When Ángel Silva and I started Mensajeros de la Paz, having social initiative was something frowned upon. It was a subversive social initiative for young priests, like us, to take boys and girls and give them a shared home where they could feel at home with a family. We were very lucky because, in that rebellious and politically incorrect action, we managed to convince my dear Bishop of Oviedo, Don Gabino, and Monsignor Tarancón himself. Both of them stood up for our project.
Thanks to their support, Mensajeros de la Paz began to grow and, then, that germ of social initiative that we, Ángel Silva and I, had had without knowing it spread to a lot of people who helped us in our project. Thanks to all those volunteers, who supported us just for having “social initiative”, we could develop the work that is Mensajeros de la Paz today, which is present in more than 50 countries, has the Church of San Antón in Madrid open 24 hours a day –a personal dream of mine fulfilled– and has a lot of projects underway with women, children, the elderly…
I do not think that social initiative is fashionable. I think that, nowadays, kindness is called social initiative, but wherever it comes from, it is a blessing. Thanks to it, we solve many situations that painfully affect people and families of all kinds. We help them improve their lives, the most precious asset we have. Pope Francis always says: “Poor yes, but not slaves. Poor yes, but not without dignity”. Calling this aid, which comes from all areas of society, a social initiative, endows with dignity the act of helping and the person we are helping.
I recently came across a book entitled “Hunger, Poverty and Marginalization” with the subtitle: “Unsolved Problems. Shame of the civilized world”. It reminded me the words that Pope Francis said when he visited Lampedusa, that Italian island filled with migrants arriving in small open boats in which many of them leave their lives at sea. Pope said: “The only word that comes to mind is shame. This is a shame”.
And he was right. When we talk about poverty, we do it in an anonymous way, without seeing the faces of the people behind that poverty, without looking them into their eyes. One of the things the Pope asked people giving alms to the poor is precisely this: “When you give alms, do you look at the face of the one who asks you for it?” Most of them answered no. It is easier to talk about poverty than to talk about Juan, or Antonia, because that personalizes them and it hurts us, even if it is out of shame.
When you give alms, do you look at the face of the one who asks you for it?
They say that hunger is not having adequate food in sufficient quantity to satisfy our needs. It reminded me of the words that Monsignor Tarancón once said to the then Head of State:
“There are many families who lack indispensable food. There are many fathers and mothers who cannot give bread to their children whenever they ask for it…We want them to see that the heart of their Bishop sympathizes with their anguish and that the voice of their Bishop rises, brave and determined, to defend their cause…. We cannot be silent. We must not be silent any longer”.
From Mensajeros de la Paz, we have been advocating that poverty must be made visible in order to fight it for years.
I would not have believed that in today´s Spain there would also be hunger, those queues that they call of hunger and that so many NGOs, municipalities and politicians try to alleviate.
I remember that, some years ago, Spanish governments had a hard time recognizing child poverty; it was something that was not talked about. However, today a global alliance has been formed against child poverty and institutions are fighting to eradicate it. A High Commissioner has even been created to combat it.
This Country Alliance for Zero Child Poverty aims to involve public administrations, companies, foundations, the third sector and civil society. To achieve these goals, it is very important to come together and talk. We must join forces and gain commitments from all sectors of society to discuss both, the injustice involved, and the benefits of investing in children for the future of any country.
In Mensajeros de la Paz, we have always been very aware of the fact that a man´s destiny is marked by his childhood, and if childhood is poverty… We are condemning a person to that circle which is the one we must break. From the beginning, when we started giving homes to orphaned children or children from broken and poor families, we wanted overall to give them love, a family and a home, so that they could launch into adult life afterwards in the same conditions as others. Children need, above all, to feel loved because that is what gives them security. Security, education and love are essential weapons to build a good future.
“Only before God and a child should you get down on your knees”, this has been Mensajeros de la Paz’s motto since we created it 59 years ago.
have travelled around the world and I have seen so much suffering, but the worst thing that has happened to me by far is watching a child die. Having a child die in your arms is a terrifying experience; it is as if the world ends in that moment.
If you love others, if you love those most in need, the most vulnerable, it is impossible to avoid pain. There are things you can never get used to. On these occasions, I have often wondered where God is and I remember then the lessons of Pope Francis: once, we were in the Philippines and a young girl approached to ask him why children suffer. Francis looked into her eyes and said: “There is no answer, only your tears”, and that answer was a revelation to me.
