“If you want to help the poor, the first thing you do is give them water.”
Meet Fr. Javier Len, the most extraordinary priest I have met in a long time. Last month, I went to Peru to lecture at a Catholic university and to meet with several pro-life members of the legislature. Because of Fr. Javier, my trip turned into much more than lectures and political discussion.
My four days in Peru were spent as the guest of a remarkable religious community you may not have heard about, the “Sodality of Christian Life.” Sodality means “promise” or “friendship,” and in Peru, I encountered both.
My host was Alejandro Bermudez, a leader in the community and the director of the excellent Catholic News Agency. He had arranged for me to lecture at the community's university in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru and the country's cultural center. Even if my trip had been confined to the eight-year-old San Pablo University, it would have been worth it.
San Pablo is a dynamic academic community of 1,000 students, located in the heart of the city. All students begin at the university by studying Ex Corde Ecclesiae and must complete three courses in Catholic philosophy and theology before graduating.
San Pablo University offers Catholic counseling for women and families. (In Peru, abortions are widely available for only $10.) Its teacher education program has satellites throughout the country, including villages in the Amazon rain forest, and for some of the locations the teachers must ride on horseback for hours to reach the villages.
San Pablo has already become the leading Catholic university in Peru and is now drawing students from adjacent countries. The older Catholic institutions, such as Catholic University of Lima, are centers of extreme left, radical feminist and pro-abortion ideology. Remnants of the liberation theology that thrived in Peru in the '70s and '80s still exist. (Remember the ex-nuns who assumed combat fatigues and protected terrorists in the name of the people?)
Without question, the Sodality's most inspiring apostolate was found in the hills just south of Arequipa among the poorest of the poor, the Indians who inhabit the huge shantytown of 400,000 which encircles the city. On these hills the priests, consecrated men and women, and others associated with the Sodality have created a small school of eight rooms, named San Juan, which teaches about 200 children from age 5 to 14. These volunteers belong to the “Christian Life Movement,” which the Sodality nurtures in many countries around the world.
The drive up to the school was heartbreaking, with block after block of stone fences set on hard, dry ground (scenes from Dante's Inferno repeatedly came to mind). Behind the fences were shacks of stone and wood scraps, and rusting tin roofs, where the people live day to day with neither plumbing nor running water. Electricity is rare. Yet the day I visited I found the children all smiles, laughing as they performed their folk dances for the visitor from the United States. In each class room I was greeted with a booming “good morning.”
At San Juan school the students get breakfast and lunch, in addition to a basic education. With the consent of their parents, children are prepared for First Communion and Confirmation in classes taught by ladies from the town and by volunteer catechists from Europe who offer their services for varying periods of time.
As I left the school, I overheard the conversation of a father of four of the students. It seemed that his fifth child had died recently because he lacked the three dollars needed to buy some medicine. Such stories are common, I was told.
Little did I know that San Juan was to be only my first stop that day among the poor of the shantytowns of Arequipa.
I spent that afternoon with nothing less than a force of nature…or should I say grace. Fr. Javier Len is the leader of the Sodality community in Arequipa, and the San Juan school is one of the many apostolates he has created among the poor. He also founded San Pablo University, but most of his work is done on the northern slopes of the city, which is where he took me.
He showed me the levels of shantytown, where on the lower slopes the older houses (some 30 years old) are more developed in sharp contrast to the middle and upper slopes where the homes seem uninhabitable. In the midst of these people, over the past 13 years Fr. Javier has built eight churches, a medical center, a home for the elderly, and various centers for children to play.
He has also placed water tanks at strategic points throughout the hills and manages to keep them full by means of regularly dispatched water trucks. “Other trucks charge these people twenty times the normal price for water,” he said.
Fr. Javier manages all these ministries, raises the money, and celebrates the Masses with very little help. In fact, his efforts and those of his community are the only sign of a Catholic presence among the poor of the slopes. The diocese does very little. And of no help are the local politicians, who not only demand payoffs for building permits but fail repeatedly to make good on promises of basic improvements to the infrastructure.
With an eye to the future, Father showed me land he wants to buy on which he'd like to build a high school and a bankrupt resort that he envisions as a retreat and conference center. Undoubtedly, Fr. Javier is a remarkable priest, one in whose presence it's easy to remember that with God all things are possible.
My last night in Peru was spent with a former prime minister and three representatives of the Peruvian Congress. We met to discuss their pro-life work in the congress. They told me their biggest obstacles were the NGOs, funded by the US State Department through USAID. The NGOs are using millions of American dollars to promote abortion, feminism, and gender rights in Peru, where 80 percent of the population is Catholic. They insist these NGOs should lose their funding.
I was most shocked to learn that during the '90s these same organizations were hired by the Peruvian government, under then President Fujimori, to commit atrocities. (I will present the details of this situation in a forthcoming article.)
Peru is not an economically powerful nation, but it has immense cultural influence in South America, especially along its eastern rim. In addition to Peru, the Sodality has set up other communities throughout the Americas and Rome.
The members of the Sodality community deserve to be better known. Their witness in Peru — especially that of Fr. Javier — is magnificent to see.
(Deal Hudson is the head of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture.)