I am going to try in several chapters to describe my experiences (I don’t know if I dare call them missionary experiences) in Ecuador. I have made five trips there over the last two years to this beloved country. Like any good story, it must begin with an introduction, and I am going to do that with these lines. I’m going to try to journey through the events that have marked my life, little by little, and the reality of my presence on the other side of the sea...
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is a question that we usually ask ourselves when we are little and my first response, at least it’s the first memory of one that I have, was “I want to be a doctor and go to the missions to cure the poor children that are sick.” I wouldn’t be able to say exactly when this scene took place in my life, but what I am sure of is that, throughout my childhood, teen years and youth, this thought remained firm in my heart and impressed on my soul in a mysterious and intense way.
When I was fourteen, a missionary came to our school to tell us about his experiences at the missions. I don’t remember his name or if he was a religious, a priest or a layperson. I don’t remember what country he had been in; I only remember that as he was speaking, an intense fire burned inside me. And I’m sure that if that day that man would have asked who was ready to go with him, I would have stood up and shouted: “Me!!!” But..., he didn’t ask and, of course, I didn’t go!
The following year was a time of discovery of the “great ideals” of life: social justice, the defense of the oppressed, the fight for the farmers’ rights... First loves also came along with friendships “that last a lifetime,” definitively, and the upheaval that provoked a chaos in my soul was unable to change these feelings that I was wrapped in. In this situation, a priest enter the classroom (he hadn’t been ordained yet, but I thought he was a priest) that spoke to us about a camp that he was organizing the coming summer in Santander. He explained what it consisted of and announced that anyone who wanted to go should let him know. I raised my hand, full of enthusiasm. The person in question was Fr. Rafael Alonso, founder of the Home of the Mother. That summer camp was one of most marvelous experiences in my life, and it helped me to understand that fire that burned in my heart.
Around that time I met Esmeralda, my wife and the mother of my five children. We grew up in the Home together doing apostolate work, and then the moment came for me to enter the university. This is where the first part of my childhood dreams was frustrated. I didn’t have a high enough grade to enter medical school. I applied for pharmaceutical school, which was the closest thing to medicine that I could reach. I started the school year, but I didn’t have any incentives in college and, outside of college, I found a lot of motives that attracted me more, especially apostolate work with children and young people in the Youth Center of the Home of the Mother in Mocejon (Toledo, Spain).
I also had the opportunity, thanks to Francisco Javier Alonso Calerdon, actually a diocesan priest, to enter into a whole new world of work with children who were living in refuge homes because of family problems or other kinds of problems. These and other factors pushed me to leave my career to one side, and Esmeralda and I, little by little, got into the world of these young people who had been mistreated by life. We were so into it that even a week before our wedding God asked us to open ourselves generously and totally to them. That is why after our honeymoon our house was filled with a numerous family of eight “foster children” whom we had met only a week beforehand. It was a real challenge.
I thought that this is what I had been looking for since my childhood. And it’s true, they were exciting years in which hundreds of children passed through our homes and received the good and the bad, the best and the worst of us because we gave ourselves to them without reserve.
That was our situation for fourteen years, and, in the same way that the Lord gave it to us, He took it away from us without asking permission and without asking our opinion. And with the same naturality with which we started that life, we left it. And all of a sudden, you find yourself without your mission; you’re left without a reason to give your life for the life of your family, and you walk around, disoriented, without a fixed course. But God stimulates you inside so that you don’t let your guard down. He makes you see that He needs you to help Him with those that have less than you and that you should put everything that you have at the service of others…
In this way, among other apostolic activities that I was involved in, every Wednesday night we loaded up the van and I would go to a little town. I slept in the priest’s house, and, the next day with a seminarian, we would sell all our merchandise in a sort of flea market. All of the money that we earned went directly into a money box with a label on it that said Ecuador. I only knew about the missionary work being accomplished in Ecuador through the articles that came out in this magazine, but something made me think that some day I would invert this money into charitable work that I would be doing in that country myself. It wasn’t about raising money and making a donation, I felt called, together with Esme, my wife, to take it to the missions.
At the same time, a transcendental event occurred that brought us back to the Home of the Mother, from which we had separated ourselves from during some years, limiting our contacts to every now and then. Although we definitely can say that our hearts were always identified with the Home and we were conscious of who we were and that we owed everything that we were doing to what we lived in, through and for the Home.
So, in 2005, during Fr. Rafael’s 25th anniversary of his priestly ordination, we had the opportunity to place ourselves at the service of the institution, which filled us with joy. However, the summer of 2006 was when we started our way back to the Home, from which we probably never should have left, but, just like our situation with the children’s home, we didn’t choose to be in the Home, to leave it, or to come back. Only God in His infinite mercy knows why He permits these things.
