A Franciscan presence on the streets of Taranto
“If a grain of wheat… dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12,24)
Taranto, Paul VI neighborhood: here the Brothers Minor Conventual from the province of Puglia work in one of four parishes in the district that sprang up in the last 50 years to house industrial working families. The area has almost nothing to offer, the inhabitants are isolated in huge cement apartment buildings that rise amidst acres of abandoned, undeveloped land.
In this vast, difficult, often dangerous neighborhood the church becomes “yeast” of humanity and of hope. Here fear, hatred and anger reside. The inhabitants are deeply wounded, having learned from early childhood the language of violence; one must be strong in order to not be crushed, one must defend oneself against everyone, no one can be trusted.
During the month of July, spent with the friars in Taranto, the challenge of how to create human relationships with the locals provoked me to seek out the correct attitude to have, the right words to say in the midst of this conflict-oriented atmosphere. What to do in this situation? How can the friars, the church, testify to the love of Christ in this mission-field.
I found the answer in a single word, “compassion,” in other words: being present, simply standing alongside the other, feeling that which the other feels.
The most significant experience from my time in Taranto was the “Street Oratory” (street camp) organized with a group of volunteers in the most difficult part of the neighborhood, where children and youth group up sharing the street with wild dogs that populate the area.
Forced to grow up far too quickly, these kids come from dysfunctional families, parents in prison or in drug rehabilitation centers. Many of them have stopped dreaming because early on their life was marred by suffering and injustice, and they have learned to respond with violence and the same injustice.
However when their eyes meet a loving gaze that does not desire to judge or criticize them they once again are free to laugh. The little onese act like adults, but give them a ball, carry them on your back or make them run and they revert back to their true identity: children. It is important to recognize in them the profound need to be loved and to love, to receive a hug or a kind word, to feel important in the eyes of another.
Seeing this situation, the fear that attacks my heart comes from the knowledge that a true change, a radical turn-around, is very difficult; these children’s destinies seem determined from the outset! Their only option is the street and all that it has to offer. Sometimes after being with them I had the impression that all our work had been in vain. There did not seem to be any positive results or changes. So after it was all over many of the volunteers, resigned, said, “It’s a waste of time.” These children relax during the games but then return to their normal lives of fights, provocations and vendettas.
This mission is difficult and yet at the same time stimulating! Here our conventual fraternity can truly live out the Franciscan charism in its “purest” form, serving the marginalized. Though often in discouraging situations and with no gratification, the community moves forward rebuilding where others have destroyed, becoming channels of peace in the logic of unconditional love, in a constant openness to listen to others and in being a welcoming presence. Practically speaking they seek to create alliances with the various agencies present in the area, developing common projects (like the aforementioned “street oratory” as well as soccer camps, dance lessons etc…) Already there has been much fruit, not the least of which is the construction – finally! – of a church building after many years in which the parish has had to make do without one.
There are many possibilities hidden behind the faces of the brothers and sisters that could truly change this little world! Many collaborate with the parish in order to build a better Paul VI neighborhood, offering their personal resources and talents. Drop after drop the stone is worn smooth and takes form: this presence is a seed in the desert that, once grown, will help bring salvation.
Friar Vito Cosimo Manca