A House of Bread
Fr. Danilo stands with some of the children that he helps. PIME’s Sponsorships at a Distance program supports the room, board, and education of many of the children in the Center.
By Gerolamo Fazzini
The most vulnerable and “discarded” are the reason why father Danilo Fenaroli of PIME, has been working so tirelessly for twenty years to offer them hospitality and assistance at the Bethlehem Center in Mouda.
“You mean to say that we are building such a beautiful structure for Those?” Fr. Danilo Fenaroli remembers it well: The incredulous demand of a bricklayer working on the construction of one of the many buildings that now form the Bethlehem Center. By “Those” the worker was referring to the orphans, disabled, deaf and mute who used to live and are still living at the Center… They are a multitude of vulnerable, “discarded” people (as Pope Francis would say), who instead in Mouda found a home welcoming them with open arms. The Center is located a few kilometers from Salak, the area around the Maroua airport, and the most important city of the Far North Region of Cameroon. Mouda is an oasis in every sense of the word; built in an area characterized by sandy soil, rocky landscapes and other “lunar” formations. The Bethlehem Center covers over 111 acres of land, on which there are a dozen buildings. However, outside the center there is a real village of people, formed largely by the staff working at the Center.
Launched in 1997, the Bethlehem Center stands as a witness to Christian Charity; it is one of the venues designed for the proclamation of the Gospel that the PIME Missionaries have chosen to implement in the course of the 50 years of their presence in Cameroon. During my visit, I was constantly impressed by warmth of the environment and the kindness that fills the air here. Even though we keep meeting people with noticeable physical or mental problems, a feeling of a serene, family atmosphere is omnipresent. For example, throughout our visit, Agnes will be with us. She suffers from mental disabilities; now and then she turns to father Danilo rewarding him with unforgettable smiles. Mathieu, a boy of Chad with problems of various natures, brought here by another PIME Missionary, Fr. Marco Frattini, is also in our group.
The Center itself is shaped as a village, with a chapel at its center, placed there as its welcoming heart. Around this “heart” there are a large hall for meetings, the community-dining hall, schools and vocational workshops and the houses where Fr. Danilo and his staff live. Then there are many “Saré”, African style ranch houses with a low wall around them; in them live maidens and widows with orphaned children or sick people, all of them feeling safe and secure within. Not too far away, are the classrooms in which young people are learning trades, working towards gainful employment. This year there are 175 apprentices. There’s something for every aspiration: carpentry, mechanics, electrical engineering, leather and iron work, wood carving, varied decoration crafts, sewing and embroidery, painting, dyeing batik, sign-making for traffic control and for shops, masonry, welding, even a workshop for engine repairs. There is also a well-organized farm for growing grain, fruits, and vegetable; thanks to artificial irrigation, as well as the breeding of farm animals: cows, pigs, poultry.
Those employed by the Center are 180 in number; but that number goes up to 220 if everyone involved in the Center are included. Most of them are Catholic, but there are also Protestants and members of various denominations: twenty Muslims, and even some who profess traditional African religions. The soul of it all is Fr. Danilo. “Heartfelt closeness to the disabled was one thing that I always felt within me.” He explains: “There was a center for the disabled next to my home, a charitable organization called ‘Angelo Custode’ (Guardian Angel), run by the diocese. I remember my father often gave them some of the produce of our land. In partnership with my confrere Fr. Gian Paolo Gualzetti, I even wrote a theological dissertation on the subject of ‘The Handicapped in the Christian Community.’ “
Ordained a priest in 1986, Fr. Danilo arrived in Cameroon in 1991. This was after three years of missionary work in the Ivory Coast, where it was not possible for him to work with the disabled in a way similar to what is going on in Mouda. “Back in Italy, I spent a year at the Camillianum, to have a specific spiritual formation; at the same time I made contact with the community Capodarco in Rome, with whom I worked in order to gain experience in this field.”
