Night time in any city is multi-faceted. Office blocks lie dormant, stores close for business, leaving an artificial neon glow along the streets, which draws our eyes to the merchandise in the windows and distracts us from the night-life which takes over from the daytime living.
Away from the shop windows and bright lights, the shady side-streets, back alleys, vacated city parks and travel hubs, are the dingy places where trafficked women, girls, men and boys must work, in a sex-trade that uses, abuses and disregards the concepts of human rights and dignity.
While attending Strategic Planning meetings in Palermo, Sicily, RENATE Core Group members joined Sr. Valeria Gandini and some of her colleagues on a night mission on the city streets of Palermo. Confident in their ministry and fully believing in God’s protection and presence with us during our journey, Sr. Valeria, Fr. Lorenzo and Maggie, a lay volunteer, spent several hours on a bitterly cold January night, with women and girls working on the streets.
Often the girls would smile and wave and walk towards us in welcome, as they saw us approach. This was our cue to stop, alight from the mini-van and engage with the girls, who warmly embraced us. Cigarettes were shared and served as a conversation-opener. Cups of hot soup and coffee were gratefully accepted to ward off the freezing night-time temperatures. Regardless of our cultural differences, our shared humanity made it easy for us to strike up a conversation and engage in talk about the weather, the work, our backgrounds and the possibilities for care for the girls. Clearly, many of the girls were comfortable with Sr. Valeria and her team. It was apparent that they felt safe and valued, regardless of their circumstances. The experience of unconditional love and respect carried with it a value far greater than that which money could buy.
In some instances, brief prayers were quietly said and as usual, contact numbers for the Centre were shared, in the hope that sometime one or other of the girls will be able to break the cycle and build a safe and secure future, free from the risks and threats of life on the streets.
At one of the locations which Sr. Valeria and her team regularly visit, it was surprising to find a complete absence of girls. Apparently, there must have been a sting which saw the disappearance of the entire community of girls, who had to retreat undercover. Fr. Lorenzo was all the more concerned for the welfare of the girls now undercover. To us it seemed infinitely better to be off the streets and indoors, away from the sub-zero temperatures, but Fr. Lorenzo explained that the girls were not necessarily safer off the streets, given his knowledge about those who controlled them….
On our night ministry with Sr. Valeria, Fr. Lorenzo and Maggie, we gleaned an insight into some of the happenings at night, for women on the streets. Because of the bonds that have been built with the women by Sr. Valeria and her team, through her emphasis on values which nourish life in all creation, we were able to speak with women who like all of us, are in search of a spirituality that emphasises the closeness of God and connects all of life.
Creativity, love and hope abound where the hand of friendship and possibility is extended. In RENATE, we endeavour to weave anew the threads of women’s lives, through compassion, encouragement, accompaniment, fostering self-esteem and building of life-skills which lead towards independent living.
Anne Kelleher, RENATE Communications.
5th February, 2017.
Night ministry on a freezing January night in Palermo.