Natividad Melendez is a beggar. Over forty years ago, while serving as a soldier in the Armed Forces of El Salvador, he lost his right leg in an explosion. Dismissed from the army he could no longer work. Like all poor men and women in El Salvador, he had no social security and no health benefits. His medical attention depended on the public health system which was virtually non existent. His leg stump healed badly and he took up begging as a way to stay alive.
His place to beg is the country road that goes from the main north-south highway to the Acelhuate River and the communities of Cabañas, San Laureano and Cortes. This is a road with a lot of foot traffic, poor people all, and people who are generally generous. “I’d like to be helpful to people,” Natividad told me, “but I can’t walk and I can’t carry loads. About all I can do is greet people and talk with people who stop on their way to the river. I try to do that well.”
In early September, during one of the tropical storms that strike El Salvador during this time of the year, Natividad’s little shack was struck by wind and rain. The wooden beams that supported his sheet metal roof were rotten and the whole house fell on him, the weight of the roof falling across his one good leg and breaking it. He spent the night crying for help, unheard by his neighbors or passersby because of the storm’s intensity. In the morning the neighbors uncovered the wreckage and dragged Natividad out from under the rubble. The house was completely destroyed as was what little furniture he had. His few clothes were hardly worth saving, having been soaked with mud, ash, and rain. Commented Natividad: “I used to think, on some days when nobody took notice of me and the begging was bad, that it couldn’t get much worse than this. But then it did. I lost everything. And I had nothing to lose.”
Luis Paz is a Carmelite in simple vows and a student at the University of Central America. His supervised ministry is working with the social pastoral team in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Calle Real, and also working with a sector of youth ministry called Pastoral Social Juvenil. He works closely with an American Franciscan lay missionary in our parish, Beth Reihle. After the storm that destroyed Natividad’s house had passed, a group of young men and women in the parish approached Beth and Luis concerned and wanting to do something to help the man.
“Since I began my work here in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, the thing that has struck me as unusual is that the same people who are concerned for the poor are poor themselves,” Luis said. “In my home town of Torreon we have poverty, but not like here. Poverty is the norm here and it is extreme. But it is the poor people themselves who are active to relieve the suffering of others.”
One of Beth and Luis’ collaborators is a young man, Melvin. “Look at Melvin”, Beth added. “He doesn’t even have a home. His mother abandoned him. His father left the country, and he lives with his younger sister in a shack in Milagrosa”, one of the barrios of the parish. “I don’t know where he eats every day. The father sends them money occasionally but how do they live?” But when it came time to rebuild Natividad Melendez´ house, Melvin was present, front and center.
“What Luis and I have to do is to motivate these young people to respond to their instincts to do well,” says Beth. “But it is just as important to get them to question, why does this poverty exist and what can they do, especially later on in life, to alleviate it at its roots. The Church has done a great job to raise the consciousness of these young people, but they sometimes get frustrated by the lack of options to act. This really was our challenge, how to channel this positive energy into action, while not ignoring the bigger questions.”
Luis has been struggling in his own formation as a Carmelite with the problem of poverty. He asked to work in the area of social pastoral ministry so that he could deal with his aversion to poverty and see beyond its smells, its ugliness and its dehumanizing features. “For me it was not just the issue of what we could do to help Natividad and others like him. It was a question of how to deal with poverty in the midst of the consumerism that also affects poor people. The only positive side of poverty is freedom from possession, but freedom from possession does not always conclude with freedom from wanting things. That is my struggle with the young people in the social pastoral area, how to get them to deepen their sense of freedom from consumerism. As we struggled with how to rebuild Natividad’s house, I realized that I was as limited as the young men and women in our team by my obsession with consumerism.”
The practicalities of building the house were solved through a combination of means. Florida-based Food for the Poor donated thousands of concrete panels, called wonder boards that served as the basic building material for the walls and floors. Beth raised money from her family and friends in the United States to buy wooden supports and sheet metal for the roof. The parish contributed a door. The unskilled labor was provided by the youth and a local contractor – a graduate of the Pastoral Juvenil Social – did the rest for cost. For $800, Natividad Melendez had a new house.
In the area of housing, success breeds demand. Part of the social pastoral work of the youth is delivering food to the neediest members of the parish. The contributed food is donated by parishioners at mass, with additional contributions from Food for the Poor. While making their deliveries, and emboldened by their success with Natividad´s problem, these young people have committed themselves to building five more homes, especially for single mothers. Food for the Poor’s contribution of wonder board allows for the construction of at least 20 more homes, and so Beth left us in early October to carry out a fund raising tour for more support in this endeavor. Meanwhile work has begun on another home close to the Acelhuate River, a larger version of Natividad’s house that includes shelter for a family of five.
Which leaves us with Luis concerned about his own consumer tendencies and still worried about the young people’s obsession with consumerism in the area of style, technology and other superficialities.
Luis had a certain eureka moment last week. “I was outside the veranda looking at the sky. It was a beautiful night and the moon was shining. While enjoying this moment of peace, my cell phone began sounding off with some stupid commercial message. It was impulsive, but I flung the phone into the corn. That night when it began to rain, I realized the decision was final. It only cost five dollars, but I am glad to be rid of it.” The challenge that Beth and Luis face with their group of young social activists is daunting: how to move beyond sympathy to action; how to move beyond charity to justice; and how to liberate ourselves from the obsession to want more.
Luis can take these questions with him to Chicago in January when he will join the St. Cyril community as an intern for the next two years. The work he has begun here with Beth will not stop as a result of his sojourn in Chicago, however. Together, they have created a team of committed young people and that team will continue the struggle for justice and peace. .