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The missionary and the dance that frees migrants

 La missionaria  e la  danza   DCM-010
05 November 2022

A woman, “in love with the mystery of the person”, a nun who tries to give peace and freedom from pain to migrants who are fleeing, who are tearing themselves and their children away from poverty. This woman’s approach also involves dance, or rather bio-dance -the dance of life-, a discipline made of corporeity and spirituality together. There is economic poverty, with the physical fatigue of living for lack of sustenance, food, work; moreover, there is emotional misery because the migrants do not set out just to look for a job and to build a decent life for themselves. Instead, they are often fleeing from violence, abuse, exploitation, from those who do not consider them human beings, merely objects to be disposed.

Pompea Cornacchia is a Combonian who has now forgotten her native Pugliese dialect to embrace a warm and “picturesque” mixture of Italian and Spanish. After missions in Ecuador and Colombia, she now serves with three other sisters in Tapachula, in southeast Mexico, just across the border in Guatemala. This is a city of 500,000 inhabitants that has found itself at the centre of migratory flows from South to North America. There are not only caravans of thousands of Latinos who arrive in Tapachula, but also Africans and Asians who cross the sea, transit South America and then set off for the United States or Canada. A wounded, rejected humanity, who are uncertain about tomorrow and living through a desperate present. Sister Pompea runs an emergency programme in the Bethlehem reception centre. “We called it Espoir, hope”. They offer those who arrive from afar meals and clean clothes, a shower and accompaniment to the various hostels that various NGOs have opened in Tapachula to welcome the thousands of people who periodically arrive in Chiapas and camp while waiting for the humanitarian visas that allow them to continue towards the US border. However, the Comboni Sisters’ objective is not to give things, however indispensable in a situation of extreme need, but to create relationships with people drained by the journey.

Sister Pompea has huge dark coloured eyes behind thick, round spectacle lenses. Her grey and black hair is short, and there is a simplicity about her when she recounts her mission, which moves her to tears, and then immediately afterwards, to a happy smile. During her 55 years she has known pain and genuine tragedies, but also extraordinary new beginnings. It is above all women who need her embrace, she tells me, “They arrive wounded, with a sad, sometimes empty look. They break my heart. Almost all have been raped and abused; many are victims of human trafficking”.

Sister Pompea has specific expertise in psycho-spiritual accompaniment. What she does is stay beside a women, listen to them and start a path of healing and resilience with them for the time they remain in Chiapas. In the programme, there is space for sewing and cooking courses, workshops for small handicraft creations. In addition, there is the biodance, which is a discipline founded in the 1960s thanks to a Chilean psychologist, anthropologist and writer, Rolando Toro Araneda. Sister Pompea came to know about it through a Jesuit father when he was in Ecuador and looked after the training of novices. Sr. Pompea explains, “biodance is movement and emotion; it tries to awaken forgotten or repressed movements of the body. It takes place in silence: it is the bodies and the eyes that speak. By welcoming each other we understand what the person feels, their difficulties. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and by moving it freely, we recover vitality, the pleasure of being, creativity, affectivity, going beyond pain, the suffering we have inside us and all the poverty that afflicts us. Biodance makes us more human and harmonizes our lives”.

The Foggia-born nun runs several classes a week with groups of 15 to 20 migrants. “Each session has a theme, for example ‘freedom’, or ‘tenderness’. We dance, and in absolute silence and the meeting of glances, the women express their feelings and rid themselves of toxic emotions with their tears and their cries. To get closer to the wounds, words are often unnecessary; we have to let our bodies speak”. Once again, here is the power of this discipline, which is also a method and at the same time a concrete tool to heal the emotional poverties experienced by migrants: “After dancing and leaving space for their feelings feel happier, my students are relaxed, united. The impact is very emotional; the aim is to educate them to feel capable of loving again, to understand that it is worth getting up and putting yourself out there again”.

The results, continues Sr. Pompea, are seen over time. “If the person is able to free their senses, they will no longer be afraid to embrace the other, to touch them, to enter into a relationship with them and, for those who believe, also with God”. Amal was Pompea’s pupil for two months. She came from Brazil and was on her way to Canada. She was angry, she reacted badly to every approach, it was as if she had lost the capacity for human contact. Her poverty was absolute. Until, after a particularly intense biodance session, she told Sister Pompea the unspeakable: in the Panama desert, she had lost the youngest of her three children, who had died of thirst and hunger. “She had had to leave her body, and she had not forgiven herself”. Freed of her burden, Amal left a little more serene. A little less poor”.

The events with which Sister Pompea comes into contact, in that junction of wounded humanity that is Tapachula, are heartbreaking. A consecrated woman among the most desperate women in the world. How does she feel? “Powerless. I think I could be one of them, with small children, on the street at night in the rain, with nothing. It is not human what migrants have to endure, I feel small in front of their material and especially emotional poverty. But I also understand that my presence is important because they feel God’s love in me and this makes hope blossom in them”.

Journalist for “Avvenire” national newspaper