Tapaua, a Godly experience
Jorge, how did you feel when you were assigned to the mission of Labrea? Was it hard for you? Did you ever think of being a missionary in Labrea?
After I had finished my theological studies in Spain, Fr. Provincial said my first assignment would be Mexico. I was all set to go there but then God´s plans changed for me and my new destination ended up being a place I dreamed of visiting for many years. I received a call from Fr. Provincial just three days after landing in Mexico and he asked me if I would accept going to the Amazons instead. I was confused because I was already in Mexico imagining myself there for many months in the future. But I still told Fr. Sergio Sanchez that I would be willing to go to Brazil. I knew it was God’s plan.
I arrived to Manaus on October 2017, there I spent a month learning Portuguese. A month later I embarked on the San Francisco riverboat for a four day adventure up the Purus River until we reached the city of Tapaua. Fr. Efraín Cervantes welcomed me and my dream of being a missionary started to become a reality.
How has your experience been in Tapaua?
Work started immediately. The friars put me in charge of catechesis, pastoral care of some small communities in the mainland. At the same time while taking up some pastoral responsibilities, I knew I also had to keep a respectful distance to observe and really get to know the people and their reality. I started to visit families in their homes. This task became the most beautiful and rewarding, this is where I really learned a lot of what they needed and what I was able to share. I will never forget all the coffees shared listening to their personal life experiences. I ended up making many friends with many people of all ages and not only Catholics.
What aspects have impressed you the most in Tapaua?
The houses, the river, the jungle... but what really stands out is the simplicity and joyfulness with which the people live their everyday life, especially the families that live along the river.
Do you think that the Augustinian Recollect way of life can be lived in the mission of Labrea? Do you think it is worthwhile for the Augustinian Recollects to continue in this mission?
The Augustinian Recollects have a beautiful mission here; to be a reminder of God´s presence amongst his people. This is a place where we can be builders of communion. During my first year, we were not really living in community because we were only two friars and when one had to be weeks in the river, the other stayed by himself attending the mainland. Thank God, reinforcements arrived on my second year here becoming a community of four. Our community has now become our strength. The Augustinian Recollects should continue doing the social, human and pastoral work they do here in the name of the Church and our Order. Our charism of living the vow of poverty, being an example of hard work and creating communion amongst us and with the people of God is a real and necessary living testimony for all the people of Tapaua.
Are there vocations and diocesan clergy in Tapaua? Is the vocations promotion ministry organized and working with the youth? What type of pastoral work is urgent here?
Vocations is a complicated topic here. There is still no autochthonous or diocesan clergy. There have been young men interested in pursuing a religious vocation but have not finished their formation. We now have a candidate here in Tapaua doing an aspirancy experience in our community. We try our best to put certain cultural barriers aside when inviting young men to consider being Augustinian Recollect Friars. They see who we are and what we do and whoever approaches us with questions or showing restlessness in knowing more, we attend to them through personal interviews and inviting them to share some time with our community. Much work still needs to be done vocationally with the youth.
It is often said that the person that helps another ends up being the most benefited. Do you feel this is your case?
When they told me I was coming here, I decided to come ready to serve, help, teach. I ended up being served, helped and taught. Thanks to the religious community and the people of the parish, I am a better person, a better Christian and a very happy friar. All the theology I studied in books was reinforced with this experience. Jesus has become historical through my encounters with others over coffee, travelling on a canoe or motorcycle, in the middle of the jungle or the river, in the small community chapels, in each embrace, and clearly in just seeing the happy faces in the people wanting to offer you their friendship and the little they have.
The Augustinian Recollects have been here close to one hundred years. Do you think the people know this? Do you think they value our presence amongst them?
It’s obvious that the people value our presence. They are very demanding but if you are a friar who can spare some time to be close to them, they will easily include you as being part of their family or group of friends. They remember each single friar that has been here in the past. They don’t speak of the great material or pastoral accomplishments of the friars, they don’t remember who spoke good or bad Portuguese, but they do speak fondly about the friars that made themselves available and close to the people. This confirms my theory: Our main mission in Tapaua is outside the churches: In the river, streets and in the people’s porches.
What are the most important problems that affect the people here?
The younger population really needs special attention since prostitution and drugs have become an option for their lives. This is a serious problem. On the other hand, it is a challenge for us, as Church leaders, to promote the existence of healthier options and greater opportunities for the youth of this region.
In your opinion, which are the major risks of the religious in the mission?
I friar must know how to deal with loneliness. If you do not have a religious brother to share things at a more confidential level, and if you can´t, there is a risk of suffering moments of great loneliness. Another difficulty is not having someone close for spiritual accompaniment; the only priests around some 89,000 square kilometers are my brother priests. Affectivity maturity is another important requirement to keep a healthy balance between my needs and the needs of others that demand a mature spiritual Christian “fatherly” type of love. If you are not aware of this reality, you can end up looking for affection outside the religious community, and people could unconsciously be looking for a “different” type of affection in the friars.
Undoubtedly, in the two years that you have been in Tapaua, you have seen some strange or even shocking things. Anything you could share with us?
Yes, there are many, but one particular situation I remember now happened in the community of San Francisco in the interior of the mission. The river was overflowing and the waters reached the door of the chapel. We still had time to go around the village to invite people to the celebration of the Word. During the liturgy, the chapel started to flood. After the celebration, I had the crazy idea to take a picture with everyone next to the flooded altar. You can just imagine that photo.
Jorge, any last words?
I’m taking so many learned lessons from my diaconate experience here in Tapaua. It has truly been a Godly experience for me. I thank God and my superiors for the opportunity to work here. This experience has helped me to confirm my definite “yes” to God’s calling to be an Augustinian Recollect friar. I hope I will have a chance to come back to work with these humble, hard-working, welcoming and joyful people, and continue learning how to enjoy life to the fullest with just the simplest of necessary things.