Because I was hungry, and you gave me to eat

By: Yarelis Rico Hernández

Situación de emergencia en Cuba por la falta de alimentos
Situación de emergencia en Cuba por la falta de alimentos

With the pandemic and the emergency situation in Cuba due to the lack of food, medicine and many other basic necessities, people who previously did not knock on the door of the San Egidio headquarters in Havana, today they do. They are, fundamentally, the elderly, who join the group of friends who live on the street and are usually cared for by the Community. Some are retired doctors, teachers, and they are ashamed to ask for food, but the members of this great Catholic family know how to help them and not feel uncomfortable. This has been a difficult period for everyone, but for the elderly and people who live on the streets much more so.

Care for the elderly alone and for friends who live on the street is one of the services offered by the Community of San Egidio in Havana. During the pandemic months, this friendship with the poor has been maintained and strengthened, and attention has been adjusted to new forms and variants to prevent the spread of covid-19.

With the arrival of the disease in Cuba, many more doors were closed for these homeless or familyless people. The lives of many, already precarious, became more depressed, to which was added the shortage of medicines and the total or partial lack of basic necessities. For the members of San Egidio this has not been a time to distance themselves spiritually and affectionately from them. On the contrary, it has represented a time to overcome the cold of distance and give warmth to those who are alone and abandoned.

Maintaining due precautions, the Community has been faithful to the promise that comes from the Gospel: “We will never leave you alone.” In this way, and with much creativity and love, three times a week (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) he has supported a food service that benefits about a hundred people a day. Food is always accompanied by a warm exchange.

The elderly are also visited or telephoned. For many of them, this sharing has constituted their only contact with the outside, with life … Adolescents and some medical members of the Community have developed talks, in the protected residences of the Historian’s Office, on how to live in times of covid and they have organized visits to these places in small groups of three or four members.

The head of the Community of San Egidio, Dr. Rolando Garrido, told Word Nueva that in order to work it has been important not to be dominated by fear, due to the difficulty in finding food. That has meant doing it in different ways and ways, but doing it.

Atención a ancianos solos y a amigos que viven por la calle
Atención a ancianos solos y a amigos que viven por la calle

Covid and other pandemics

Born in Havana in 1992, the Community of San Egidio today is present in other dioceses of the country, such as Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and Pinar del Río. The service of attention to friends living on the street began systematically in 1996 with visits to a group of approximately twenty people. Over the years, the phenomenon has grown. Now there are many more who live on the streets.

In addition to reaching out to these people and the elderly asylees who do not have a family or are not visited by it, the Community develops the School of Peace, a project through which it cares for children living in difficult conditions. Pope Francis has summarized the charism of Saint Egidio as the community of the 3Ps: prayer (prayer), the poor and peace. These are the hallmarks of the charisma.

“The fund of the charism is Jesus – explains Dr. Garrido – and each community of San Egidio, wherever it may be, lives according to this charism. We have spaces for community prayer, services to those most in need and we work for peace. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are also inserted in the work for peace. Personal prayer and the assiduous encounter with the Word of God are very important for each brother and sister. Each of us serves the poor on a daily basis at a time that is organized according to the reality of each community, but that is never improvised or random. Charity is not improvised ”.

All members of San Egidio are called to live in the first person, free and daily, friendship with those who are poorer. And in this eagerness to reach everyone, the Community tries not to forget anyone. In Cuba, where access to food and basic necessities has been an emergency that accompanies the current pandemic, the work of accompaniment and reception has required greater creativity in solidarity: “change the usual hours, open new paths and unprecedented ways of closeness… everything to respond to each situation ”, says Rolando Garrido.

“For example,” he adds, “we found that many poor people did not have a mask. So the old people and adults who had sewing machines, they made them. And we deliver thousands of masks and also disinfectant solutions. When we saw the mental affectation that isolation caused in the elderly and in children, we began to call them by phone and visit them at home, always taking precautions. At the beginning we gave courses to help understand what the virus was and how we should protect ourselves ”.

In a special way, the Havana Community was able to celebrate in 2020 the great moments of Christmas lunches and parties for the poorest. To avoid crowds, they decided to increase the number of days they served lunches and do it in shifts.

“I cannot fail to mention –as Rolando Garrido–, the moments of communion with the Universal Church: like the prayer of the Holy Father Urbi et orbi, celebrated in an empty San Pedro Square, but which shocked the world and filled us with Faith and Hope. The Pope reminded us that no one is saved alone ”.

Acercamiento a estas personas y a los ancianos asilados
Acercamiento a estas personas y a los ancianos asilados

A painful reality

Although men are still the majority, the number of women and young people living on the streets is increasing in the capital city. The causes range from those who emigrate to the capital without a fixed or permanent address to reside, to those who, abruptly and traumatic, sever all kinds of ties with their relatives. Labor and social breakdowns also transcend as reasons for a decision of this type. Likewise, addictive behaviors, mental and physical disorders, disordered and ingrained lifestyles, can act as triggers for psychological disorders that lead the person to live on the street as a hasty solution to get away or escape from pain.

