Located on the northwest coast of South America, Ecuador is truly a land of juxtapositions. Las Amazonas (forest region) sits in the East while la costa (coastal region) and la sierra (central highlands) hold most of the population estimated to be over 15 million people. The Galapagos Islands sit off to the West while the Andes Mountain system divides the mainland. This creates a vibrant land with an extensive biodiversity, rich in natural resources, cultural, and conflict.
Located in a town named after the Royal Dutch Shell Company, Casa de Fe is home to over 50 kids that have been abandoned, abused, or have special needs. It is a caring environment where Christian beliefs and value drive the vision, and hence the daily activities, of those involved. Casa de Fe seeks to meet the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of children who they see playing an important role in a divine providential narrative. Each task takes on a much larger kingdom construct.
As a retired U.S. Army mechanic, Patti Sue Arnold moved to Quito, Ecuador to open a repair shop for wheelchairs. After a baby was found abandoned on a public bus, Patti Sue felt a new life calling. She found herself having to overcome gender stereotypes that worked against a single woman being a foster parent. She successfully changed focus from wheelchair repair to starting a Christian missionary-minded home for over 50 children at the edge of the Amazon Rain Forest.
The role of Christian missionaries in the colonization of South America has been well documented yet they do not just spread the supernaturalistic, they also are transmitters of the naturalistic. Casa de Fe's operations transcends the realm of the religious to also working as agents of Westernization. The children are taught English and are influenced by each group that choses Casa de Fe for their “vacation with a purpose." Western traditions are syncretized with indigenous beliefs.
This Westernization also includes an understanding of self-worth from the perspective of a contemporary Evangelical Protestant epistemology. My time in Ecuador taught me that many people believed that disabilities are a phenomenon ordained by God and are to be accepted. This serves to frame disabilities in a manner that allows for a Foucauldian analysis of biopolitics. Attributing disabilities to the immutable Will of God creates a control apparatus over the “deserving” poor and sick.
In this way, a disability is a moral challenge facing a strong stigma. One teenage girl at Casa de Fe was beaten by her grandmother with a broom to drive out the evil demons. Another was left to fend for herself under the stairs with the dogs. Many orphans were the consequence of a village leader giving a new mother the ultimatum to discard the disabled child or risk being removed from the group. For these children, perseverance was seen as steadfastly coping with their divine judgment.
Casa de Fe lives a westernized view of perseverance. Perseverance is not a steadfast mooring; it is pulling up the anchor, hoisting the mainsail, and navigating forward through the storm. With that protestant work ethic, and the evangelical view of heavenly rewards, the children of Casa de Fe are positioned in a new biopolitic as “Children of God” and part of the “Body of Christ.” Casa de Fe moves the discarded children from social pollution to kingdom purity.
This new position brings it’s own cautions – fear of exploitation, the trap of persevering without improvement, placing to high an emphasis on heavenly promises as opposed to earthly pursuits – which can make us pause and critique. Yet in a similar manner, the benefits of this privilege could also be evaluated against their previous condition – “Pollution” to “Purity.” During my time at Casa de Fe, in contrast to what I expected to find, there was an overwhelming sense of hope and joy.
Before my initial excursion to Ecuador, people consistently shared feigned optimism and quiet sympathy for what they expected I should find in an orphanage of special need children on the edge of the Amazon Jungle – sickness, insurmountable difficulties, and despair. As a father of a child with special needs, I know firsthand how disabilities serve to disenfranchise in the U.S. At Casa de Fe, I certainly encountered sickness and challenging difficulties, but despair was surprisingly nonexistent.
Mischievous boys and girls played pranks on one another and ran away to find a place to hide. Outings to local parks resulted in impromptu games of soccer. Volunteers sat of the floor and cooed with the infants. People gathered together to celebrate successful medical procedures. Dinner was served with military precision. More importantly, children laughed and smiled, unaware that their life situation supposedly dictated otherwise. It was in these moments I witnessed humanity’s ability to truly persevere.
There is a hope for these “Children of God” beyond their time at Casa de Fe. The ability to speak English will become a valuable asset as will their embodiment of self-worth. In 2007, Ecuador elected Lenin Moreno, a paraplegic, to Vice-President. Ecuador can be considered an international leader in disability policy aimed at improving the lives of its citizens. Yet these policies often do not reach the heart of the jungle – the heart of Casa de Fe's mandate.
“This is the world we leave our children?”
This random sign on a random road in Ecuador speaks to the intent of Casa de Fe – by each person impacting at least one other life, we can improve the world of our children. It is a world where the abused find love, the abandoned a family, and all needs - no matter how special - are met.
- Brian Brijbag
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