And Then We Danced

I’ve been going to the day program for senior citizens here in town for almost a year. We chat, I lead seated exercises, then we do a guided meditation. I have come to love these “abuelitos” dearly. So I was thrown for a loop last month when the director told me the program was being shut down.

Hogar de Cristo, the sponsoring organization, is doing some restructuring and, unfortunately, this program was one of the ones they decided to end. They are pulling back resources from the area around the capital and sending them to programs in the remoter regions of the country, where life is typically a bit harder. I’m no stranger to nonprofit management. I know that you can’t do everything for everyone. But dang it, I’m attached to these folks. The social services and social interaction they received in this program are crucial to their well-being and I am worried about what will happen to them now.

Two young children do the Chilean national dance at a senior citizen day program

Doing the Chilean national dance

Since the closure was confirmed, I tried to spend more time at the center. The abuelitos love our kids. We went as a family for the national holiday a few weeks ago, and they got a kick out of the kids’ dancing.

On Tuesday, there was a little ceremony with the participants, family members, staff, volunteers, and some senior management from Hogar de Cristo. Chileans do love a good speech, and there were six or seven to enjoy that day.

On Wednesday, the very last day for the seniors to spend at the center, they did a special lunch and then a gentleman came to sing rancheras, a style of music much beloved by the old folks. Pretty soon Juan, Willy, and Victor were out on the dance floor with different partners – myself included.

I couldn’t help but smile as we shuffled and waltzed along.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this program is ending. I have felt sad, disillusioned, angry… frustrated. Some of the abuelitos have openly expressed their discontent with the closure. But for the most part they are taking it in stride.

Think about how many transitions they’ve had to go through in their lives. Goodbyes they’ve said. Homes they’ve left. Jobs that have changed. A world that has changed.

Just here in Chile – they lived through massive earthquakes in 1960, 1985, 2010. They made it through a military coup and the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Aside from these large-scale events, each of them has had to face the innumerable challenges of living in poverty on a daily basis, for 70 or 80 years. And yet they get up every day and go about their lives. What else can you do?

Dancing to rancheras

So that day, we cried a bit. We packed up the food that was left in the kitchen and passed it out to the abuelitos along with the center’s old mugs, so they could remember all the cups of tea they drank together. We ate some cake.

And then we danced. Because sometimes that’s all there is left to do.

Let People Give You Something

Let People Give You Something

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A heartfelt “¡Gracias!” for the abuelitas that work on the delivery lunches every week.

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The crew from parroquia San Roque and Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep

There are probably 6 dozen things I want to write about the students who just visited Chile for their service immersion trip. I will focus on one, for now. Yesterday, we had the honor to go to San Roque parish in Peñalolen, Santiago, to help prepare meals for homebound individuals and deliver them all over the neighborhood.IMG_6511 IMG_6518 IMG_6510IMG_6513

Our actual volunteer work was minimal, which is what I expected. They run this program twice a week without our help. They didn’t technically need us there. I wanted our stuIMG_6503dents to see the power of a few people in a poor parish making a huge difference in the lives of others who are in need.

We did light work preparing the lunches for delivery. Students walked into a few homes to meet people receiving the lunches to see how they lived and to offer a smile. I think the students got the message.

But then the most amazing thing happened. We returned to the parish and the regular kitchen volunteers had made enough food for all uf us to have lunch together. IMG_6500

The “North American Me” said thank you, but we brought bagged lunches. We don’t want to take food or money from your program. Use it for the people you serve each week. Then my “Chilean Me” said to N.A. Me, “Shut up and accept their hospitality. It’s about the relationship, not the dollars and cents.” And, as I’m learning more than I care to admit, “Chilean Me” was right again.
cents.” And, as’m learning more than I care to admit, “Chilean Me” was right again.

We sat with the parish volunteers, staff, and assistant pastor (who is basically a world renowned theologian!) and ate a delicious meal prepared with love. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and, of course, the food was amazing.

What is it about us that sometimes makes our first response to the invitation, “No, thank you”? If I had insisted on leaving, we would have missed one of the most memorable experiences of those students’ trip to Chile. True Chilean hospitality, and the best example of kinship (thank you for that word, Fr. Greg Boyle!) that we encountered during their time in Chile. At that table, we were parishioners, brothers and sisters.
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Words Fail Me

The kids have been out of school for 71 days. We have 16 more days of “summer fun” before classes start up again. That’s all I will say.

I was at the Hogar de Cristo senior center on Tuesday when an earthquake happened. It was a small temblor, but it lasted a decent amount of time. Long enough for us to have a debate about whether we should get out of the building or stay put.

