‘Mother Teresa in pants’ builds city for the poor

Rome: “God’s Mason,” “Mother Teresa with pants,” “God’s soldier,” “the apostle of garbage” and “the insurgent of Madagascar” are but a handful of the nicknames given to Father Pedro Opeka, nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, who’s also a recipient of France’s Legion of Honor and several papal awards. Born in Argentina in 1948 to Slovenian parents who fled Europe after World War II, Opeka is a missionary priest who’s been serving in Madagascar, the world’s ninth poorest country, for almost 50 years. In May this year, Opeka was received by Pope Francis. “When we arrived, the doors opened and the pope came to encounter us,” Opeka said . “He tells me ‘Pedro, how are you?’ Like a friend, a father, as if we’ve known each other for years.” When he was a kid, Opeka, like many Argentine children, toyed with the idea of becoming a professional soccer player. But at the age of 15, his call to become a Catholic priest was too strong to ignore. So, the second of eight siblings entered the seminary of the Lazarists in Buenos Aires. As fate (or providence) would have it, he did his theology studies in the Colegio Maximo, a Jesuit religious college on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. As he was beginning his formation, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – today Pope Francis- was finishing his. Though the two never crossed paths, Opeka has said that the name Bergoglio had reached his ears, even back then. When the two saw each other on Monday, the pope asked Opeka about his replacement, because “life passes and one day we die. Have you thought about who will replace you?” Replacing this man won’t be an easy task. Opeka created his foundation in 1989, when he was transferred from rural Madagascar to the capital, Antananarivo, to head the local seminary. He’d left rural Madagascar because he couldn’t bare the sight of hungry children anymore, and what he found was ten times worse. Upon his arrival, he was struck by the sight of the garbage dump sites from the hills of the city, and headed over only to find thousands of people, adults and the young, scavenging for food like wild animals. He found children sleeping on the site with cardboard boxes as mattresses and flies as their blankets. He found people who died amidst the garbage, with no one there to give them a proper burial. “When I saw thousands of children fighting for their food against pigs and wild dogs, I was speechless,” he told reporters at a press conference in Rome. That night, after seeing the open-air dumpster, he kneeled in his bed, and with his arms towards heaven, said: “Lord, help me help these children.” The following day he went back and was questioned by the locals, who asked “Hey, white man, what do you want?” The bias of being a “white” person in a country that still remembers its independence from white colonizers was one of the many waves he had to surf. But he was, quite literally, a man on a mission. He told those confronting him that he was a missionary priest and that he wanted to speak with them, but not “out here, invite me into your home.” By home, he meant a cardboard structure that was some three feet tall. He had to crawl on hands and knees to go in, and when they sat on the floor- a carpet of garbage- the roof was some 10 inches above his head. He asked the owner of the house to invite others, and a dozen people showed up. Opeka asked them a question: “Do you love your children?” When he received an affirmative response, he said: “Let’s work together, give them a future.” Akamasoa was born that day. Fewer than 30 years later, they’ve virtually built an entire city, divided into 18 neighborhoods that give dignified brick homes to some 23,000 people, connected by paved roads. There are 3,000 masons on the project, and work is never lacking. “We’ve been able to show that poverty is not fate,” he said. “But you have to believe that. You have to immerse yourself in the middle of them and stay with them.” All of it was funded with the help of people from all over the world, and today 75 percent of the project is self-funded. “When people know that you really work for the poor, and that the money that they give will really go to them, everyone wants to participate. Everyone,” he said. The villages, which, seen from afar look like one big city, have health facilities, schools, recreational parks and even stadiums. Last year, Madagascar had the National Athletic Games and eight people from Akamasoa participated: all of them returned home with gold medals. Opeka, who still enjoys playing soccer on Sundays with the young ones, couldn’t avoid showing the pride he felt over this accomplishment. Some 10,000 of the people living in Akamasoa attend the Mass Opeka celebrates each Sunday in a shed turned open-air cathedral. The liturgy is a three-hour affair, where the faithful take time “to pray, to sing, to look at each other.” Tourists who visit Antananarivo are advised by local tourism agencies to attend the service. Many do, and Opeka said he’s lost count of how many people, including atheists – adding, amused, “the real ones, the ones from France, […]

Source: News

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