By Mike Safley
A vaguely shimmering halo crowned Mount Misti as the sun set. I asked Julio Barreda where alpacas came from. When Don Julio liked a question or an answer he typically responded by saying “Buenos,” as he did when asked about the origins of the alpaca. Smiling, he said that the Quechua pastoralists believed that alpacas came from the “inner” world.
It seems there was a Princess of the inner world who fell innocently in love with a Quechua boy from the outer world. The only doorway between their mythical worlds was Lake Titicaca. The Princess’s father reluctantly agreed that his daughter could marry her new-found love, but he was worried that the young man would not be able to support her. He decided to send alpacas from his herd to the shores of the lake as a dowry. The “Apu’s” only condition was that the young man must take vigilant care of the alpacas. But the boy was lazy and not long after they were married a cria died from neglect. Ashamed, the Princess instantly dove into the lake stroking her way back to her father’s inner world; taking with her almost all of the alpacas. But a few lingered and, according to legend, alpacas have populated the shores of Andean lakes and the snow-fueled bofedales of the high Sierra ever since.
“Do you believe this myth?” I asked “No-no,” he replied. “I believe that alpacas came from God, showered on the altiplano like manna from heaven. Alpacas are God’s gift to the Quechua people meant to sustain them just as the manna sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.”
The final interview for Alpacas: Synthesis of a Miracle had just concluded, and Don Julio Barreda stood up from the table at La Posada Del Puente in downtown Arequipa; tugging his worn, sweat ringed hat firmly into place, he turned to leave. Suddenly he stopped; his walnut brown face creased in thought “Could you do anything for the children of my village?” he asked. My friend Mario, a dentist, who had been translating wondered if they needed dental services and Don Julio immediately responded: “Buenos”.
Later that year, November 11, 1996 to be exact, Mario, an alpaca breeder and several dental assistants made their way to Macusani a remote town high in the Andes. The mission started in a storm of anger when Don Julio was told that the missionaries could not use the town’s clinic facility as had been promised. It seems the local dentists were unanimously opposed to the gringos offering free care. They saw it as a threat to their business. Never mind that the patients to be served could not afford to pay for their services and that dental disease is one of the leading killers among third world populations. Julio Barreda stalked out of the clinic muttering in Quechua leaving us bewildered. We waited nervously.
Peruvian society has no tradition of charity. The Mayor in Macusani told us that his town was so far from Lima that the government forgot that they were even there. He marveled that we gringos could even find them, “coming from a place so far that he knew not where.”
A person who worked for one of the largest textile companies in Peru once asked me why we chose to do dental clinics when all of the Indians had such good teeth. I remember his words every time I see puss oozing from the rotting teeth and gums of a small child. Peru has a colonial mindset in which everyone exploits the person on the rung below. The Quechua are at the bottom of that ladder.
The dental chair was finally set up in the middle of a small bedroom in the Tejeda family’s home one block off of the plaza in Macusani. The family was a long-time friend of Barreda’s, and they took us in. The line of poor Quechua criadores’ stretched around the block, many of them barefoot in the freezing mid day sun, all of them waiting to see the gringo dentist. The children’s noses flattened on the bedroom window as they strained to see the “dentista” at work. The line did not shorten for the 7 days the clinic operated; from morning till night. Quechua Benefit was born.
From that day forward the path was marked in front of us, seemingly clear and easy to follow. Quechua Benefit forged on, serving more than 60,000 patients in the ensuing 16 years. Today we conduct medical missions, cataract surgeries, optometry clinics, deliver disaster relief to remote alpaca breeders, support four orphanages and we are completing the children’s village we call Casa Chapi for 100 young residents most of whom come from homes that cannot afford their keep or they have no families at all. This year we will feed 78,000 hot meals in the courtyard of the church in Yanque through the Sister Antonia feeding program. Each of these programs is a step on a straight forward path.
The other path was initially invisible.
On the second day of the clinic, Don Julio stood in front of the Tejeda house talking with the people in line. Small barefooted children grabbed at his legs. Shy women in clouds of ballooning red and turquoise skirts, many of them single mothers, their shoulders pulled square by the baby tied in a warm blanket across their back, approached glancing down shyly at the dirt street they offered their hand in thanks. Barreda turned to me and said, “The Bible tells us to let the children come to you.” Over the years that sentence has echoed through my mind just as a catchy tune lives on in one’s ears, occasionally replaying its melody, never quite going away.
