ROSARIO, Argentina – An estimated 35 percent of Argentina’s 45 million people live under the poverty line, many of them in one of the over 4,000 slums and “popular neighborhoods” scattered around the country.
Though normally buzzing with life, these villas miseria (“slums of misery”) are nobody’s choice to spend over 40 days in mandatory lockdown during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“Most of those living in these neighborhoods survive with what they’re able to earn on a daily basis,” said Father Fabian Belay. He’s coordinating the “crisis task-force” of the Archdiocese of Rosario, 185-miles from Buenos Aires and the country’s third largest city.
When you enter the city, you’re welcomed by a collection of little shacks on unpaved roads, many of them constructed with re-purposed wood, corrugated metal planks and heavy-duty plastic bags.
“Keeping up with the mandatory isolating measures when the sun hits on the metallic roof of the one-room more than one generation calls ‘home’ is not easy,” Belay told Crux on Wednesday. “People are doing their best in these popular neighborhoods to maintain the isolation, but our goal is ‘community isolation,’ meaning that nobody goes in or out of the neighborhood.”
Belay is one of several dozen priests who are known in Argentina as “slum priests.” The movement began in Buenos Aires several decades ago and received strong support in the 1990s and 2000s from the then-archbishop, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – today Pope Francis. Since then, there has been a nation-wide effort from the Catholic Church to have priests ministering and living with the poor, setting up churches and parishes that become the beating heart of a community that, despite the challenges, is often quite lively.
Father Carlos “Charly” Olivero, who works in Buenos Aires’ Villa 20-21, has a role similar to Belay’s, but at a national level. In 2008, Bergoglio tasked him with opening a shelter for drug addicts: It was called Hogar de Cristo. Today, there are hundreds of these “Christ’ Homes” throughout Argentina, including ten in Rosario.
Olivero is one of seven priests who visited President Alberto Fernandez in March, when the coronavirus crisis was beginning in Argentina, to discuss how social distancing could be carried out in the country’s crowded villas miseria.
“In the slums it is also possible to be in quarantine, we know that the neighbors sometimes have little space, if you see someone in the streets who needs help to isolate themselves, let us know; let there be no grandparents in the streets, bring them to our parishes,” the priests said at the time in a video shared by Fernandez on Twitter. “The parishes in the slums are open for whatever is necessary.”
Almost a month from that promise, Olivero said, it has become a reality: He’s one of the two priests working in the Caacupe Church, which have been turned into small dorms to accommodate elderly people who constitute the most-at risk population.
“It’s better to have several homes for small amounts of people than the other way around,” Olivera told Crux. “In addition, some of our centers [Hogares de Cristo] have also become shelters, because many of the people we help under a normal scenario are homeless.”
The daily work with drug addicts and recovering addicts has greatly changed: People no longer go to them, but they go to the people, through daily phone calls and weekly visits following all the necessary safety protocols.
In addition, both Olivera and Belay have expanded their soup-kitchen capabilities, trying to make sure that everyone has enough to eat.
“This means that we have to procure the food so that the kitchens can hold twice or three times more people. The church itself, has become a kitchen. We’re also distributing bags of food so that people can cook in their homes,” Olivera said.
In addition, Olivera coordinated with government officials so registrations for the government Emergency Family Income can be done at the local church, to make it easier for people in the neighborhood to sign up: “Not everyone knows how to read and write, imagine filling a form on the internet!”
Some also needed to have their ID card issued so that they could apply, and Olivera made sure that this office was in the slum during this emergency period too.
“You have to take into consideration that, beyond the crowded situation they live in, most here work in the frame of informality, meaning, they’re paid daily, under the table. They’re bricklayers, cleaners, street vendors. They’re not a part of the system, they don’t have healthcare, and no one is subtracting from their salaries so that they have a pension fund,” Olivera said. “Most work so that they can survive that day.”
This is why both priests underlined that beyond a “health emergency,” when it comes to Argentina’s over 8 million people who have requested the Emergency Family Income, there’s a “nutrition emergency” too. One which was there before the pandemic, and which will remain well after the virus is gone, Olivera said.
His words serve to prove what Father Jose Maria “Pepe” Di Paola told Crux last year, when he said that as a movement, the slum priests are “close to the pope, but not in contact” with him:
Mere hours after Crux spoke to Olivera, an ocean away, during his morning daily broadcast Mass of April 23, Francis said that “in many places, one of the effects of this pandemic is that many families find themselves in need, and they are hungry.”
The pope also said that the poor are suffering from “another pandemic:” the economic consequences of layoffs and furloughs, together with the exploitation of unscrupulous moneylenders.
Hence the need for the Church to provide both “material but also spiritual help,” Belay said. “I believe it’s a great challenge, to prioritize health, knowing that if there’s one case in one of our neighborhoods, the disease will spread like powder. But the truth is, this cannot go on in the long term: People need to go out to work.”
“This pandemic has put in evidence the fragility of our neighborhoods,” Belay said. “Either financially or healthcare wise, we cannot face it, yet it’s one of the things we have to confront daily, together with the pandemic of drug addiction, that is also killing the people in our neighborhoods. And there’s also the pandemic of the lack of opportunities.”
Despite the challenges, Olivera is able to find a beacon of hope, and that’s the spirit of solidarity which, he says, is “always visible among Argentines,” perhaps as a “left-over of our once strong national Christian identity,” Belay said.
“This pandemic has all of us sensible,” Olivera said. “But we read in this situation an opportunity to evangelize and to spread in our youth that germ of solidarity and care for the elderly, who are suffering the most.”
They identified 1,300 elderly in the 20-21 slum, and they organized a small army of volunteers, all hailing from the slum itself, to make sure they have their food delivered and anything else they might need.
“It’s nice to see that the Church is occupying it’s role as a mother, coordinating other social organizations that, seeing the gravity of the situation, are not seeking power but instead seek to work together with us, knowing that we had a strong, coordinated network before all this began,” Olivera said.
“Similarly, the national government and that of the city are working together, despite being from different political parties,” he said. “This is a moment in which we are all building together, leaving differences behind. And truth be told, despite all the bad, it fills us with pride.”