Columban Fr George Hogarty writes about the missionary journey of Jorge ‘Coco’ Juaregui and his wife, Rosa Ramirez, which began when the Columban Fathers assumed responsibility for a rapidly expanding housing estate being built on land that was once part of a large rural hacienda called Santa Rosa near Jorge Chavez International Airport, Lima, Peru.
Bishop Lino Panizza OFM Cap named the new parish St Francis Xavier and St Columban in recognition of the long missionary contribution the Columbans have made to the Diocese of Carabayllo since their arrival in Peru in 1952.
Fr Tony Coney from Belfast in Northern Ireland quickly made friends with Coco and Rosa when he began visiting families in the area while trying to establish a new Catholic community there. Both Coco and Rosa said they were initially attracted to the Church by Fr Tony’s approachableness and the open empathy the Columbans showed to the people of Peru, especially the poor.
Originally, both Coco and Rosa admitted they had never considered participating in a Christian community because they believed only saintly people went to Church.
When Fr Tony eventually managed to acquire a 220 square metre block of land not far from bustling Avenue Canta Callao on which to build a Church close to where Coco and Rosa lived, he invited them to become members of the new community named Lord of Mercy (Senor de la Misericordia).
They soon found themselves helping in various ministries such as Baptismal and First Communion preparation. While doing that they saw how Jesus changed the lives of people who participated in these programmes and as a result they came to know Jesus in a more personal way themselves.
Reflecting on this early experience of both Coco’s and her own journey of faith, Rosa explained: ”It’s not because I’m a saint that God loves me, but because of my weakness and vulnerability. We’re all sinners but God lifts us up and loves us”.
When the Columbans handed the parish over to the diocesan clergy in July 2017, Coco and Rosa began to miss the Columban way of finding Christ in the world.
Their long association with the Columbans had led them to appreciate Jesus not only as a person who ministered in the Temple but as one who went out into the world to encounter God’s people. As a result, they decided to become what are now called Collaborators in Columban Mission.
For this mission they needed some preparation to learn how to be lay missionaries to their own people. This took the form of participating in courses run in the Columban Centre of Mission Education in Los Olivos, Lima. Coco and Rosa found many of the courses, such as, “Practicing forgiveness in the family and how to respect and care for creation” to be helpful for them. But the most positive aspect of the formation was the new vision of themselves and others that they received.
It can happen in any culture that people who have received limited education find it hard to recognise their own qualities and abilities and their own worth as persons created in God’s image.
The courses undertaken by Coco and Rosa helped them gain confidence in themselves as protagonists of their own future rather than victims of a sad and unfair past. As Rosa explained, ”Even if we’ve been downtrodden, we can still stand tall because our dignity comes from God.”
After a year of ongoing training and accompaniment, Coco and Rosa were ready to take on a new mission. When Fr Ioane Gukibau returned to Peru from Fiji he became the new Director of the Peruvian Columban Collaborators.
Seeing their enthusiasm, he appointed Coco and Rosa to a challenging mission in a very poor area called Nueva Jerusalem (New Jerusalem) in an isolated part of the parish of the Holy Archangels.
But Coco and Rosa found the people there very resistant to participating in any church activity. They visited the small village of New Jerusalem for a year meeting almost no response. Coco says “It got to the stage where both Rosa and I seriously thought of tossing it in.” However, one thing kept them faithful to their call as missionaries. They realized that the mission was not only their’s but God’s.
One day, after months of seeming futility, changes began to occur. They were taking care of a man named Walter who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and had been abandoned. Little by little, the people began to take notice and appreciate what they were doing. Their attitude was changing. Coco recalled that something clicked, and the people began to see us differently and to see that we really were interested in them. It was the breakthrough they had hoped for but had begun to think would never happen.
Today, Coco and Rosa continue as missionaries to the people of New Jerusalem, grateful that God showed them the way to reach and touch their hearts by caring for the most abandoned member of their community and when all hope of bringing the Gospel to them seemed lost.
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