In reflecting upon my summer in Colombia, I have realized that I have come to learn a great deal about the language, people and culture of this wonderful nation through my course and my travels in and around Bogota. However, the most rewarding thing I did during my time here was to spend several weekends with the Dominican friars of the Community of Antonio de Montesinos in Cazuca, Colombia.
Cazuca is located southwest of Bogota (Map from Google Maps)
Cazuca is a settlement on the edge of Bogota that was formed in the early 1990's as a result of the escalating violence due to the struggle between the Colombian government and rebels. It is built on the side of a large hill/mountain. This movement of displaced persons (descalzados) into the area continues today, and this settlement continues to grow larger and larger and move further and further up the mountain.. Over the years, this settlement has become much developed, and today boasts utilities, numerous schools, churches, a democratic government system, and a police force.
A view of the side of one of the hills that makes up Cazuca.
Despite this progress, life in Cazuca is difficult, most of the families do not have much, as they were forced to flee their homes and only bring a few possessions with them. As well, many of these people have a difficult time finding work, and if they do, it is often in Bogota, and does not pay well. Many people earn about $40,000 Colombian pesos a day (US$ 16) of which, a quarter of it goes to paying transportation expenses for the various buses used to reach their final destination.
On top of financial difficulties, many families have to deal with frequent worries about landslides/mudslides due to the location of their homes on the side of a steep mountain, with little to no vegetation.
Many of the roads in Cazuca look like this, making it difficult to access many parts of the barrio.
There are four friars that live in the community of Antonio de Montesinos, one of whom is a professor at the University of St Thomas in Bogota, another is the vocation director and the other two focus primarily on their ministries in Cazuca. All four however, are involved in pastoral activities within in the settlement.
The friars here service four different chapels, three schools/convents and work among the people to educate them in the Catholic faith, guide them in growing this faith and assist in organizing efforts to provide material support.
The friars live a fairly simple life here- their residence features four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen and a multipurpose room that serves as a dining room/chapel/office/recreation room/ chapter room. Watching TV in the same room as the Blessed Sacrament, is an unique experiences and causes one to think very carefully about what he is watching.
The friars employ a cook, who prepares three meals a day and is responsible for keeping the apartment clean. She herself is a desplazada, who saw the guerillas take over her store in a city on the border of Colombia and Venezuela. She, along with her four children fled their city for Cazuca, where she encountered one of the friars who had known her from many years ago, and gave her a position as a cook/maid. She, along with her children are all very involved in religious education and other ministries with the Templo de Nuestra Señora del Rosario (the principle chapel).
One of the most important things the Friars do in addition to ministering to spiritual needs of the people, is to empower the people. Due to the many responsibilities that the friars have, many of the activities that occur in the chapels are carried out by lay volunteers, who teach religious education classes, conduct home visits, lead the rosary, organize clothing/food collections and distributions, and plan the liturgy.
The outside of the Temple of Nuestra Señora del Rosario
The empowering of the laity not only is utile for the friars, but is an important action that reflects that USCCB's teaching on the Dignity of the Human Person. It is important for people to have a say in how they live their life. Unfortunately, for most of the people in Cazuca, they are unfortunate victims of their environment. As desplazados, they have been forced to flee from their homes, forced to take up residence in slums as squatters (although there are efforts going on now to legitimize their homestead) and more often than not, are given few options for employment. In these positions, the workers are forced more often than not to take a subservient position and have little say in the day-to-day activities they engage in.
Fray Jhon (a student friar) meeting with one of the lay groups.
This opportunity for people to choose to engage in ministries within the church that assist others, is empowering and allows them to make choices about their life. In teaching the people that they can have a direct relationship with God, they learn that they are holy people, who are called to go proclaim the Gospel to their neighbors and to assist them in their lives. The ministry groups in the chapels are not only empowering for the individual, but also for the collective community, as these groups are capable of taking care of the needs of the community, so that there is not a need for an outside entity to come in and tell them how to go about their lives.
The people of Cazuca do receive some assistance from outside sources such as the government, from generous people such as the Colombian singer Shakira, who paid for the construction of a park and school, as well as churches of many denominations in Bogota. The friars and their chapels receive weekly donations of food, clothing, toiletries and other goods from several Catholic Churches in Bogota.
A park and grade school behind, both of which were built by Shakira.
I am grateful the opportunity given to me by my formators in St. Louis to visit Colombia, and to the friars in Colombia who allowed me to work alongside them in their ministries.