells her story with the lucidity of an adult. The daughter of Protestants, she was brought to the Volta School because she is of Italian descent, and Italian is taught at the school. “Here, for the first time, I met an atheist friend. It started a crisis in me, because I thought either she is right, or I am. Ideas were no longer sufficient for me.” Then, a teacher invited her on vacation. When the latter returned to Italy, a second one and a third one remained close to her. “They were all happy, in the same way. I asked myself, Why? Because they’re Italian? Impossible. And what are they doing here? Why are they here for me?” Deep down in these “whys,” she found the root: “I understood that it was because of the Movement. It was the most beautiful thing that could happen to me in life.” She said it in those exact words, continuing, “This happened in my life, with all the drama that I bring, in the bond with my tradition, which is important to me. But what I encountered is so beautiful that it must be true.”

Leaving Volta School it becomes clearer what Fr. Marco had told me before: “This school is the verification that the experience we have is true. It can communicate itself and build women and men. And it can change the world.” This is also what Patrizia, a member of the Memores Domini, says. She came here 12 years ago to accompany a friend and then ended up as Headmistress: “A short time ago, I had a meeting with some parents. They told me what many tell me, seeing the school: ‘It’s not an exaggeration to say that you desire the happiness of the students. It’s visible. This is a place of hope.’”

It is amazing to recall how this hope arrived here­–by chance, re-reading a story that began in the late 1980s, when a small group of university students, more or less Catholic/Communist, gathered to talk about faith and culture. One of them happened upon the magazine called 30Days, with an article by Fr. Giussani. Photocopies were passed around and someone asked, “What is this CL?” They made contact and Filippo Santoro arrived for a meeting. He had been recently ordained bishop of Taranto, and at the time was responsible for the Movement in Latin America. “I felt like I was in the wrong place,” recounts Doris, also a member of Memores Domini, and a teacher at the Volta School, who was present at that meeting. “I only said that I had been invited by my sister, that I wasn’t an intellectual, and that this Movement wasn’t for me. He said, ‘It’s not a discourse; it’s a life.’” Some of the people left, and others remained. They became close to Fr. Albert, a member of the Camillian Order stationed in Bogota. In the meantime, the Milanese Fr. Carlo d’Imporzano arrived in Medellin, the city known for its drug cartel, to teach at the university. It was the true beginning. “I remember one of the first vacations, in the 1990s,” says Doris. “Both d’Imporzano and Santoro were there, and their gaze upon our hearts really moved me, carrying an affection I had never encountered before. And the songs were beautiful.” The Memores Domini house was born, with Cristina, Chiara, Anna, and the first Colombians. And the school was also born, Fr. Carlo’s objective from the very beginning. “He simply said, if we want to have an impact, we have to educate,” recounts Fr. Marco, who also arrived from Milan to help and then replace him, when d’Imporzano left for China. “Education is also the way to form the professional class.”

“Yes, I made a mistake.” As we drove toward the hills, to the Juan Rey zone, the landscape changed, with ruined houses and potholes in the streets, buses driven wildly, and roads to avoid after a certain hour. Here the San Riccardo Pampuri School stands, and what strikes one is precisely the same thing a glance showed before, in the rich neighborhood. Everything was born here, and is made of the same material as the neighborhood surrounding it: the colors, the people, the faces of the people who work here. There is nothing extraneous to the environment, and yet this place has its own, unmistakable feature, as if something had transformed its nature. It is visible in the order, the beauty, in the richness of a place where, together with the children of the school and after-school program and those who come here just for the lunch (“4,000 meals served every day, and for many it is their only one,” they explain), there are sewing and bread-making courses for the mothers, hospitality for the elderly, and a parents’ school. But, above all, it shows in the way of treating others, in lives reborn, like that of “a mother of 3 children who was kidnapped by guerilla forces, escaped, and was taken again,” Luz Mary, the director, tells me. “They killed her husband in front of her, and did the most inhuman things. She became pregnant, and when the child was born and placed in her arms, she thought, ‘He is my son. I can’t abandon him. He needs help.’ Now that son is here, at this school.” And there is Felipe, a difficult boy who threw something at the teacher the other day. Luz Mary kept him in her office all morning: “I told him, ‘You will stay here until you realize what you did.’ It took hours. But at the end he said, ‘Yes, I made a mistake.’ And his face changed; he felt free.”

