Last year, Edson, a focolarino who had spent many years in Loppiano, arrived in the Brazilian Amazon’s port city of Obidos. This week he returned to Loppiano and agreed to be interviewed about his life in the lungs of the earth.
On March 14, 2020 the first focolare was opened in Obidos, a port city in the Amazon Region of Brazil. The small community includes: Hildebrando, who arrived from London in 2015 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2018; Eustaquio from Syria; and Edson, who arrived from Loppiano. The local bishop, Bernardo Bahlmann, gave them his blessing on that day, saying: “Now these three focolarini are here to keep the fire burning, the presence of Jesus in their midst. And then, to spread this love, this fire in all of the Amazon.”
Sixty people attended the inauguration of the small focolare community: families with children, priests and seminarians, religious sisters and Franciscan friars. Maria Emmaus Voce, president of the Focolare Movement sent a message in which she followed the suggestion that she name the focolare, Font of Gladness. “I remind you,” Maria Voce explained, “of the preference of Jesus, of the Church and of the Work of Mary for your land. This is also shown by the bishop’s presence with his blessing, who follows us so closely.” It was the bishop who donated a house to the focolarini in the very poor suburban neighborhood of Obidos, and all the furniture was given by Providence. “It is a location that we chose because we want to be where the need is,” Edson explains. This is sort of the spirit of this focolare community of Obidos. Maria Voce and Jesus Moran invited the focolarini to be open to the Holy Spirit, to the needs and requests of the local Church. Edson went on to say: “It doesn’t matter if they refer to us as Religious or missionaries because they don’t know who the focolarini are. The important thing is that they feel that we’re there for them!”
Basically, that’s how it all began on the shores of the great river, with many hopes . . . however, the Amazon was also struck by Covid. “It was as if the Lord was saying to us, stop, take your time, get to know each other, live unity, build the body . . . So, we had to give up all our plans and place ourselves in a position of listening to the [actual] needs of our neighbors!”
And in that moment the needs were many. Out of caution, the doors were closed; the Pope Francis Hospital Ship – on which the focolarini had gone on mission to support the medical and pastoral efforts among the river communities – was also forced to stop because of a lack of bacterial air filters. Due to the absence of commerce, food began to run out as the rainy season began, which made fishing difficult. At that point, the greatest danger was hunger. Therefore, the Pope Francis Ship became a merchantman, delivering parcels with basic food and health necessities, up and down the coast of the Amazon River – also face masks sown by the Religious Sisters and several women from Obidos.
For two months, all the priests, seminarians, men and women Religious and members of the Consecrated Life, including the focolarini, took turns in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, 24 hours a day, praying for the end to the pandemic.
It was a powerful experience that seemed to scale back our own plans. . . Jesus asked us to stay put; He would see to the rest.” And that’s exactly what happened. Sometime later, the bishop suggested to the focolarini, that they take part in a diocesan radio program, a catechesis, in preparation for Easter. The 30-minute program was aired every Monday morning for four weeks. Then, there was another series of radio shows for another four weeks in preparation for Pentecost. These first attempts led to the idea of a course of formation for catechists and animators, which could begin as soon as possible during the new year.
Edson continued: “The neighborhood we live in is quite poor and, with schools closed because of the pandemic, we find ourselves faced with the need to feed the children who depend on the school for their daily meals. We give them fruit, eggs, bread, flour . . . And there have also been miracles! One day, the local government seized two large fishing boats that were fishing illegally. There were around 10 tons of fish on board that we were able to distribute among many people. It was beautiful to see the happiness of the mothers and children as they returned home with sacks full of fish! Then, in the evening, to return the favor, several families came to our focolare to give us our own share of roasted fish.”
One of the activities that the focolarini is working on is a community garden where the rule is “if you participate, you receive.” “There are a lot of youth and teenagers around us, often sitting on the wall, doing nothing. We engaged them in preparing the earth, in the choice of fertilizers, and going to collect soil from the forest . . . So, with the excuse of a garden, a community is being created.”
There are many large and small challenges in the port cities along the Amazon River, to the point that they might seem insurmountable, but the “Font of Gladness” focolare community faces them with a hopeful gaze: “We’d like to get to the root of the social problems in the neighborhood, the more serious ones: among the youth between the ages of 16 and 18 where there has been a rise in the rate of suicide. And the young women, just teenagers, already mothers, victim of the overwhelming poverty that draws them into prostitution. We’re also beginning to get some psychologists involved from Brazil, who will offer their services over several weeks, dealing with topics that are relevant to young people, to help solve the problems starting from the people themselves.”