Missionary sisters serving along the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon
A consecrated religious of the Catechist Sisters of Jesus Crucified recounts the enormous challenges of evangelizing in the Peruvian Amazon region, which is geographically inhospitable but humanly very welcoming.
I am a religious of the Sisters Catechists of Jesus Crucified, and I would like to share with you the story of our mission in the Peruvian Amazon, which began in 2017. In this small corner of the world, which I call a “Gift from God”, things do not work the way we were accustomed to, which is why it took a lot of creativity and time on our part to respond to the people’s needs, to get to know them and to love them.
Our mission is made up of Sister Reyna, Sister María de la Luz, Sister Sandra, and myself. We live in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, surrounded by nature and large rivers. Nonetheless, drinking water is only available for about five hours a day, electrical power is unstable and Internet connection is slow. People arrive here from faraway villages and settle along the riverbanks in extremely precarious situations, accepting any jobs available, and not always well paid. But none of that keeps them from being joyful and friendly. I love to watch the children play and splash around barefoot along the unpaved roads.
The most common form of travel in the Amazon is along the river. There is only one road that connects Iquitos to the city of Nauta, which is 100 kilometres away. Other forms of transportation include motorboat, ferry and the so-called bongueros, which can take multiple days. In fact, distances here are more often measured in time than in kilometres. Lima is eight days away by motorboat, whereas it takes only one day to reach the border with Brazil or Columbia.
The Peruvian Amazon is a missionary land whose territory is divided into different apostolic vicariates, entrusted to religious congregations. But missionaries are few compared to the immense size of the forest. For instance, there are only 33 priests in our vicariate of Iquitos, which is why animators and we religious play an important role. As opposed to the other vicariates in the Amazon, most of the parishes here are in Iquitos, a city with about half a million inhabitants. But the Church’s work also reaches communities in distant villages along the rivers, places that are not easily accessible due to their complex geography and high transportation costs. When the water level goes down, it is impossible to reach some areas, or, at least, it requires walking through muddy forests and protecting oneself from insects and other animals.
Our work in this context is to evangelize and accompany especially those who come from faraway villages, carrying their dreams with them, above all for their children. I remember an early encounter with this pastoral reality which took place during a meeting regarding the sacrament of Baptism of some children. It was a great surprise for me to learn that only a few of their parents had been baptized. I experienced that situation as a sort of challenge, and I was forced to change the catechesis I had prepared. I slowly realized that this region is a “pristine land” for evangelization, given that many have never held a Bible or heard a passage from Sacred Scripture.
While living out our charism as a congregation throughout these six years, we collaborated on a variety of services for catechesis and formation in different parishes, in addition to being in charge of the Pontifical Mission Societies. All of this has allowed us to move from the city towards the peripheries and thus reach the communities settled in the river areas. There too, we had the opportunity to encounter and serve the crucified ones of today. On Wednesdays, we bring communion to the sick; we accompany them and listen to them.
I remember how, once, despite the disgust I humanly felt, I was able to contemplate Christ on the cross while tending to a person covered in wounds. Everything gained meaning in that moment. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I suffered alongside them [the people], and I cried because of the helplessness I felt in seeing so many people die during the first wave, which in Iquitos was devastating. This encounter with so many “crucified” ones also calls on us to give voice to the voiceless. Here there are many illegal tree-cutting and mining businesses. They cause oil spills which contaminate rivers, leaving people without drinking water and unable to go fishing for food. Faced with these situations, our love for the people keeps us from being indifferent and impels us to offer our small contribution to improve the situation. This is what spurred us to create Caritas in our parish.
Being in the forest is a gift from God, and although the world is unaware of our work, every effort to walk beside these people, to help them regain their dignity, is already a beginning of God’s Kingdom. It is especially beautiful to have the opportunity to walk together with my sisters in the community on this search for what God wants.
Fátima Lay Martínez – Iquitos, Peru