Colombia: Being the compassionate face of God for migrants

Every day hundreds of people arrive at Necoclí beach, in the Colombian Caribbean. What was once known as a bustling tourist point, is now famous for its stream of migrants who risk the dangerous route, with little more than the clothes on their backs, in the hope of getting to the USA.

The religious sisters who live in the region are a face of mercy and compassion for these travellers, with their suitcases full of misfortune and bad experiences. The missionaries receive financial support from pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), through the diocese of Apartadó, which allows them to continue the pioneering work that the Catholic Church is doing in the region. ACN spoke to three of these sisters who dedicate their lives to helping people in dramatic circumstances and bringing them hope.

Sister Gloria Gelpud in Our Lady of Carmen
Sister Gloria Gelpud in Our Lady of Carmen

Sister Gloria Gelpud Mallama belongs to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate and in the migrants who cross her path each day she sees a constant reminder of “the Lord’s words in the Gospel. ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food’. Whenever I see a hungry child I remember, there is Christ. It is my duty, as a Christian, to make sure He is fed. Jesus is always present”.

Every day the sisters are visited by migrants who come to the parish of Our Lady of Carmen de Necoclí, where their apostolate is based, but the sisters also search them out in their daily runs, which take place from 5 am, to talk to them, see what they need and find some way to help them. Although most of the migrants are Venezuelan, they have also found Haitians, Cubans, Angolans, Chinese and even Indians.

A beach where life is on hold

The sight of the migrants on the beach is heart-breaking: there are families with little children, often carrying a single toy and a few clothes; young people who talk about the frustrations of life in their countries of origin, men and women in tears who have had all their belongings stolen along the way; injured people lying on improvised mattresses and fathers looking for food for their families. The latter are often very thin already, since they give their children all the food that they receive.

“We see malnourished children, people who are hungry, many have no clothes at all, so the local Church tries to find a solution”, says Sister Gloria, who has lost count of the number of people she has helped.

Sister Gloria tells ACN that the situation that affected her most was when she saw “a Haitian migrant on the beach crying and asking for help. Everybody walked past, and nobody looked at her. She couldn’t even leave her tent because her foot was festering and gangrenous. It was difficult to communicate, as we didn’t speak the same language.”

Since the migrants are always on the move, the sisters know that they may not have another opportunity to provide them with material, spiritual and psychological help. “This is a population that is constantly coming and going. The ones that are here today may not be here tomorrow. By going out early we get the opportunity to be with them and listen”, Sister Gloria tells ACN. Many go to sea to try and reach Panama – running the risk of dying en route – and the rest go over land through the dangerous Darién Gap, a dense and mountainous tropical rainforest. Panamanian authorities say that in 2022 more than 250,000 people crossed the border there.

“It’s the Church or nobody”

“When you begin to talk, it is a cathartic moment for them to get everything off their chest. They tell us that in certain places they felt they couldn’t trust anyone; they were jumping at shadows. When they arrive at the parish, they find somebody who can help them, whom they can trust”, says Sister Gloria Gelpud, adding: “the spiritual dimension comes through as we try to cheer them up, because sometimes they are in complete despair. There is a spiritual bridge that allows us to understand them, because some of them are Catholic, and we feel obliged to provide a space to listen to those who cross our paths”.

Sister Diana talking to migrant family
Sister Diana talking to migrant family

ACN accompanied Sister Diana Sánchez, of the Franciscans of Mary Immaculate, during one of her rounds on the beach. “The Church is the first to provide aid. It is a reference point for the migrants. When they arrive, they always come looking for the Church, because it is the fastest source of support. We try to be a bridge between them and other entities, and to network. The migrants tell us that they were also helped by the Church along the way, in other places”, the sister explains. “We help everybody, we don’t discriminate, or ask if they are Catholic or not.” When asked how important the presence of the Church in Necoclí is, Sister Diana replies: “Here, it’s the Church or nobody”.

A lasting impression

The Franciscans of Mary Immaculate are not alone in this effort. The Sisters of Saint John Evangelist (Juanistas), and the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation also take turns handing out food at the Hand of God Life Centre. This is a very simple building, and the only space where the beneficiaries can eat their meals is out in the street. Some don’t even have plates or plastic containers with which to collect their food, so they use large plastic soda or water bottles.

The face of Sister Rosa Cecília Maldonado, a Dominican of the Presentation, may well be the last trace of compassion and love that the migrants will see before setting off from the dock to Panama.

From Monday to Wednesday, Sister Rosa Cecilia distributes food to the migrants and visits the dock to pray with them, reciting Bible verses to cheer them up before their dangerous crossing, knowing that many of them might die along the way.

“One morning I went down the dock and met two large groups of Ecuadorians and Indians. I went and greeted them, I prayed with them, and they cheered, saying that they needed all the prayer they could get. This sort of reaction is a great encouragement for our spiritual and consecrated life. The migrants are very grateful”, Sister Rosa Cecilia says.

“Once I was speaking to some migrants who were helping us prepare the food and they told us that God is the highest, and that they have hope. Their example is a constant catechesis for us”, the religious sister explains.

The impression that this missionary work leaves on the migrants is long lasting, to the point that many of them remain in contact with the sisters. This may well be because, through these women of the Church, they experience the compassionate face of God.

ACN Team with sister Gloria Gelpud Mallama
ACN Team with sister Gloria Gelpud Mallama

ACN has supported the sisters in their pastoral care of immigrants passing through the diocese. We have financed the purchase of catechetical material, the travel expenses of the sisters, the purchase of kitchen material and the fitting out of a space with some technical equipment such as a projector and a sound system.

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