Dining room and social shelter in Vallecas

The area of Puente de Vallecas, in Madrid, still retains much of the atmosphere of a few decades ago. It is true that the social changes are already perceptible; for example, the Madrid ring road M-30 practically borders the wall of the parish of San Ramón Nonato.

Juan Portela-March 6, 2016-Reading time: 4 minutes

The parish church is just over a hundred years old. Of simple construction and modest size, it responds to the character of a parish of the suburbs - in this, yes, there have been changes since its construction, because of how much the city has expanded - and located in a poor urban area: a characteristic that, however, has not disappeared. Unemployment is frequent and the immigrant population is high. The parish is attended by people of 27 different nationalities, although the majority come from Latin America.

Meal delivery

We visit the parish late in the morning, and at that moment a group of women are animating the small rectangular square in front of the church with their conversation. They are gathering in front of the church, on the other side of the square, in front of a simple building that belongs to a religious institution that makes it available to the parish for its social activities. It is clear that these women are also immigrants, and of modest condition. When we ask them, they explain that they are waiting to receive the food rations that the volunteers give them every day and with which they help their families to get by. "Together with the poor and the families" says the home page of the parish's website, as if defining it, and we find that there is nothing more real or less "demagogic" than that statement. "I am from Peru", "I am from Bolivia"..., the women tell us, and add that they have three, four children, and that their husband is unemployed, or that he does some odd jobs, or that... "I don't have a husband".

Those who help and those who are helped

Inside the main room of the building, located on the first floor, volunteers are cooking and already beginning to serve the food to several dozen people, including some entire families. Although the facility has the simplicity of a soup kitchen, the atmosphere is cheerful and dignified, and no one minds chatting with visitors. On the upper floors of the same building, the parish has also set up a shelter where it offers shelter to homeless people, while trying to help them solve the most serious problems and arranging a job or some more lasting solution.

Some of these details are explained to us, for example, by a man named Angel, who is excited about the prospect of a job. He used to live on the street until he was taken in at the parish shelter, and now he is also a proud volunteer at the soup kitchen. Sister Maria Sara, a Peruvian (consecrated virgin), the main support of the parish in this activity, is the "manager" and organizer; but there is also the help of other very committed people.
We see that a group of boys in school uniforms and of (obviously) different social backgrounds are helping to serve meals: they come in shifts several days a week to lend a hand, and in return they learn and mature. The parish priest tells us that "everyone here is a volunteer, because we try to make each person feel responsible for this social work, so that they don't just come to receive, but feel it as their own". This is a commitment that determines all the activities: that there is no difference between those who need help and those who come to help, so that no one feels humiliated. In this way, each person who comes for help feels at ease and feels at home.

From the material to the spiritual

The parish has included these initiatives in the concept of "Obra Social Álvaro del Portillo," placing them under the intercession of Blessed Álvaro, the first successor of St. Josemaría in Opus Dei, who in 1934 came to this place to participate as a catechist in the parish's activities. A high relief in the church graphically explains this link, which has been translated into an effort for the social and Christian promotion of the neighborhood.
As surprising - or should we say "not so surprising"? - as the activity in the soup kitchen and the social shelter is the fact that the impetus for these initiatives comes from the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord is exposed on the altar of the church every morning, and three days a week throughout the day. He is not alone; there are groups of people from the neighborhood visiting or praying for a longer time. Also on a high floor of the hostel we have seen a small chapel, with the Lord in the tabernacle; frankly speaking, in this context the presence of the Eucharist is moving.

Various groups and projects

Perhaps this is the reason why in this parish there is nothing resembling a lack of activity, resignation or concern for the future, in spite of the difficulties of the inhabitants of the neighborhood. There are groups of Marias de los Sagrarios, Charismatic Renewal, Catholic Action. Alpha Courses are offered for groups of people far from the faith; there are "sentinels" who take care of the "Light in the Night" activity, inviting passers-by to a time of prayer, with appropriate music and ambience; the "Nazareth" Family Orientation Center with activities for couples and their children; Caritas activities; retreats, spiritual exercises and, naturally, catechesis and sufficient availability to hear confessions and receive the other sacraments.

José Manuel Horcajo, the parish priest, explains that "up to thirty projects are underway that try to cover all the good of each person, from their material needs, through family difficulties and reaching the spiritual. When a person comes to us asking for food, we start by giving him a plate in the dining room, but we will follow up with him personally to help him in his work, family and spiritual situation. We want to make that poor person a happy person, a saint".

That is why, when one visits the San Ramon Nonato website, after the presentation of the parish and the expression of the pastor's availability, the first thing one finds is a request for help and volunteers: young people for evangelization; someone to take care of the website; a van to transport clothes and food; people interested in helping handicapped children. This is certainly a great sign. According to the pastor: "The more volunteers the better, so we can reach more, improve the service and expand other projects that are still waiting".

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