As I watched the sun silhouette the high-rise office buildings of downtown Caracas from the balcony of a swanky eighth-floor apartment, my new acquaintance shattered the moment’s serenity. “San Félix?!?” she gasped, nearly inhaling her whiskey, “Why would you ever want to go there!?”
This same conversation would replay dozens of times in the week I spent visiting my friend and getting to know his circle of friends in Caracas before visiting Father Greg Schaffer and Father Tim Norris and their community in San Félix. For his rich, glamorous and insular social stratum, San Félix’s reputation for crime and poverty render it a place nearly unspeakable. Their perceptions of San Felix aren’t necessarily incorrect. Crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, gangs, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, domestic abuse, and corruption all run rampant in San Félix. What these Caracas socialites haven’t had is the chance to meet some of the inspiring people who live there and work daily in faith and love to make a living and forge a stronger community.
After picking me up at the airport in the neighboring city of Puerto Ordaz, Father Greg brought me back to his home, showed me my place to sleep, and then nearly immediately introduced me to members of his parish to help me get the lay of the land. One of the first he introduced me to was his beautiful and incredibly intelligent 19-year-old neighbor, Claudia. Claudia is studying Human Resources at the nearby public university and dreams of pursuing a graduate degree in the United States. She is improving her English with a church copy of the Rosetta Stone and practicing with any gringo who happens to pass through her neighborhood. Considering that most of her peers are primarily interested in finding a husband to provide for them and many are already pregnant, her steadfast commitment to her education and aspirations for an independent career are truly admirable. Claudia brought me to the gorgeous Llovizna Park which includes acres of jungle and a commanding view of a thundering waterfall in the Orinoco River. We met up with her friends under a huge tree next to a rupture in an irrigation pipe to pass the afternoon. Sandwiches, cards, volleyball and a couple of shots of tequila made a perfect afternoon spent with friends.
I spent New Year’s Eve with one of the largest and most active families in the parish, the Britos. I was quickly introduced to a cousin, Alberto, who took me out to meet the barrio (neighborhood). Venezuelans often buy new clothes for the New Year’s and everybody out was showing off their new wares. Multi-generational families sat in front of their homes on plastic chairs visiting. Alberto is very much a product of his barrio and as we walked down the street he greeted everyone, shaking hands, teasing kids, kissing grandmothers, and inviting me to do the same. We regrouped at the Brito’s just before midnight and enjoyed a massive meal with dozens of family members before toasting to the New Year as the barrio erupted with fireworks. We then ventured down to the neighborhood basketball courts where some of the youth of the neighborhood had set up large speakers for a rumba (dance party). It seemed everybody wanted to dance with the gringo. When the sun rise didn’t stop the rumba, I figured the rain would. I was wrong. When I called it quits at 8am, the party was still in full swing.
One of my last days in town, I spent with Lourdes and her four charming children. Lourdes and her two daughters, Valentina (9) and Carmen (8), are HIV positive. Lourdes was infected by her husband who died from the disease shortly after the birth of Carmen, leaving Lourdes to raise the four children by herself. Lourdes does not have a steady job, but takes care of odd jobs at the church with incredible drive. We took advantage of the half-priced movies on a Tuesday afternoon and watched an animated children’s movie, the first any of the kids had seen in a theatre. Afterwards, we donned goofy Christmas-themed costumes to take a picture. The kids mischievously grin in oversized Santa costumes while Lourdes presides over the chaos with maternal warmth. This picture is a warm memory and daily inspiration to me about what it means to live life in any circumstance.
Returning to the United States, I’ve had a difficult time sharing my experiences. “You went where for Christmas break? Venezuela, that’s where Chavez is from, right? Didn’t some baseball player just get kidnapped there?” As San Félix is to the social elite of Caracas, Venezuela is to most Americans. Yes, Chavez holds a corrupt and authoritarian grip on the country. Yes, a Major League Baseball player was just kidnapped here, one of many kidnappings that happen every week. But there is so much more. Most importantly, there is a loving community in San Félix, served by Father Greg Shaffer and Father Tim Norris and supported by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, eager to welcome you into their lives and make you a part of their family. My only word of caution: when invited to a rumba, have ready access to a strong source of caffeine.
January 16, 2012
*Some names have been changed to protect personal privacy.