Thanks to guest blogger and Food for the Hungry Board of Directors member Peter Mogan for providing the following touching story of the powerful hope and transformation in Lima, Peru, resulting from a partnership with University Chapel, a church in Vancouver, Canada.
On September 27, 2014, I witnessed and participated in the graduation ceremony of Rinconada del Sol, a hillside squatter community of about 3,000 people on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. About 12 years ago, a group of families left the Peruvian Sierra to escape rebel violence and economic hardship to find a new life in the big city.
Photo Credit: Peter Mogan
Around the north end of Lima are many dozens of squatter settlements on the dusty and inhospitable mountain slopes, devoid of vegetation and difficult to build upon; Rinconada is one of them.
Food for the Hungry Peru (FH) began its work in Rinconada about 10 years ago. Along the way, in 2007, University Chapel (UC), a church in Vancouver, Canada, entered a covenant partnership with FH Canada and Rinconada under the Community to Community (C2C) Program. The intent was to walk together to support mutual transformation. Part of the commitment was to have teams of 7-10 people visit Rinconada each year. As team leader for each of the trips, I have been privileged to have a “ringside seat” to what has transpired over the past seven years. What follows are some reflections on a three stranded journey: one of physical transformation, community transformation and visitor transformation.
When we first took a steep rocky trail up into Rinconada, what we saw was very challenging: dirt everywhere, nauseating aromas of human and canine waste, no church, no community facilities, nothing organized for pre-school children, dirty water lugged up in large jerry cans, simple homes constructed of scrap wood and other materials; no plants or gardens. FH was working to teach on nutrition, drinking safe water and personal health and hygiene.
Without physical and social structures, things looked pretty desperate.
Over the next couple of years, significant changes were taking place. The national government installed a water tower to supply clean water and an in-ground sewer and sanitation system. An evangelical church was planted from a neighbouring community. With a blend of support from UC, FH and Rinconada, a pre-school was constructed. A few simple gardens signalled emerging hope. Many new homes were being built, some with brick. With basic human needs now being addressed, FH began to shift its work to address the most pervasive and challenging need in Latin America: ending family violence.
Photo Credit: Peter Mogan
On our last visit, we saw many more improvements: brick homes were much more prevalent. Cement stairs allowed Rinconada to expand up the hillside in a physically manageable way. Gravel roads into the community permitted easy transport of construction equipment and materials and of those few community members who did not possess the billygoat attributes of most. A play centre had been completed and was being used for after-school daycare. Plans for much more development – including a community plan – were being put in place.
A second journey was the transformation of community structures: political, social and within families. A key component of FH work in Rinconada involved the establishment and nurture of a group of about 15 “Mother Leaders.” These courageous and compassionate women were key to what would transpire in Rinconada over our time there. Learnings from FH would “cascade” through the Mother Leaders to other mothers and families. Originally, these learnings were health/nutrition/water related and then shifted to family relations and the prevention of violence. Over our seven years, we saw these women grow in confidence and communication skills. What has been really exciting and encouraging is to witness the men (often absent when we first came to Rinconada) returning to their homes and reengaging with their wives and children.
Children are generally disciplined and engaged in community events. Families speak of their hopes and dreams for their children. Many want to get post-secondary education and become doctors, teachers, lawyers, computer programmers or pursue other occupations. We have visited over 20 families on each of our trips and most have progressed very significantly in their interpersonal relationships, economic circumstances and general outlook.
Two other key community structures were the political leaders and the church. The “Junta Directiva” are responsible for collecting funds for shared services and to advocate for Rinconada with other governments. La Roca (the Rock) church was planted in 2008 by a pastoral couple and their team. Pastor Jose was both an expository preacher and a musician. In 2010, a building was constructed for worship services and we participated in services on two of our visits. Unfortunately, both of these entities have experienced challenges in the past few years. The political leaders lost the trust of the people when collected funds were rumored to have gone missing. It has been a long slow process to rebuild trust, even though the leaders have changed. Pastor Jose left Rinconada in 2013 and the worship services stopped. Some of the congregation attend services in neighbouring communities; some do not. A new church is being constructed on the second floor of a brick building and there is talk of Pastor Jose returning.
Over the seven years, some 40+ different people from UC made one or more visits to Rinconada. Our role was not to analyze, teach or fix anything; rather, we went to build relationships and to be a source of encouragement. We spent most of our time in Rinconada visiting families, Mother Leaders and political leaders, playing with the children and participating in workshops. Many amazing things took place. We found that with every visit, even though the makeup of the teams changed each time, trust and intimacy deepened. We were able to give and receive sharing on very personal topics. Even though we were crossing barriers of language, culture, socio-economic context and much more, deep bonds of friendship formed with the people of Rinconada. Our arrival was always greeted with great excitement and passion; our departures saw many tears on both sides.
The impact on the men, women, young adults and teens who have been part of the teams has been significant. Through training for trips, engaging with Rinconada, telling our personal stories to each other and sharing our experiences with UC, we have all been moulded in a God-shaped way. Many have been encouraged in their walk with God. Some have been drawn to consider other ways to engage with the poor. We all have seen God at work and have been very uplifted by that. We have seen his guidance in our planning and on the ground. The deep interdependent community, the commitment of Mother Leaders and others, the joy of the children in the midst of material poverty, the amazing generosity of families: these have all left their mark on us.