|Feeding the hungry at Amancer
in Cochabamba, Bolivia
In my years of ministry in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I have seen how Christ’s message is working wonders in God’s people. The words of St. Paul are so true: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In other words, if we let God work in us, Christ’s Resurrection will triumph over death.
In spite of the handful of people who continue to lead the world down paths of death, many, if not most, are Easter people, in whose lives of sacrifice and commitment Christ is resurrected in our own times.
Here in Cochabamba we have lost one such gifted person. At 85 years of age, most of her life was spent in constant work among God’s poor. Her name is Kathleen Mary Murray, known here in Cochabamba as Sister Stephanie. The people of Cochabamba revere her as their own “Mother Teresa.”
Sister hails from Germantown, Pennsylvania, where she was born January 4, 1921. She belonged to the Philadelphia Province of the Sisters of Charity. She had been in Bolivia for nearly 50 years. She was a central figure in the founding and staffing of Elizabeth Seton Hospital and it’s nursing school in Cochabamba. She was also Administrator of the Leper Hospital in the City of Santa Cruz. Yet her most cherished work was with the street children of Cochabamba, whom she has accompanied since April 24, 1981.
It all began while she was visiting the people in the jails of Cochabamba. Sister noticed the presence of children and adolescents who were detained for vagrancy, petty larceny, for sniffing glue and other minor offenses. Most of them were youths who had no homes and lived on the streets. Their folks were either in jail, had abandoned them or kicked them out because they were on drugs. And so they formed street gangs which were always getting them in trouble.
After investigating, Sister Stephanie found that, at that time, there were few, if any, institutions which were involved in helping to solve this problem. So she decided to take the first steps in housing and accompanying them.
|Plaza Colon in Cochabamba, Bolivia|
Her first problem was to establish contact with the youth that lived on the streets. She did so by inviting them to have free bread and milk once a week in the Plaza Colon. These were the first steps that, in time, would culminate in the founding of an institution called “EI Amanecer” (The Dawn). It is an institution that has twelve centers, attending to the needs of these youths at different levels and ages. These twelve centers now provide housing as well as accompanyment for these needy people, rehabilitating them, educating them – some in the formal sense, while others are being formed at trade schools to be carpenters, plumbers, construction workers, gardeners, and the like.
In time, other centers were founded to help unwed mothers and girls with problems. She began with practically nothing but a lot of faith and without fear to “cast out into the deep” and do something about the real needs of some of God’s poorest of the poor.
Today, the institution she formed numbers twelve centers, reaching out to over 450 children and youth, giving them a home and care. Right up to her last days when she fell ill, Sister Stephanie visited daily each of these centers, encouraging, counseling and simply lavishing on each one the loving care of a Mother. That’s why at her funeral they all wept over the absence of “their Mother.” Thank God for Easter people like her!
Presently there are five Sisters working in our parish and the neighboring parish, principally in education of youth and care of the elderly, who live a totally different reality than our “Senior Citizens” in the States. Recently they opened a Nutritional Center in our parish where they feed over sixty undernourished children daily.
|Carpenter class provided by Amancer|
The courageous efforts of Sister Stephanie touch a real problem in Bolivia. Children and teenagers make up 44% of the total population. A 2006 UNICEF document – quoted in the La Paz newspaper, Los Tiempos – warns that, if no changes are made in their public policies, within the next ten years about 169,000 children could die in Bolivia alone.
The same report says that, if things don’t change soon, some 7,000 children each year will have a life-span of one day, 600,000 young people will suffer malnutrition, 230,000 will not attend school, one million children will be forced to work. The numbers quoted above are staggering. Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by them. They can make us feel powerless, unable to make a difference. That is only true as long as we stare at the numbers without seeing the face of a person behind each single number.
|Amancer provides training in cooking|
Sr. Stephanie recognized that caring and loving the children one by one was the only way to make a significant difference. For some of those children, calloused by years of neglect and rejection, love had little power to pierce the hardened protective shell in which they had wrapped their lives. Yet for so many others, love and caring were the catalysts that helped them become more fully alive – just as Jesus wants for all God’s people!
The following stories are true but the names of the children used here are not their real names in order to protect their privacy.
Juan, age 7 (estimate), was found living in the bus station in Cochabamba where he apparently ended up after sneaking into the luggage compartment of a long distance bus. His last name, birthday and birthplace are unknown. All attempts to find family have been unsuccessful. Juan has some difficulty learning from an inability to concentrate.
Carlos, age 18, has been in the program since he was nine when his mother died and his father left him with a neighbor who did not treat him well. He considers his family to be the staff of the program. He is now one of the helpers at Casa Nazareth and has taken computer training and is teaching the younger children how to do word processing and use the educational programs available.
Diego, age 7: Diego’s mother developed trichinosis (a degenerative brain disease) when he was 5. She has been rendered incapable of caring for her children by the disease. His father deserted the family soon after she contracted trichinosis. Diego and his brother are both in the program.
Pedro, age 9, was found by the police at age three wandering alone in the market. His picture was put in the newspaper but no one every claimed him as theirs. He has no memory of any family members. All attempts to find family members have failed. He has become aware of his isolation in recent months and is beginning to feel the lack of any family connection.
All this is living proof that if we let God work in us, Christ’s Resurrection will triumph over death.