Evangelizing Northern Peru

Editor’s Note: Dr. Carlos and Milagros Lamar of Meggett recently returned from spending two weeks in September with Father Donald Gorski at his mission in Zorritos, Peru. What follows is their account of the experience. “We have tried to portray the living conditions there and how Father Don functions almost single handedly in that area,” the Lamars said.

Zorritos means little foxes and indeed we saw several gray ones as we rode, along with 15 or so other passengers, in Father Don Gorski’s Toyota truck along dusty, winding dirt roads (which look more like trails than roads) during our two week visit there in September. Zorritos is the site of the parish center and the main church, but there are 34 other churches in the parish. Six of churches are in small towns located along 20 miles of the Pan American Highway, that runs along the coast in northern Peru. The remaining 29 churches are in the interior, located in small villages (pueblos) consisting of a dozen or so thatched roofed, adobe brick walled, dirt floor huts. There is a school in each village along with the church and sometimes a small bakery and a convenience store in a person’s house. These villages are accessible on the roads that wind along hills and through dried (at this time of year) river beds. The farm animals we saw most often were goats, as they scampered away when we approached and donkeys which wouldn’t budge off the road. There are pigs and chickens in people’s yards, and the chickens have free access to the house, at least the kitchen, where they go in and out at will. The bathroom is in the back yard and in fact, a latrine. The terrain is dry, hot and dusty, The only greenery we saw was in the occasional banana grove, which I assume, was irrigated somehow. They have some paved streets, a cemented central square where the church is usually located and a variety of stores. Zorritos has a small market where one can obtain a variety of food stuffs, including fresh chicken and goat meat hanging on hooks.

The main industry in these coastal towns, especially in Zorritos, is fishing and netting of shrimp larvae. There are about 20 old dilapidated fishing boats off the coast which go out to sea for three or more days at a time to bring back a deep water catch. Along the surf, about every hundred yards young men position themselves with red nets about the size of a large umbrella and filter the sea water as it recedes. They net tiny shrimp larvae which they sell to buyers who travel the highway in trucks equipped with thermal cases and a tank of oxygen to keep the larvae alive. Most of the crop is taken to and sold in Ecuador, a distance of about 50 miles, where the aqua culture of shrimp is more advanced than in Peru. The shrimp larvae are ordinarily available in the ocean only in the summer months (December – April) but this year, because the “El Nino” is keeping the Pacific ocean waters warmer than usual, the larvae are still being harvested even in September. Fishing and larvae gathering are the only significant industries along the coast and in the desert-like “campo” (interior), only sparse animal husbandry is possible. Thus very few people are gainfully employed and the community as a whole is desperately poor.

Father Don is the only priest for this parish which from its furthest two points requires four hours of driving along trails in a four-wheel drive truck. He has organized his missionary work in this manner: Celebrating Mass is paramount. In the two most populated coastal towns, Mass is celebrated weekly on Sunday, in the others, every other Sunday. He drives to the campo two days a week and celebrates Mass at each village church once every other month. But what a Mass! Father Don arrives at the church in the truck with six or more high school boys who act as altar servers (monaguillos) and an equal number of parishioners that he has picked up along the road. The church bells are rung and villagers pour out of their huts and come. School children are released from their classes and stream in uniform to the church. I was surprised that many men were present in the congregation. The Mass is reverently celebrated and guitar playing and singing are as uplifting, as the devotion of the congregation is inspiring. We sensed a true faith in these poor people. The homily is carefully prepared and given in faultless Spanish, as is the entire Mass. It lasts an hour and a half and is a true celebration. If we arrive a little late, which is the usual case because there are so many unexpected interruptions, after Mass Father Don holds reconciliation for those that want it. Meanwhile, some of the ladies prepare a goat or chicken stew which is served over rice. The entire visiting group gathers in a home or under a tree and enjoys the meal which, in truth, was as delicious as that served in a good restaurant. After the meal, Father Don reimburses the ladies and the troupe moves to another campo church sometimes as much as one hour away. Mass is celebrated again. On the way home, Father Don stops at a little store and provides every one with a small bread roll and one glass of a soft drink. There are many stops to let people get on and off; the trip back takes about two hours and the arrival time is about 6 p.m. On the way home, with a gleam in his eye, Father Don said to me, “If this isn’t evangelization, I don’t know what is.” There are other half-day weekly trips made to the campo and the churches along the coast, but these are to conduct workshops with leaders of a movement called “Family Catequists.” Father Don, along with his two staff members, have organized a group of about six couples in several communities that follow a manual in which Christ is presented as the model for the head of the family. The course runs about 12 weeks and each couple in turn uses exercises that have been taught to them. Each couple uses these exercises in their home to prepare their own children for First Communion.

