Fr. Pablo Zabala is a 70-year old Spanish priest, who serves in a remote part of the world: the Peruvian Amazon.
Most of the people who fill his church pews are gold miners and sex workers in Boca Colorado — an area that some are likening to the California Gold Rush. Before Fr. Zabala began serving in the Amazon, his fellow clergy compared it to Sodom and Gomorrah.
“God is in all parts,” Zabala told them, saying he felt a calling to serve with “the life of the common people,” according to the Associated Press.
Kabala, a former biologist, has lived in the Amazon for the past 24 years, 10 of which have been spent heading up the parish in Boca Colorado, part of the Madre de Dios region. Pope Francis visited the region's capital, Puerto Maldonado, on Friday.
During his ministry, he has seen how miners support their families through their trade mainly because they have no other option for work. Poverty, Zabala noted, has driven thousands into mining or prostitution.
According to AP, miners in the area are using mercury in their pursuit of gold, which has infiltrated into the local water systems. In addition, the miners have brought with them new roadways which have tapped into the rainforest’s supply of trees.
However, Zabala has been working closely with the locals, saying he often points the women toward the witness of St. Mary Madgalene, who has been an effective inspiration for them. He also noted that the women in the town have been instrumental in building two churches.
In addition, Zabala offers the support that he can to the miners, usually in the form of a listening ear. However, on occasion, the task falls to the local priest to bury lone miners who get caught up in local conflicts.
“He’s here for the difficult moments,” said Juana Roque, a local woman who lives with her family in the mining camps.
Pope Francis visited the Madre de Dios region Jan. 19, meeting with indigenous Amazonians, the people of Puerto Maldonado, and the community of a home for orphaned children.
While meeting with members of the Amazonian community, he handed out copies of his 2015 encyclical Laudato si' and noted that “the defense of the earth has no other purpose than the defense of life.
He also spoke about desperations of poverty which has led many to seek gold in the Amazon’s mines. However, he warned that gold can turn into “a false god that demands human sacrifices,” which can “corrupt people and institutions, and they ruin the forest.”