Sometimes it is easy to forget how powerful faith can be in helping us get through hard times.
Last week I received an email from a Medical Mission Sister who shared news about the suffering of her people in Venezuela. When I receive tough information like this, I feel helpless and overwhelmed. But two days later, my friend sent an electrifying email that lifted my spirits.
Here is a story about how God's Spirit is living and active even — and maybe especially — in the darkest places.
To begin, you may have noticed that Venezuela isn't exactly the happiest of places these days. Over the past 100 days of political unrest, an estimated 92 people have been killed and over 1,500 have been injured in this oil-rich country that was once among the most prosperous in Latin America. Now food shortages and escalating crime have metastasized throughout the country.
In early July, Pope Francis called for "an end to violence" and "a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis" in Venezuela, but since then, the violence has continued.
As often happens at such times, it is the poorest who suffer. Poor people like those in Barquisimeto, where rioting in early July left nine people dead and food sources completely destroyed. Here is the wrenching account from my friend, whose narrative composes much of this month's column:
"Our market here in the Carucieña was ransacked and destroyed. It was horrible to see children and young women taking everything, from auto parts to liquor supplies. What they didn't take they destroyed with a rage that you can't even imagine. The market of the Carucieña is the place where the whole community, including us, buys food. Now, nothing is there. … It was as if all of a sudden, a huge part of our community had just died. While some celebrated with music and alcohol that they had just robbed, others cried for what they had lost, or for their loved ones who had died.
With great pain, yesterday we had to send away all of the people that eat at our soup kitchen. What an immense pain we felt, seeing the faces of all the children as they cried, asking us, 'And now what?' The majority of the people who ate with us ate only what we gave them, so now what? My God, this is too hard.
There is so much pain; the streets are full of people that are desperately looking for food, how to buy it, with what money. Last night there were so many gun shots that we couldn't sleep. It was horrible."
While the situation in Venezuela is complicated, it is clear that both government and opposition forces employ violence to achieve their political goals. The government has banned the import of medical supplies while pro-government forces recently attacked opposition lawmakers. Meanwhile, many in the opposition stir violent protests and vandalism hoping to incite a massive grassroots revolution, even though 85 percent of Venezuelans oppose joining violent protests.
In the end, it is the people who suffer. And where there are suffering people, one will inevitably find Catholic religious orders and their associates.
In addition to the Medical Mission Sisters, other communities serving in Barquisimeto include Jesuits, Dominican Sisters, Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, and the Vorselaar Sisters from the Netherlands.
Alongside these communities, my Medical Mission friend found a creative means to tap into the faith of the people to bring hope and forgiveness. She gathered together people from her parish to "at least to see each other, to share our emotions and to console one another." She explained:
"I proposed that we host an activity, which would serve to encourage, strengthen, and bring hope to our community. The people at the meeting asked me, 'Sister, what kind of activity could this possibly be?'
I answered, 'We are going to walk with Jesus through the streets. We are going to celebrate Mass where there is only debris, sadness, and death. Our God is the God of life, and the only one that can give us strength in these hard times.' I proposed that instead of having Sunday Mass in the chapel, we have it in the street."
And so began a deeply healing public celebration beginning with 250 people processing to the recently destroyed market at the center of the city. As they set out, a torrential rain began to fall, which made planners consider cancelling the event. But a woman spoke up: "No, sir," she said to one of the planners. "We must go out. Rain is the blessing of God. He wants to clean us, to purify us; He wants to show us that he is the God of life. Rain is a sign of hope, which fertilizes and prepares the earth."
And so the people set out in the rain, which miraculously cleared as the procession arrived at the central market, where nearly 800 people had gathered.
For my friend, the penitential rite was the catalyst that allowed a broken community to heal. It had been organized by the youth who "made it so beautiful with drama and music."
"We realized that this penitential act should be a significant one, due to all the sin that we have committed. … The saddest part of all of this has been the fight among the people, neighbor against neighbor. There have been so many wounds, so many friendships broken. Children, youth, men, women. All of the store owners who had lost their businesses were there. The initial atmosphere was filled with pain, and it was so hard to see men, women, and children cry.
The Mass was so beautiful, you had to be there to feel the incredible power of God. … In the end, we saw the fruits of the celebration. The people felt more energized, consoled, relaxed, and, above all else, convinced and committed to come together as one to reconstruct what has been destroyed. Beginning with our hearts, then with our relationships, then with the physical spaces of our community.
The beautiful thing is that all of the community has committed itself to reconstruct what has been destroyed, whether they’re supporters of the government, the opposition, or if they’re from other religions."
Where would we be without a God who helps us find a way to forgive and rebuild from violence and destruction?
Where would we be without sisters and brothers who remind us that God loves even those who destroy?
We must pray that by God’s powerful grace, the people of Venezuela turn from violence to peace. The faith-filled witness of our courageous Catholic sisters, priests and associates is shining a light on a way forward.
[St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]
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