The Poor Helping the Poor: Women “crazy for God” in a Lima Barrio and Other Stuff I’ve Been Reading

This semester I’ve been working with a student who is going on our service-learning trip to Peru in January. She needed an additional General Education class in liberal arts to graduate in the spring, so I agreed to do an Introduction to Gender Studies directed study with her on women in Peru (spread out over the school year). I figured this helped the student but would also give me a formalized opportunity to learn more about the country to which I am traveling soon. And, wow, has it been interesting!

We spent most of the semester reading and discussing seven short stories written by Peruvian women. These are collected in the book, Fire from the Andes: Short Fiction by Women from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, edited and translated by Susan E. Benner and Kathy S. Leonard. The stories were very interesting and sometimes difficult, inlcuding a magical realism piece with supernatural green slime and multiplying twins, a story about a man’s shadow who severs herself from him, and a story told from the perspective of a young female terrorist. It was particularly interting discussing these stories with the Engineering student with whom I was working, as this stuff is pretty foreign to her typical studies.

Oh, and also, we began by reading two travel literature stories about American women who had gone to Peru. These are in the collection called The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007: True Stories from Around the World, edited by Lucy McCauley. We read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay about going to Peru with a Heifer International group and observing the effects of that organization’s work, and we read Jennifer Sieg’s “The Cuy of cooking” about being served roasted guinea pig while in the Andes. (How many Weight Watchers points is cuy, anyway…?!)

Now we are reading The Call of God: Women Doing Theology in Peru by Tom Powers, S.J. This book describes and analyzes the work being done by women in one of the poorest neighborhoods (barrios) of Lima, one of the largest cities in the world (over 8 miliion). A full 49% of Lima’s residents live below the poverty level. The neighborhood discussed is nicknamed El Agustino (and is ranked as the second poorest barrio in Lima), and the women who are “doing theology,” a theology of action, there are a part of an organization founded by the poor and for the poor: Servicios Educativos El Agustino (SEA). Actually they work in multiple smaller organizations under the umbrella of the SEA, from Cup of Milk (an infant nutrition program), to Communal kitchens and bakeries, to education coops, to facilitating organizations for micro-enterprises, etc.

Now, as luck would have it, it just so happens that one of our graduate students in solar engineering (who is going on our trip and who is from Peru) spent his childhood growing up in El Agustino. We discovered this one day while chatting. What an amazing coincidence! That student’s story is inspirational — a gripping tale of how hard work and perseverance brought a family from the depths of poverty to a decent standard of living, and how a yound man is determined to give back to his country through becoming educated.

I have asked this grad student to see if he can arrange for my undergraduate student and me to go to the SEA in El Agustino the day after we arrive in Peru. He seemed excited to make this side trip with us. The project goals, however, must come first, and if we are needed for other purposes, then we won’t be able to spare the time. If we are able to squeeze it in, that visit will take place THIS Saturday (Jan. 5)! I will try to get to an internet cafe on late Sat. if I can and let you know if we got to visit El Agustino.

I admire these women so much. As I read about their work and their dedication to helping their neighbors on a very practical level as an expression of their faith — indeed, as a call from God — I am amazed at their courage and strength. One woman, Sr. Serrano, said:

“I quit my job and I got involved — and I have never regretted it. Eventually I was elected … President of the Federation of Communal Dining Rooms of Lima and Callao …. This was just when the violence [terrorists caused major disruption in the country in the 80s and 90s] was escalating in Peru and I received several death threats from the terrorists. I guess that any sane person would have quit and gone into hiding. So I guess I am saying I am loca — crazy for God, if you will. Really deep down I was scared and I was conscious of the danger. But when I would go out, I would commend myself to God and I felt that God was carrying me.”

Of course, this can’t help but make us think of the recent assassination of Benezir Bhutto, who also expressed a similar sentiment to her friends. The price some are willing to pay, the risk they will take to help their country! I just can’t see myself being able to stand against such threats so bravely, however much I might wish to be that selfless and strong.

I’ll leave you with another quotation which epitomizes the work these women do in El Agustino. The daughter of Sr. Serrano says:

“My mother (Benedicta) has a little plaque that says, ‘Poverty is no disgrace. It is inconvenient.’ She does not mean to lessen the dehumanizing influence of poverty. But she will not admit that it is a disgrace, because we are poor. I remember her telling us, when food was not available, that Jesus invites each one of us to give up what we have in this world and to help those who are poor. Look, we are poor helping those who are more poor. If everyone did this, no one would go hungry or homeless or die unnecessarily because of the lack of a common medicine.”

If everyone did this….


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