|01-05-2010 - Traces, n. 5
A DAY WITH...
THE FRATERNITY ASSOCIATION
Everything is Mine
and NOTHING is MINE
A brief journey among the families who have thrown open their doors and hearts to foster children. A life with courts and social workers, pain and discoveries, lives they had no idea they’d be able to live, where everything is born (and lasts) because of a friendship in which “we are the first to be forgiven.”
by Alessandra Stoppa
The car moves slowly in traffic, under the rain. Cristian looks out the window and says, “I wonder if my mother has an umbrella.” Who knows if his mother is somewhere under that downpour. Who knows what pain shoots through Enza, who is driving, and who took in Cristian when he was five. Instead, no. “It is our task to accompany these children along their road, until they can return to their parents,” she says in the evening, as she serves dinner to friends in their home in Crema, Italy, which she and her husband Mauro have opened up to the experience of taking in foster children.
The table is very long, and for them it’s an everyday thing. Mauro describes the looks he gets when he says he’s married with eleven children. After all, the equation generally is the following: “foster parenting” equals “extra-large family,” and it’s no mistake. At dinner they talk about booking a twenty-four bed house for the holidays, and when the children peek down from the stairs, you wonder where the dickens they fit them all. Actually, Enza and Mauro’s experience isn’t just of their own family, but a family of familes, an experience of just a few at the beginning, that has spread to become today the Fraternity Association, a reality born to help foster parents in their relationships with social services, courts, and natural parents. The Association, which has just marked 25years, began in September 1983, when some friends heard Fr. Luigi Giussani talk about hospitality. He said, “What is the simplest and most concrete form of charity for a family, if not throwing wide open the doors of their heart and home to a child they didn’t generate?”
Not even a breath. Those words were a presentiment. “We felt that the friendship we were living would have a heart that was not only gladder, but also greater and more magnanimous,” says Fr. Mauro Inzoli, who is responsible for the Association. He is the father of these families, from that first day and for all those that have followed, including the nights he has been awakened at any hour for the most improbable vicissitudes, like children who run away, steal, or fall in love; judge’s verdicts, illnesses, and joys proportional to the unusual dimensions of the families. Some of the foster families reached remarkable sizes: “There are 17 of us.” “There was a period when there were 11 of us.” During these years, the Association has cared for more than 600 foster children. But the numbers aren’t what attract you; what magnetizes you is the undertaking they’re living, of unconditionally loving those they are sent. It’s a strange road, to the point of the unthinkable, except in love: even just a day lasts forever.
Fr. Mauro says that nothing will be lost, “Not a second spent with your children–not even a breath–will be forgotten.” Not even a spoon set by a plate. “Because God isn’t ungrateful like us, who forget.” Then he looks at Gianna, who has just seen a son leave: “If something seems lost, it’s because the question about it that we live isn’t full. When is it full? When you reach the heart of the other, that is yours.” Giorgio observes all the friends around the table. “What we live wouldn’t be possible if we ourselves hadn’t been welcomed,” he says. Soon you see him scolding other peoples’ children as if they were his own, which fits just right with what Antonio tells you. “I learn how to look at my children by how our friends in the Association look at them”–first of all, Fr. Mauro. It was in the unfaltering friendship with him that the family communities were born, homes where several families live together. The first was the farmstead of Monte Cremasco. It was here that, at the start of our day with the Fraternity Association, Gina offered us coffee in the kitchen looking out on the large courtyard. They came here in 1987. It’s a good thing she was “jealous” of her two children, if not, the long shelf full of photos in the kitchen today wouldn’t be big enough, because as it is the frames are crammed in, one next to the other, a series of smiles, wails, and grimaces–children and grandchildren, some born to them; some not.
