Story and photos by Sam Stanton, MKLM
Mission conference in Venezuela gives glimpses of the country’s economic reality and vibrant faith life
Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Maracaibo, Venezuela, is on the border of two very different realities. If you exit the church on the left, you are in a sector of high-rise luxury apartments. If you exit to the right, you go down an incline to a working-class neighborhood that gets increasingly poor as you continue down the hill.
I was privileged to live in that parish last November as I attended the Mission Congress of the Americas, held in Maracaibo, as a member of the United States delegation. I was invited by the U.S. Catholic Mission Association to be one of its representatives and, of course, it was great to represent the Maryknoll family. The Mission Congress of the Americas, initiated by the Latin America church 45 years ago, is held every five years.
From my arrival in Maracaibo, the current reality of Venezuela was evident: a rampant black market where the currency exchange rates vary greatly from the official rate, cars lined up to get gas at service stations, lack of many products in the markets. The economic and political crisis in Venezuela, which sparked national protests, affected the participation of delegates. From the expected 5,000 participants only about 4,000 attended, in great part because of the inflated cost of travel to Venezuela.
I felt a close connection to our host country given our mission history there. At one time in the 1990s the Maryknoll Lay Missioners had nearly 25 adults and more than 20 children in mission in four cities of Venezuela, but the growing unrest in the country and the difficulty of attaining visas influenced our decision to close out our commitment in that Latin American country.
Despite the internal reality of the host country, I felt the excitement about this year’s mission congress upon my arrival at the Maracaibo airport. More than 500 young volunteers dressed in colorful uniforms welcomed us delegates from all over the Americas, from Chile to Canada, with enthusiasm and a warm Latin American smile and hug. I must say that although most of the attendees and the spirit of the Congress were certainly Latin American, visitors from the North were welcomed with open arms.
The Congress in Maracaibo was organized through a networking of all the parishes in the city. I was among some 80 delegates housed with families in Our Lady of the Rosary, located near Lake Maracaibo and the famous oil refineries.
The mission message and the spirit of Pope Francis were very present at the mission congress whose theme was: The American Church in Permanent Mission to Bear Witness to Life. The pope’s eloquent call to a new and vibrant mission spirit, “The Church must step outside herself,” so strongly articulated during last year’s World Youth Conference in Brazil was constantly recalled in the mission congress.
One of the exciting experiences I had during the congress was participating in a breakout group on families in mission. I was inspired by several young families from Venezuela and other countries that have gone to mission in different parts of their own country or to neighboring countries in Latin America.
Two young Venezuelan mission families shared testimonies about their time in mission with the Consolata Missioners. Both had made a commitment to leave the comfort and security of their city homes in Barquisimeto and Caracas to serve the missions in the jungles of Venezuela near the Amazon. Both shared stories of adjustment, difficulties and challenges but also, the treasure every member of the family, even the little ones, received by learning about a totally different reality and way of life right within their own country.
Perhaps the most profound experience of the congress was the Saturday morning before the closure. Each parish center prepared visits to take place in their own particular neighborhood. We went in groups of three to visit all the homes in the different sectors of the parish.
I was privileged to visit seven families and hear very profound stories of family life and survival struggles in that poor corner of Our Lady of the Rosary parish.
I made the visits with a young seminarian from a rural village outside Maracaibo and a young woman from the area. In our visits we sat with a wise old woman who shared her stories of immigration from the rural south with her family and the struggle of finding work and housing.
She told the story of tragically losing two sons to alcoholism and drugs and a husband who wasn’t always present. She shared how faith in God and her confidence in “La Virgen” always got her through the tough times. Many times in the visits as well as in other moments during the conference the Holy Father was mentioned as a bright star of change and hope for the poor.
The official closure of the congress was a vibrant and moving liturgy at the basilica of Our Lady of Chiquinquira, popularly known as “La Chinita.” In that liturgy, seven Venezuelan missioners for the archdiocese of Maracaibo were “sent” to mission. Of the seven, there were one married couple and two single laypeople—a sign of the future of mission.
Sam Stanton is executive director of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.