FOR THE past live years Fr Carlos Vasco SJ has lived side by side with the poor in a Colombian shanty town. Peter Philp met him and saw the conditions in which he lives and works.
FR CARLOS Vasco SJ inhabits two worlds. One is the Jesuit university in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, where he lectures. The other is a slum a short walk away, where he lives.
As we made our way from one to the other Fr Vasco stopped to show me a large block of overgrown land which hid a tiny shack. It was the home of an old lady who had lived there for years.
Recently the landowner decided once again to evict her. After a squatter has been on a block of land for a number of years he can claim it as his own. The only difference in this situation, explained the priest, was the landlord was going to force the old lady off the land and being poor she would have no hope of fighting for her rights.
"So a whole group of people from the slum village went down and stood by the little old shack and the landlord didn't attempt to shift the lady. It is not the first time we have done it," said Fr Carlos.
Perched on the hillside were the ugly lean-tos, some made of rusty galvanised iron. others of rotting wood and cardboard. Fr Vasco not only served the people there but lived in a shack with them. .
Looking over my shoulder I could see the university, ablaze with lights and the host of modern apartments. c ,sting about $50,000. I saw a sm 11 .boy miraculously make his crossing of the road with his small donkey.
"That's a very common sight", explained the priest. "The children take the donkeys into town early each morning and go around all the garbage bins outside the restaurants collecting the scraps left over the night before.
The garbage is stuffed into bags hanging on the sides on the donkeys and the children bring it home to feed the pigs and chickens."
The little boy I saw was using his donkey to carry some ,liquid gas home for the stove, One hundred and twenty families survive in Sucre-Hero Barrio. Beyond is San Martin Barrio with another 100 families. Further beyond that are other small slum villages dotting the sides of the hills. They have no services from the government. The people are squatters and too poor to worry about. they had got together and dug a crude sanitation system with underground pipes draining into a canal that winds its way through the village.
Fr Carlos was part of the working party that put the system in; he said it was a lot better than the people had before. The only water comes from two taps and the priest like everybody else drinks the water but never takes the time to examine it under a microscope. He said he might be shocked by what he saw.
Officially there is no electricity. However the people believe they have as much right to the service as the WAX) apartments across the road. So they tap into the system. How they do it without electrocuting themselves, nobody knows. Periodically the authorities come around and cut off the illegal consumers, but as soon as the electricity officials go, the villagers are climbing up and tapping the system again.
The Sucre-Hero slums have been Fr Vasco's home since 1975. He decided to move in with the people and bring in a group of young seminarians. If they were to serve God's people as priests then as part of their training these young men should get to know God's people.
It didn't work as Church authorities didn't believe it was the environment for young men so they were lost to the barrios and later lost to the priesthood.
Despite some objections from the Church, Fr Carlos and three other Jesuit priests live in a shack. Their bedroom is tiny. just big enough to accommodate their hunk beds and a small wardrobe and there is barely enough space in the living room when the table to cat at is in and the chairs around it. A couple of other Jesuits are living in similar conditions in the neighbouring barrios.
They are members of Centre for Investigation and Popular Education a Jesuit group that is vitally involved with human rights. They are watched with suspicion . by the government authorities and are frowned upon by some elements of the Colombian Catholic Church. Some of the Jesuits have lost thair licences to preach.
But the people love them. To say that you have walked through a Colombian slum at night is almost unbelievable. As we stumbled our way around in the dark, people greeted their priest. He stopped and talked about their problems.
The barrio falls under the jurisdiction of a local parish. but like many in Latin America, the local priest has huge numbers to pastor to.
At Sucre-Hero he gives Fr Carlos and the other Jesuits his blessing to minister to the people. Here. pasturing means more than saying Mass and administering the Sacraments. Ile spends time with the people talking over the usual family problems.
Husbands deserting their families is very common in these countries. The priest advises them on their basic human rights and then after Sunday Mass might strip down and join the rock smashing gang, The priests have helped build a rough track down the hill.
Politicians used to visit the barrio and would tell the people that they were there to help improve services and generally create a better life.
At one time they believed this and gave these politicians their votes. but the situation remained the same and the promised changes didn't come.
Now the slum dwellers have no faith in local politicians; in recent council elections in Bogota, the
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time came almost none of the people bothered voting. Fr Carlos doesn't blame them and it is unlikely that the politicians will return again because they knov, they were no votes to win.
Peter Philp is Media Director of .World Vision of Australia. He has just completed a visit to Latin America.