Change: deep down, this is the most powerful sign. Today, the school children are away because the term has ended, but at the teachers’ Christmas dinner Maria describes “a beauty that redeems” and “my humanity that grows with them.” Lidia confesses that it was as if “I had armor on when I began working here, but now my face has changed.” And then Lilia, Midgalia, and so many others have been seized and changed into “instruments in the hands of an Other,” as Luz Mary says. “When we touch the truest fibers of a person, something changes.”

This also happens in the evening, listening to the stories of other friends. The theme is fraternity, which here for many is a decisive question. They talk about something that is happening here, as in other countries of Latin America. “I knew the discourse of the Movement, the jargon, everything,” says Filipe, “but I didn’t have the experience.” And, asked what allows them to have this experience now, they all answer by weaving together two factors: friendship and School of Community. These factors are decisive everywhere but, paradoxically, more so here, where “the emotional aspect is very strong, and stability in judgment, in the use of reason, is difficult,” observes Patrizia. “It takes longer for someone to decide to stay with us, but I have to say that in these years the solidity has grown.” Not just in Bogota...

A problem of spirit. We look at the map, and they tell of other places: Cartegna, on the Caribbean, Cartago, Manizales, and Villavicencio. The last one is within reach, and so we start out. During the three hours by car through the mountains, we see landscapes that remind us of Switzerland, if it were not for the crumbling houses instead of chalets, and the many soldiers always on the road, with faces like children but machine guns under their arms as they signal with their thumbs that it is okay, we can continue. “Up until a few years ago, this road could not be used, and we had to travel to Villavicencio by plane,” recounts Fr. Marco. “A half-hour flight, but at least you didn’t run the risk of being kidnapped.” As we emerge from the last tunnel, the view suddenly changes: a sea of green all the way to the far-off straight line where earth meets sky. It is the Llano, the Great Plain, which goes northwest toward Venezuela, and south toward Brazil and the Amazon. We stop to look at the recently opened Miguel Magoni Nursery School. Marco recounts, “The Bishop, who esteems us, asked, ‘Why don’t you do something here, too?’” That is, in a neighborhood built without the proper permits, which has filled over the years with refugees from guerrilla warfare. “It was a kind of swamp,” says Luz Mary. “Four pilings, a shack, and they came here to live.” Now there are houses, and there is the nursery school. Today, this school, too, is empty, but here as well, it is enough to walk around to get an idea and see the difference. This is the same difference Melchisedec saw emerge bit by bit over time, in his milk products factory in Cumaral, a few miles from here. He tells his story over a dulce tres leches, sitting under a lean-to roof. He used to sell milk to a cheese producer. “The factory went bankrupt, and I found myself without clients. We tried to buy it.” In the meantime, he was one of the first to encounter the Movement. He, too, remembers that copy of 30Days. “I was in the Cursillos Movement, but I was going through a crisis because it wasn’t useful for my life. On the one hand, there was the faith, and on the other, the factory. When I saw that magazine, I was stunned: a Catholic magazine that talks about Pasolini? Who are these people?” He asked around, and saw, and decided. “It corresponded to me to see how one can follow the Church reasonably.” And change, even in the details. “In the beginning, Fr. Carlo came into the factory and I saw him sad as he left. I didn’t know why. I told him about the Movement, the encounters, the meetings. He said, ‘Show me your workplace.’ One day, after a visit, I told him, ‘I know, it’s a mess; we’re not very organized. I think we have a problem with the training of the personnel.’ He replied, ‘No, Melco, it’s a problem of spirit.’” Of faith. “I spent days asking myself what he meant. One day, I was sitting there. I saw a pail on the ground, upside down. Everybody walked past it and nobody picked it up. I was called away for a meeting, and when I returned, it was still there. I said to myself, ‘How can everyone pass by, including me, and not pick up that pail?’ And I understood.” What? “That if there is not a subject, if I am not the one who notices that pail, I am not making a human journey. I told myself, ‘Fr. Giussani had better serve me in making cheese. Otherwise, it’s another religious thing, another discourse.’”

