Christmas season officially begins December 7 with the Festival of Lights (Festival de Las Velitas) on the Eve of the Celebration of the Immaculate Conception, but the season of the Novenas begins December 16. I am not altogether sure of what a Novena is. What I experience is that Colombian families and friends get together in the early evening to celebrate Christmas with the Telling of the Tale — the telling the Christian Story of the birth of Jesus. It is told in spoken verse and in song. Everyone knows all the chants and knows which ones to speak and which ones to sing. The storytelling ritual lasts perhaps 15 or 20 minutes.
Before the ritual a party begins with the chatter becoming more fluid and rapid, and louder. After the Novena, the party continues with appetizers, beer, wine, soft drinks, and conversational chaos. That is to say, the party continues to be oh so very Colombian. Between December 16 and Christmas, there are countless Novenas. December is really Christmas month in Colombia. While it’s a shopping month in the States, it’s a celebratory month here.
This morning I attended my first Novena of this year. It was different. It touched my heart and pleased my soul in unexpected ways. My soul was more than happy; it was enchanted. "Me encanta la Novena."
We grabbed a taxi at 7:45 a.m. and raced across the city to the south. We met up with three of Enrique’s cousins, and a few of his cousins’ grown kids, at the headquarters of The Jera Foundation, a charitable family foundation funded primarily by the family of those cousins. The name, Jera, was chosen as it is the name of a Rune. Jera is the Rune of harvest and of reward for right actions. It’s the Rune of peace on the land and in the heart.
We boarded a small bus and we were off to the country. We moved easily along "La Quinta" (Fifth Street) a major traffic artery, heading further south. Right turn along a side street, traffic was lighter but foot traffic increased. We moved haltingly through the congestion. The streets narrowed and lifted switchbacking up the mountainside. Narrower in poorer and poorer neighborhoods, and then the paved road became an open road (gravel, dirt, ruts, potholes). We crawled along bouncing our way higher and farther from our world.
We were going to a Novena at a school that is sponsored and funded by the Jera Foundation. It’s a rural school, or better said, a rural pre-school. It is for children 3 to 5. These children are taught the normal things that kids are taught in pre-schools through the world, and they are also taught the rudimentary educational and social skills. The kids had to learn numbers, colors, shapes, for example. They were also taught some human skills: how to go to the bathroom on their own, how to wash their hands and why to do that, how to bathe, how to properly dress themselves. They are taught how to be self-sufficient.
The children’s lack of knowing is not due to parental lack of caring. It’s due to the excessive and extensive property of hundreds of displaced peasants. The ravages of war are not just dead bodies though there have been plenty of those in the past. The ravages of war include forcing people, who lived and thrived on the land, even in states of poverty, they thrived on the land, to move into towns and cities where the land — the dirt — has been replaced by concrete, and the harvesting is of garbage looking for recyclables rather than of fruits and vegetables. It’s due to mothers who have to try to find some sort of work in order to try to earn the kind of money we tend to leave on our dressers and to forget about. It’s due a woeful lack of education among the forgotten impoverished ones. The Jera Foundation is working to change that in this rural poverty ravaged community. They work with 3 to 5 year old children and their parents. These kids with their parents are the "new harvest" of Colombia’s future. They are the "new harvest" of kids reaching to climb out of poverty into Colombia’s newly forming middle class.
At age 5 the kids go to the Primary School. For the first year there, they are "in transition." They spend the school year learning to integrate into society — the normal world. The Jera Foundation continues to monitor those kids for that year of transition. If the kids succeed, they enter First Grade.
The beauty of this program is that the Jera Foundation provides the lion’s share of the funding, but the community — those mothers and fathers — also provide funds. For example, the school is near the bottom of an endless and incredibly steep hill. The community wanted to created paved tracks to make passage easier. They asked the Jera Foundation to help. Jera provided most the money but block by block the people raised money — yard sales, bake sales, baby sitting — to pay a small portion of the cost of "their block." The community also provided the labor.This year, the school has a security guard. Next year it won’t. The community knows that if anything is stolen, they will be stealing from themselves. The community will keep the school safe.
The 3 to 5 year old children, many of them riding the hips of their young mothers or resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally young fathers, came to watch the Novena. The Angels came in singing and dancing, a pregnant Mary with her Joseph on to the stage. The drums beat, hands clapped, the words were read, the songs were sung. The story was told as it had been told for centuries. Christmas has begun.
Another cousin arrived with four team members of the Cali Football (soccer) Team — celebrities — and with gifts for some among the crowd (a soccer ball, team hats. etc.). Then the families all made their way to their children’s respective classrooms to receive a Christmas gift along with a small box lunch and a juice drink. And the band — a youth orchestra of teenaged kids from impoverished families — played on … oboes, bassoons, violins, and all the traditional instruments of a "real orchestra." This group is funded by different local family’s foundation.
I received such a beautiful gift this morning. To be there in that moment, to experience that moment, was amazing to me. What an incredible way to begin my Christmas season. With all the terror in the world and with all the legitimate and opportunistic stirrings of fear and warnings about our safety, to remember the beauty of gracious generosity and of open hearted innocence wrapped in the utter amazement at the wonder of life itself was an incredible gift.
Watching those little bitty kids with their huge eyes as they watched the Novena and especially as they received their gift comes rushing back as I type this now. That moment lives on. It fills my heart and all but overwhelms my soul all over again. Will I remember this morning? It would be hard to forget it.
As people dispersed, we trudged up the hill. Slow. Deliberate steps. Slower. At the top we waited for our bus to take us back to our world. A memorable morning, a memorable Christmas season … a beautiful gift worth remembering as this Year of Remembering reaches for its end.
A fun and touching ADDENDUM: The community mothers realized that they needed more help. It was so valuable to reach kids at pre-school levels, but it was also critically important to reach and to help even younger kids and to help their mothers. The Jera Foundation also recognized this need. They are expanding the school’s reach. They are beginning a program for the "pre pre-schoolers" — a program for even younger children from infancy until they are 3 years old. This program will also included helping the mothers.
What especially touches our hearts about this new program is that the mother’s recognized the need and the mothers reached out to ask for help. Not for a handout but for help in creating opportunities for their children that they never had. Many of them are illiterate having had no education at all. No one helped them learn their numbers or their colors. No one taught them shapes. It’s hard for me to even image that, but it’s the life they lived and are living. They had no opportunities, no chances, no education. But they know enough and they love enough to want more for their babies.
Another ADDENDUM: I wrote a short piece called, "Squatters" about the development of squatters’ land. This whole community where the school is … it all began with squatters and as swatters’ land. It was built with the mortar of the human spirit to survive and to thrive. It is continues to be built with the human spirit and with soul’s love. I am blown away and humbled.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.