The Favelas Are My Kind of Place
As Superior General of the Missionary Oblates, Fr. Louis Lougen, O.M.I. works among the grandeur of Rome. His office is just a few blocks from the Vatican, a long way away from the 18 years he ministered in the favelas (shanty towns) of Brazil. When asked recently if he would rather minister at the Vatican or in the favelas, Fr. Lougen answered without hesitation, “I would go to the favelas, the favelas are my kind of place.” Here Fr. Lougen writes about his time with the poor in Brazil and how the Oblates are currently working in “favelas” around the world.
It was in Brazil that I learned so much about being a priest, a missionary, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate. After four years of theology, it was among the poor that I went to “finishing school.” I was sent there to preach the Gospel, and in return the poor, through the witness of their lives, brought me closer to God and opened the meaning of the Gospel to me. The poor evangelized me.
The time I spent in the favelas of Brazil were among the most blessed years of my life. I knew very closely the life and hardships of the poor and I saw the presence of the living God in people who had nothing but poverty and hardship. Their resilience in the midst of destitution was truly amazing. Their capacity for joy and communion with one another in the face of hopelessness, violence and utter disregard by others was astounding. Their generosity to help others was exemplary.
In the favelas the Oblate charism was crystallized within me – to bring the Good News to the poor. It was an exciting time because the country was under a military dictatorship and the Church was a force of resistance in solidarity with the people. We supported the poor in their struggles for justice and human rights and the dictatorship eventually began to crack apart, due in large part, to the influence of the Church which had organized the people into communities of faith and action. It was a time of danger, sorrow and pain, but it was also a time of joy, love and goodness radiating from the poor. It was a difficult period, but I had so much fun and many good times in those years, both with my brother Oblates and with the people we were serving.
When I was elected Superior General it was a calling that I’ll admit was a little hard to accept. I love the Congregation and I took a vow of obedience, but if you asked where I would rather go it would have been back to the favelas of Brazil. But being Superior General has opened my eyes to other “favelas” all over the world where the Oblates are working to improve the lives of the poor with the Good News of Christ.
In Senegal, the Oblates and their Oblate Associates have formed a group called the Friends of St. Eugene, named in honor of our Oblate founder, St. Eugene De Mazenod. This group ministers in a kind of “favela” in the rural zone, where some 800 people suffer drought and oppressive heat without any medical assistance. The Friends of St. Eugene provide basic medical supplies to villagers, both to Christians and to Muslims, and it is for most people the only medical attention they will ever receive.
Last year I was in the “favelas” of Cuba where four Oblates are working in seven parishes. I was shocked by the poverty of the elderly there. It is impossible for them to live on their pensions. So the Oblates at each parish have created a lunch program for the elderly people. After the celebration of the Mass during the weekdays, the community provides food and the Oblates eat together with the elderly and usually there is singing, dancing and fellowship. It is a wonderful, simple ministry and it is a way for the Oblates there to be close to the people.
In Scripture we are told that we God will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine with the Holy Spirit working among us (Eph. 3:20). I discovered that in the favelas. It was there that I experienced God more and more as mystery, the mystery of love, of community and of solidarity; and I was walking in that mystery. In the favelas I witnessed the Spirit was among the people, moving us towards God, a God who was full of surprises and who was being manifested when I least expected it in signs of communion, compassion, generosity, gratitude and deep faith and hope in spite of all the poverty, difficulties and violence.
When my time as Superior General is over, I would not hesitate to go back to the favelas. I would be very happy back in Brazil, but maybe it is a place like India or Bangladesh where our Oblate family is much younger. These younger Oblate foundations are always asking me to send them an older Oblate to journey with them. Maybe I am that older Oblate, a type of wisdom figure, although I don’t know how much real wisdom I have to share with them!
A young scholastic from Lesotho once asked me a beautiful question, “What is my dream for the congregation?” After some thought I realized that my dream is the same as that of our founder, St. Eugene De Mazenod. It is a dream that we remain always close to the poor, the poor that nobody else is taking care of. It is a dream that is realized in places that like the favelas. At first glance they seem like they are just ugly, violent and cruel. But when you go beyond the appearances, and meet the people of the favelas, you discover such beautiful human and Gospel values where very simple and ordinary acts are performed with extraordinary generosity, love and sacrifice. You really experience Jesus words, “The Kingdom of God is among you!” (Lk. 17:21)