Sr. Angela does her best to change hearts as well as minds: the minds of those who misunderstand disability, and the hearts of those who thought that they had no one left to care for them.
By Anna Pozzi
For all it is the Angel’s Home, but it is also very much Sister Maria Angela Bertelli’s home. She is a Xaverian missionary who lived 16 years in the slums of Bangkok with mothers and children affected by severe disabilities.
“Everything starts from people’s heart. When you do not see the other as your brother, with equal dignity, as a child of God – even though he is black, or poor, or disabled … – then no one is saved anymore.”
Sr. Maria Angela Bertelli, 59, a Xaverian Missionary from Carpi (Modena, Italy), has fought for years against all forms of exclusion and dehumanization, in order to always keep the humanness of people front and center; thus to be able to see anyone through the eyes of Jesus.
It was the leitmotif of her mission, in apparently very different places, but always marked by strong injustices and inequalities. With many stories of people who are often considered less than nothing; from the slums of Harlem in New York to the slums of Bangkok. Passing through the civil conflict in Sierra Leone, one of the bloodiest and most ferocious, during which she was kidnapped for six months with six other sisters.
“That experience made me feel firsthand what is the negation of humanness,” recalls Sr. Angela. “Everything was destroyed. Pure and personified violence. Demonic. I wondered how man could conceive such a thing. An evil so great that one does not even know how to fight it. Only prayer remained.”
The mission to the “extreme ends” – in those dark years of the civil war and in those tragic days in which her life and that of her sisters were hanging by a thread – Sr. Angela reads it one more time but no longer as a geographical fact. “The work of a missionary is where the human heart is thoroughly destroyed, on the edge of humanness.”
Then, however, she also recalls some acts of kindness by those rebel children, victims and perpetrators at the same time. She remembers the request for a prayer, a little display of concern in them: “You saw that at the bottom there was still a glimpse of goodness.”
Then there are the women, in Sierra Leone as well as in Thailand, this new mission land was where she would never have imagined to be assigned; women as bulwarks of patience and resistance, of commitment and courage.
It is with them that she has resumed her new missionary life, on another continent, amid other forms of degradation: those of the boundless slums of Bangkok, where she spent 16 years of her life. There are over 2,000 of them, within an immense population that lives in shacks without sanitation and infrastructure. A physical, but also spiritual degradation of values and humanness; for this reason, even here, after having traveled far and wide these places of misery and abandonment, Sr. Angela decided to start over from a house, from a family.
“From the beginning,” says Sr. Angela, who has returned to Italy to assist her elderly and sick sisters. “Angels’ Home in Bangkok was designed in a spirit of missionary outreach, it must be a place where, through a service of charity, we could see ourselves and make people see our guests in a different light.”
Opened in 2008, the Casa degli Angeli began to welcome mothers with children with severe disabilities. “A great suffering,” Sr. Angela testifies, “not only for the illness and the handicap that these mothers had difficulty managing, but also for the strong stigma that weighed down on them.”
Residents of the Angels’ Home in Bangkok, Thailand pose for a picture with their families.
Disability in a Buddhist context, in which everything is determined by karma, is perceived and experienced as a curse or punishment for something bad that has been committed in a previous life by the mother or by the children themselves.
“That’s why with these mothers we tried every day to return to our common ‘starting point’. Every afternoon, we read together a passage from the Gospel, not so that they would become Catholic, but so that they would learn to see themselves and their children as created by God, wanted and loved by Him. We tried to reestablish dignity on a more universal basis and to change the way of conceiving things, always returning to God’s plan in creation. Because there is no reason – neither religious nor sociological and even less financial – that can justify diversity and exclusion.”
This daily contact with the Gospel, in total freedom, has become a point of reference for Angels’ Home. It has borne many fruits. “Five of these women asked for baptism and were included in the parish RCIA run by the PIME Missionaries, in particular Fr. Adriano Pelosin and Fr. Raffaele Manenti, who followed what goes one at the House of Angels.”
“With Fr. Adriano I started to crisscross the slums of Bangkok far and wide,” Sr. Angela continues: “It is he who introduced me to this world that is made not only of material poverty, but also of so much human misery. Family breakup is a real drama. Although, even in the most degraded contexts, a great deal of humanity can be found. And it is from here that one can try to build goodness.”
She started again from the most uncomfortable situations: those of mothers, almost always alone, and children with disabilities. Some of them are orphans of both parents; most were abandoned by their fathers, men often drunk, violent, and irresponsible. “Sometimes women also ‘stray’ but they are almost always the ones that represent the fixed point around which society takes shape.”
Angels’ Home currently houses about 15 children, of whom six are orphans of both parents. “We found them almost by chance, sometimes they were alone with a grandfather or abandoned to themselves. Some brought them to us. Someone had a mother, two or three even a father, who did not take care for them. In a couple of cases we managed to promote reconciliation within the couple.”
All women lived dire situations of family crisis: they had often been rejected by their family of origin or abandoned by their husbands: “Mothers, alone, have great difficulty in following the child and supporting themselves. So they are tempted to leave the children in institutions that hold even up to 500 or 600 people in very precarious conditions.”
Angels’ Home takes care of these children and helps the mothers to do the usual things but in the most appropriate way. It’s not easy, because many have severe disabilities and get sick very easily. “In some cases we need to work more with the mothers than with the children,” explains Sister Angela. “But the results are visible. Gradually these women have become attentive mothers and little nurses. They learned the rudiments of physiotherapy and to treat their children, stabilizing their health condition and avoiding running continuously to the hospital.”
Another big question is the work, “We have entrusted them with some tasks at home and for this we pay them a small salary. It is a way of recognizing their dignity and of making them minimally independent.”
“At the same time, a great deal of work has also been done to raise awareness among Christians themselves about hospitality and solidarity. Even this was not easy. “Even among Christians the spirit of charity is not necessarily widespread.”
“Basically, there is a great sense of fatalism. Whoever is well, at best, might give a donation, but would do it for merit. It is difficult to recognize that a person who is poor or in difficulty has the same dignity as anyone else or relate to them as equals in brotherly love.”
“It is for this reason that it was important to try patiently to expose Catholics of middle-upper class who attend the PIME-run parish to the reality of those disabled children and their mothers coming from slums. It took years before they were accepted and approached in a spirit of true friendship, but this path has also been useful for Christians to learn not to exclude anyone.”
Even the presence of Sr. Angela or other missionaries is often misunderstood. “Many asked me, ‘Why do you do this?’” Sr. Angela would reply: “For our good Heavenly Father of whom you are also a child.” Sister relents, “But the mere proclamation of these Gospel words is insufficient. It is necessary to show a God who operates through people. The gestures of charity, concrete and unselfish, in fact, are able to penetrate more deeply into the human soul. Especially the mothers, with whom we interact daily, succeed, one step at the time, to see you almost as a mother, the one that, maybe, they never had. Even for me to return to Italy was a bit like being separated from my family.”