“I rediscovered my parish through the meeting”
Some 10,000 families from the Lisbon area opened their doors to welcome the participants. In all the parishes of the region, young people were active in spreading the news of the meeting and inviting people to offer hospitality. Marta, a young woman from the parish of Alcanhoes, wrote:
I was part of a preparation team that began to meet already in April 2004. When we heard that the meeting was going to be held in Portugal, we asked the brothers if we could offer hospitality, since our parish is not far from Lisbon. The response was positive, so we began immediately. We were not many at first, but gradually the group became larger. Most of us were between 16 and 20 years old. Little by little we started meeting every weekend. We looked for ways of convincing families to welcome participants; we invited other young people to join us; we prepared the different parts of the meeting; we organized the transportation from the train station to the parish. To manage this last element, at the end of Sunday mass we offered tea and cakes prepared by families. In return, people contributed to the costs of hiring a bus. Saturday afternoons we would go by twos to knock on doors to tell people about the event. For us, the meeting had already begun! We got to know the people of the parish and their problems. We discovered how essential it is to spend time with people who live alone or those who need to be listened to.
Before the meeting we used to meet once a month to pray. During the preparation, we began to pray each week. The prayer nourished us, gave meaning to the work we had to do, helped us deal with our doubts and brought us strength in our weaknesses.
Finally December 28th arrived, and with it the 120 young people we were welcoming. That day and the following ones were a thunderclap for us! I was very tired; the problems that arose seemed impossible to solve. And yet the people who bombarded me with questions were always very nice and never resented it when things did not work out as planned. For example, once the train was an hour and a half late. Instead of getting angry, the families waiting at the station built a fire and had a small party.
It was only after the meeting, when we met with the families, that I realized we had come to the next step. At that moment, I was gripped by a strong nostalgia: am I experiencing the same thing that people experience when they go to Taizé? They weep because the week is over, as if all the rest were nothing…
A life in harmony with God’s steps
So I had to find a meaning in all that. And now I see the meeting as something that shed light on what we discovered during the preparation.
Taizé helped me to see my life in a different way. When we experience God’s love, everything changes. Sometimes I need to intensify the times of prayer so that my life can be in harmony with God’s steps. This meeting brought me something new. I feel that it is possible to change the life in Alcanhoes. Now I know those few small things that make people happy. And it is up to me to do them.
Two weeks after the meeting, the families that had welcomed the participants in that parish met to share their experiences. A woman said that through the meeting she realized it was possible to welcome young people she did not know as if they were her own children. In front of everybody, she committed herself to take orphans into her home during their school holidays. Another woman, quoting the Letter to the Hebrews (13:2), said that “we welcomed angels without realizing it.” With smiles of joy and tears of emotion, everyone began to applaud.
“They shared with us the best they had”
Wojtek, a Polish boy, spent several months in Lisbon to help prepare the meeting. He tells of his visits in the slum of Quinta da Serra:
Quinta da Serra is a poor part of Prior Velho, a parish in the suburbs of Lisbon. Already the first time I went there, the place impressed me very much. Just next to an ordinary area of blocks of flats I could see a whole district of shacks and small makeshift houses occupied by African immigrants. Some of them were completely in ruins. On the roofs of others you could find all kinds of useless objects, like old tires or broken chairs and toys. I was told that in each of these dwellings a few families might live together, sometimes up to 30 persons.
During our first visit we met many people. Usually the elder ones were just sitting outside, so we greeted each one of them by saying: “Olá”, “Bom dia”, “Tudo bem?”. They knew the person with us well, because she has helped in the district for years. Some of the women were cooking; next to a narrow path I saw a lady washing a little girl’s hair; in another place there was a man repairing a big hole in his roof. From far away you could hear loud, rhythmic music and see a group of young people with big and dangerous-looking dogs. Someone told me that organised dog-fights were nothing unusual there.
How can we welcome others when the living conditions are so difficult?
All at once I saw, behind a grating, a big colorful poster on the front wall of one of the buildings. The poster was inviting to the Taizé European Meeting and I could read, written in capitals, the word “TRUST”. Yes, Prior Velho was one of the parishes which was going to welcome young people during the meeting in Lisbon. But how to welcome others to Quinta da Serra, when the people there themselves live in such difficult conditions?
The pilgrimage of trust started there with regular prayers. Every week young people from Quinta da Serra and from the other part of the parish, together with their priests and the Little Sisters of Jesus who live there, used to prepare a prayer around the cross. Already at the entrance to the district, a group of children was waiting for all those who were coming from outside for the prayer. They led us through dark paths to a house in the centre of Quinta, where in a big room everything was already prepared in a very simple and beautiful way. Very quickly the whole place was filled, mostly with children but also with young and older people from the neighbourhood. After the prayer around the cross, our hosts invited us for a simple and very joyful feast. They shared with us the best they had. Someone prepared a cake; others were offering tea.
We could see that many of them had a great desire to welcome the others to their own place in spite of the difficult conditions. The community of Quinta da Serra decided to use the building of the neighbourhood association as a dormitory. The young people had worked very hard for several weeks to prepare this place for the welcome. During the meeting, many of them accompanied their twelve young guests from France and Poland who were staying there. Some slept with them in the same building, and each day a different family prepared breakfast and supper.
One day after the meeting I went there for the last time. On that day I realized how beautiful Quinta da Serra is because of the beauty and simplicity of the people who live there. I received so much from them and I am sure that something will continue there.