A Village in Ecuador. Creative Commons CC0

Quite Another Thing

A nursery school that reveals what Christianity is, the eyes of Amparito, the mothers of her quarter, and the people we met in this metropolis at 8,500 feet above sea level, when we visited Ecuador...
Davide Perillo

The “eyes of Heaven” are there waiting for you, wide open, like the faces and the questions of the children sitting in a row in the yard behind the blue gate. After a few words from the teacher, and a welcome song, they throw themselves into your arms and take you into their world of classrooms and drawings, reading books and showing their handiwork proudly to the visitor from far away. What strikes you here is the neatness and the beauty, the feeling that things are where they should be and that they will go where they should go, starting with these kids’ thirst for the future, as every morning they cross the broken roads of Pisuli, in the northwestern outskirts of Quito, and enter the gate of Ojos de Cielo (Eyes of Heaven), a nursery school that would be enviable even in Europe, far removed from the poverty and violence of this most difficult quarter of Ecuador. “Yet it was the mothers and other local people who set it up,” we were told by Stefania Famlonga, the local head of AVSI, and the point of reference for the school, founded in 2006 thanks to an AVSI project. “This is the added value.” It’s true. You just have to tell the story of Ojos de Cielo to see once again what Christianity is: a fact that changes things from within, something that makes a man more a man and a mother more a mother.

Stefania, with her deep blue eyes and her easy laugh, a veil of freckles under her red curls, is a Memor Domini. She has been in Ecuador since 2003. She is the Responsible for the Movement in Ecuador, and has worked for AVSI since 2004, beginning at once with educational projects, developed through experience in the field, not from handbooks. Here, for example, she began visiting the area, house by house, to get to know the families, in order to set up something similar to what here they call Pelca, “preescolar en casa” (pre-school at home). “We accompany parents–mainly mothers, often single–in the most difficult task of educating their children. There are meetings and sessions together during which concrete problems are tackled, like school and nutrition.” That’s how it started. A few mothers got involved, and many of them opened their doors. Seven micro-nurseries were born in homes throughout the quarter: mothers who take in other mothers’ children so that they can go to work. The need is enormous. Now there are almost 800 children and young people being cared for in various ways, and, “as well as the nursery, we have just opened a youth center.” Counting educators and administrative staff, there are 40 people employed in the project, almost all of them from the zone, all of them bound by a solid web of relationships. “We meet every Monday to judge the work together and to measure ourselves against Fr. Giussani’s texts,” Stefania tells us. It’s striking to hear Pilar: “I have three children, but it is here that I have found enjoyment in bringing them up, and I have realized that I need to be educated myself.” Marta, who has been working here for five years, said, “How have I changed? Before, I was very rigid, even with myself. Now, I am asked continually why I am here. It’s a challenge. It is facing up to what God is giving me. When I am sad, I look at these people, and start over.” Roberto, a former seminarian, said, “Here, I met again what I was about to lose.”

Taste for life. One gets the net impression of the power there is in an enterprise that has a clear, precise face, up to the last detail, and of how much it builds, above and beyond the numbers by which you measure development. You think of it as the car drives down the wide avenue full of pot holes and Quito comes into view. Two and a half million people live in this strange metropolis strung along a plateau at 8,500 ft. with the airport in the middle. There are the bourgeois quarters that recall Europe in the sixties, and one of South America’s finest historic centers, the enchanting baroque Jesuit church, the woodcarving in the Franciscan convent, the Plaza Grande, and 40 or so churches and palaces that trace the whole history of Christianity here in the small area of a few streets.

After all, it’s this history that gave rise to the faces around this lunch table: Diego and Vidal, Lucia and Rita, Pato, Cristian, Sara, and finally Amparito, whom we had met for the first time three years ago, when she told her dramatic story at the Rimini Meeting: one daughter died at the age of sixteen months, another at four years, and a third, now an adolescent, she has brought up alone because the father left and formed a family elsewhere. She had told how the encounter with Stefania and her work for AVSI had changed her life totally. But seeing her again amongst the women of her quarter, whom she had gone to visit, one by one in their homes, and discovering how she has become a point of reference for the teachers of her nursery school, is something else. She speaks of herself, and of the crisis of the past few weeks, during which her daughter’s father had tried to come back to her, but left again. She tells of the difficulties of bringing up Amanda, who goes around with a bunch of boys, fragile and beautiful like herself, and of the simplicity and difficulty with which they do School of Community with Stefania. (“What do I learn by being with them? I am always moved,” she comments. “They are so straightforward. At that young age, everything is decided; by keeping them attached, you have the needs of your own life before you, the truest questions.”) They cling in their own way to the only thing that can help bear terrible wounds: a friend killed, a father in jail... “But I can say it now: all the circumstances confirm to me that what I have seen is for me,” Amparito insists. It takes your breath away to hear her speaking of the sacrifice with eyes that are laughing and crying at the same time. “The sacrifice is impossible unless it’s for Christ. But He answers in His own time, not in mine. If I am alone, there is only anger and hardship. In this companionship, instead, it’s pain. It’s quite another thing.”
These are words that come up often when they speak about the friendship that has grown over recent months, here as in other countries of Latin America, around people simply glad because of Christ. “It’s something new,” says Fr. Alberto Bertaccini, transplanted from Italy to Guyaquil, where we went to visit him two days later: “It’s something for which someone can travel 200 miles effortlessly to go visit the others.” And it is a novelty which moves Diego, a bookkeeper in a furniture factory who is studying accounting in evening classes (“Here I am discovering a taste for life”) and Vidal, who met the Movement on a train while studying in Italy, five years ago (“Every time we meet, the experience is nearer to the origin”).

