I want to tell you about an experience of charity which I participate in every Saturday, and which has been a great help in entering into the Chilean reality.
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one”, these words by Mother Teresa of Calcutta are written on the portico of our parish of the Divine Teacher, where every Saturday a table is prepared to feed more than a hundred people in need.
It all began a few years ago, almost by chance. After the violent earthquake of 2010, our parish was left very damaged. Lariza and her husband Juan, two non-religious, committed to the parish began collecting funds for the repairs, cooking and selling empanadas or un plato ‘unico on Saturday, the day of the district market. Quickly, they realized that many came to ask but did not have money to give; homeless, or people so poor that they did not have the few pesos necessary for the meal. There was nobody was responding to this great need, the need to welcome and feed the many poor that passed everyday on the streets of the neighborhood, persons often consumed by their alcohol or drug addiction, who suffer profoundly, often being abandoned by their families and children. The parish priest at the time pushed the initiative and they began to cook a hot meal under the supervision of the priest’s secretary, who for years was a chief. The menu was decided in the moment, with regards to what Providence had brought during the week: pasta with ragù, cazuela, pantruca (the tipical soups of Cile) and the assured pebre (onion, red chili pepper, tommato and cilantro).
The portico of the church, the only shelter from the rain and sun, hosted the meal. Initially they had thought of doing something simple and fast; then, thanks to two of our priests, Father Alessandro and Father Stefano, we noticed that, more than bread, these people are lacking beauty and the dignity of a dinner in a family. That’s when the colorful tablecloths appeared, ceramic plates, real utensils and attentive service to the minimal details, as if it were Sunday, as if it were in a home.
The news of the new comedor solidario St. Philip Neri (the name of the initiative was chosen after seeing the film that describes the profound trust in Providence the saint had) spread quickly, reaching the surrounding neighborhoods. Every Saturday we encounter new people. A group of volunteers, who get along well together, provide the structure of the program, looking out for the expenses, the kitchen, and the washing of the dishes. They invite others who want to share in a gesture of charity and who are curious to discover the heart of this initiative, that is, the miracle of welcoming another. Personally, I look forward to welcoming our friends at the door, inviting them to enter. When they have taken their place, I pass to greet the old friends and to get to know those who are new. With difficulty I try to remember their names, to be able to greet them one by one, and I ask them to tell me about their lives. They often reply with disconnected words, mumbled by mouths without teeth as they devour the bread and soup. Their eyes say more than their words, eyes that, like those of a wounded animal, are afraid, and marked by abandonment and by violence; eyes that are also signed by their seeking: for restoration, for the family that has left them and that they desire to find again.
It is never easy to win over the repulsion for their dirtiness, or for the smell of alcohol that they emanate; however, you cannot avoid their hugs, their kisses and their requests for a blessing, whispered with much respect and dignity before they return to the streets. Here the powerful experience of the fatherhood that God has entrusted to us as priests happens repeatedly. Everyone searches for the Father, who might bless them, who embrace them, who might repeat their name, because everyone feels the need to return to being a child, to experience that God has prepared a home for them. And even if they lose themselves in the streets of the world, there is always a place that expects them, a place where someone knows their name: Elvis, Juan, Vivi, Gladys… The Lord eats with them every Saturday. He lends an ear to their pain and their hope, while, at the same time, preparing the most beautiful of banquets for them in his house in heaven.
An image from comedor solidario: the table laid out in the parish of the Divine Teacher, St. Bernardo.