Medellín is an industrial city, the second most populated in Colombia, inhabited by the paisas, an enterprising and combative people, faithful to their traditions and home to important writers such as Héctor Abad.
Yes, many abroad know it for being where drug trafficker Pablo Escobar built a huge and vicious drug empire. There are still too many drug traffickers and beggars present and “peddlers” abound in its avenues and parks, largely deteriorated by the use of drugs and by the various vicissitudes of a sometimes complicated and difficult life.
I meet these “street dwellers” two or three times a week in the canteen that the Emmanuel Catholic Community has in the centre of the city. About 90 volunteers are organized to give a plate of hot food to anyone who comes without asking where they are from, their affiliation or life history. The volunteers act like a large catering company, only without receiving a penny and adding a large dose of affection, respect and dignity, in simple coherence with a profound spiritual experience of joyful identification of the poor with the Jesus of the Gospel.
Miraculously, a hot meal is served every day to about 800 people, men and women, children and the elderly most of whom are alone, even if there is no shortage of families, especially Venezuelan emigrants to Colombia who have fled the great crisis in their country. Among the elderly there are some who live alone, but with dignity, and come to the dining room as one goes to a restaurant, but without paying. The degradation caused by drugs and other addictions can be seen in the faces and behaviour of young people.
Everything takes place in an atmosphere of serenity and dignity. We serve them quickly and with respect, and as soon as they finish eating, they leave to let in another 100, which is the capacity of the room. I go whenever I can to peel potatoes, deliver food or do some cleaning for about two hours.
This experience rejuvenates me and strengthens me in my missionary vocation. As a priest, I have been asked many times to exercise the ministry of the Word. In my experience, I have understood that people need a lot of listening and sincere and precious words that enlighten, console, forgive and encourage. As the Bible says, “Man does not live on bread alone”. The volunteers themselves frequently ask me to listen for a moment or to give them a word to help them clarify their personal situation.
Here I have an opportunity to accompany the word with a very concrete act: handing out a plate of hot food. Robinson, the coordinator of this group, tells me they sometimes criticize him for not helping people transform. And it’s true. But, at least, those 800 people receive not only a plate of hot food but also a gesture of brotherhood and respect.
Meanwhile, in my house, I live with a group of young Colombians who aspire to be missionaries. They are aware, mature, generous young people who study and prepare for the mission with enthusiasm and faith.
Among them, the Emmanuel Community and the “street dwellers” make me feel young again at the service of a humble, small, but beautiful mission.