Even the certainty about the source of this novelty is mature. “It is the School of Community,” Sara tells us clearly. She is an American and came to work here with AVSI: “We discovered the taste for judging things and we help each other to do it.” Kathy sums up this taste in a phrase: “It keeps me awake.” Memorable are the words of Lucia, who previously worked in a travel agency and now takes care of the secretariat: “I first met them at Cotopaxi, the volcano. I understood that I had to show myself for what I was. I used to put on a different face for every place; here, I can put the whole of myself in Christ’s hands, and every day is a challenge. You can never say you have understood everything.”

Ecuadorean Child. Creative Commons CC0

The bus and the ocean. Never, not even when the story begins to lengthen. In Ecuador, the Movement has been present for almost 20 years. In 1992, Fr. Dario Maggi arrived from Italy, where he had entered the Priestly Fraternity of St. John the Apostle. “After four years in the parish with the young people, nothing was happening,” he tells us over a cup of coffee in his house in Ibarra, where he has been bishop for 18 months. “I asked Fr. Giussani to help me and Fr. Carlo d’Imporzano began to visit me from time to time. It was the companionship I needed, a friendship that generated me, so as to be a father in my turn.” Then there was that vacation with some young people in Conga, near Cotopaxi, in 1996. On the first evening, Fr. Maggi wrote the words of “Povera Voce” on the blackboard. “If I were to say when the Movement began in Ecuador, I would say it was then.” Other steps followed from there. The first works, like the pre-school initiative, began precisely with Fr. Maggi, and AVSI came to be involved as well. All this was followed by the arrival of other priests (Fr. Francesco Rizzo, now pastor in Portovejo, and then Fr. Alberto from Paraguay), as well as the appointment of Dario Maggi as Auxiliary Bishop of Guyaquil and the opening of the house of Memores Domini in Quito.

“A complicated story,” says Stefania with a smile. “Here, things are less stable than elsewhere. I have always said that if we are to stay, the Lord will find work for us. Up to now that’s how things have gone ahead.” She had begun working in a banking foundation before the AVSI projects began in Quito. Loretta, from Bergamo, teaches in the university. Rosa, from Madrid, works for CESAL, an NGO that has development projects in the capital and in Portovejo.

Portovejo is a 45-minute flight and another 45 minutes by bus from Quito. The bus journey is quite an adventure. A pensioner tells you that the Panama hat was actually invented here (“And then the most important center of production moved there and they stole the name”); a student’s face lights up when she hears the word “Italy.” There is no longer any port. The ocean is now 20 miles away, but we will see it all the same because we have a visit planned to Crucita to meet the people working for CUET (a cooperative that offers services in the field of education). They are there for a meeting with Fr. Rizzo. They follow families in the rural areas around. It is good to hear them tell of the the realization that “we are not going to solve their problems, but walk with them–it’s Someone Else’s work and we are only tools in God’s hands” (Jennifer), and how “I am happy when a mother tells me that after meeting us she is educating her second daughter differently from the first” (Laura). “But the greatest satisfaction is the relationship with Christ,” Fr. Rizzo tells us.

“I offer You a piece of myself.” The following morning, we leave for the last stage, Guyaquil. Amid palms, heat, and salsa music blaring at a hundred decibels on the radio, after three hours the minibus unloads us in the city center, near the parish of Fr. Alberto. After 13 years of mission in Paraguay, with Fr. Aldo Trento, he stayed for a period in Italy for health problems before crossing the ocean again. “The doctor told me: ‘You are at risk, but, if there is a hospital, to stay here or go to Gayaquil is the same thing.’” It was brutal news. “I had left the Cumadin medicine in my luggage and it had not arrived. I thought I would not find certain kinds of medicine here. After four days, they had to amputate my finger. I said to myself, ‘Lord, I can’t give You anything else. I offer You a piece of myself.”

He is offering Him much more. He is offering Him his life through the relationship with the people here. We manage to get to know a few of them before our timetable forces us to leave for the airport, but they will remain inside us, like Juan and Erica, Giovanna’s parents. Giovanna is a disabled child that Fr. Alberto prepared for her First Communion. “We became friends through her. At first we were afraid, but not any more. We know that she, too, is part of a journey.” Why? A smile and a moment of silence... “The other day a man passing by looked at her and said, ‘Where is God?’ In the past I would not have known how to answer him. Now I do: ‘He is in her, because her eyes are the sign of Christ.’” They are the eyes of Heaven.
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