We had finished the exercises and stretching portion of the class and were just starting the guided meditation. Nothing like an earthquake to shatter a sense of calm. As I sat with them, I reflected (not for the first time) on what these folks have seen in their lives. They have a healthy fear of earthquakes because they’ve lived through two of the worst: the 1960 quake in Valdivia (magnitude 9.5; strongest earthquake ever recorded) and the 2010 earthquake in the central zone (magnitude 8.8; this one actually knocked the earth off its axis slightly). When the ground starts shaking, they take it seriously.

I found my vocabulary somewhat wanting while trying to calm them down. I said something along the lines of, “Calm down, it’s over” — which was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. They looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and dismissal. I’m just a young person from another country. I have no idea what Chilean earthquakes can do. I could be more precise in English, I’m sure.

This is a common theme in my work with the abuelitos. I frequently convey less than the full meaning of what I’m trying to say because my Spanish is okay — but not great.

Leading them in exercises is challenging due to the fact that there are so many different abilities in the room. Some are able-bodied; others are in wheelchairs. There are several blind gentleman, and two adorable ladies who are profoundly hard of hearing. Several are in the early stages of dementia. Many have diabetes. Arthritis is common. Depression, I suspect, is the thread uniting most of them.

I do the best I can. When I don’t know exactly the right word to describe a movement, I show them. Then I remember the guys who can’t see, and I try to find the words. When that fails, I ask permission to help them move their arms or legs in the right way. Then I remember the ladies who can’t hear, and I go over and show them again. Then I realize that the lady with Alzheimer’s isn’t quite sure what she’s doing in the room. And so it goes.

They accept my limitations. I accept theirs. We smile. We get on with it.

A different kind of night out on the town

A different kind of night out on the town

Let me start by saying, I can’t believe I did this nearly two weeks ago. And I can’t believe we haven’t posted anything since mid-October. Two Tuesdays ago, I went on a homeless outreach project with our local chapter of Hogar de Cristo. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, they go on one of their two routes near our community to visit with and bring some food and other supplies to people living without permanent shelter. They head out around 6:00 pm and are back at about 11:00. They take simple fare: tea, soup, hard boiled eggs, and bread, Obviously, bringing some sustenance once a week does not end their problems. By driving the same route and encountering more-or-less the same people each week, Hogar de Cristo can informally keep track of the men. As the coordinator for the project described to me, most of the men they meet won’t seek medical help, and most don’t have anyone looking out for them and keeping track of where they are. So by being consistent in their outreach and connection, they can help them beyond the bit of food and other supplies they bring.

These gentleman are very good friends. They thrilled at the idea of having a group picture taken, and were even more excited when I told them I'd get copies and bring them back. They welcomed me to know them, and for that, I am very grateful.

These gentleman are very good friends. They thrilled at the idea of having a group picture taken, and were even more excited when I told them I’d get copies and bring them back. They welcomed me to know them, and for that, I am very grateful.

I met men who were very clearly drunk, high, sick, and in need of love and attention. The last observation occurred to me because they really wanted to talk to me. Admittedly, the combination of drugs or alcohol, missing teeth, and having a “country” accent made conversation challenging. I smiled and nodded, I agreed, and occasionally asked them to repeat things, even though I only understood about 50% of what they were saying. One fellow had the very helpful habit of ending his thoughts with the question, “Si o no?/Yes or no?” to seek my position on his ideas. Let’s just say I was very agreeable, a lot of, “Si, por supuesto, claro!/Yes, of course, clearly!” They needed to talk, and more importantly, they needed to be heard. Everyone we met was in a group. They had partners in their life on the street right there by their side. I’d guess, though, those partners knew all their stories. I was a new guy, a new pair of ears (albeit attuned to English more than Spanish, ears nonetheless).

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Bringing soup, hard-boiled eggs, tea, and bread to the “chiquillos” in Melipilla. With my guide Jonatan, a father of two, who drives this route every Tuesday to check up on these guys, bring them some nourishment, and some connection.

On the drive home, I admitted to my travel partners that I had a hard time catching a lot of what was said. They assured me that it was a challenge for them sometimes, too, based on the drugs, alcohol, missing teeth, etc. But they assured me that the most important thing is listening, and the second most important thing is trying to remember what you heard. When you go back to see those guys the next week, being able to pick up the conversation where it left off or ask them about a story you’d already heard means the world to them. Which got me thinking; that’s what means the world to anyone. You remembered me. You listened to me. You came back to see me again. So although their needs for food, shelter, and medical attention are different from mine, their need for connection is exactly the same as yours and mine, I’d guess.

I hope it’s obvious that I don’t claim to be an expert on homelessness. I certainly don’t believe a few hours on this trip on a Tuesday night will make all the difference in the lives of these men. I thought it was an important experience to share, though, because we’re all human. We all struggle and we all need connection. And I look forward to connecting with these guys again.

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