A cool air fills the bare, white-walled church as hundreds of people clad in T-shirts, jeans, and backward hats cram into the makeshift pews. The congregation watches on as a girl, no more than 5 or 6 years old, is lifted and dipped into a baptismal font. Her pink Croc draws closer to the ceiling as a blessing is incanted. It quickly comes back down, and smiles break out across the room. Padre Pepe Di Paola (known as Padre Pepe), 54, has just completed one of five baptisms in Villa Carcova, one of the poorest neighborhoods on the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Villa Carcova is one of about 50 neigborhoods dubbed the “villas miserias,” or “misery villages.” The streets are rocky and unpaved, and the labyrinth of alleyways is overcrowded with shoddy houses constructed from cinderblocks and metal scraps. The highest rates of crime, violence, and drug problems reside here, making these some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in and around Buenos Aires. But this is Padre Pepe’s home, where his hopes and passions, rooted in faith, lie.
“It is a vocation, a calling to be a priest. To be a priest means to work with marginalized people,” Padre Pepe said.
Padre Pepe is one of 20 “curas villeros” (“slum priests”) in Buenos Aires, a group that lives in these neighborhoods to empower and uplift the slum residents by spreading Catholic faith and education. Their primary goal is not to convert the neighborhoods, but to bring the residents hope and a foundation for better lives. From conducting Mass to building schools, arranging aid for drug addicts, and providing children with outlets for drug and violence free escapes, these slum priests exercise a far-reaching influence on the villas. And their endeavors are slowly but surely changing these impoverished neighborhoods.
In Francis' Footsteps
Pope Francis is a part of this mission as well. Throughout the course of his papacy, Pope Francis, once known as Jorge Bergoglio, has preached the importance of tending to the marginalized, a pillar of his he has long held close, since his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Francis, too, worked in these slums, and helped establish the work of his colleagues as an identity unique to Catholicism in South America.
“When Bergoglio was here, nobody really gave us any money at all,” says Padre Juan Isasmendi, a slum priest in Villa 21-24, where Pope Francis spent the most time. “So he would find bread himself. He would literally go out to the bakeries, get bread, and bring it back to the kids every morning. No one was helping him. And that’s important because it gives the people the idea of what the church is for.”
But the slum priest tradition was around long before Pope Francis. It began in 1968, when a group of progressive priests moved into the neighborhoods of impoverished workers with the distinct agenda of extending the rights of the poor through political involvement.
Led by Padre Carlos Mugica, the members of the Third World Priests’ movement, a moral reaction to social injustice across Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, organized rallies to support workers’ claims and establish basic infrastructures for the slum dwellers.
The military government and bishops of the Catholic Church shunned this work and labeled the priests communist subversives, criticizing Mugica as being too political.
A number of priests, including Mugica, were assassinated in 1974 by an armed group associated with the confederacy. His death put a halt to the movement for the poor until Pope Francis and a group of young priests entered the slums 30 years later.
These days, there is no separation between the priests and the church; the archdiocese of Buenos Aires is fully aligned with the priests’ efforts.
“They are part of the Argentine church; they are part of our reality,” Bishop Santiago Olivera said.
A native of Buenos Aires, Padre Pepe’s own upbringing was nothing like that of his parishioners; yet he’s known since high school that this was what he was meant to do. He began working with Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) 21 years ago. Bergoglio asked Padre Pepe to help in the villas, specifically to work with the children and the young people in the neighborhoods. He worked in these neighborhoods for 15 years, before death threats from drug dealers forced him out. He began his work in Villa Carcova three years ago.
Villa Carcova, Padre Pepe explains, was once a lagoon. The land eventually filled with trash and recyclables; Padre Pepe estimates that about 80 percent of the city’s trash comes to this area. Immigrants, primarily from north of Argentina, began to build on the land, living in houses with unstable foundations. They sorted through the trash and collected what they found useful, earning the nickname “surgeons.”
But Padre Pepe wants to repurpose this dedication to resourcefulness and invention.
