“Many people arrive here weeping, with serious problems, anxious or saddened because they are leaving their country, because they have nothing to eat, or can’t get medicines, and our mission is to comfort them with the light of the Word of God and with prayer.” The person speaking is Father Esteban Galvis, parish priest of the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in the suburb of Aguas Calientes, in Ureña, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia.
Caring for migrants at the border, and at the same time for the people living in poverty in the frontier zone itself, means not only giving material help, despite the limitations, but above all providing pastoral and spiritual support.
“We are facing a very harsh reality, a particularly difficult situation”, Father Estaban explains. “On the one hand there are the would-be emigrants, passing through our parish centres, and on the other the poverty of the local families living here close to the border; our own people, who continue to be affected by the critical situation in the country.”
“We are the poor, caring for the poor – even though we can only offer them a glass of sweetened sugarcane water”, he tells us.
As the parish priest in Aguas Calientes, he is aware that “every individual and every family group has its own particular story to tell, but they all share a trust in God. And they come to the priest and to the parishes, seeking a refuge where they can find new strength and consolation. They come to confess, and to entrust themselves into God’s hands.”
“One memorable story was that of Juan Carlos, who was travelling with his wife and son from Falcón State (in northwest Venezuela), hoping to reach another country; but by the time he got here, he had no money left to continue his journey”, Father Esteban explains.
“Here was a man weeping, together with his wife, because they didn’t know what to do next. The first thing I did was to pray with them, asking God to enlighten us; then I shared some food with them. And then, during the day, somebody else from our community offered them a place to stay for the night. So they decided to remain in the area. During the day they travel to work in Cúcuta (Colombia). Little by little they are finding a solution, with the help of God.”
In the frontier parishes the social outreach has been strengthened especially through such spiritual care and companionship, for “in this lies our principal mission. Many people come to the church, weeping, with their problems and concerns. And our task is to be instruments of God in consoling and comforting these people”, Father Esteban explains.
As part of his pastoral activities in the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Aguas Calientes, he also organises days of Eucharistic adoration and provides constant spiritual guidance for people seeking comfort and support.
“Ever since the border was closed”, he adds, “we have been running social action campaigns and sharing the little food we have, but inflation is making this work impossible for us. We continue to help, but with the very barest minimum, and with particular emphasis on the elderly and children, since we don’t have enough for everyone.”
The recent newsletter Movilidad Humana Venezolana, published in May this year by the Jesuit Refugee Service in Venezuela, reports that the principal reasons driving the Venezuelan people to cross the frontier are the insecurity, the worry about what is happening in the country, the hunger, the high levels of stress on a daily basis, the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen next and the lack of medicines and medical treatment. 83.6% emigrated in search of a safer place to live, and 31.2% even felt forced to flee from home.
Recently, there was a meeting of the Asamblea de Laicos de la Frontera, a group of committed laypeople together with their priests and the local bishop of the diocese of San Cristóbal,. They all gathered to renew their commitment to special and continuing pastoral service here in the border region.
Father Esteban Galvis emphasises the fact that Christians must make a serious commitment to “prayer and fasting, since this will help us resolve the situation”. And he concludes by inviting us all to unite with them in this task: “We are a source of comfort and counsel to those who live here and to those who have migrated here and suffer.I invite all those who would like to help us to join in prayer for the people living here, because God is our only strength.”
Aid to the Church in Need recently visited the town of San Antonio de Tachira, in Colombia, in order to offer support in the present difficult situation and show solidarity with the dioceses located on the Venezuela -Colombia border . Furthermore, the possibility of providing future support for a planned migrant hostel, the Casa del Migrante was discussed.