by E. J. Brunton originally published in the Napanee Guide and Helium
On Christmas Eve 1999 I sought some solace in the blue- domed Cathedral on the main square in Cuenca. Monsignor Luna Tobar was in fine form. His voice echoed off the gold-encrusted walls and sorrowful plaster saints. This would be the last mass I would attend here as I knew I must leave Ecuador.
Outside, the poor and the disenfranchised crowded the darkened square. A cold wind wrapped itself around the portals of the ancient Cathedral. During mass shabby old women and barefoot youngsters plucked at our sleeves for a handout. Many of the well-dressed pious shooed them away with looks of disgust. I was incensed. Then and there I vowed I would do something to help them.
Next morning I hauled out Grandma’s big kettle and threw in lots of vegetables and meat for a hearty soup. While this bubbled away I made a pile of sandwiches and then struck off with the fragrant feast in the trunk of my car.
I headed for the bridge where a friend who worked with street kids told me I would find plenty of homeless people to feed. She warned me that they sniffed glue and might get a bit rowdy.
As I drove slowly up I saw a few kids on the grass near the Tomebamba River. With a little apprehension, I hailed them and opened the trunk. The rich aroma of the hot soup drew about a dozen ragged dirty boys. They had battle scars that they had sewn up with needle and thread as they couldn’t afford a doctor.
“Feliz Navidad! Who’s hungry?” I asked unnecessarily.
The boys crowded round, looking at me with curiosity, as I began to ladle the soup into plastic cups and hand out sandwiches. They wolfed this down and politely asked,
“Please Senora. May I have another sandwich? More soup Please?”
After their small brown puppy was fed, the leader of the boys asked if he could invite some nearby street cleaners and a family of 5 who were begging up at the corner.
“Of course!” I said, as I laded out more of the thick rich soup.
Another car drew up and the boys ran over. The window was rolled down just enough for the driver to thrust out a round loaf of the traditional fruity Christmas bread before the car sped off.
We sat on the curb for awhile talking about their life under the bridge. They slept in cardboard boxes with more flattened boxes and newspapers as a cover. They slept close together for comfort and warmth. They sniffed glue to forget the cold and hunger, and the pain of being alone on the streets.
When we parted, one by one the ragged boys hugged me. One said, “Senora. I asked myself today who will ever think of us on Christmas? Then you came along. How can we ever repay you?”
“Dios se lo pague,” said another; God will pay you.
Crossing the bridge to reach those boys had made my problems seem so insignificant. Their grateful smiles as they waved goodbye were all the payment I would ever need.