It is not God´s fault, He always forgives; man forgives sometimes, but nature never does.
I have heard sometimes some people asking why, in dangerous situations, they always say that women and children come first. It is because women can have children and children are the future of our species, so we must always protect them. Pope Francis says:
“A society that abandons children and marginalizes the elderly cuts its roots and darkens its future. Every time a child is abandoned and an elderly person is marginalized, it is not only an act of injustice, but it also ratifies the failure of this society”.
I am not revealing anything if I tell you that hundreds of thousands of children around the world have been dying for years, decades, and centuries because of such simple things like a vaccine (which costs less than a dollar), or the lack of clean water, or a simple diarrhoea.
Now, poverty frightens us more because it is closer, because we see it around us, because, sadly, there is no need to cross an ocean or go thousands of kilometres away to see people going hungry.
We don’t need to read the National Institute of Statistics, the Economically Active Population Survey, the newspapers or the Caritas report. Anyone with a minimum of sensitivity see with his own eyes what is happening beside us, a few metres away our homes, our offices, our schools.
There are more and more poor people in Spain. The Spanish people who are not in the poverty threshold but are close to it are increasing. We read figures that frighten us, like that in Spain almost 30% of the population is in a situation of poverty and social exclusion, especially after the pandemic.
This data is not only frightening, but also painful.
San Anton´s church receives more and more requests for food that doesn’t need to be cooked because people cannot afford to pay the electricity bill.
No one, not even themselves, could have imagined to be calling at our door. From qualified professionals asking for a job “in whatever”, to families who a few years ago used to spend their summer at beach, and that now sleep in a car. People whose fridges where previously bulging and now are completely empty.
I never thought that well into the 21st Century, after 60 years dedicated to social work, I would have to open soup kitchens in Spain, like those that I have been opening for years in the countries of the so-called “third world”.
It is said that there is a quantitative and a qualitative hunger, in the former there is a lack of food and, in the latter, there is a lack of quality food that, as grandmothers used to say, “really nourishes”. There is also said to be absolute and relative poverty, but these are nuances because, at the end of the day, poverty, the poor, are what they are: vulnerable people in our society who need our help so as not to fall by the wayside. As my General Secretariat, Pope Francis, says:
“Certain maximum limits of exploitation of the planet have already been exceeded, without us having solved the problem of poverty.”
Poverty generates hunger and hunger destroys life because poorly nourished people lose their physical, intellectual and social potential. A person who is not well nourished or who goes hungry is more prone to disease and this especially affects children under 5 years of age.
We are used to turning on the water tap and washing ourselves, or drinking. I remember the times when there was no tap water and we had to wash ourselves with water from a well. That is poverty too. And we don’t think about how water affects people’s poverty. Without water, no development is possible. If there’s no water, there will be poverty, hunger and marginalization.
Mensajeros de la Paz has been building water wells in Africa for more than ten years, with the support of individuals and organizations that believe that what is happening in Africa is also happening here, in Europe. Because the world is interconnected and we must be aware that it is as necessary to help here as it is to help in places around the world that need it.
Allow me to quote Pope Francis again with his beautiful circular “Laudato si”, “About the care of the common house”, which is our planet. He says about the water:
“Drinking and clean water represents a matter of utmost importance, because it is indispensable for human life and to support terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
A particularly grave problem is the quality of the water available to the poor, which causes many deaths on a daily basis.
Access to drinking and safe water is a basic, fundamental and universal human right, because it determines the people’s survival and, therefore, it is a requirement to the exercise of the other human rights. This world has a serious social debt to the poor who has no access to drinking water, because denying them water is denying them the right to live, which is based on their inalienable dignity.
3 out of 10 people in the world have no access to water…
The information is terrifying: today it is admitted that 3 out of 10 people in the world have no access to water. In total numbers, this is more than 2.3 billion people in the world.
One of the most serious causes of infant mortality is precisely diarrhea due to drinking contaminated water. Every year, 361.000 children younger than 5 years old die because of this. Predictions made by organizations such as the FAO state that, in 30 years’ time, half of the world’s population will suffer from water shortage.
Not only water determines the destiny and sentences countries to poverty, as the Pope states; access to energy does this too. We have confirmed that, apart from water wells, installing power generators that bring electricity to the villages changes and significantly improves the lives of the people around the villages.
This is why, to make a better world, which I always say it’s possible as I stated in a book with that phrase as its title, I state that solidarity is the best remedy. Solidarity understood in its full meaning: solidarity with the poor, our neighbors, animals and the planet.