The other path suddenly had it first faint footprints, but no one seemed to notice.
Quechua Benefit soon began to extend its mission beyond Macusani. Peru, particularly the highlands, is a difficult place to find your way. There are no road signs and many of the locations where Quechua Benefit goes are not even on the map. The most reliable directions often come from a Quechua speaker who usually indicates the path to our destination with a wave of his hand.
We learned early on in our journeys that the most reliable contacts for our work were the Catholic priests and nuns whose churches seemed to appear in every town square no matter how small. They are often the last social safety net for the poorest people and are always reliable partners in seeing that the goods and services we sought to deliver to the poorest Quechua found their rightful place. Since that first trip in 1996, we have visited more than 60 small Andean villages. There were often Sisters and churches there to assist our teams.
As time went on and sometime after we began Casa Chapi, I began to read the Bible, a gift from fellow Quechua Benefit Board member Dr. Wayne Jarvis. I searched to find the verse that Julio Barreda referred to on that second day of our first mission trip to Macusani. I found it in Luke 18:15, and just as Julio said, it tells us to “Let the children come to me,” and adds the admonishment, “do not hinder them.”
The other path began to come into focus, a trail of translucent light.
As I continued to read the Bible, James became my favorite book in the New Testament. There are two passages that I cannot get out of my mind: James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to visit widows and orphans in their affliction…,” and James 2:17, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
I cite these Bible passages, not for the purpose of attributing the work of Quechua Benefit as being Christian (or any other religion, for that matter), but for the purpose of identifying what I believe is the spirituality that animates the benefactors of the charity. Quechua Benefit is supported by people of many faiths, from the most personal to the most institutional. Some may be completely non-religious but each supporter of Quechua Benefit endeavors to help someone far less fortunate than themselves: pure religion.
Each time a tooth is pulled and the pain subsides an act of faith is complete. The caregiver must have faith in the outcome of the treatment, and the patient must have faith in the essentially anonymous caregiver. When someone receives eyeglasses that bring a smile to their face our world becomes a brighter place. An antibiotic delivered to a sick Quechua child by a team doctor completes a kind deed. Donors from around the world send their money through the internet or by mail to help people who they may never even see, do so because it is the right thing to do—deeds are more important than words.
Like most of us the Quechua, who are a spiritual people, pray in times of need. Their child might be at risk of death or afflicted by birth defects. The people they pray for—the ones with pneumonia or abscessed teeth, or the ones blinded by cataracts or who could not read a book at school before Quechua Benefit’s mission team followed a faint path to their village and provided eyeglasses—are the recipients of acts of faith. On occasion the Quechua Benefit volunteers become an answer to their prayers.
The capacity of volunteers to do good is remarkable. Volunteerism is born of the idea that the more fortunate among us should give back. It is sustained by sacrifices of time, treasure, personal comfort and sometimes one’s safety.
During our last mission 16 volunteers braved airline cancellations and lack of sleep to find themselves on a pitch-black night snaking their way down the mountain through a series of razor-sharp switchbacks on the road to Chivay. Suddenly, as the bus rounded a hairpin turn, it slammed into a 4’ high pile of asphalt left in the middle of the narrow road by a construction crew. No warning lights, safety crews or detours, just bloodied lips, lumps and stiff backs as the bus staggered to a halt a few feet from the edge of the road and a deep dark rock-strewn ravine that stretched for hundreds of yards below.
Each volunteer on that bus was at the 7:00 am breakfast the next morning before making their way to the clinic and lines of Quechua people waiting to be served by gringos from a far-off land. The spirit of volunteerism is strong in Quechua Benefit.
As Quechua Benefit builds Casa Chapi and continues the medical missions, dental missions, provides eyeglasses and cataract surgeries, delivers wheel chairs, and provides funds for Sister Antonia’s feeding program, it is amazing to witness the unique paths that people take to deliver of an act of charity. Some come from as far away as Australia and others from the U.S., Canada, England and parts of Europe. Each of them arrives in the highlands of Peru to help a people they have never met and may never see again: paths of righteousness.
The other path was not initially envisioned by anyone save perhaps Julio Barreda. But it is paved with the footprints of people with good hearts from around the world. People simply motivated by their own personal faith, convictions, goodwill and charity. The other path is one devoid of labels, numbers, outcomes, miles traveled or material accomplishment. It is a simple spiritual journey that has led Quechua Benefit sponsors to do whatever good they may do. We need each of you no matter which road you take.