Tuesday, 19 June 2012

God's Light in the Urban Jungle

By Brother Daniel Leckman, S.J.

I’ve wrestled about how to express the way I feel about Caracas without being unfair to it and its beautiful people. Most cities have a certain charm to them, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes me want to spend more time discovering them and gradually makes me fall in love with them wholeheartedly. With places like Montreal, New York and Boston, it just was natural. They ooze with charm that draw me back in every time. With Caracas, I see some expressions of that charm, but I am just overwhelmed by this place.

I feel that perhaps the real beauty of Caracas lies in its people and their simplicity. It needs to be said that their poverty, although shocking, is not abject. Most of the people have cell phones and laptops, and use Facebook. They have jobs and – thanks to the Jesuits – many are University educated or have valuable skills that allows them to make ends meet here. Living in Caracas, it means they have access to ‘popular’ (relatively free) health care, and to virtually any goods and services imaginable.

The problem that the Caracasʼ poor face is that there’s a lot of poor crammed into little pockets of land throughout the city (the barrios). As one magazine exploring the social phenomenon of the barrios put it, ‘In the 20th century the government decided agriculture and mining was irrelevant, and oil refineries would be the most important export in this country … so millions of people on the country side, unable to find work, gravitated towards the cities in a quest for finding any kind of manual job. The problem was that this type of labour also became stigmatized by the society. This in the end forced these people, who were without political representation, and were not socially organized, into these crammed residences that they were responsible for building for themselves.’

For those in developed countries that are used to clean, sanitary places where one has one’s privacy and is able to live a slightly more isolated life – this would be a shocking way to live. Still, there are a few simple truths that I have known for a long time about people living in poverty that seems to make their lives, a little more enriched than ours in the North. We might have more material possession and enjoy a wider variety of services, but we lack so much of what they have.

First, they try to stick together a bit better. It’s a very crowded world, but in fact, they survive, and they celebrate life together. Venezuelan society, like ours I suppose, is still very polarized, but some of the poor here understand that such polarization won’t help improve their living conditions, so they live past it. Second, they experience and express their faith differently. The Blessed Virgin Mary is everywhere here, as is Jesus. They don’t necessarily go to Church more often than North Americans, but they do recognize the need to be close to the divine a little more.

As a result, they don’t seem to be lacking much. The poor here are not like the poor in Montreal or Toronto who may wonder whether they’ll be eating that night. They will never be alone, they will always eat, and they will always find ways of seeing the blessings God bestows upon them.

Those who are a little poorer, understand the need for staying and working towards a better future. It’s with people like that that the Jesuits end up working. Those who believe that God’s light shines through even in the darkest corners of this urban jungle.

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