Buenos Aires: Trusting the GPS

Have you ever been to an area where your GPS warns you that you are in a BAD part of town?

Catherine our host, driver, and translator, was driving us to meet the leaders at a community work that started as a church and now works directly with families in the community through centers that they have developed.

The pastor who started the work from the church was Gerardo Kopf who now serves as the General Director of Fortalecer: Recursos Para Familias Y Comunidades. Lucio Andrés from his board of directors also agreed to meet us at one of their centers. Gerardo explained that although they started as a church, they realized the people needed more. They needed more professional help – beyond what pastors are trained to do.

As Catherine drove us to the neighborhood in Buenos Aires she announced that her GPS issued a warning that we were entering into a dangerous neighborhood.

I have seen worse actually, but it did have all the traditional signs of a bad neighborhood. Graffiti, burned out cars left out on the streets, heavy bars on all the windows in sight. This is where the church has placed it’s self.

The issues for families in this community are very challenging and there is a great deal of abusive violence. The community center itself is heavily barred because the husbands of abused wives want to get back at those who help their wives.

Fortelecer’s principles are clear:

  1. All people are created in the image of God and are to be valued and respected.
  2. The gospel of Jesus offers hope.
  3. Hope that produces change is possible.

With these principles they provide resources to help families become healthy and create safety, love, equity, peace and solidarity. Wow.

I notice that whenever I ask South American leaders about ministry, they respond talking about people – fruit of their work. Most pastors here are engaged in active counter cultural activity within their community as part of their regular work week.

Volunteers power Fortalecer. I met Aldo, a psychologist, who gives one day a week to do counseling at the center. He sees eighteen people a day from 7:30am – 9:30pm. It is his volunteer service for the Lord and he is just one of forty “permanent’ volunteers. There are also over 100 additional volunteers for special programs The counselors here see 1500 people per year in this manner and in addition hold five workshops per week.

I was deeply touched by three things today. The commitment of lay people from the church to working in the community. The philosophy that if we bring people together with a common problem, they can become a community helping one another.

When we left the center, I was stuck for words. Not because of my lack of Spanish, but because of the love of their neighbors and their volunteer commitment to this calling.

Buenos Aires: A city of many cities

Buenos Aires: Now here is a complex city. It is an ocean port and the name until the 17th century was “Port of Saint Mary of the Fair Winds.” The sailor in me likes the connotation but as I hope to share in a few blogs – there are other, not so fair winds that blow here.

Soon after arriving I realize I have been pronouncing the name of this city of 13 million incorrectly – for years. My best shot at it now is “bwā-nəs-ˈa-rēz” and my tongue stumbles over the “r” while trying to emphasize the hard “e” in Aires.

We have had a wonderful host the entire week here in Catalina (Catherine) Ogden. Catherine is a Regent College alumni who we were connected with through Jim Houston – and what a delight that has been. She has served as our remis (taxi), translator, and cultural guide. When not guiding Canadian pilgrims around her city she works for the United Nations in the heart of downtown BA.

Buenos Aires is really is a city of many cities. The first Buenos Aires is a typically poor Latin American city of shabby streets fronted by strident advertisements offering cheap phone calls, ‘branded’ clothes and electronic goods. But look above and behind, and a second city appears.

Here, the electronic billboards do not quite conceal ornate European buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their graceful Doric columns, art deco door frames and angels with vacant eyes. You know that these streets have seen much over the years and just a brief read on Argentine history and one starts to get the picture here.

The route into the city centre follows an elevated highway. As we passed along it, I looked down on the roofs of the city’s traditional neighbourhoods. From here, Buenos Aires appears both unpopulated and infinite; it looks like one place but it is many. On every street corner there are invisible borders of class and identity. As we got closer to the city, shanty towns pushed up against the freeway and even the elevated highway cannot hide them as they also have added stories and become multi level.

Our driver asked me to put my camera down and not take photos in case we get shot at. Hmmmm, okay, new safety tip. J

Cities with large gaps between rich and poor tend to have much higher crime rates. This epidemic exists horribly in Buenos Aires. Crime and poverty are identified as Buenos Aires’ largest obstacles.

It is hard to get straight facts about poverty here. The government figures are understated – this seems obvious to the naked eye. According to a paper jointly written by the Argentine Catholic University and Catholic Charities over a third of metropolitan Buenos Aires, 34.9%, live below the poverty line. That translates to 4.4 million people, more than double the official Argentine government estimate.


Now sitting in a Starbucks downtown one can hide from the poverty and would never know, but venturing into the communities where Christian leaders are working in and throughout this metropolis and it is a whole other story.

Bob and I stayed in a lovely and seemingly safe community but as we ventured out during our interviews we got to experience the many cities of Buenos Aires.

It is easy for us to keep things hidden away  – even from the poorer parts of our own cities. But people live there, real people with real needs.

I am particularly drawn to the needs of the children in these communities. Breaks my heart. One of the ministries we visited here, Fortalecer, is doing something about it – more on this next blog.