The Hill of the Goats got its name because the hill rising up from the urban sprawl of the town was so steep only a goat could climb it. Twenty years ago as the poor migrated in increasing numbers from rural regions to the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, there was no place remaining for them in and around the city. Soon the Hill of the Goats became the home of the poorest of the poor. Building shacks of split and dried sugar cane with dirt floors and zinc roofs, people came with only their hopes and dreams and the willingness to work for a better tomorrow for their children.
The children—they are at the center of this prototypical reality. Naturally beautiful, outgoing and fun loving, the children are the source of pride, joy, hope, and of course love among the poor of Latin America.
What follows is a story about a family in this neighborhood and some observations about the reality of life among the poor of Latin America. In the middle of this reality, we find the Church. For many she is the source of hope and direction. The story of the family, the Church, and the reality will lead to a suggestion about our connectedness with our neighbors to the South. This connectedness is based not only on geography and culture and economics; it is far deeper and more urgent.
Hector and Esther
From a rural valley in southern Ecuador, along the Bulabula river, Hector and his wife Esther moved to Durán, on the other side of the Guayas river from the city of Guayaquil. They could afford no space in the town, so they climbed the hill. Slowly, with their two children, they started to build a life. There was no work, so Hector became a street vendor—selling candy and cigarettes and matches—where the boats docked. The family life they had known in their rural village was no more. Brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, nieces and nephews and all the other members of the family were no longer available to lessen the loneliness and strangeness of the new world. This lack of rootedness may be one of the saddest and most violent experiences of the poor who migrate to the urban regions. They lose so much of their culture and family life—and the poverty is compounded. For Hector and Esther, everything was changed.
They were both Catholic; that is to say, they had been baptized and made their first communion, but that was years ago. The visits to the village by the priest were infrequent. No one in their family was really evangelized. Their simple devotions to the saints, to Jesus, and especially to the Virgin were a part of their life, but commingled with superstitions from their ancestors about daily living and child rearing.
In the city, they slowly became involved in a newly formed Christian base community founded by Sister Ruth, who worked from the parish below in the city. This Sister of St. Joseph of Cincinnati worked tirelessly for the benefit of the families on the hill. In typical missionary fashion, and as a lifelong educator (Sister was seventy-eight years young at this time), she started a school named after St. Elizabeth Seton, conducted Bible and prayer groups, and was a particular support to the women on the hill. Working with local leaders, small loans were made, houses were built, and little things happened. There was a bit of hope on the hill.
When one single mother of three daughters became so desperate to care for her family that she sold her teenage daughter into prostitution, the community came together to help and persuade her to find another way. Meanwhile the fabric of Hector and Esther's family was coming apart. The transition to this new and harsh life was taking its toll. A new baby arrived, and there was not enough food for the others. Faced with the baby's illnesses and a lack of money to buy even shoes for the children to go to school, Hector started to drink and Esther finally left him and the three children—the oldest was no more than seven. Such breakdown of the family is common, although more often than not the man deserts the woman. In any event, the Christian community on the hill grew stronger and everyone helped out—and somehow things moved on. The children grew, Hector found a new wife, and slowly things improved. The children go to school now and, one hopes, their generation will have a better life. This is everyone's dream, but at times it seems very far off.
International trade, debt, corruption, exploitation, and heartless economic policies make basic commodities more costly. The poorest of the people, like those on the hill, suffer more. The Church often cries out, the only voice of the poor which might be heard, yet in truth the cry is sometimes limited, cautious, careful not to offend—and all too easy to ignore.
Life is hard. There is no such thing as a safety net, and social security is available only for those with a good job and regular income. The great majority in Latin America are not included in this definition. Because of such poverty, the scarcity of jobs, and the lack of such basics as water, sewage, health care, and decent education, there is much sickness, and malnutrition is more the rule than the exception. This translates into a daily lived experience which is harsh and cruel. Children and mothers often are the most vulnerable.
Couples like Hector and Esther rarely marry ecclesiastically. Such has not been part of the culture, with its shortage of priests. This is a Catholic region, but an unevangelized one. That is changing slowly, and yet it will be some generations before an appreciation of the eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church is integral to the faith of the people.
The New Evangelization
When Pope John Paul II spoke at the Fourth General Assembly of Bishops for Latin America in Santo Domingo in 1992, he exhorted the bishops to launch a new evangelization. On the five-hundredth anniversary of the first evangelization, the pope named the great sad reality of the continent: we are a Catholic people by baptism and culture, and yet we are unevangelized. The Holy Father's call for a new spirit of evangelization was and has been enthusiastically received. Throughout the region new efforts have begun in catechesis, formation of the laity, and encouragement of vocations. A new spirit is evident throughout the land, and anyone who travels to Latin America and is blessed with the opportunity to walk with the people will rapidly experience a sense of joy and hope. And yet this must be placed in the context of a social, economic, and political reality that is not deeply encouraging. There are these two realities: the dynamic growth of a new evangelization in the Church and the broader social reality that does not support the family and life.
