Maryknoll Mission Center in Bolivia ends 55 years of service with a solidarity campaign to aid the poorest during COVID-19.
Every crisis offers unexpected opportunities. We who serve at the Maryknoll Mission Center (CMMAL) in Cochabamba, Bolivia, have seen those words come alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has hit all the countries of Latin America with a devastating blow especially in places like Bolivia, where extreme poverty is exacerbated by a long history of social exclusion and discrimination of indigenous people.
Add to this a weak health system and infrastructure that make the country and its mostly indigenous population of 11 million especially vulnerable to this crisis. Rural communities on the outskirts of larger cities like Cochabamba have found themselves in an even more precarious situation of food insecurity in the face of COVID-19.
Aware of this situation through our friendships with many of those most affected Quechua-speaking communities, we here at CMMAL began to discern ways to reach out in solidarity to them. We didn´t have to wait long for the resources to respond. Donations from our colleagues here at CMMAL buttressed by generous gifts from friends in the United States and unused project funds helped us mobilize a campaign to aid 15 communities, including more than 500 families, in and around the town of Vacas, almost 53 miles away.
In coordination with Bolivian Father Enrique Bustamante, the parish priest there, and Italian Sister Cherubina from his pastoral team, we quickly went into action.
One of CMMAL’s maintenance staff members, Emilio Olarte, and Maryknoll Lay Missioner Juan Gómez traveled the two-hour distance to Vacas with a large shipment of rice, sugar, flour, cooking oil and other basic food stuffs we were able to assemble. For native Quechua speaker Olarte, born and raised in similar communities, this was an opportunity for him to show solidarity with people with whom he shares a common identity and cultural heritage.
Every day for 12 days Olarte and Gómez visited the far-flung communities of the outlying villages around Vacas, many located at altitudes of over 14,000 feet, to distribute the donated food supplies to the beleaguered, isolated communities.
Everywhere they visited they were met with warm hospitality of families who seldom if ever receive visitors. Following the custom of Andean reciprocity, the residents approached the CMMAL visitors with baskets of potatoes and whatever food products they had available from their meager subsistence plots of land.
Maryknoll Lay Mission Juan Gomez delivers aid to an indigenous family in a village outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the missioner and staff from the Maryknoll Mission Center distributed food in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Juan Gomez/Bolivia)
Ironically, this solidarity campaign occurred at a difficult time for the nearly 40 staff members at CMMAL, who were learning of the Maryknoll Society’s decision to close the center after 55 years of uninterrupted service to mission. COVID-19 and its economic consequences led to this necessary but painful decision.
Begun in 1965 under the name of the Maryknoll Language Institute, the center has prepared more than 15,000 missioners from all over the world in language learning and a host of other programs of mission formation and leadership training. The six-session online mission formation course just concluded with over 90 participants is merely one example of the Maryknoll name in mission formation.
The solidarity campaign coming at a time of CMMAL’s own uncertain future speaks volumes of what the center and Maryknoll have come to mean to the Church, the people of Bolivia and all of Latin America. That we can begin to exit with a solidarity campaign like this represents the best of the spirit and charism of Maryknoll to continue our commitments to the people of Latin America, albeit in a more streamlined fashion.
Jesuit theologian Victor Codina has urged all of us to ask ourselves this question as we embrace the call to missionary discipleship: “Is your vision one of cement or ferment?”
If the answer is defined by cement buildings, our renewal is likely to be impermeable to the challenges of this time of what Pope Francis calls “epochal change.” Then, we will not be able to go out to the peripheries to discover the face of Christ in the faces of the people.
On the other hand, if we define mission in terms of a constant process of ferment, or of becoming yeast in the mass of dough we call the world, with all of its beauty and messiness, then our lives of missionary discipleship can really become that ferment leading to prophetic dialogue that builds bridges instead of walls.
The expressions of ferment that have imbued thousands of missioners who have passed through this center since 1965 have made a difference in the lives of the people they have encountered along the highways and byways of cities and countryside towns all over Latin America and beyond. We can then truly proclaim, “Mission accomplished.“
Feature image: Father Enrique Bustamante, left, and Sister Cherubina share a lighter moment with an indigenous woman in a village outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the priest and staff from the Maryknoll Mission Center distributed food in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Juan Gomez/Bolivia)