The whole story of Gina and her husband began in 1975 with a no. Out of jealousy. Gina felt that her family was beautiful, and she didn’t understand why her daughters should go on vacation in Trentino with new friends. But Antonella, the oldest, insisted and invited a priest to their home. At the end of lunch, the whole family had signed up for the vacation, even her husband, Mario, who worked night shifts at a steel factory. When they returned from those days in the mountains, they put a telephone in their house. Something had happened. “The story of our life began,” says Gina. She and Mario were almost 50 years old. They moved to the farmstead when they needed a bigger house. This morning when we visited Gina, outside in the courtyard, silence reigned in the humid mist of the Padania Bassa. Everyone else was sleeping, but Gina gets up early. As she climbed on a chair to reach the cupboard, she said, “Look, Mario, I’m going up.” She always advises her husband when her legs shake from age, so that he will protect her from Heaven. “Christ continues to take care of me; I’m never alone. My husband and I have given, but we have received much more.” On that day in 1983, she and Mario had looked at each other, and said, “We’re too old.” Between that judgment and this big house, there could only be a life made up of things they hadn’t planned.
Law and Life. The first to arrive was Gigliola, then the number of foster children increased together with the number of grandchildren. Giò arrived with a late-night phone call. Gino and Maria said yes immediately, then went to bed, and thought, “But we didn’t ask anything, whether he’s sick, anything!” When you say yes like that, “it’s not a problem of how aware you are,” says Fr. Mauro. “It’s the Mystery who suggests it to you.” We walked a couple of yards, around a few toys that lay in the grass, under the portico to Liliana and Fausto’s house. In the kitchen Zaira and Sara were having breakfast. The first was welcomed to their home 21 years ago, and the other is “natural.” Liliana and Fausto don’t say “she’s ours,” and not just out of sensitivity for the foster children. It’s a question of substance. “Foster parenting flipped upside down the relationship with our children. Not even my blood children are mine. If I weren’t a foster parent… and in certain moments I don’t know how we have managed… I wouldn’t have discovered our children, or even myself.” Fausto related how he learned respect for their times and aspirations that he hadn’t understood before. Then Sara walked in the living room, “Sara, you’re 24 years old–get married! At your age I already had two kids…” Liliana laughed. When they married, very young, Fausto wasn’t a believer and was quite left-wing. He liked Fr. Mauro’s proposal to take in a foster child because at that time a law had been issued on foster parenting with which he agreed. But it wasn’t the idea that moved him.
One evening at dinner with their three small children and two friends, the telephone rang, and a voice asked if they knew someone who could take in an HIV-positive girl. “Right then and there, I said no.” After Liliana hung up the phone and returned to the table, little Alessandra jumped up and said, “Let’s take her. They gave us so many things for Sara’s birth.” The two friends added simply, “If you feel up to it, we’ll be with you for ever.” They said yes for this reason. “That we has never been missing,” said Liliana. “It is Christ who has continued to manifest Himself through a we.” So concrete and splendid, “that I have seen how He changes existence if you have in mind yourself or something else,” said Fausto. “The important thing in my life hasn’t been foster parenting, but my conversion.”
Typhoon Jennifer. “Even by getting hit over the head,” he clarified. Like when they could never sleep after the arrival of Matteo and Valerio, two rebellious brothers. Not a day passed without a call from school, once when a nun was locked in a cloakroom, or another time when a teacher’s car was destroyed. Psychology only lasted four days. In time, Lilliana and Fausto had to give up on keeping the boys. “If I were alone, it would only have been a big failure. But it wasn’t a project with an outcome. God gave them to me, and everything, in unity, became a prayer to Him.”
But they left. How can you say it’s forever? “If a bond is total, it’s incarnated. It’s the good that is born to share in joy and pain, the infinite destiny that the other has. But this good has to be asked for, actively, in the face of facts.” It hasn’t been because of thoughts that the Association has grown from six families to two hundred. Last September they organized a gathering for their 25th anniversary. Fausto was deeply moved, “It was like standing on a high plain and seeing all that you didn’t even know had grown in those years. So I said, “It’s all true. You are here. If not, this wouldn’t be possible.”
