Although I did not grow up in a religious household, I have always been curious and fascinated about the culture of religion. As a young child, I would join my friends in various denominations of Christian churches and in the Jewish Synagogue and I would observe the culture and customs of each religion. When I was 9 years old, I was given my first miniature statue of a Buddha and I instantly began reading and trying to understand this way of life, as well.
To be honest, I never truly understood the differences between all of the religions just by attending religious ceremonies, so I never felt like I was or was not part of a certain religion. I could attend all ceremonies and receive positive and beautiful messages and I did not personally feel the need to commit to one church. Then, right before I began this Peruvian adventure, I had the opportunity to attend a speech given by Gandhi’s grandson. He said something that stuck with me. He said that religion is like an elephant. Each different religion is a part of this huge animal: Catholicism a leg, Baptism a trunk, Judaism another leg, etc. The individual parts cannot see the whole animal, but the whole animal is true religion. Ghandi also described religion by saying, “Like the bee gathering honey from different flowers, the wise person accepts the essence of different scriptures, and sees only the good in all religions.”
Moving to Perú, I knew that there would predominately be one religion: Catholicism. What I did not know was that I would be placed in the middle of a famous Catholic retreat in the town of Chacas. The beating heart of Catholicism comes from Padre Ugo’s Operation Mato Grosso. I have mentioned it several times in my blog, so I feel it is time to do a post that sheds some light on this incredibly influential organization. In the 1970’s, Padre Ugo came to retire in the Andes mountains of Perú, as he was in his 60’s and led an interesting life in Italy as a Salesian priest. Somehow, Padre Ugo found himself in Chacas, a town with no electricity, no roads, no modes of communication, no economy, and modest people who lived only off the land. Padre Ugo did not remain in retirement for long, as he instantly saw a need to improve the quality of life of the people of Chacas. He began preaching and teaching arts with economic potential such as woodworking, stained glass, and knitting as a form of meditation and prayer. Eventually, he opened the Don Bosco School for underprivileged boys, girls, men, and women to develop skills and discipline. When people were not able to come to hear his sermons, Padre Ugo rode his horse or walked to nearby pueblos to serve the people in their homes.
Today, Operation Mato Grosso has exploded. There is not one resource in Chacas that Padre Ugo did not have a part of. He invited Italians to raise money to send to support the community and he invited other Italians to come to Chacas to help with the community’s development. The Italians came and built a power plant, a hospital, churches, and continued developing Don Bosco schools to provide even more opportunities to the children of Perú and beyond. Today, Operation Mato Grosso is operating in Perú, Brazil, Ecuador, and Chile. In Chacas, the Don Bosco artisan work is the second largest economy, close behind the mining industry. All of this was accomplished by one man in the past 30 years of his life. AFTER he retired. If this isn’t a message that one person can change our world, I don’t know what is.
Padre Ugo is now 92 years old and lives in Lima because his heart cannot support the high altitude of Chacas anymore. But, he is certainly still present in Chacas. There is not one day that goes by that I do not hear his name as people give thanks to him and his contribution on their lives. I am also told regularly that Padre Ugo says there are three skills that the people of Chacas need to continue to develop: art, math, and English. With this insight, it became obvious to me why Chacas invited this English-speaking, USAmerican to serve with them for the next two years. There is no way that I would be serving in Chacas without the influence of Padre Ugo, so I too, am grateful for him and excited for Chacas that they are now in a place where they can have a volunteer like me come in and take their business savvy to the next level.