Threats Against Life
Machismo, the mindset that considers a woman as man's property, is widespread in Latin America. Its effect on families is devastating as husbands and fathers, unevangelized and poor, abandon their families, leaving women and children desperately vulnerable. For some women, the only option is to seek another man to care for them and their children. And even abortion seems a viable alternative. Sadly, sometimes a woman fears that if she is pregnant, her husband will leave her and another won't take her, thereby leaving her with no means to feed and care for her children.
In many Latin American countries abortion is the great secret: no one talks about it, yet everyone knows. Abortion is the principal means of birth control in Latin America. It is accessible, inexpensive, and quite often not very safe. It appears to be the solution. Of course, it is instead just another expression of the impoverishment of the poor. One other element in this sad reality is the infant mortality rate. Unknown numbers of infants die from preventable illnesses such as diarrhea, colds, and flu.
The poor suffer a deep and horrible violence against life. Abortion is only a symptom. The social/economic systems that deny a life of dignity to a human family and maintain so many in destitution and misery, combined with the lack of evangelization, are the killers of children and families. Of course each person is responsible for his or her behavior and choices. At the same time each action and choice takes place within specific circumstances. The shame in various parts of Latin America is that after five hundred years of Christianity, we are a people who have yet to embrace the essential gospel message of life and liberation offered exclusively by Christ. The "new" evangelization underway must reach all corners of society—not only the Hill of the Goats, but also the wealthy neighborhoods. Prostitution, abortion, alcoholism, family break-ups, infant mortality, and teenage gangs are not only symptoms of a society seeking that liberation from misery which only Christ offers, but they are also symptoms of social conditions so oppressive that they are in themselves evil.
What does this reality have to do with us, adult Catholics concerned about family, the value of each life, and living our faith? The reality of Latin America has much to offer us; in fact it may be that unless we confront such a reality in some way, our faith life is missing an important, even vital part. Our belief in Christ and the Church, our understanding of life and human dignity, is incomplete unless we carry them to their next logical progression. Our faith calls us forth. Our relationship with Jesus is meant to bring us into friendship with the Lord of life and then to acceptance of his mission, with the commitment of building up the kingdom. The call especially is to the poorest and most needy among us: the "widows and orphans."
How do we "go forth" in this day and age? How do we live out our faith in the society of America? Pope John Paul II offers us a model in the Lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops for America. The title of that document is Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: the Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America. As each of us celebrates our baptism and Christian life, we are called continually into conversion. As the Church has taught for centuries, conversion is the essential dynamic of the Christian life. What happens because of conversion? We are compelled into communion with others—especially the needy and the poor. We must recognize our "commonness" with others, that which unites us and makes us similar to them. The gospel imperative is unambiguous on the question of the responsibilities to our neighbor (e.g., the Good Samaritan).
And yet communion is not enough; it is like spiritual adolescence. The loving heart wants more—and solidarity is the only response. Solidarity is more than compassion, more than support and caring. It is unity—being in alliance with. Solidarity means "we are in it together." Is it not remarkable that the Holy Father is holding up a vision for America that we are to be in solidarity with the families on the Hill of the Goats?
The Challenge of Solidarity
How can we be in solidarity with the poor? While the pope is definite in his call for a new evangelization and his vision for the celebration for the millennium and the Synod for America, ultimately solidarity begins in the heart. It is personal. Each man and woman yearns for completion. We can achieve this completion only in union with God and, while we are on the human journey, in union with one another. In Matthew 25 we discover the great surprise, that our actions for the poor and most needy directly touch the Lord himself.
Prayer is the primary instrument for conversion, communion, and solidarity. Prayer inevitably leads to action. This action may lead us to become involved in some of the Church's initiatives for solidarity. Thirty-seven years ago, the U.S. bishops established an office to be in special relationship with the Church in Latin America. Today the Secretariat for Latin America coordinates the annual collection for that Church among U.S. dioceses and distributes the $4.5 million annually to approximately 350 projects throughout the 33 countries and 728 dioceses that make up South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. The Secretariat has also carried out education and research to assist efforts to inform U.S. Catholics about the reality of the Church in Latin America.
Every diocese has some parishes, religious communities, and Catholic high schools, colleges, or universities involved with the Church in Latin America. A recently published book and video entitled Sharing Faith Across the Hemisphere tell the remarkable story about this relationship. Both can be found in Catholic bookstores.
It may well be that the greatest sin against life is indifference. Each of us is called by Christ to be in relationship—and ultimately that relationship and call leads us to the Hill of the Goats. Any detour appears more attractive, but the journey of faith always ends on a hill.
Fr. Ronan, executive director of the NCCB Secretariat for Latin America, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and served in the St. James Society as a missionary in Guayaquial, Ecuador from 1988-1994.