Nine days in Ecuador are nine days to flip your view of reality upside down. I decided to go on a mission trip when a friend invited me. She was a candidate of the Home of the Mother, an order of sisters and brothers I met during my semester inRome. This order has several houses in Ecuador, and every summer the sisters invite young women to join them in their work. When I went, I knew I would see poverty. I knew I would see shacks built on the ground and inhabited by several generations. But I was not prepared for the smells, or the battered families, or the forgotten Church.
We went into a red zone to visit the sick people and pray with them. The houses were built on hills with narrow pathways leading from the gravel road up the muddy slope. In some places the path was walled by bamboo fences and barbed wire. In other places the path was crossed by rivulets of foul smelling liquid, crusted with green slime. The first person we visited was an old man lying in a hammock. At the close of the visit, the sisters invited him to pray with them. They prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary, but he lay silent because, as he told us, no one had ever taught him any prayers. We gave him a pamphlet of some prayers in Spanish, and the sisters told him they would soon visit him again.
One afternoon we helped an elderly woman who ran a soup kitchen. That day like every afternoon, about twenty-five children came to her for food. These children attended the school down the street, and they had homes. But they did not have parents who fed them. As one of their teachers explained, ‘the women here are more women than mothers’. The woman who ran the soup kitchen was missing her right hand because her husband had tried to kill her with a machete. With her right hand she had protected her face and neck. With her left hand she had grabbed her youngest child and ran.
Our last visit was bringing clothes and first-aid kits to a little neighborhood in the mountains. As we distributed these goods, the people thankfully accepted whatever was given to them. No one grabbed or demanded. No one shouted for what was given to someone else. Everyone was grateful. The nuns told as that in this neighborhood live several couples who want to get married. One couple is a mother and father of four. Another couple are grandparents. These couples are both having second thoughts about being married.
Every evening we went to Mass at the local church. At least a couple dozen people were at each Mass. While some people clearly treasured their faith, not many received Communion and almost everyone left immediately after Mass. The priest addressed the people at the close of Mass one day. He asked them why they dashed out of church though they took time to kiss their mothers goodbye after a visit. He told them to remain after Mass and say goodbye to the Virgin.
Returning to my dorm room and the frequently visited chapel, I am struck by the silence that colored the lives of the people I met. The silence that held them from complaining about their meager living situations also holds them content in their ignorance of the Church. The duty of parents to feed their children and teach them to pray, a duty the Church enforced, is shirked. The importance of loving one’s neighbor and spouse, which the Church teaches, is ignored. The Church’s sacraments are pushed aside. In the hearts of these people, a deadly silence sits where there ought to be hymns.
When we think of third world countries, we often imagine that their largest burden in the poverty which so ruthlessly distinguishes their way of living from ours. After nine days inEcuador, I realize that the heaviest poverty these people in a corner of South America bear is the same poverty possessed by the people in the United States and in every country I have visited. Across the globe, people will posses this poverty until the end of time; man will always need an ever deepening love for the Church.