With the Poor in Peru

Our plane touched down in Peru late at night, so on the bus ride to Canto Grande, the neighborhood in which we spent our spring break, I was able to see only the outline of the mountains against the black sky, scattered with some light bulbs ascending up their slopes. It wasn’t until the hot morning sun illuminated the landscape that I was able to understand why we had traveled from New Haven to Lima.
Canto Grande, a neighborhood in the San Juan de Lurigancho district of Lima, has seen significant economic improvement in recent years, but it remains relatively poor, especially by Western standards. It is common for people in this hot and arid area to live in huts on the mountainside, with whole families living together in one room. Running water is just now being installed in many places.

I was with a group of students and a Catholic chaplain from the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, and we volunteered for nearly two weeks in local schools run by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross. One of the schools, part of the Jesuit created Fe y Alegria network, provides education for over 2,000 students, in two different shifts, five days per week. Parents send their children to this quasi-public school knowing that education is the only hope for their kids to escape the crushing cycle of poverty. A good education could be the difference between staying in a hut in Canto Grande, or, getting a decent job either in the neighborhood, or, if they are lucky, in posh downtown Lima.


The Catholic Church has particular credibility in this area of Peru because of the commitment that priests showed to the poor during the brutal years when a Maoist terrorist group, the Shining Path, went on a quest to overthrow government. Priests and religious stood by the people when the local government and police did not, and as a result, the Church enjoys the support of the population today. This is evident in the vibrancy of Catholic life in the area. The region we visited is one parish that serves over 200,000 people. It is divided up into 19 separate chapels, each one administered by a lay-board, many led by women, who work closely with the one pastor. Humble yet beautiful, these chapels offer Mass each week, and many provide essential services that cannot be found elsewhere.

Attached to one chapel is Yancana Huasy, one of only a few schools devoted to serving special needs children in this area. Peru has an unusually high percentage of children born with Downs syndrome and other conditions, but many of these children receive no care or education because of the taboo nature of their situations in Peruvian society.

The experience of visiting the poorer parts of a developing nation offered me insight into a new culture and our own society. Life certainly is harder down there, but the joy and vibrancy I saw in the faces of the children with whom I played on the dusty playground told stories of hope and joy. In terms of our own culture, I see our excess and I struggle to understand how there can be such disparity among peoples. But I think there is also a warning coming to us from Peru, where downtown Lima shimmers with all the amenities of modern life while the outskirts are, literally, dirt poor. Peru’s economic society is incredibly stratified, and the result is poverty like nothing we have in the United States. At home, as the gap widens between the rich and the poor, we should remember that it is not sustainable for one group to dominate another, and that working toward the commonweal is the only way to maintain a just society. It appears that someday Peru may get there, and here we must recommit to this vision of shared prosperity.

Michael O’Loughlin

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

 10.17.2018 Pope Francis greets Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 16. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
“We take people where they are, walking with them, moving forward,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2018
Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018