An Errand of Mercy
A local resident of North Cyprus who is a deeply religious and caring person and having had a good life wanted to give something back to those less fortunate
I have the pleasure of knowing a local resident of North Cyprus who is a deeply religious and caring person and having had a good life wanted to give something back to those less fortunate. For the purposes of recounting how he has done this, as he is not seeking recognition or glory for his kind deeds and prefers to remain anonymous, I will be referring to him as Matthew.
Matthew made contact with a number of organisations to offer his help to the poor and needy and was offered areas in Rome, Washington and Mexico. He decided to choose Mexico and last year went to The Casa de los Pobres, A.C. (The House of the Poor) in Tijuana.
The Donas are the volunteer women who come from their homes throughout Tijuana, many from long distances and at great personal expense and they spend countless hours serving the poor. In return they receive a small food allowance from the Bodega and the kitchen. The Franciscan Missionary Sisters engage in corporal acts of mercy through their work in the Bodega, the Prisons, The City of Mercy, the Clinic and the Food Kitchen. People from all over Tijuana come to the Casa de los Pobres for relief from hunger and sickness. They range from infants to the elderly; all of them receive the dignity they deserve.
In November 2011, Matthew made a 31 hour journey from North Cyprus to Tijuana. On arrival in San Diego he was slightly nervous when he found there was no-one to meet him but eventually a car arrived with apologies that Madre Armeda and the driver, Felix, had gone to the Domestic Airport instead of the International Airport. So all was well and Matthew eventually arrived at his destination and fell into a deep sleep after his long and gruelling journey.
Matthew’s work was mainly helping in the kitchen preparing the food for breakfast and then cleaning the tables and chairs afterwards in the dining hall and courtyard and washing the floors etc. One of Matthew’s duties was making 3 tortillas (a kind of pancake folded similar to an envelope) and these were then placed on the plates with the other food. Imagine catering for 900 people! That meant Matthew made 2,700 tortillas and this was just the first day! There were occasions when there would be 1200-1400 for breakfast, a huge amount of tortillas to prepare. Matthew said it was heartrending to see so many people who were blind, on crutches, deformed and with missing limbs and he was humbled and filled with great joy to be able to serve and wait on them even though his contribution was only a fraction of the work to help these people who were cheerful despite their poverty and really appreciated their “only meal of the day”.
This was basically Matthew’s routine whilst he was there but he had many other highlights and experiences. When Matthew arrived he was allocated a small cell with a bathroom at the Convent for which he felt highly honoured and this was his accommodation for the 2 months he was in Tijuana. Sister Armeda had arranged for Matthew to be shown around by Sister Gudalia so he was able to see how everything came together. The kitchen area, which he said would vie with any in a large 5-star hotel. The amount of food which is handed out each day was staggering. The dining room and courtyard were very well laid out and could seat 100 people at a time. There was the Clinic which is designed to deal with all types of ailments, with 4 volunteer Doctors, a Dentist, a Diagnostician and one of the Nuns is a qualified Pharmacist. There was a section where donated clothes are kept and these are laundered and ironed before being distributed. The lady who runs this section is also a volunteer. There is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Gaudelupe who is the Patroness of the Poor. Next to the Chapel was the Bodega where all the foodstuffs are stored and distributed. The Nuns also have their own Chapel in the main building and Matthew felt very privileged to be able to use this Chapel for his own prayer and meditation.
On one occasion Matthew’s task was the peeling of 200lbs of bananas and of course the tortillas in their thousands were almost always required. On another occasion, with the aid of a slicing machine, thousands of chips were produced from 200lbs of potatoes which were cooked in 2 huge deep fryers, oranges were cut, bean paste for the tortillas was made, this meal included ½ ton of beans, 1000 cups of coffee, and 3,600 tortillas.
As well as kitchen duties, Matthew went with Felix across the border to San Diego to collect mountains of bread, clothes, tinned and packaged foods and anything else they could lay their hands on. All this had to be loaded and then offloaded when they got back.
As well as the people coming for breakfast, there were also queues of people who came with empty bags and these were filled with dried beans, potatoes, lemons, bread, tinned and packaged foods etc. and would usually last a small family for up to a week.
