By Benjamín Le SVD
Central District, Ecuador Province
“Dios le pague.” These are the words spoken to me by senior citizens who come to eat lunch twice a week at the SVD Verbo Divino Parish in the Caupichu area of Quito, Ecuador. When translated directly, it means “may God reward you.” It is another way to say thank you in Spanish.
After taking two Spanish-language courses at the Pontifical Catholic University in Quito, I was assigned to continue my language and culture education at the Verbo Divino Parish in Caupichu.
Caupichu is a growing area south of Quito. It is high in the mountains so it rains often and is very cold. Unlike places like Chicago, the people here do not have heaters to keep themselves warm. They just wear extra clothing and layer down when they go to sleep. Thinking that Ecuador is a very hot place since it is along the Earth’s equator, I brought very little clothing for cold weather in Caupichu. Like the locals, I quickly learned to layer up with whatever clothing I brought!
Caupichu is one of the poorer areas of Quito. The people in Caupichu make enough for their day-to-day living. They work very hard but earn very little. As with other poor areas, there are problems with drugs, crime and contamination of the environment with trash. Programs were developed at the community and church levels to tackle some of these problems. One of the earlier programs was the development of a comedor, or soup kitchen, for the elderly at Verbo Divino Parish. Other programs were recently started by the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters in collaboration with the Divine Word Missionaries to educate the youth about the importance of protecting the environment.
When Divine Word Father Tuan Vu was assigned here nine years ago, he wanted to help the senior residents of Caupichu. The seniors come from all walks of life. Some are abandoned by their children. Some wanted companionship. Others do not have enough food to eat. With all these needs in mind, Father Tuan established started a soup kitchen that feeds the elderly twice week. Not only are they fed, there are also activities for them to do before the meal. This includes a prayer service and baile terapia (dance therapy). A program like this requires a lot of volunteers and donations to keep it running.
Father Tuan created a framework in which a group of volunteer cocineras (cooks) would come every Friday and Saturday morning to prepare meals. Other volunteers come to cut fruits or vegetables, set up the dining room with tables and chairs and afterward, help to wash the dishes and clean up.
Where do they get the money to buy food for cooking? These cocineras also cook food on Sunday to sell to parishioners to raise funds for the program. Sometimes parishioners see the benefits of this program to the community so they come with food donations. The majority of the time, the elderly feeding program is self-sufficient, so they do not need financial assistance from the parish. Father Roberto Christy continued this program when he was assigned to the parish after Father Tuan was transferred to another parish.
As part of the setup and cleanup crew, which includes two Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (Sister Charito and Sister Ruth), I help set up tables and chairs in the comedor. When the seniors are seated, I often go into the comedor to count the people in order to prepare the bowls and plates. Whenever I enter the comedor, many look up, wave and say “¡Buenos días hermanito!” (Good day, little brother!)
Often they want me to come over to them so they can shake my hand or plant a kiss on my cheek. And with every bowl of soup and plate of food that we serve, we hear, “Dios le pague.” Never mind that sometimes we have only vegetables and rice to eat, they are always grateful.
Moments like this really define my missionary experience here in Ecuador. It takes away the hardships of adjusting to life in a new land along with all the communication difficulties. It is moments like this that I, too, say back to the seniors and the volunteers, “Dios le pague” for helping me to see Christ in the people whom I serve and for strengthening my missionary desires.
“Hermanito” Benjamín Le SVD professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word in 2012. After fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador, he will return to Chicago to continue his formation and complete his academic studies at Catholic Theological Union. If you would like to learn more about the Divine Word Missionaries’ work around the world or if you’d like to financially assist programs like those in Caupichu, please visit www.svdmissions.org.