We have lunch on the patio. While the sancocho, the “everyman’s soup,” which here is a national dish, is boiling, other friends recount their simple and dense stories. Like that of Sandra, Melco’s daughter, “born and raised in the Movement, but there comes a time when you have to make it your own.” For her, there was a decisive moment, after a depression. She emerged all the stronger for it. “I want to be the tenth leper, to tell everyone that the faith can change the world.” And she doesn’t say that in a manner of speaking. A couple of years ago, after chatting with some friends about the Meeting of Rimini, she took a risk, and the “happening” called Encuentro Villavicencio was born, made up of encounters, celebrations, and cultural events. This year, there was an exhibit on Maria Zambrano. Among the guides was Davian, a 15-year-old with two luminous eyes below a head full of curls. “People asked me, ‘Why do you explain things this way? What does this philosopher have to do with you?’ And I said, ‘She corresponds to my life.’” So he made a surprising proposal: “I invited my friends to come camping for two days, to tell them what the Movement is.” This was in effect a GS vacation, albeit without GS and without teachers, because there aren’t any here, but with him and his desire to speak to everyone about Christ. “Seventeen came, very happy. Just think, one of them, an atheist, when I read from Huellas the story of Belen [a Memores Domini member who died after an illness lived with fullness], told me, ‘I don’t believe, but this is the closest thing to what I desire.’” And now? “We’ll see. When school starts back again, I’d like to start a newspaper.”

Following what exists. “It has always been difficult to do public gestures here,” explained Fr. Marco, “because if you expose yourself, you risk being kidnapped–you’re foreign, you belong to the Church... It’s a problem to put out documents signed by CL, for example.” There are gatherings, an increasing number, with Fr. Aldo from Paraguay, and the Zerbinis from Brazil. There is Encuentro. There are even the first people who are taking on the responsibility of engaging in politics. Albeiro, just elected Mayor of Cumaral, tells me how “all the most important decisions of my life I’ve made thanks to the Movement.” But deep down, the important thing is that a person moves. Like Davian. Or Melco, who candidly relates, “I went to the Companionship of Works meetings and I didn’t understand why we had to go back and forth to Bogota to participate. Then it happened that the people here risked losing their jobs, and we formed an association of cheese producers to face the problem together, and I began to understand....”

In the evening, back in Bogota, we sat at the table with other friends, the teachers from Italy, young people who, right after graduation, decided to put to the test the experience encountered, to the point of changing their world and life. The freshness with which they entered the classroom is surprising, “lead in that embrace that enables me to be truly myself, without hiding anything, before Him who makes everything precious,” as Marta recounts, a teacher who “follows” her children, to have their simple eyes. Or people who are farther along, like Saro, who came from Catania after retiring, “because here there was work to be done, and I am alive and want to learn.” A beginning.

“Well, the impression is precisely that of being at the beginning of a true friendship,” Juan Sebastian confirms it at dinner. He met the Movement in Italy (“I was studying Mathematics in Pisa”) and now he works in the family firm. “The Fraternity, the Schools of Community... I understand that it is decisive to stay attentive to what is happening,” and to follow what Fr. Marco calls “my total urgent need: that Christ be everything, that I may recognize Him in the signs, as we are being educated to do in this period, that God may speak to me in reality just as it is.” Reality, just as it is. Simple. And “full of a Presence,” says Aureliano, a stone cutter transplanted here 13 years ago from his native Romagna. “So often, I don’t realize... I think that Christ is here when things work well, and that when they don’t work, I need to put Him in.” And instead? “Just follow Him in what exists.” Also in Colombia.

(Preceding articles of this series: the stories of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and the Assembly of Responsibles for Latin America.)