ROSARIO, Argentina – Although Pope Francis hasn’t visited his homeland since his 2013 election, he often gives signs that his heart still belongs to the country of his birth.
Recently, he sent hand-written letters to two charitable causes sponsored by the Jesuits, the religious order to which Francis belongs.
The concept of both campaigns is similar: Deliver food packages to as many families as possible during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic with the help of the country’s largest companies in the food industry.
In Argentina, some 60,000 people have tested positive for the virus, with 1,232 deaths.
These numbers may seem low compared to neighboring countries – Brazil has recorded nearly 60,000 deaths and Chile, with less than half of Argentina’s population, has over 5,500 deaths – the infection curve in Argentina is still growing. This has led President Alberto Fernandez to force the capital and its industrial belt back to “phase one” of strict quarantine. When the latest mandate ends in two weeks, some 14 million people who live in Buenos Aires will have spent 120 days locked in their homes, many unable to work.
The United Nations recently estimated that by the end of the pandemic, over 52 percent of the country’s total population will be under the poverty line. Hence the need for charitable projects such as the Jesuit-run “Seamos Uno” [Let’s be one] and “Cordoba urgencia alimentaria” [Cordoba alimentary urgency] programs.
The Buenos Aires-based Seamos Uno is the larger of the two, and its goal is to deliver a million boxes full of food and cleaning products, that can sustain a family of four for at least a week. Each box is filled with enough for 56 meals, and include name brand goods that are being sold at wholesale prices by some of the country’s largest food companies.
Pope Francis sent a letter addressed to Jesuit Father Rafael Velasco, who heads the local Jesuit community: “Initiatives such as this one is what’s needed everywhere, for the present time but also to sustain the measures of the ‘aftermath’.”
He also thanked the Argentine province of the Jesuits for their witness, saying, “it’s good for me.”
So far, they’ve received 600 million Argentine pesos (over $8 million) in donations, which they’ve used to give over 24 million meals, nearly half of their target. This is sixteen times the amount of food that the government has distributed through the military.
A key element of this campaign is its transparency: It’s being audited by the world’s four largest auditing companies: Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC. Each box has a tracking mechanism to make sure it reaches its intended family. The campaign specifically targets those who don’t receive any sort of state-funding but who work in the “informal” sector, so have seen their income reduced to virtually nothing since the country’s lockdown.
The faces of Seamos Uno are people like Emanuel “Manu” Ginobili, one of only two basketball players who have wone a EuroLeague title, an NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal, and Gabriela Sabatini, the greatest Argentine tennis player in history. For every $15 donated, people get a chance for a Zoom conversation with the “stars” of the campaign.
The council beind #SeamosUno is interreligious and made up of representatives from CIAS (Center for Research and Social Action); the Catholic charitable organization Caritas; Argentina’s Food Bank; the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Argentine Republic; the Jesuits; the Board of Evangelical Pastors of Buenos Aires; the country’s Jewish association; and the Argentine Association of Christian Business People.
The project’s brainchild is Jesuit Father Rodrigo Zarazaga, who was quick to sound the alarm about the devastating effect COVID-19 would have on the poor of the country even before the lockdown was imposed.
In a conference call with a group of business leaders he’d worked with before, he challenged them to do something about it: “We need to organize a massive aid mechanism. Pull out your contacts and start calling people.”
What is the secret to the success of the campaign? “We’re not trying to be more than anyone,” one of the businesspeople said. “We’re here to learn, but also put all our professional and social experience to help in any way we can, hand in hand to those who might know more about this or that than us.”
(The individual businesspeople have asked to be kept anonymous, in the spirit of the charity.)
“You get a first-hand experience of what grand-scale helping feels like” another said. “This includes the adrenaline and pride that come from a job well done. But it’s also leaving me with the aftertaste of bitterness, impotence and frustration: We can’t run away from the unappealable reality of poverty. Of seeing that in a country with a food production capable of feeding 400 million people, we have 20 million who cannot put food on their tables.”
As Zarazaga said when he blessed the first boxes that were produced at the beginning of Holy Week, many hope the campaign will help Argentines understand that “there’s not going to be a good Argentina if it’s not good for everyone, and there won’t be a healthy Argentina if it’s not healthy for everyone.”
Father Angel Rossi, also a Jesuit, is behind Cordoba Urgencia Alimentaria, that aims to feed 25,000 families. Organized by several Catholic entities, including Caritas, the Jesuits and Radio Maria, it was launched earlier in June. The food is being distributed through a network of parishes. With less than $10, one can sponsor a family of four with enough food to last a week.
“There are needs that cannot wait for tomorrow and one of them is when you cannot bring a plate of food to the table,” Rossi said. “This is something that was already happening in many families but has been painfully aggravated by the pandemic.”
He’s not naïve: He knows that the initiative won’t solve the underlying problem. But the priest says it’s better than doing nothing, particularly seeing that many visiting the church asking for help, are “first timers.”
Rossi also said that, without “oversimplifying” things, he believes that Argentina suffers from the “culture of indifference” that the pope talks so much about. “When, hopefully, comfort comes back to visit us, it won’t find us wrapped in the temptation to forget others, those who will still need help, even if for us, things are ‘back to normal’.”
Francis and Rossi know one and other well: It was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who when he was the head of the Jesuits of Argentina, signed Rossi’s acceptance to the order back in 1976. The two lived under the same roof for eight years.
When Bergoglio was Achbishop of Buenos Aires, he said “Rossi is a priest who convokes with his word. When it’s known that he will be speaking, people come; young people come; families come; sinners wait for him in line at the confessional; everyone comes.”
So it is no surprise that Francis sent the Jesuit a letter thanking him for his current project.
The pope wrote that he considers the initiative means a “beginning to change looking to what will be the post-COVID-19. The great danger we must overcome is that society ‘is rebuilt’ as it was before the pandemic, or at most, with a brushstroke of varnish. From a crisis (and this is a crisis) we do not come out the same: either better or worse.”
In this sense, Francis adds: “The Cordoba Urgencia Alimentaria initiative is much more than a charity; it’s aims to change the future, to break sclerotic schemes, to put aside the culture of indifference, to proclaim that people – every person, any person – is more important than money.”
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