That summer the call to the missions flamed up incessantly. We were very interested in hearing about Ecuador, what they were doing there, what projects were taking place, and if they were only opened to the Consecrated or if we lay people had the opportunity to go and help. After a meeting with Fr. Rafael and some of the sisters, we proposed to go to Ecuador to know the mission and bingo! In October 2006, we were on the plane headed for Ecuador, Esme, our daughter Mariam, and myself together with Fr. Rafael, M. Ana and the community of Servant Sisters who were going to found the new community of Playaprieta.
Since then, I have been on five trips to Ecuador as a missionary apprentice, most of all in the community of Chone. During this time, I have enjoyed so many experiences, working hard, sharing enthusiasms and a lot of dreams to fulfill. And when you are in the airport, waiting to board the plane, your heart is divided. On one hand, you a happy because soon you will be back with your wife, your children and your loved ones; but, on the other hand, a part of you stays there and you would like to somehow make both halves unite. And you start preparing your next trip, and you get excited all over again and you can’t stop thinking about all you’ve lived and all that is still to be done, and you’re happy and joyful, and you thank God, and you feel like a missionary. You really feel like a poor missionary apprentice.
...We are now preparing for our first journey to Ecuador. Our luggage is full of medicine, text books, school material, gifts, toys..., and the small backpacks with our clothes.
We were really excited, enthusiastic and a little bit nervous the few days before our flight. And before we knew it, the day came to head off. After a long trip with a lay-over in Bogotá, we landed in the Guayaquil airport. The sisters from Chone were there waiting for us. What a joy to meet with people you know! It had been so long since we had seen them! After affectionately greeting one another, we headed off in the car towards the shrine of Shoenstatt, an oasis of peace in the heart of an unsafe city like Guayaquil. A refreshing rest and the next day we met with Fr. Rafael, Mother Ana and the sisters who were going to open the school in Playa Prieta. A time for prayer, breakfast and a visit to the Blessed Mother to start off our day, and right away we headed to Portoviejo where Archbishop José Mario Ruiz Navas was awaiting us.
We didn’t want to miss a single detail as we crossed the capital. The simple and humble constructions, the multitude of people that crowded around the entrance into the Guayaquil prison, the little towns that we passed through, the cars overflowing with people, the precarious roads... with toll included! Mile after mile, we finally reached Portoviejo, where Bishop Ruiz Navas cordially and affectionately received us in his house. The sisters were the center of attention as they were questioned about their apostolic work in Chone and the new challenges awaiting them in Playa Prieta.
After saying farewell to the bishop, we continued our journey to our first destination: Playa Prieta. On the way, the contemplation of the suburbs on the outskirts of Portoviejo made our hearts shutter. Authentic neighborhoods that were lacking drinking water, sewer systems... extended out on the hills, without any kind of organization. We were also impressed by the “dump”, the city’s garbage dump, which is where a considerable number of people gather in order to survive by picking up what others throw away. They are the poor amongst the poor. Close to Playa Prieta, we visited a center for young people in dangerous situations. The center is run by Anita y Antonio, a married couple dedicated to the missions.
When we finally arrived at our destination, we prepared ourselves to live, in first person, the final preparations of the foundation of a new mission of the Home in Ecuador. Our hearts were filled with joy as we contemplated the school, thinking about all that we were going to live during the following days. The house was very welcoming in its simplicity. The candidates and the Sisters from Chone had dedicated a lot of time to cleaning, painting, and putting the last touches here and there. They showed a warm welcome to those of us who had just arrived.
The following days were very hectic. Prepare the chapel, walk through the buildings and the village, visit the parish priest, get to know the teachers and students and finally, officially taking possession with a simple and heartfelt act, presided by Bishop José Mario, archbishop of Portoviejo. The whole school, the students, teachers and parents welcomed the community of Servant Sisters that would be taking the helm of the school in the following years and in a way, they welcomed the whole Home. We could not stop watching, living and thanking God for allowing us to be there at such a marking moment.
However, in spite of all these unforgettable experiences, I felt that the best was yet to come. I anxiously desired to get to know Chone and its people. So, once the welcoming and taking possession of the school was over, we started our journey again, heading towards Chone. The closer we got, the harder my heart began to beat. During the trip, I couldn’t stop asking questions, I was interested about everything, the work that they were doing there, the apostolic work, the members of the Home... We finally reached San Cayetano Parish and we met the members of the Home of the Mother in Ecuador in its different branches: the Servant Sisters, the candidates, married couples and young people. The people were so welcoming! I also pleasantly remember the moment in which they presented us to the married couple that would be our hosts: Enrique and Ligia. Together with their daughters and Enrique’s father, may he rest in peace, our unforgettable days in Ecuador were made a true delight. Not only did they receive us, but they turned their house into our house, their family into our family, their lives into our lives. I would like to take advantage of the chance to thank God for having put Enrique Macay on my path, because true friends are hard to find and Enrique is a friend, and a good one at that.
