Thirty years ago, a 74-year-old Spanish Jesuit priest had his first encounter with a community of persons affected by leprosy in China. Moved by the terrible situation of the leprosy-affected persons in Taikam Island in Guangdong Province, Fr Luis Ruiz SJ decided to work with local governments and church communities to change the conditions of leprosy patients in China. That was the beginning of Ricci Social Services, a social service network created to bring relief, dignity and social justice to the poor and marginalised people in mainland China and Macau.
Since then, Ricci Social Services has journeyed far and wide in China, going to the remotest places to be with and serve persons and communities in need of solidarity, healing, friendship and support.
“The ones who opened the door to us were not business persons, the powerful or the learned, but persons affected by leprosy and those living with HIV/AIDS,” shared Ricci Social Services Director Fr Fernando Azpiroz SJ. “It was because of them that more than 50 local governments from more than10 provinces invited Ricci Social Services to go to their places, to serve them in their needs.”
Today, Ricci Social Services collaborates in more than 40 programmes in 10 provinces that serve around 5,000 people, including adults and children affected by leprosy or living with HIV/AIDS, women at risk (such as sex workers), or people dying without support in the hospitals. These programmes are organised as a network of “communities of solidarity”.
“These are communities where people learn how to overcome discrimination; communities where physical, psychological and social wounds are healed, where dignity is affirmed, and where communion is restored and re-created among individuals, their communities and their relationships with their natural environments,” said Fr Azpiroz.
In these communities, more than 80 religious sisters and volunteers live with patients or people who suffer from discrimination, serving them in their needs, joining them in their daily struggles and learning from them.
“This has been a journey to our personal limits as well, far away from our comfort zones,” said Fr Azpiroz, sharing that in many places, they suffered from lack of understanding and discrimination from the local people; lack of water, electricity or roads; tests, sicknesses, and even death. In 2008, one of the religious sisters, Sister Xue, died in an accident while serving her leprosy-affected patients.
“But our reward has been far bigger than all the efforts we have made during these 30 years, a reward that only those who love can understand because love transforms everybody and everything,” said Fr Azpiroz.
Fr Azpiroz explains that love enables receivers to become givers, and givers to become receivers. This is why three decades later, the same impulse to love has brought them to more new frontiers, serving women at risk, children living with HIV/AIDS, poor and dying patients in public hospitals, and helping almost 25 different local social service communities to build their capacities to serve more and better. This same love has also pushed them to do more in terms of ecological justice in China. “We would like to help people to change their ways of living, consuming and producing, in order to do justice to nature and our future generations,” he said.
But love is also and always an invitation for others to collaborate. “We are not doing all these alone. This is the fruit of working together with thousands of benefactors, hundreds of sisters, volunteers and staff workers, hundreds of government officials, partners. We are the beneficiaries of all their love and support,” said Fr Azpiroz.
This has been the daily experience of Ricci Social Services throughout its 30-year journey in China; the experience of a love that is incarnated and shared, and that has transformed and continues to transform thousands of people. The mystery of a love that took flesh to become Emmanuel, God with us.