Behind his church sits a state-funded school, set to open in April, named after Padre Oscar Romero, a priest who was fatally shot while offering Mass at a hospital chapel in 1980; Romero was beatified last year. The school will host as many as 400 students, and Padre Pepe expects that number to grow. Two-month classes will teach the students, ages 16-24, life skills like cooking, metalworking, and construction with the hope of taking these skills beyond high school.
Padre Pepe is aware of the dangers of his work, but he feels he is a part of a greater purpose. Carmen, a Carcova resident and volunteer at Padre Pepe’s church, recalled when Padre Pepe was robbed of his belongings, only to get them back the next day.
“For us, he is a saint,” Carmen said.
'Slow Change Is Stronger'
Padre Isasmendi, 35, is a priest at the makeshift church of Our Lady of the Miracles of Caacupe in Villas 21-24, the largest and most populated slum on the city’s south side. He began working in the villas in 2008, when Bergoglio was the archbishop. He strives to evangelize and help the residents, who are mostly Paraguayan immigrants. Built in an industrial area bordered on the contaminated river Riachuelo, Padre Isasmendi’s neighborhood is home to more than 40,000 residents. The majority of these residents came to Buenos Aires in search of improved economic opportunities and access to healthcare and education. But there are few job opportunities, living conditions are unsanitary and lack proper infrastructure, and there is little access to education.
Yet Padre Isasmendi’s largest challenge is the drug problem in his neighborhood; “paco” is the root of the problem, which is described as a cocaine paste, or crude cocaine. The heavy use of drugs is also giving rise to a number of drug-linked violent crimes, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. State Department.
Padre Isasmendi recalls a time when he was nearly robbed by a teenage boy who was armed and clearly high. He reminded the boy that he knew him from when the boy was younger. The boy was immediately embarrassed, and took off.
“It’s part of a bigger problem,” Padre Isasmendi says. “It’s part of marginalization.”
He says that children from the slums are exposed to bullying, often going through emotional distress, and are driven to the verge of desperation. They start robbing people to help their family, begin to consume drugs, and eventually run away from home.
“We talk about how there are so many sinners in these poor neighborhoods but in reality, the system is set up for these people to fail,” Padre Isasmendi said. “And no one cares to know their backstory.”
Each day, Padre Isasmendi teaches classes to children from kindergarten to secondary school. He runs an “exploration” program with the students, volunteering and visiting sick people in hospitals. He oversees rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and provides anti-violence and drug programs for children ages 6 and up, programming social activities and providing emotional support.
“Contrary to what many people think, our job has nothing to do with intellectuality or knowledge. It’s a job of love,” Padre Isasmendi said. “We provide homes for the homeless and care for the sick.”
The key to end the poverty, he says, is educating the children of the villa and instilling them with courage and positivity.
Padre Isasmendi strongly believes in the villa dwellers; he is hopeful their situations can change with Jesus’ presence.
“They are hardworking people and they are living a normal life like anybody else; they wake up early to work in the city and they usually come back really late at night,” he says, noting that most of them are housekeepers or construction workers. “And [Jesus’] presence is why the world can change. He can change the world, and I am seeing the change.
“It's like being underwater. You won’t see the changes that are happening under the ground but they are happening. It's a process that's gradual. And slow change is stronger.”
According to Padre Isasmendi, the church receives partial funding from the government to run all the activities for children. Bishop Olivera confirmed the church is working with President Mauricio Macri’s administration on a program to develop 700 houses for poor people.
Still, Padre Isasmendi stresses that it is important for the church to know how to operate itself with or without the funding.
“He was very clear with the government,” says Padre Isasmendi of Pope Francis when he was working in the villa. “He used to say [to the government], ‘With you or without you, I am going to work in the same way,’ and he did what he said.”
To many slum dwellers, the role and presence of the Catholic Church is more than a religious confine. It provides a safe space for social gatherings, playgrounds for children, and, ultimately, an escape from the outside world of drugs, violence, and crime.
“It is a ministry that is a lot like a river, that is very related to the lives of the people and enters their lives in different places,” says Padre Isasmendi. “The neighborhood is my family and I have never felt unsafe.”