Beyond the peripheries into “no man’s land”

“No man’s land:” that’s what they call the minefield on the border [ed. between North and South Korea]. Since Pope Francis arrived at the Vatican, it is fashionable to speak of the “peripheries.” For us at Anna’s House, where we have been living in the peripheries or suburbs for 23 years, it’s time to go beyond, into “no man’s land.” It’s a minefield where life does not count because at any moment, a mine could explode. In these long years living in the suburbs, we have met the street children, runaway teenagers, abandoned by their families and by the State, who have run away from everyone and everything. For them, we have created a network of solidarity which welcomes them and supports them and once again inserts them into the family and society.

We have the RED HOUSE which is their first reception center (the Pope would call it a “field hospital”). Here, the youth have interviews, meetings, therapy and counseling with a specialized staff. The goal is to place them again with their own families. When this is not possible because the family situation has degenerated beyond all possibility of reconciliation and dialogue, the older ones are welcomed into the YELLOW HOUSE and the younger ones into the BRICK HOUSE. In these houses, the youngsters are guided toward completing their studies and receiving a diploma. The others who do not want to study are inserted into the world of work; they live in the GREEN HOUSE. Each year, about 200 youth pass through our programs.

Good job, you may think. That’s true. But according to official statistics of the city where we live, every year there are about 2,000 boys and girls who drop out of school and families: runaway children. We should ask where the other 1,800 children are who do not attend schools, who don’t live with a family and who are not in the welcoming center. They are in “no man’s land.” At any time they can blow up and they can destroy their lives by mines called alcohol, prostitution, theft, violence, prison, oppression.

Discovering this dramatic reality, we thought: “Since they don’t come to us, we will go to them.” So we decided to leave the suburbs, which are too comfortable and easy for us and we will go to the minefields of life, where 1,800 young boys and girls are wandering about dangerously. In this way, AGIT was born. It’s a movement with few things: a multicolored minibus, a tent, two tables and four chairs. From 7 p.m. until 2 a.m., we go through the streets of death desperately looking for these teenagers. There are not many of us, but we are all filled with such passion and love for these young people. Yes, we are a bit crazy, but we really love these guys.

I can personally say that since we began this AGIT experience, my sleep has been terribly shortened but my life has been infinitely lengthened onto new horizons, dramatic and beautiful at the same time. In this gloomy and brutal “no man’s land,” where it seems that there is no room even for God, because it is filled with violent fights, the sexual abuse of minors, drunkenness and suicide, like Moses at the burning bush in the desert, I have found a new face of God. This God tells me: “Take off your shoes because this is a HOLY place. Yes, absurdly enough, this place is holy because His beloved young children are here. And He is with them. He never abandons them. So I have decided to leave the suburbs to go beyond, into no man’s land, to stand beside these boys and girls.

On a dark and cold night, I met a 15 year-old girl who tied around my wrist a little cotton bracelet, telling me: “Whenever you look at this gift, remember to pray for us.” I hate bracelets and rings and necklaces. I don’t even wear the beautiful golden chain that my dear parents gave me on the day of my priestly ordination. But I now always wear this bracelet of string because it binds me lovingly to the so many and the too many children left to themselves. AGIT is in the style of Jesus who, having left the 99 sheep in the sheepfold, went to look for the sheep lost on the dangerous clefts of the mountain. This is our mission. (Fr. Vincenzo BORDO)

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