Jesuits in Ireland & Techo International

January 31, 2023 in News

Continuing the series of reports regarding the collaboration of Techo International and Jesuits in Ireland (read the first article »), here Cathal Lacey offers his reflection. He is one of four Belvedere College SJ alumni, currently studying in Trinity College Dublin, who volunteered with the NGO Techo International in the slums of Santiago, Chile in October 2022. The above image shows (from left to right) Mark Heanue, Lorcan O’Brien, Techo volunteer, Cathal Lacey, and Mark Ryan. T. Avram SJ, who acted as spiritual mentor to the young men, offers a conclusion to Cathal’s reflection.

Networking and good will by Cathal Lacey

Our time working with Techo in Chile was a profoundly eye-opening experience. Throughout our time there, we developed a clearer and clearer picture of the situation in Chile and the challenges faced by people living in the Chilean shanty towns. Simultaneously we gained an insight into Techo’s unique and effective approach to solving these problems.

To put it briefly, the situation in Chile is complicated. On one hand, Chile is among the most economically and socially stable nations in South America. Chile has the second lowest homicide rate in the Americas, they rank high in regional competitiveness, per capita income, globalization, state of peace, and economic freedom. While this may be true, a short drive around Santiago paints an entirely different picture.

Homelessness is endemic, and the quality of housing is shockingly poor. Most main roads are lined with small hovels made out of timber, corrugated steel, plywood, sticks and pallets. The city is surrounded by illegal informal settlements made up of housing of this sort. These shanty towns are referred to as campamentos. A 2018 study found that there were 822 of these campamentos in Chile, populated by 46,423 families.

Another study found that between 2010 and 2020, the total number of campamentos in Chile grew by 22%. The standard of living in these settlements ranges from very poor, to barely livable. Sanitation, housing, electricity, and clean running water are near luxuries. The communities are often surrounded by trash, dumps and highways.

Most of the Chilean population living outside the campamentos are not much better off. Over 560,000 Chileans are living in poverty, and only a small minority benefit greatly from Chile’s comparatively large economic growth. Prohibitively expensive education, a probity crisis, an increasing cost of living, poor standards of housing, privatisation and rising inequality combine to create a hive of anger and discontent.

These grievances came to the fore in the 2019-2020 protests, in which over 1.2 million people took to the streets of Santiago to show their dissatisfaction with the current situation. To this day, Santiago’s city centre remains in a decrepit state. Disrepair and graffiti are the rule, not the exception. Most shops are boarded up and closed, and those that remain open leave their shutters down permanently.

We passed a McDonald’s with its windows covered up with sheets of graffiti-covered plywood. Only a battered McDonald’s ‘M’ sign above a small door, surrounded by a cage and metal bars, pointed to what lay inside. The point being, the situation is less than ideal.

Belvedere alumni, community members, and Techo volunteers

Finding the causes and solutions to these problems is a seriously difficult endeavour. In terms of causes, one could point to colonialist intervention, whether by Spain or the US. Or to Pinochet and his deeply flawed constitution. We could also talk about the willful blindness shown by a large proportion of the Chilean population towards the suffering of their fellow human beings. And also to the near total disregard that people in Ireland and Europe show towards the adversity felt in South America.

Such a multifaceted problem naturally requires a multifaceted solution. TECHO, the NGO that we travelled to Chile with, seems to implement such a solution. Techo’s emphasis on communication and relationship building creates an environment where people can be helped in the ways they need to be helped. They don’t just throw money at a problem. Instead, they focus on solving the most urgent problems, as defined by the community itself. Not only do they solve the communities’ problems, but they also train the community to solve their own problems. Empowering them to take a stand against their hardships.

Cathal reflected on some of his personal learnings while working with the people in the campamentos. He said:

“Before I came here, my perspective was very limited in relation to where I’m from in Ireland… Spending time and figuring out the whole context of the situation adds much more weight to the construction that we’re doing here… I realise it’s so much more complicated than building houses… Working with people who put a huge amount of effort into this gives me motivation to find my own area to make a difference in Ireland and to actually face up to problems.”

Another thing that stuck with us is the Techo Volunteers. Not only are they unbelievably competent and effective, they are also reflective and compassionate individuals. The warmth and good nature that they bring to the communities create a genuine close bond with the people they work with.

Meeting the people from the campamentos, hearing their stories and seeing their standard of living was something that I doubt we will ever forget. It is very hard to turn away from suffering once you have seen it. The problems that they face seem unsurmountable, but with organisations like Techo and with volunteers of their calibre, real life-changing things can happen for those that need it most.

Finally, I have to note the staggering warmth and generosity that we received from every Techo volunteer and worker we met. Their genuine desire to help those in need, to show us the work they do, the challenges they face, and the solutions they implement is nothing but inspiring.

Conclusion by T. Avram SJ

After their return, the four young men engaged in deep spiritual reflection regarding the matter, considering what commitments they should make to bettering the world. One of their commitments was that they wish for other young men such as themselves to engage in the Techo experience which hopefully would be an annual one, and for which they will help with fundraising via crowdfunding or other means to pay for the flights and necessities and preparing them for what lies ahead. In order for this experience to be lived authentically, the mindset of volun-turism must be avoided, and the mindset of a spiritual quest, and service for the Kingdom of God must be adopted.