Life is busy, in Zorritos and the other coastal towns as well. Almost every morning anywhere from 12 to 20 young men out of a total cohort of 60 boys show up at the garage door to help Father Don as Mass servers, but mostly to receive a roll and a banana, the only food these boys may get all day. Father Don buys a sack of bread rolls to be delivered in the morning and he buys hundreds of bananas from a local planter rather inexpensively to have on hand for these boys. They are well behaved and very helpful carrying the paraphernalia, the guitar and the loudspeaker, needed for Mass. They truly love Father Don and, I believe, have benefitted from the relationship psychologically because at home they failed to have a healthy one with their own fathers. From this group, there are six who have entered or plan to enter pre-seminary studies.

There are many other on-going programs in the parish. For married couples there is “Bodas de Cana,” a retreat movement which combines the essence of Cursillo and a Life in the Spirit seminar. The Pope John XXIII retreat is very much in demand and for the youth there is “Escoge” (Search). There is a long process running for several years in preparation for confirmation. On two evenings during the two weeks we were there, Father Don gave the Sacrament of Reconciliation virtually single handed to 200 candidates and their families preparing for a John XXIII retreat and on another to 175 children who were going to receive their First Communion and their parents! And one needs to consider that Father Don does not turn away anyone that requests his spiritual help. On one occasion we had planned to eat at 1 p.m., but the man who does the local dentistry came by at 12:45 p.m. and told Father Don that he had been away from the church for many years and that he needed to talk to him. We sat down to eat at 2 p.m.; it is like this all day long and often into the evening: innumerable interruptions and decisions to make. Father Don is virtually doing the work of three priests. He does have two staff persons who work for the parish half days and who are extremely competent and reliable. He also calls on Pancho, a welder by trade, who helps him with all the maintenance of the trucks and the parish center. Pancho is a devoted parishioner who is not on salary and Father Don pays him what he can. Father Don’s motto is, “We do what we can with what we have.”

One of the parish’s major activities is to run a dozen soup kitchens through-out the parish, primarily for children. Originally the Peruvian government was involved, but now they have turned the operation over to Father Don almost completely. This is the parish’s largest weekly expenditure. Every Wednesday a group of women go to Tumbes, the capital of the providence about 30 miles away, and buy $800 worth of food stuff of rice to heads of cabbage. They bring this material to a small room behind the church and distribute the food into 12 or so portions. The women from each soup kitchen take their portion and use it to prepare the meals for the next week. I am certain that the absence of overt malnutrition is largely due to the operation of these soup kitchens.

These people are dreadfully poor. I worked two days a week giving medical advice and I found that only one out of five of the patients could afford to buy the medicine, even aspirin. Father Don, somehow, provides funds for essential medical needs. He helped one family financially to have needed heart surgery done on their son, which would not have been possible without Father Don’s help. I saw the boy during his convalescence and he was now able to play without debilitating shortness of breath. As poor as the people are, they seem to possess an inner joy and they are very generous with what they have. I was struck by their personal cleanliness and the cleanliness of their clothes. One high school boy told us that he washes his pants and shirt every day after school. Not once did I see anyone dirty or with body odor.

My initial reaction during the first week of our tour after

realizing what the needs were in that part of Peru was a feeling of being overwhelmed by the futility of it all. I then recalled what a surgeon who operated on patients with advanced malignancies used to say, “One candle is worth a lot when the alternative is total darkness.”

Although Father Don rarely talked about the lack of money, for he truly trusts on the Lord to provide what is needed, I began to understand, as I learned piecemeal what the expenditures and income was, that the financial position of the parish is precarious. He told me that he has just enough money on hand at this time to cover his expenses for two weeks in the future. By my estimates, what he receives from the St. James Society, which includes his salary, covers the expenses for the soup kitchens for one week. I saw the money taken from collections and it was a pittance. The parish house needs maintenance, including repair to the roof, but the people’s needs take precedence. The bulk of the money he uses come from donations by his friends and former parishioners who admire him for what he truly is a man devoted to serving God.