Chile’s Hogar de Cristo

by | May 13, 2002

El Hogar de Cristo–Christ’s Home–ministers to the sick and dying, tends to the homeless, the intellectually disabled, and the poorest of slum dwellers. Volunteers visit the elderly, cutting their fingernails, shaving them, providing lunch, and taking them to doctor’s appointments. They work with street children and orphans.

If it seems like 19th century church-run charity, look again. While the 56-year-old Chilean Catholic institution has many elements of “traditional” giving and volunteering, it’s also a highly successful modern charity using sophisticated fundraising techniques and the latest technology. The organization is also placing more emphasis on community and development work. Even as early as 1951, the organization was already running a carpenter workshop alongside its homeless shelters, a move away from the purely assistential model.

Last year, the Hogar de Cristo in Chile sponsored 848 programs, assisting 28,254 people throughout the country and mobilizing 112,000 volunteers. The programs run the gamut from old-age homes and homeless shelters to community organizing in the slums and agricultural cooperatives in the countryside.

In a country where the actual amount of private giving and volunteering lags behind much of Latin America, part of the organization’s success comes from the traditional and lasting power of the Catholic Church in Chile. The founding of Hogar de Cristo actually reflects the diverse strands within the Chilean church, moral conservatism and interventionism often co-existing with courageous stances on human rights and social issues. Hogar founder Father Alberto Hurtado created the organization in 1944 after noting the abundance of homeless in Santiago.

“What has the Catholic Church in Chile done so that its sons in Christ are not sleeping under bridges at night?” he spontaneously protested during a mass.

By 1951, he had housed 700,000 people and given out 1,800,000 food rations.

The organization readily admits that Chile today “confronts a different type of poverty than when Hogar de Cristo was founded in the 1940s.” Poverty today, according to the organization’s official website, is often the result of globalization. It now seeks to help those who have been left behind by progress and those–such as miners–who have been rendered obsolete.

Benito Baranda, Director of Social Programs for Hogar de Cristo, told University of Chile journalism student Ricardo Figueroa Salas that the organization still “falls short” in “creat(ing) ties between community and poverty, commit(ing) society to overcome poverty.” In the future, Hogar de Cristo has plans to get much more involved with conditions of extreme poverty. One of its goals is now “to collaborate effectively to eradicate shantytowns in Chile.” Baranda said that the organization also plans to strengthen its more traditional work with senior citizen programs.

The organization is aware of the institutional power of the Church as a driving force, even though Hogar is increasingly positioning itself as a “diverse” operation. Jesuit Father Josse Van Der Rest, chaplain of the Hogar de Cristo’s Housing Foundation, who for years taught postgraduate students in Medellin, Colombia, observes, “Here (in Latin America) if I’m in jail a bishop could take me out. That is not possible anywhere else.”

When Pope John Paul II visited Hogar de Cristo on his trip to Chile in 1987, the organization experienced rapid growth. However, this very increase in visibility and resources brought its own share of problems, including increased demands on resources. “We do not want to make ‘gifts’, we don’t look to make people depend on us. We aim to help poor people to defeat poverty with their own work, giving them everything they might need to do it,” observes journalism student Figueroa, who works at Hogar as a public relations volunteer.

Building up the volunteer program is a priority for Hogar, as it reaches out to recruit young males with professional skills, as well as the more traditional service-oriented female volunteer.

“The work of our volunteers is fundamental,” director Baranda told Figueroa. “When you see the guiding principles used by Rev. Hurtado to create the Hogar de Cristo, one of them is the aim to generate solidarity within our society. The best way to do this is to bond people from different social layers, so they change their lifestyle through that contact with poor people. That bond will change their lifestyle day by day, bringing it closer to the Gospel if they are Christians, and closer to universal values of solidarity, if they are not.”

Chile has low volunteer work statistics compared to other countries. In the United States, 56% of citizens volunteer; in Germany, 34%; in Ireland, 33%; and Japan, 26%. Peru leads the region with 34% of its adult population volunteering in 2000. In Argentina it is 26%, and Brazil 22.6%, according to published surveys. Chile barely reaches 4%.

Observes Figueroa, “This could be explained by the lack of opportunities to volunteer, poor marketing, or because, as a developing country we work longer hours. Or maybe because in Chile people prefer to spend time with their families rather than volunteering. The Hogar de Cristo is one of the most successful institutions attracting volunteers, along with the Red Cross and Fire Service.”

Even the fact that the organization would have journalism students volunteering indicates something about the sophistication of its techniques. It garners state, corporate, and individual member’s financial support in part because it is a “safe” charity with Catholic values. On the other hand, it uses very professional fundraising techniques ranging from company giving and matching programs to annual telethons featuring Chile’s most popular television personalities. Hogar de Cristo runs ads on the international Canal Sur and its bilingual website is set up to receive international donations and recruit volunteers. While teaching the able poor how to fend for themselves, Hogar de Cristo itself goes beyond receiving handouts. It runs a funeral service of its own, profits from which go to benefit Hogar’s work with the needy.

It also sells greeting cards, sponsors a fundraising bread and wine dinner, and markets web-based charitable symbolic funeral wreaths. Even with these entrepreneurial efforts and additional alliances with corporations, 55% of the financing of Hogar de Cristo comes from monthly membership dues, according to statistics obtained by Figueroa. Hogar offers many different levels of membership, including children and youth members.

The commercial services account for 21% of income, while Chilean federal government support makes up 11%. Various national funds for health and education provide 7%, and various other forms of aid make up the rest. Meanwhile, the number of members has nearly doubled from 385,000 in 1995 to 568,327 in 2001.

As it streamlines its image towards diversity, modernity, and participation, Hogar de Cristo conducts a website poll asking how the organization can best raise more funds: increasing member dues, more effectively using publicity, showing what it’s accomplished, or establishing corporate partnerships. The viewer merely has to click a button to vote.

In recruiting volunteers and dues-contributing members, Hogar de Cristo has emphasized that it is not exclusive to Catholics, but open to “anyone who wants to collaborate in overcoming poverty.”

The strong church inspiration of Father Hurtado and the emphasis on traditional Catholic values keep the predominant image a Catholic one, although Chile’s Hogar has apparently faced no controversy over its effort to become inclusive. Press reports indicate that in neighboring Peru, where the Hogar de Cristo was inspired by–but not affiliated with–the Chilean organization, this tendency towards ecumenicalism has been criticized by some sectors of the church.

While Chile as a nation lags behind in its philanthropic efforts, Hogar de Cristo has inspired many like-minded organizations, particularly in Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala, where they bear the same name, but have no formal affiliation.

Josse Van Der Rest, now chaplain of the Hogar de Cristo’s Housing Foundation, promoted the idea with many of his postgraduate students in Medellin, Colombia, who later returned to their home countries.

In an interview, the priest told journalist volunteer Figueroa, “They called me from these countries to try to help starting the same idea, and I’m much more interested in the two thousand million poor than in the eight hundred thousands poor in Chile. I started building homes for children in Guayaquil in 1970, imitating the family shelters for kids in Chile. Then I started to work with the homeless, giving them a roof, but always follow the example of what we had done in Chile.”

Spring 2002Volume I, Number 3

This article was based on a report by University of Chile journalism student Ricardo Figueroa Salas, and supplemented by information from the Hogar de Cristo website < http://www.hogardecristo.com>. The author, ReVista editor-in-chief June Carolyn Erlick, also consulted a study by Elisabeth Acha, Los guardianes de la caridad, El caso del Hogar de Cristo en el Perú, which Acha wrote for the Universidad del Pacífico’s Research center in Peru.

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