Outreach and ministry in the wake of El Nino


LOS ZORRITOS, Peru — Every two years the priests of the St. James Society do five weekends of appeal work in our home countries. I did mine in June, mostly in the Boston area.

I returned to Peru early in July (during our winter season) to discover that the heat was the same as when I left. Only now, in late July, is the heat easing up a little.

I encountered an epidemic of malaria — over 16,000 cases in Northern Peru and 800 in Zorritos. The man and woman running the parish in my absence both caught it — fortunately not at the same time.

In nearby “Bocapan” every house has at least one malaria victim brought on by the hordes of mosquitoes. During and after El Nino we’ve suffered a plague of grasshoppers, mosquitoes, beetles and other assorted bugs. I’ve had to learn how to celebrate Mass and preach with beetles crawling up inside my vestments and clothing. They never taught us that in the seminary.

Sometimes we have to turn the light off over the altar and celebrate Mass in semi-darkness as bugs cover the altar, and everything on it, attracted by light. At times during the night, tens of thousands of bugs descend upon us. I have a new sympathy for the Egyptians who suffered the plagues of Moses. At night, near any light, the road is covered with bugs. A passing vehicle sounds like Rice Krispies as the bugs snap, crackle and pop under the tires. Our rectory continues to be mosquito free. After four years of year-round mosquitoes in our rectory, El Nino arrives and the mosquitoes disappear. It’s a mystery I still don’t understand.

Last month, the road into the mountains opened up for all but four of our most remote churches and villages. My first week back we celebrated Fiesta Masses in two mountain villages on two different days.

What was once a two-and-a-half hour round trip to one village is now a very difficult five hour round trip. The roads used to be referred to as “kidney busters.” I don’t know what you’d call them now, but even driving slowly my head hit the roof a couple of times.

The formerly dry river beds are now small rivers, but they can be passed with four-wheel drive. The people in the Fiesta Masses gave us a warm welcome with signs and scrolls and kind words. They are very grateful for the help the parish continues to send them.

This year, the parish has provided hundreds of thousands of meals for the people. But, of all the help given by the parish, what has touched people most has been the notebooks and school items. This seems to have been just the right help at just the right time. As school began in April, the government wisely said school uniforms and shoes weren’t needed and postponed the $3.50 registration fee. But, as the children here have no books, everything depends on a notebook — usually one for each course.

We had two large companies in our capitol competing for an $8,000 purchase of notebooks and pencils. We got a tremendous buy and were able to help thousands of children. Even now, when I go to different villages, parents will tell their children, “that’s the person who helped you get your notebooks.” I suspect years from now these children will remember that help in their moment of need given by the Catholic Church.

On July 19, all the normal Masses were canceled in order to celebrate one large Mass of Thanksgiving. People came from the mountains and coastal towns and villages as hundreds gave thanks to God and our benefactors. Their names were placed before the people and prayed for.

It was a beautiful celebration in a coliseum with the ocean as a background. We thanked God for ending the rains earlier than expected — and we interceded for all in and outside this parish who help us by works, prayers and gifts. In their name, I thanked all of you who are helping us.

Last week, we sent a group of people to visit the mountain soup kitchens. They were dropped off at each village. They dealt with problems in some of the soup kitchens, but, with their Bibles, went mostly to evangelize the people. They came back at night exhausted but happy. Next week, we’ll do the same things for our coastal soup kitchens.

At present, the mountains remain our most critical area. It’s desperate. Some villages have lost all their farm land. Their livelihood is gone. For example, in one area, we used to ride parallel to the river bed on a little dirt road. A large field of banana trees separated us from the river bed. Now, the river bed comes to the road, and the banana trees and farm land are gone.

We’ve got someone working to speed government help to us in the mountains which had been programmed for next year! Now it’s scheduled for this year.

Pray that it’s fast and effective. The government declared our mountain area one of the two hardest hit in Northern Peru. The Peruvian people have an amazing capacity for suffering. It’s a joy and privilege to have a part in easing at least a little of that suffering.

My thanks to all who, by prayer or gift, share in that ministry.

Msgr. J. Donald Gorski is a native of Charleston. He now ministers with the Society of St. James the Apostle in Zorritos, Peru, where he provides spiritual guidance to the local villages.

To contribute materially to this mission, checks may be sent to: Msgr. Robert Kelly — Missions; P.O. Box 1257; Folly Beach, SC 29439.

The Society of St. James will forward the checks through their banking account in Peru — thus avoiding the Peruvian Post Office. Only one thank-you acknowledgment will be sent to contributors and it will come directly from Zorritos.