Solidarity is closeness, proximity, it’s staying when everyone else leave, it’s lending a hand to help, it’s offering tenderness, it’s knowing how to look with the eyes of the heart, it’s giving a smile when sadness fills the eyes of those who suffer the most. Yes, solidarity is giving, but it’s also so much more, it’s sharing what we have, no matter how much that is.
Even more: solidarity is, above all “being there when you are needed”, as a father or mother does; staying by our side when everyone else leave, or when no one has arrived yet. And, in that sense, governments should also be beside those who need it the most. “Don’t forget us”, yell the people from La Palma, who lost their homes, their belongings and even their landscapes and their lands. “Don’t forget us.”
When people suffer, they don’t want speeches, they need closeness, affection and, above all, they need to feel like there’s someone there for them.
Solidarity is everyone’s patrimony, it’s not just for a few people, nor it’s for the left or right-wing, nor for the faithful or the atheists, nor the rich or the poor. Solidarity is a “new power” in current society.
Moreover, solidarity is a phenomenon that creates wealth for the countries. A wealth that may not be reflected on the Gross Domestic Product, but which, without a doubt, improves millions of people’s quality of life. Solidarity mobilizes thousands of men and women. The volunteer’s platform calculates that, between all the associations that conform it, there are more than two and a half million volunteers in Spain. There truly are volunteer armies. Regarding young people, the volunteering phenomenon is overwhelming: more than 30% participate in solidary activities.
I am convinced that solidarity and its institutionalization constitute one of the most relevant and valuable phenomena in current society from all points of view: economic, sociologic, politic and even moral.
Nowadays, every company has a Social Responsibility Corporate Department because they are aware that their activity has an impact in society’s life. It’s odd, because no law forces them to do it, they do it voluntarily. They are aware that they need to improve human rights and social, economic and environmental surroundings. Companies think it is necessary. It is part of their convictions and ethics. If a company wouldn’t do it, it would be seen as a company that breaks a cultural rule. We would frown upon them.
Before human pain, tragedy, harsh hunger scenes, death and injustice, we have gone from raising our hands to our head and turning the TV off because watching that gave us indigestion, to taking an active role and making a personal commitment.
Of course, social injustice still exists and the Pope refers to it:
“Total scarcity is immoral and kills the family and society. Injustice harms humanity; society need equity, truth and social justice.”
In these times, when is, no doubt, much better than a few years ago, we should ask ourselves if life is the same to everyone; if no one will be alone; if there will be people without food for dinner; if there will be children that won’t enjoy the warmth of a hug from their parents or people without a home and without a secure place to sleep.
There, hiding, is the concept of Justice. Will life be equal for everyone? Will everyone have what they need? Will everyone get what they deserve?
Together, we can make social justice a frame for an equal coexistence in equal conditions for all.
Lastly, it is important to remember that poverty is also bound to migration. Pope Francis always says that the two problems we need to address are unwanted loneliness and immigration.
There are almost 6 million foreigners living in Spain, specifically 5 million and eight thousand, but it turns out that our country needs at least 7 million migrants in three decades to keep prosperity. That is to say that migrants are wealth.
When year 2050 arrives, working age population will represent 50% of the people living in Spain. This means that we’ll have 15% less of working age people compared to now. One out of three people will be retired, and probably alone.
I’m one of those people that think immigration benefits both the countries the people emigrate from and the countries that receive the immigrants. I see how in kindergarten, where there are children from all nationalities, there is no problem of “hate to the different”. In fact, almost all school and kindergarten’s principal brag about having a diversity of nationalities in their centers. This shows me that we are capable of understanding each other.
Sometimes, I think about why there is so little discussion in our society and I believe it is because we think of ourselves as demigods sometimes and we think we are right when we talk. We need to discuss things. We all think it’s wrong that people don’t understand each other. It doesn’t matter who, either young or elderly people, politicians, farmers. We all like to understand each other.
I’m convinced of and I dream about a world in which poverty, inequality, injustice and pain disappear, in which life can be easier and more pleasant for all. A better world is possible, and the possibility of achieving it is in our hands.
There are enough resources in the world to feed, dress and assist to the whole world population. There are medical and scientific advances capable of ending with disease and pain, or at least relieve it.
Soon, there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s or cancer. My generation may not see that, but yours and your children’s will.
If we really want to, together and with solidarity as our flag, we can do it.