The Holy Spirit moves in Costa Rica

June 5, 2012

From the print edition

Imagine having a Christmas party for 35,000 kids with presents and treats for all. Or having 900 children come for lunch each day. That’s how the Holy Spirit works in the barrio of Cristo Rey, a poor area on the southwest side of San José.

The man who walks with the Holy Spirit is Father Sergio Valverde, and he knows the area well. He was born here 43 years ago, and he grew up in a home that knew poverty but also love, sharing and faith in God. Together, they created the association Obras del Espiritu Santo, or the Works of the Holy Spirit.

It all started with Father Sergio passing out food to the homeless, and the operation blossomed into a daycare center for babies and tots, an afterschool center, an albergue for women and children victimized by abuse, a center for medical and legal help, a pharmacy, an emergency shelter and a place where children, single mothers and the elderly get spiritual guidance and a free lunch.

Ana Siles handles public relations and has been on the staff for 10 years. “Father’s first parish was La Merced on Ave. 2, Calle 14, an area with many homeless and poor people,” she said. “He began handing out food to those in need, and after a few years, the bishop sent him to Cristo Rey, his old home neighborhood and parish. He began to help the people here, giving out food packages and meals.”

In the area of 50,000, people came for help every day, Siles said.  One day there was nothing left, and the staff wondered how they would continue. “Did you pray?” Siles remembers Father Sergio asking her. “Did you pray with faith?” He sent the staff to church and told us to pray with faith, Siles said. 

The next day, a truck apparently came from the fire department, filled with food packages and other needs. “That’s how it is. Our prayers get answered,” Siles said. About 60 volunteers plus a small staff keep the works going, tending babies, cooking, serving and doing all the other jobs, with joy. “Another time we all wondered how we would survive. So many people came for help and we had so little space,” Siles remembered. But again prayers were answered. 

“A well-dressed woman came to visit the center, and later made a donation to cover the cost of a new building,” Siles said. Donations from companies, clubs and individuals help with the work of the Holy Spirit. The tienda, or shop, receives new clothes and merchandise from stores. A cafeteria across the street (popular with taxi drivers) offers good food and low prices, and the profit is funneled into the kids’ lunch program. Hydroponic gardens produce food for the kitchen and cafeteria, with enough to sell. A recycling project paid for 90 percent of the building, which houses the daycare centers, shelters, medical/legal services and administration. These projects provide work for locals.

There are more plans still, Siles added. A vacant lot will someday become a center for teenagers. A small farm with shelters for animals is already under construction. Children are the priority, but Obras del Espiritu Santo has provided safety nets for the whole community. About 200 people come to the center each day for some form of help.

Father Sergio is a busy man who, along with the Holy Spirit, has guided the growth of the association, even picking up trash and weeds when needed. But he is surprisingly calm, and his smile radiates; he greets everyone with hugs instead of handshakes. “I don’t own a thing, but I am a happy man,” he says. 

In his crowded office, surrounded by fish tanks, religious objects, photos and books, Father Sergio spoke of his own youth. “I used to play priest,” he said. “If I earned a little money I shared it with my family … There were five of us plus parents, and we were poor.” But it was a home with love, he said, and they kissed each other every day.

How can you help? Check the website at www.obrasdelespiritusanto.org for info on donating food, funds, school supplies, etc.  Or visit the center on Ave. 28, Calle 12, 1.5 kilometers south of the Church of the Merced. Shop in the tienda. Eat in the cafeteria. Pray in the church. For more info, call 2286-5252.

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