The aperitif was in the last house of the farmstead, with Marcello and Cristina, and also included Tommaso, Matteo, Cecilia, Aurora and Mimosa running around the place. There was even silent Caterina, in the crib. They talked above all of the brothers and sisters who’ve passed through here, in diapers or low cut jeans. Iolanda, Jennifer, Gregory, and Fabio; they pray for them name by name, every evening. It was clear that in this beautiful journey there is no lack of opportunities to discover that the heart of hospitality is forgiveness of diversity. Hospitality isn’t an impetus, nor is it learning about and accepting others for what they are. It’s learning to feel this diversity of theirs as holy, to feel it is necessary for you. “In the relationship with diversity, the worst comes out in you,” said Cristina. “But you become true.”
This forgiveness is even taught by a five year old. Little Cecilia said that she felt better when Jennifer was there, and everyone was amazed. Jennifer was a typhoon. “It’s true, but I felt better.” When they asked Cecilia if she would like to send away a boy who, in her words, “made life awful,” she placated them, saying, “No, because Fr. Mauro gave him to us.” Without knowing it, she had explained the sole reason for loving the other: he has been given to you. Even if later, he leaves. “Yes, but the work of loving is much harder than detachment,” says Cristina. And yet when Jennifer left, the pain of it turned the house upside down. “Love for myself, the love of my friends, helps me to accept everything. I saw that if you don’t push Christ aside in the midst of your pain, everything returns to you so big that you couldn’t have imagined it.”
Confusion and understanding. For Fausto, too, in the beginning, everything was confusing. He looked at those two at the head of the table and asked himself, “What do these people want from me?” He has been Marco and Lauretta’s foster child for ten years, and now he’s 15. At their house, in the center of Crema, they tried to figure out how many kids they’ve hosted. Pigio counts ten, but he forgot to count Gianlu. And maybe we skipped Ale. So then, maybe twelve. What Benedetto was sure about is that one day he came home from school and his mom said, “This is Gigi, and starting tonight he’s sleeping with you.” That was the beginning of their life with wide open doors. The summary formulated by the male component of the family was eloquent: “Here, everybody beats on everybody.” It’s a good sign. This came to mind as they made fun of Fausto, who spends half an hour every morning with extra strong gel to make his crest stay up. He was amused, but then got serious. “The question of what they wanted of me has changed. It’s become an affirmation. They’re my parents. This decision was made for me by Someone, and I can be happy about it. Because in time you understand everything that in the beginning was so confused.”
Sublease. In the afternoon, there was the monthly assembly with Fr. Mauro. All the Association families participate, from northern Italy to Perugia, in central Italy, to help each other judge life. At the end, there were the announcements, a bit sui generis. “Tamer, 12 years old. Sabrina, 11. Used to difficult circumstances. Slight autolesionism....” And so on, for a score of children. Information cut to the bone, because the Association gets into details only if someone is interested.
“These children are from God. Ours is a sublease,” they joke this evening at dinner. Parents recount their more difficult problems, but they trust that a moment always comes in which everything comes together. Today, Matteo told Silvia, “You’re not my mother.” And yet, she’s the one who brings him to the eye doctor (“he’s color blind”), and she’s the one who taught him to talk and bears with him (“he’s a hooligan”). When he tells her he wants to leave, “It’s a blow. But you do what you can, and you put everything back into the hands of an Other.” Everything is mine and nothing is mine. It’s the same with Alessandro, brain-damaged and beautiful. “I only hope that, God willing, our staying together bears fruit.” Silvia and Cristiano live in the family community of Bagnara, together with Laura and Damiano. He grew up in an Association family. When he was a child, he found himself suddenly on the couch, with a note on the table and a sleeping bag. They needed to make space for someone. Today he’s giving the same chance to himself, and his seven children.
Children who “don’t trust that you love them” are the hardest for everyone. And so one of them concludes, “In any case, God works.” Fr. Mauro intervened immediately: “We always end strangely. As if we ‘closed up.’ Certainly God works. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. But it’s not that God works and we’re here. It’s in me. This is what makes us bend our knees before the other and makes us face life without fear. Because it’s moving to know that God is one with us and that we don’t disgust Him. He who is totally other than us.” Only in travelling the road to this point is it possible to enable the children to discover that they are loved, “that there’s Someone who truly loves them unconditionally.”