The Revd Antonio Garcia Fuerte
Bread, as you know, is one of the basic foods. For Jews and Christians, it is full of meaning. And outside religion, I find very interesting the things that bread can tells us about a social group, about politics, even about history.
I don’t know if you have been following in the printed edition of The Times, a special editorial series on Venezuela. In 1999 the average price of a loaf of bread was 20p. In 2003, 4 years later, it had gone up to £1.50. The government adopted a policy protecting artificially the legal limit to the price: 90p per loaf of bread. Today, 12 years later, it costs around £4, and it is limited to one loaf per person every other day (though rations are not always available).
In 1998, when I was 21yo, I was a second year Seminarian in Madrid. I was offered the possibility to spend the three months of the summer break helping in a mission in a remote area in the Amazon, in Venezuela run by three missionary nuns. In mid-June we started our adventure. We knew each other very well as the previous summer we had spent 3 months travelling in a car around the south of France.
I travelled to Caracas along with other 4 fellow seminarians: Francisco, Pablo, Jesús and Napoleón (Yes! Believe it or not, that is his birth name!). Before continuing our journey, we rested one day in the school the same nuns run in Caracas. It was a public boarding school for girls. I’ve never seen anything like that, before or after. The school featured an indoor heated Olympic swimming pool and a golf course, among many other amenities. 20p loaf of bread, certainly felt like not that much at all! With the profits of this school, the same nuns were able to run three other schools in other much poorer areas, completely for free. One of those schools, was my final destination.
The following day we took a 3 hours flight, followed by a 10 hours coach ride in a sand road. Just when you think it can’t get any worse in terms of travelling, a further 3 hour drive through the jungle. At the wheel, sister Teresa, who, as we found out just before we left some three months later, she did not hold a driver’s licence. That wasn’t surprising at all.
Francisco and Pablo, 2 of my fellow seminarians, were sent to work with the youth of the local community. Jesús and Napoleón were sent nearby to a small we could say ‘village’ that had grown next to a rubbish dumper. Their aim was to teach, specially the children, things like not to use their fingers to scrape through the edge of tins so they wouldn’t get cut. Suddently, 20p loaves of bread, had a different meaning. It was a luxury difficult to imagine.
Sister Isabel told me: “You will go to the secondary school and take over. They are waiting for you. Teach the teachers and the students all subjects.”
“Oh, well… I am fine with social sciences, languages and philosophy, but I won’t be of any use for the last years of secondary school in things like trigonometry or physics.”
“Yes you will. Do whatever you can.”
I walked into the school and I remember as if it were today, an A4 page with the “School Vision”. Capitals and lower case were mixed at random. Stress marks (quite important in Spanish), were few and mainly wrong. Even the use of some words was, lets say, a bit odd. It was signed by “Jennifer”. Luckily, before I could put y foot in, I was taken to the staff room to meet the teachers. The first teacher I met was the head of the language department, “Jennifer”. If this is the standard of the teachers, what bread of culture are they teaching the students?
After our meeting I decided we would teach as normal in the mornings. I would rotate through the classrooms one week at a time and do as much as I can with that class. Then spend all the afternoon with the teachers, and have them all for everything so they could sit at other subjects and complete some sort of basic overview.
The first hour of classes in the morning went really well. Especially if you take into account that we didn’t have any books, paper or pens. All we had was a blackboard and I talking. But I found that the second hour the children completely disconnected. And the same in the afternoon with the teachers: the first hour was of good use, but then everybody was disconnected. I tried to make it more interesting by all means I could, but nothing seemed to work.
I spoke to sister Isabel: “Why is their attention span so short? Or am I too boring?”
“O no,” –she said- “it’s because they are hungry.” At midday the school provided two ‘arepas’, this is, like a small bread bun made of flour, stuffed with some smoked carrot strings. Sister Isabel explained me, that dry bread was the only food most of them (teachers and students), the only food they would eat in one day. The ‘arepas’ were a bread of life, quite literally, a bread of life for many.
On Sundays we didn’t have the Eucharist. Even that seemed like a very unaffordable bread of life. There was no ordained priest anywhere near by. So the nuns, who provided the arepas, the education, the pastoral care, the social support, gathered the whole town in their chapel, they read the Word and symbolically broke bread (a large arepa) and distributed among the present.
When I arrived, me, a very traditional catholic, found that ceremony disturbing. When I left, I had ben transformed. I had learned more about the bread of life in that whole experience and in that breaking of the bread than I would ever learn in any lesson of sacramental theology.
God has chosen to self-reveal himself in History. God chooses to reveal himself to us in our own history. “Give is today our daily bread” is to ask God to become present in our life today. Speaking in the quiet signs of our daily lives. Speaking in out encounters with others. Speaking in the silence of the heart that asks in prayer. Speaking in the big events that shake out society.
So we ask today, that God may open our eyes and ears to discover God’s presence in the midst of us in our daily lives, and that we may discover the endless joy of living in God’s presence.