My years on mission in Chile taught me a great deal. Although I worked in a remote mountain area with the indigenous population, I learned early on that Columban benefactors like you back home make so much “good” possible – even in the remotest of places! That is why, as the new director for the Columbans in the U.S., I look forward to sharing many wonderful and hopeful stories like this one in the coming years. Fr. John Boles sent this amazing story to me recently.
“Die from Covid or die from hunger. Not much of a choice.”
Sr. Isabel Miguelez spells out the stark dilemma facing the poorest members of her parish, a former Columban-run area on the edge of Peru’s capital city, Lima, to Columban Fr. John Boles. How do you resolve this dilemma? How do you feed people hit by a double disaster, especially when they live in such inaccessible upland areas?
“Simple,” says Sr. Isabel with characteristic understatement. “With our kitchens in the sky...”
Most of the people in this parish area survive in the informal economy, living from hand to mouth on what they can sell on the streets or earn as day laborers. For them, the pandemic was a dual catastrophe. With Peru’s vaccination program being painfully slow, they were the ones most at risk from infection and the ones with the greatest responsibility to self-isolate when necessary. However, this meant they couldn’t go out onto the streets and earn their meager living, often times leaving their children and families desperately hungry.
This is where Sr. Isabel – a Carmelite nun from Spain – came in. Supported by her congregation, the parish and Columban benefactors, she met with the local residents and got them to set up a series of kitchen co-operatives (known as “ollas comunes” in Spanish – literally, “communal saucepans”). She started them off by donating stoves, gas cylinders, pots and pans. The men carried the stuff up the mountain paths. The women served as cooks.
Sr. Isabel explained the system as she gave Fr. John a guided tour, speaking as they marched single-file up dizzying goat tracks. In each case a committee (normally all-female) is elected. This committee selects a site, sets up the kitchen, buys the food and establishes a cooking rotation. Interested families must register, and then they’ll receive one meal a day, six days a week. The participants need to cover the cost of the food, but there is no fixed rate. Each Saturday they meet and set the rate for the following week, according to current food prices and people’s ability to pay.
Sr. Isabel and her support group guarantee fuel supplies and the maintenance of equipment. She goes around the area every day, visiting the kitchens, inspecting, encouraging, congratulating, cajoling. Her energy and enthusiasm seem endless.
What struck Fr. John as he struggled after her was the sheer SCALE of the challenge. Fr. John remembered seeing those same hills years back when the Columbans had the parish, and they were bare. Now they were absolutely covered in flimsy dwellings. Sr. Isabel pointed out that over recent years the population of the parish has exploded, with people flooding in from the countryside in search of a better life in the city. As demand for space increased, land prices soared, and the poor were forced higher and higher up the mountain sides.
The pandemic and ensuing national economic collapse only served to accelerate this process. “It was like watching bread expanding in the oven,” Sr. Isabel said. “Houses just seemed to rise up the hills overnight.”
When Fr. John visited, there were three kitchens in operation, providing a total of 270 meals each day, a veritable lifeline for families that otherwise would have struggled to survive. Nevertheless, as Sr. Isabel herself admits, this is only the start. The program will need to expand in the future. Even if the pandemic were to disappear tomorrow (which it won’t), Peru’s economic woes will continue.
Migration up the hills will continue. Not that this serves to discourage Sr. Isabel. Just the opposite. It seems to motivate her even more!
With the inspiration for worthwhile projects and programs from people like Sr. Isabel, and the support of Columban benefactors like you, miracles like the “kitchens in the sky” happen to help those most in need.
We are forever grateful for your steadfast support of Columban mission around the world. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures like the “kitchens in the sky.” Thank you for helping us make Christ’s great love known to those struggling to survive.
Gratefully Yours in Christ,
Fr. Chris Saenz
Director, U.S. Region