With political unrest as backdrop, Venezuelan mission parish keeps focus

| Jonathon Liedl | February 15, 2019 | 0 Comments
Zahyra Balza, right, talks with Debbie Luna of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul Feb. 14 in Luna’s kitchen. Balza, who belongs to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ mission parish in Venezuela, Jesucristo Resucitado, is visiting to collect donations and raise awareness of the struggles in her home country.

Zahyra Balza, right, talks with Debbie Luna of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul Feb. 14 in Luna’s kitchen. Balza, who belongs to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ mission parish in Venezuela, Jesucristo Resucitado, is visiting to collect donations and raise awareness of the struggles in her home country. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Throughout his 20-plus years in Venezuela, Father Greg Schaffer has made a concerted effort to keep his distance from the country’s often volatile political scene. He’s avoided marches and rallies, steers clear of partisan debates on social media, and keeps his homilies focused on personal rather than political issues.

The longtime pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ mission parish in the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela, knows wading into political controversy as an American would hamper his ability to be an effective shepherd.

But late last month, Father Schaffer found himself steps away from the eye of Venezuela’s unfolding political maelstrom. On the night of Jan. 23, only blocks from the parish in San Felix, opponents of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro tore down a statue of former president Hugo Chavez, severed the head and hung it by a noose from a bridge — but only after the statue had been doused in gasoline and set aflame.

“I could see the fire from my house,” said Father Schaffer, a priest of the archdiocese, noting that the incident made national and international headlines.

It was a powerful protest against the socialist regime that has overseen the country’s ongoing collapse, especially significant because it took place in the heart of what had previously been pro-government territory. It was also no coincidence that the anti-Maduro protest unfolded only hours after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, receiving widespread support across the country.

“Many of the poor are turning away from Maduro and the current government and want change,” said Father Schaffer, who said a “tense tranquility” has characterized the neighborhoods of Jesucristo Resucitado since the incident, as people wait to see what will happen in the coming days.

But while the political stalemate between Guaido and Maduro continues with no end in sight, Father Schaffer and the mission parish are keeping their focus on serving the spiritual and material needs of the people. To that end, two women from the mission are currently visiting Minnesota to collect donations, raise funds and increase awareness about the significant areas of need in their home country.

Zahyra Balza is on her third trip on behalf of the mission. While her career as an electrical engineer makes it difficult for her to be involved in the parish during the week, the fact that she has a U.S. tourist visa, which is difficult to obtain for most Venezuelans, puts her in a unique position to serve.

“I go to Mass every Sunday, and in my heart I ask, ‘What can I do?’” she said. “This is one way to help.”

Balza will return to Venezuela with a 50-pound suitcase of donated goods from the archdiocese, including medicine and personal hygiene products. Receiving donations in this manner is the quickest way to provide immediate relief to those in need.

“There are a lot of people [helped] by each item,” said Balza, who took two weeks off of work to make the trip. “That makes it worth it.”

Gladys Brito, the mission parish’s accountant who is also visiting, said support is needed now more than ever, as conditions in the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana, made up largely of the twin cities of San Felix and Puerto Ordaz, are “getting worse every day.” Unemployment is rampant, food is scarce and expensive, and the hospitals and pharmacies have all but run out of medicine.

“The question people ask us is, ‘How do they survive?’” she shared in Spanish. “The answer is miracles. Because it is inexplicable.”

Brito said her top priority on her current visit to Minnesota is to thank supporters of Jesucristo Resucitado, and share details about how their assistance is being put to use through projects like the mission’s soup kitchen and free medical clinic.

“I thank people, because they are angels to us,” she said. “The help from people in Minnesota is so important.”

Both Venezuelan women support Guaido in his effort to remove Maduro and hold legitimate elections, and they say his bold action has inspired the nation. Massive demonstrations, mostly peaceful, have dominated the streets of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in recent weeks. “People are full of hope now,” Balza said. “Personally, I think we’ll do it, one way or another.”

However, they also acknowledge that the road to restoring Venezuela’s democracy won’t be easy. They hope for a peaceful transition of power, but express concerns about what Maduro might be willing to do to maintain control. “I always pray to God to protect us and return his merciful eyes to my country,” Brito said. “But my people are willing to go out and fight for the freedom we have lost.”

Balza believes that despite its horrible effects, the crisis has helped to enkindle a spirit of solidarity among the Venezuelan people. She is hopeful that the country will emerge from this trying period stronger than before.

“We’ll be a great Venezuela, because we know what it is to have nothing.”

The crisis has helped many in the diocese rediscover their need for God. Father Schaffer said the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass at Jesucristo Resucitado has been filled to capacity for the past few months. Seeing the people’s desire to encounter God in the sacraments has reinforced his commitment to the mission. So while all non-essential U.S. government personnel have evacuated from Venezuela, he doesn’t plan on following suit.

“I am staying no matter what happens,” said Father Schaffer, who also serves as the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana’s vicar general. “The people of this parish, as well as Bishop Helizandro Teran and the priests of the diocese, need me here more than ever.”

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