In addition to these causes, the critical housing situation in Cuba (either due to the lack of an adequate housing fund or due to the deplorable state of the existing one) and the overcrowding of several generations in the same property.

Beyond serving and being served, a sincere friendship is created between the people who wander and the members of the Community of San Egidio, as a popular saying goes “appearances can be deceiving.” Most of these men and women bear the weight of a prejudice that causes society, including their own family, not to take them seriously.

When asked what maxim accompanies this work that allows the members of San Egidio to deal with these people, trust them and accept them, Rolando Garrido tells us:

“First, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, 31-46: ‘Because I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you hosted me, I was in jail and you came to see me.’ Jesus himself did not have a place to be born and was born in a manger, no one recognized in him that he was coming the Savior of the world. As Christians we must have an open heart and lift our eyes to see the pain.

”We feel as a responsibility to be close to these pain scenarios. We know that we have been very fortunate because we did not experience situations that led us to live on the street, or perhaps some have had, but they found help or clarity to resolve them; not all of us react the same to life. Many times situations lead to addictions, like some of them. We believe that we are not here to judge but to help, and before the thought that we hear so many times of not helping them because they take the money to drink alcohol, we prefer to sin out of generosity than harshness. In addition, there are many ways to help and support them that is not exactly giving them the money when they ask for it. We cannot leave them alone. People who live on the streets have had a difficult life that led them to where they are today. We complain about things that, when we are in front of them, we feel ridiculous; they teach us to value what is really important in life: friendship, sharing, meeting ”.

Among the people who live on the street there are teachers, doctors, nurses, economists … People for whom, at one point in their lives, something was obscured. Today they are deprived of the things that are common in everyday life such as bathing, brushing teeth, watching TV, sitting at the table, playing dominoes with friends … For them these are special and unique moments when they happen.

“Who are we not to accept them?” Asks Dr. Garrido. “Who are we to discard or marginalize them? They are desperate human beings, because when needs are not covered they turn into despair. Sometimes they can behave incorrectly, respond badly, be aggressive when faced with a gesture of affection. It is the result of pain, of so many times yelling and not being attended to. Nor can the way they ask scare us, because, on the one hand, it is a manifestation of a great need and, on the other, of great disinterest of others towards them ”.

In Rome and other countries where the Community of Sant’Egidio is present, spaces have been created for people who live on the street, places where they can wash up, find medical attention, receive the necessary medicines for free and dining rooms for lunch. In Cuba, over the years, many advances have been made with respect to this service. Today the community has its own headquarters, Casa de Paz y Diálogo, where a shower and laundry service is offered, which due to the covid has not been able to continue.

“Before the pandemic – the person in charge tells us – they came every Saturday morning to bathe, change clothes and eat some food. As for medical care, fortunately, there are several members in our Community who are doctors, some specialists and among young people we have many medical students, and this has made it easier for someone to be helped, as well as guarantee the company hospital and rest. Dinners, moments of prayer, meeting and partying were also common in this space; now with the pandemic we have prioritized the food and support service. The Community’s dream is to have a physical space only for people who live on the streets ”.

During this stage of isolation, the Community of San Egidio has worked in collaboration with other religions. Rolando Garrido remembers and appreciates the help of the Hebrew Community, which allowed them to assist elderly alone and bedridden. Together, they also made and distributed masks. By the end of this year, if the epidemiological situation allows it, the Community intends to make the Prayer for Peace again in Havana, and reflect on the encyclical of Pope Francisco Fratelli tutti (All Brothers) and on the document “Human Fraternity and the coexistence ”, signed by His Holiness and by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

As a result of the pandemic and the situation of shortages and shortages that Cuba is experiencing today, the number of poor people has increased. “Today –Dr. Garrido specifies–, people who have never done it before knock on our door. They are elderly, fundamentally. Prices have risen, everything is achieved through long queues … And these elderly, sometimes because of the fear of contagion, other times because of the physical fragility to submit to a queue, they have no way of solving their day to day and they come to us asking for help. There are more and more. There is also the situation of the shortage of medicines. When you start talking to them and dig deep, you find that they are retired doctors, teachers, and they are embarrassed to ask for food, but we know how to help them and not make them feel uncomfortable. Certainly, it has been a difficult period for everyone and for the elderly and people who live on the streets, much more ”.

As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the members of Saint Egidio stop and seek to take care of the poor who, for different reasons, live on the street, or the elderly asylee or without a family. Thus they continue with that effort of the Community in Rome at the end of the seventies of last century, when the number of poor people increased rapidly and brought with it the appearance of serious problems. Today the Community of Havana lives a similar experience, and in a distant but equally alarming scenario, it is committed to restoring hope to those who have had to carry the weight of life and years alone. Ω

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