|| By Shaun Crumb
Earlier this year, parts of Bolivia experienced massive flooding from heavy rains that claimed homes, crops and livestock, especially in the low-lying Beni region in the northern part of the country.
Missioners with three and four decades of service in Bolivia say the heaviest rains they’ve ever seen there brought the region’s worst flooding as rivers and lakes overran their banks and covered fields and towns alike.
As a Maryknoll seminarian, I am assigned to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for overseas training as part of my preparation to become a missionary priest. I help out at La Salette parish, working with youth, and have also been working with the diocesan Pastoral Youth Vocational Office (PJV for its initials in Spanish).
When help was needed in response to the flooding, I accompanied a group of 15 young adults from the PJV to Villa Rivero, where many people had been forced from their homes and farms by the rising water in this community, which is about 35 miles or one hour south of Cochabamba.
Our task was to collect, organize and deliver aid to the people in smaller communities surrounding Villa Rivero. First, we coordinated food and clothing donations given to us by other parish communities and organizations. Then we got organized moving large bags of rice and noodles to dry storage rooms in Villa Rivero and making clothing piles so they’d be ready to be given out to families.
All this came about because of Pope Francis’ repeated admonition at World Youth Day: “Go, do not be afraid, and serve.”
Most of the group of 15 had already taken the pontiff’s charge to heart, having been at World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the previous July. To get to WYD, 58 of us, including myself, other seminarians, college students, youths and adults, traveled by bus from Cochabamba to Rio de Janeiro so we could participate prior to WYD in mission for a week in the city of Campo Grande in western Brazil, near the Bolivian border.
The Brazilians welcomed us with open arms, singing songs and holding banners at the parish. “The welcome from the Brazilians was truly amazing and I felt a strong connection with them as soon as we got off the bus,” says Vanessa Patiño, one of our group members.
Throughout the week we visited different parishes and broke into groups of four to six people to visit houses in the parish with a Brazilian guide. When we visited homes, we explained to families that we were participating in the mission week and offered them prayers for their family and sick relatives. We also shared about upcoming events of WYD, and invited families to reconnect with the parish for Mass and other activities.
After all the excitement and energy of WYD, and despite a 40-hour return bus ride from Brazil to Bolivia, a youth missioner movement had taken root. A group of about 15 college students and young professionals who attended WYD in Brazil created a formation group and now meet each Tuesday night. We get together to pray, to build community and to be formed in our faith.
“The formation of pilgrims before and after WYD is important for the youth to stay active in their faith and bring back the fruits of their experience in Rio,” says Amilcar Zenteno, a parish youth leader on the trip to Rio de Janeiro and a member of the PJV leadership team.
Through the PJV, Zenteno worked closely with Bolivian diocesan Father Beymar Ontiveros, who has directed the PJV for five years.
Fired up by their experiences at WYD, the youth began talking about how to serve the community and put Pope Francis’ words into action.
Even before the rains began, the group and Father Ontiveros were drafting plans for a mission day out in the rural parish of Villa Rivero, where the priest had recently begun serving.
That’s how we came to find ourselves in Villa Rivero. Aside from delivering aid, we realized the parish itself needed a lot of work, since the renovated rectory was still unfinished. Once the rain finally stopped, a group cut the grass around the church and rectory while another group sanded the walls in preparation for painting by yet another group.
Rimer Sanchez, who went to WYD in Rio and is very active in the PJV, said, “When I heard the parish in Villa Rivero needed assistance, I wanted to help. I like to work with my hands, so painting was a good way to serve.”
We worked all morning and then joined Father Ontiveros for Mass at noon. Sadly, a family brought a small casket with the body of their days’ old baby. The infant’s death wasn’t due to the flooding, but was a reminder of how fragile life is, especially in the isolated countryside where doctors and medical facilities are a rarity and newborns needing special neonatal care frequently don’t survive.
Since the floods, other youths from the PJV have been going back to help Father Ontiveros’ parish.
The priest hopes a group will come on weekends to assist him in forming a youth group there and to do catechetical work at the Villa Rivero parish and in the chapels in the outlying communities.
“Seeing so many people at World Youth Day helped me to realize we are not alone on our faith journey,” says Silvana Calovi, another youth leader who attended WYD. Calovi says she saw the importance of formation with the group before and after WYD to keep people connected to each other and to help them continue developing their faith in God.
Some of the youth are looking ahead to the next WYD in Kraków, Poland, in 2016. They are already planning, generating interest and fundraising for that event. Calovi, who attended the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid as well as the one in Rio, hopes the group will have grown from the WYD experience in
Rio and be even more prepared and ready to receive the message and spirit of WYD in Poland.
“The goal of the upcoming WYD is not big numbers,” she says, “rather building friendships and growing in our faith.”
Featured Image: Maryknoll seminarian Shaun Crumb, front left, dines with Bolivian youths who, inspired by Pope Francis’ mission message, volunteered to help flood victims in Bolivia earlier this year.