[Episcopal News Service] Priests in the Diocese of Venezuela are getting on with everyday pastoral work in the middle of the political chaos, the violence and food shortages which have beset their country. (Leer el articulo complete en Espanol)
At the moment, life is not routine in Venezuela. Every day is full of surprises. Food and medicines are scarce, inflation increases but wages do not rise at the same rate. There are street marches for and against the government. Some days just going to work or school is exhausting. The situation is no different for the Episcopal Church and its parishioners.
It’s Wednesday and the phone is ringing at the headquarters of the diocese in Caracas, no one answers. Two days earlier, on May 16, the government voted to extend the exceptional measures and continued to refuse to the possibility of a referendum to revoke the mandate of the president. The government’s action has led to street protests, with some in opposition to President Nicolas Maduro, and others in support of his government.
Is is because of those protests, precisely, that no one answers the phone at the diocesan office. The treasurer of the diocese and coordinator of theological education, the Rev. José Francisco Salazar, explained later that the office is located in the city center, and, therefore, hard to reach.
“At the diocesan center there are times in which we have had to suspend meetings because, with a protest, they close the subway and the office cannot be reached. If we are already here, we stayed locked up. We have to wait until very late at night to get out,” he said.
The marches demonstrate how the country is polarized and this polarization often ends in violence. The church has decided to stay out of politics and engage in direct work in communities, as the diocesan treasurer, said the Rev. Jose Francisco.
“We try to support everything that is beneficial to the community while respecting all ideologies of the people,” he said. “We have tried, as far as possible, not to get involved in political matters, but to help and respect the dignity of human beings. That has been our north. And Bishop Orlando [Guerrero] has been very clear on this.”
Despite the suspension of some activities because of the political chaos, pastoral work continues. The church tries to respond to the reality of the country, said Salazar. “We have had to mediate in some cases; in others, we counsel families of victims of abuse and violence. Sundays are generally respected. There are almost no protests, and so services are offered on a regular basis. ”
Recent economic and political measures have led to a shortage of basic food and medicine. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that inflation in Venezuela will reach 720 percent this year and, unless things improve, could reach 2,200 percent by 2017. The New York Times reported last month that the lack of basic medicines and water shortages in some public hospitals, meant operating rooms were not being cleaned after surgery.
To fulfill its social mission and promote mutual help in communities, Episcopal parishes have organized a support network to locate basic food and medicine. Parishioners take turns going to supermarkets and pharmacies and then communicate what necessities are available in each area. In churches, people write down what medicine they need, information is then shared on the network and then, if the medicine is found, it is bought – even if it is in another city.
“The church is trying not to lose its prophetic role and is avoiding falling into politics,” said Salazar. “We prefer that people feel that their priests are with them, they are not the elite who live outside, but they live among them and suffer as they do.”
His statement reflected in the story of the bishop himself, who suffers from diabetes and, like all parishioners, gets his medicine through the network of parishes.
In April, the Venezuelan government reduced the work week to three days for public employees and four for private workers. In response, when someone in the congregation is not working, they now work in the parish.
Diplomatic efforts focused on resolving the crisis continues. But while they await an agreement, Venezuelans still face the challenge of surviving in the face of scarcity and adapting to constant political changes.
— Clara Villatoro is a journalist based in El Salvador.