Breakfast was not prepared on Saturdays and Sundays so the volunteers had some free time and Matthew was able to visit a local wine outlet, owned by a Mexican/Italian family which was established in 1928. All of the bottling and maturing in casks is carried out on the premises and later Matthew was able to visit the vineyard. When this occurred he was taken on a very long journey to A.L. Chatto where the vineyards extended as far as the eye could see covering thousands of acres. There were huge silos and vats and Matthew had a guided tour from beginning to end which he found fascinating and very educational. Matthew felt very grateful to Sister Gudalia, Rosa, Juan and Claudia who had given up their day to take him on this journey.
One of the big occasions whilst Matthew was there was Thanksgiving and 1500 guests arrived for this celebration. Needless to say, a great deal of food was required – 78 turkeys arrived (all donated from one source), 1000’s of lbs of potatoes, chilli peppers and vegetables and of course masses of tortillas. Serving commenced at 12 noon and didn’t finish until 4pm. The team effort was fantastic.
Sister Gudalia took Matthew to a Franciscan Monastery in the centre of Tijuana where he met Fr. Eduardo. Matthew recalled the beautiful garden at the monastery where there were exotic birds, peacocks, amazing fish, rabbits and other species he did not recognise.
Another excursion was with Juan who drove Matthew on a journey of about 50 minutes to the City of Mercy. On the way Juan pointed out the Fox Studios where the film Titanic was made and also many new high rise hotel complexes and apartment blocks. The land for the City of Mercy was given by Mother Armeda’s family who also funded the Casa de los Pobres. The City of Mercy project took 12 years to complete and now it is a very tranquil place with a lovely garden contained in a courtyard with a central 3-tier fountain.
As well as seeing some lovely sights, Matthew also saw how some of the people of Tijuana live, their accommodation is small and made up from old doors, plastic sheeting, and anything else that can be found, the floor is just flattened earth. Running water and electricity is there but very unreliable. To heat water 4 immersion rods tied together were put into a very large bucket. When you realise the poverty some people live in, I feel a bit ashamed that I complain when we have electricity cuts etc. Matthew remarked that there are no tourists in Tijuana so he was looked upon like someone from a distant planet!
The next big celebration was to be for Christmas. Men arrived from the City of Mercy with masses of timber and proceeded to build a full sized stable to replicate the stable in Bethlehem. Once the building was finished, Matthew was amazed to see live animals housed in it, including a very large ram, with magnificent horns, with his “wives” and lambs (two of which were only 2 days olds), 2 donkeys, a rooster, 3 hens, 4 rabbits, a cow with a bull calf, 2 pigs, 3 peacocks, 5 fantail pigeons and budgerigars in beautiful cages.
The celebration was held a few days before the 25th December and when the big day arrived everyone was busy filling food bags to give out to the poor so that they too could have a feast to celebrate Christmas. The bags contained a large plump chicken, a kilo each of flour, sugar, rice, beans, tinned foods, tuna, milk, bread, coffee, oil, oats, soft drinks, a large blanket, shoes and other sundry items. A lorry arrived with 100,000 oranges and another with 1500 chickens and then thousands of loaves of bread and litres of milk. Presents were also organised for the children and adults. Around 1500 people enjoyed lunch that day.
Between 1st and 6th January is Children’s Day and the children arrived with their parents, 1400 in all and in fact Matthew said they nearly ran out of food and had to send out for reserves. The children and adults also received a small gift to celebrate the Epiphany. The Nuns had also arranged a farewell party for Matthew and he was overwhelmed at their kindness and generosity with presents they had brought for him and a traditional Mexican cake.
So, on the 8th January 2012, Matthew had to say farewell to the people he had shared the last two months with, he was very sad to be leaving but hoped that he had been able to be of some assistance in their monumental task of looking after the poor of Tijuana. He wishes to express his gratitude to Sister Armeda, Sister Gudalia, Sister Maru, Rosa, Juan, Felix, Willie, Sister Angelus and all the Nuns and staff and volunteers who made him feel so welcome.
This is a very condensed version of Matthew’s experiences and recollections but what a lovely and caring thing to have done to help others less fortunate. Matthew feels that there must be a lot of people who may feel as he did and would like to give something back and he would urge them to make enquiries as in a lot of places in the world there are poor people crying out for help. Matthew is off to Tijuana again at the end of October this year to again offer his help and support to the Nuns and volunteers at Casa de los Pobres, so I wish him well on yet another errand of mercy.
By Margaret Sheard