He returned to Africa, but this time to his adopted Cameroon. For the first ten years, Fr. Danilo worked in a parish in Zouzoui, all the while dreaming of being able to devote himself to the most vulnerable. “While I was still a parish priest, I started gathering orphans and the handicapped,” he recalls. “Thus, the idea of creating specific structures for them was born. Much of the Bethlehem Center land was donated by the village chief. “Today he is very pleased because Mouda doubled the number of its inhabitants and is now a bustling, life-filled reality,” says Fr. Danilo.
Children are lined up outside of the Maternity Center at the Bethlehem Center. Many builidings make up the center, but the Chapel serves at the heart of the village.
Why Bethlehem? Fr. Danilo clarifies: “the answer comes from the original Hebrew language in which the word Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. The Center wants to be a home capable of warmly embracing all the people who need to be protected and treated as true men and women, so that they can keep their dignity as well as live in a safe environment. Here in Cameroon, even today, when people see someone who is ‘different’ they immediately think that it is the result of curses, sorcery, or witchcraft. In order to shake off this antiquated mentality we must, of course, educate people; but it is most important to showcase concretely that the Gospel is a message of liberation, that it can transform people and revive those who were deemed ‘lost’. “
In the twenty years since its inception, the Center has made significant strides towards its goals of dignity and understanding: “Many have seen with their own eyes the usefulness of the Center: people who were on the margins have been integrated into village life. At times, some marvel at the fact that women and men who are hearing-impaired, cannot speak or have physical or mental problems, here they are truly happy. The reason is simple: they find life in this environment and manifest externally their joy for being fully alive. It is for this reason that we are literally besieged. There are also people who come from some 60-120 miles away, in some cases they travel all the way from Chad. Ours is not a hospital, but many come here to seek healthcare. Here they find trained staff along with a friendly atmosphere that, psychologically, helps a lot those who are sick.”
Fr. Danilo continues: “The most marginalized people must touch with their hands the mercy of God, the good news of the Gospel. It is because they are normally excluded, that it is essential for them to be placed at the heart of loving care and attention. That’s why, to the astonishment of the builders, I wanted to build beautiful homes for people who are considered ‘waste’. I do not exaggerate when I say this: they themselves told us about the humiliations, about being treated like animals. A sad reality present in some villages is that, unfortunately, we did not find any handicapped there, not because none were born here, but rather because, slowly, they were left to die…”
This is also why the Bethlehem Center has promoted community-based rehabilitation in the villages, to sensitize the community about disabilities and, when it comes down to it, we step in when the various structures put in place by the village prove inadequate.
Fr. Danilo is the only member of PIME directly involved in the Center. Planning for the future back in 2002, Fr. Danilo brought in the Silent Workers of the Cross as “fellow travelers” in this work. The Silent Workers is a religious family inspired by Rev. Luigi Novarese, who was beatified in 2013. Presently at the Bethlehem Center there are four sisters of this congregation: two Cameroonians, one Togolese, and one Italian named Rosa. Fr. Danilo explains: “We have issued official statutes for our Center whereby we are called to share with our guests, joys and sorrows, satisfactions and disappointments. Now I am by myself, but for seven years I had with me Joseph, a Bengali PIME Brother, who worked diligently at, among other things, keeping in contact with the families of our guests in the area.
For several years now the Bethlehem Center has obtained recognition from the Cameroonian government as an “Entity of Public Usefulness:” a very important certificate given only to six organizations across the country, which certifies the quality of services offered in our facilities. It also justifies the support that the State offers the Center, a very precious reality, especially in this region so poor and marginalized.
“This fact should guarantee us a degree of ‘preferential treatment’, some sort of ‘breaks’ such as in financing the payroll of our teachers and social workers; yet that is not always the case. In reality, though, to have that official recognition is like having a special ‘business card’ that helps cut through red tape when we propose new projects to the various governmental offices for approval or seek assistance from Italian and/or European agencies.”
Fr. Danilo possesses a somewhat renowned ability for networking, especially to support the needs of the Bethlehem Center. He has made many friends for these people otherwise deemed “discarded.” Among them there is the PIME Mission Center, the NGAMA foundation from Fr. Danilo’s hometown, the CEI (Italian Bishops Conference) and other associations.