Speaking Personally: Maria Elena Arana

Maria Elena Arana

 Maria Elena has worked at CAFOD as Campaign Coordinator for 22 years. She is the CAFOD representative on NJPN, the National Board of Catholic Women, and the Environmental Issues Network of CTBI. Born in Mexico and brought up in NY she has been based in London for 30 years.

Where do you think your commitment to justice and peace come from?  I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and my grandmother who I was named for was a rock of her family and her community. She was either at home or at church- and people knew that they could knock on her door for help, support or food. Growing up in two countries- one, in the main, rich and one much poorer meant that I started asking questions about justice and equality fairly early on. My American mother Grace was a great stalwart of her parish in New York and of several Catholic Women’s organisations. She was loud, outgoing and a great organiser of events while my Mexican father Manuel was quiet, thoughtful and intellectually astute. And he was great for long debates into the night about politics and faith. They and my Catholic schooling supported my interested in social justice- and I began in a small way by attending an anti-Viet Nam protest when I was in High School. But it wasn’t until university when I learned about what was happening in Latin America- especially Chile and Central America that I began to get more involved with solidarity campaigning. And meeting my future English husband Robert on a demonstration in front of the White House while we were working on our Masters ensured that Justice, Peace and Politics have always been part of our life.

What for you are the most important areas of concern today?
I have to say that the two issues that I think we all must be concerned about are access to food and climate change. CAFOD’s Hungry for change campaign comes at a really important moment when the world currently grows enough food for all and yet 1 in 8 people still do not have enough food to eat. And this can impact not just poor people in the developing world but poor people everywhere. And the second issue that most concerns me is climate change and environmental justice. That is a key issue for our world and we need to push our politicians to really begin to tackle this important issue. We now have a good Climate Change Act but we need to make sure that the Act is strongly enforced. But we also need to do what we can locally and that is why I am so proud of the work that CAFOD has done to create the livesimply award for Catholic parishes and communities. In my 22 years working at CAFOD, I believe the livesimply award is one of the most important initiatives that I have worked on. It is a great opportunity for many Catholic parishes to build community and support each other in their campaigning action, and celebrate all the great environmental justice and solidarity work that they can accomplish together.

What sustains you in your commitment?
I am sustained and inspired by so many around me within CAFOD, and so many others active in the J&P movement both lay people and religious. As part of my role at CAFOD not only have I had the chance to meet with and work with many of our overseas partners but also I spend a lot of time with CAFOD volunteers around the country. I draw so much inspiration from that partnership and accompaniment both from the developing world and in England and Wales. And I have the opportunity to learn from others who work with CAFOD such as theologian David McLoughlin who reminded us at the Hungry for change launch that, “Jesus’ shared meals embodied his teachings. Jesus is contaminated because he eats with the sinners and the unclean, prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus seems to act out his own teaching by eating with men and women of every station ignoring distinctions. He teaches us that there is an alternative!” Another key value that sustains me is solidarity. As Pope John Paul II wrote in On Social Concern, 1987, “It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all….because we are all really responsible for all.” Learning of the close connection between Oscar Romero and CAFOD was a great inspiration to me as well as hearing about him and the work of the church in El Salvador from colleagues who knew him well.

What are your hopes for a Church like ours in the 21st Century?
This year’s Year of Faith is a great opportunity! There is so much excellent material in the Vatican II documents. It can be extremely challenging to think about how we all, as God’s people, should evangelise. I always think that St Francis told it best- “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words”. We can see that the best way to evangelise is by the way we live our lives. As my CAFOD colleague Susy Brouard puts it, “we need a moral imagination to picture alternative models of having and being. And we need more than ever to live out our vocation as Christians.” I am so fortunate each year to visit a number of parishes that support CAFOD. So often I find them real centres of love and community, supporting their members as well as doing so much for the communities that CAFOD works with in the developing world, and with groups in poverty and need in this country. There are always stresses and tensions – but I believe there is much that we as the Catholic Church in England and Wales can be very proud of. We are facing many challenges, with increasing inequality, poverty and the ever greater impacts of climate change. But there is so much good news that we as Catholics can share with our social tradition to encourage others to be challenged and empowered by its emphasis on solidarity and partnership.