With the sisters we began to form a part of the apostolic works that they do in Chone. In addition to the great work that they do with the young, the married couples, the children,... they also brought us to a social-healthcare center run by Fr. Fisheral, opened especially to people without income. We gave him the mountain of medicines that we brought over from Spain. We also got to know the project, “Born-again”( Volver a nacer), dedicated to the rehabilitation of the youth on the streets, girls that have been in contact with the world of drugs or alcohol. We visited the shelters run by the institution “Friendly Hands” (Manos Amigas) where dozens of boys and girls, who have suffered extremely harsh situations from a very early age, live. We were astonished to see that in the rooms there was a small cardboard box on the floor next to each bed. When we asked what it was, the answer was simple: “That’s their wardrobe.” They invited us to go to the radio in Chone, where we gave the testimony of our life as a Christian married couple. We gave talks to people who were preparing themselves for marriage and to the youth of the Home. We visited the sick, in particular, one of God’s creatures named Pierina, whose state caused us a deep and heartfelt pity. She had been a beautiful girl, with impressively blue eyes and a statuesque body. She had participated in a multitude of beauty contests, achieving the title of queen of I don’t know how many events. When we met her, due to a strange illness, she was prostrate on her bed, with her extremities paralyzed. She could barely make a sound, but her gaze and her smile pierced your heart. She received Communion every week from the Sisters. Before we left, Fr. Rafael gave her – and the rest of us – a blessing. I couldn’t keep in the tears and I felt united to her in her suffering, and at the same time, I envied the peace and joy that she reflected.
They presented us to Sr. Margaret, an Irish religious sister, a courageous woman who has put into action several initiatives to alleviate the sufferings of the big and small in this Manabita population. We went with her to a home for the elderly that she had opened, with its day center, where the elderly of the area can enjoy a place of attention and fun.
And, of course, we visited the different soup kitchens for children that had been opened in several suburbs (danger zones) in the city. The Home has identified itself so much with this project, to the point of making them its own, listening to the Lord’s command to “give food to the hungry.” We are making great efforts so that these children not only are able to eat once a day, but that this food be of better quality. And we were there, those of us who undeservingly belong to the so called “first world”, together with these children that in a social soup kitchen satisfy their hunger with a plate of rice and glass of juice. There were not complaints of, “I don’t like it! Give me something else! Fish again! We ate this day before yesterday!” Nor were there garbage bins to throw away the left over food. And now that we are talking about what was not there, we can add that in some of the soup kitchens there aren’t even tables or chairs and the children eat sitting on the floor. And nonetheless, opposed to your selfishness, they thank God for “their daily rice” and are humble and simple and love their God because He is the center of their lives. And you compare yourself to them and you realize that you are the center of your life and you don’t value what you have, what God gives you everyday. And that is when you feel small, miserable and you begin to tremble when you think of what He is going to ask from you for giving so little. And these children make you theirs, they give you their smiles and their gazes, so clean, so pure, they ask you to form a part of their lives, that you give of yourself more, that you don’t hold back any effort, because this situation that they are going through could happen to your daughter Mariam, or your son Santiago, or your son Rafa, or your son Javi or your son Miguel – who didn’t exist back then, but today does – or your children’s children and they aren’t living in that situation, only out of the pure mercy of God, but – you can’t just pass by. God looks at you through the eyes of these children and it is clear, very clear and very easy to understand that, “He who does this to one of these my little ones, does it to Me.” And when you find out that on that trip, the sisters and Fr. Rafael were going to look at a few pieces of land that the Home could buy precisely to provide better nourishment for these kids, well, you get all excited and you try to make a good buy, the best buy. First, because there are generous people behind it all, who have given a significant amount of money to the Home for the poor. And second, because an immense amount of benefits for those who have nothing can come from a good deal. And eureka! Soon enough, we walked onto a piece of land that we felt in love with. After intense deliberation, the deal was made. We had the land, which we named “Maria Elisabetta”, and that is a blessing from God.
I would also like to point out the great hospitality that we received from all the Adults of the Home of the Mother in Chone. They all wanted to take us into their homes, inviting us for lunch or dinner, putting themselves at our disposal. Everything seemed too little to them.
There are many stories, thoughts and experiences that we have lived in this first trip that are not a warehouse of sterile and fruitless experiences but rather they allowed our vocation, received many years beforehand and that would flourish in the months and years to come, to settle day by day in our hearts.
The desire to come back to Ecuador in Esmeralda, in Mariam and in myself, grew even before we had left. As well as a desire to give our grain of sand to strengthen the faith of these children of God and to increase their hope through our charity.