On a Friday night in the run up to Christmas, Chueca is throbbing with a young hip crowd that pack its many bars and restaurants.
One of the first districts in Madrid to be gentrified, Chueca is now synonymous with smart and trendy, which is why you can’t help but feel surprised by the altogether different crowd hanging out under a large star half way up Calle Hortaleza.
“Look!”, says one passerby. “There’s that futuristic church!”
The crowd gathered here does not consist of aliens, though they are used to being considered as such. Rather they are a mix of Spanish and immigrants who have rocked up to San Anton because they have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep and they have heard that it is the one church in Madrid that is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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‘There’s no room, there’s no room” says Padre Angel, the man behind the open doors initiative. “That’s what everyone says nowadays just as they did to a certain family in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The doors of the churches should be open in times of snow and cold, but also the doors of palaces and senate – the palaces where the politicians work.’
It’s a message that, with the rise of Vox and the extreme right, seems to be increasingly unfashionable
The founder of Messengers of Peace, an NGO set up in 1962 that works with underprivileged children, immigrants and drug addicts, Padre Angel had to fight with the upper echelons of the Church to keep his doors open 24/7, “My idea has always been to have a church where people can go to pray at any time. But those who came were people who were cold and sleeping rough. Well, God bless them, it’s here for everyone” says the 82-year-old who has since collaborated in similar initiatives in Barcelona and Mexico and now in the centre of Rome where the Church of the Holy Stigmata of St Francis has been an around the clock sanctuary since December 9.
Is it a trend that will catch on? Padre Angel laughs at the suggestion. “I’ll be lucky if they don’t close this one down,” he says referring to San Anton.
Inside the church, the back pews are stacked with shabby bags overflowing with belongings of people clearly in need of a safe haven. Some sleep sitting up, others lying out on a pew and more stare towards the altar where Padre Angel stands giving mass. There is WiFi in one corner, toilets in another, a place to have a cup of coffee and facilities to change nappies.
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Such is San Anton’s reputation, people come to take a look, and there have been those within the church – cardinals and bishops – who have popped in to make sure no black magic is being performed, according to Padre Angel. “In social issues, you have to be humble but you also have to be a rebel. You can’t conform,” he says. The only magic here is that the church is being used to carry out the fundamental Christian message. It’s a message that, with the rise of Vox and the extreme right, seems to be increasingly unfashionable. But Padre Angel, who was awarded this year’s Beato de Liebana prize by the Cantabrian government for nurturing harmonious coexistence and international cooperation, is determinedly upbeat on the subject.
“There has never been so much solidarity,’’ he tells me. “I remember as a child when Andalucians came to Asturias to find work, they were insulted. That would never happen now. But at times, instead of concern for people who are different, there’s precaution. We are cautious about doing too much for immigrants, careful not to open our borders too wide. Instead of seeing how many we can take, our politicians try to see how few we can get away with. Its shameful. If they come to my country it’s a blessing. It means I’m doing something right.
“People like their comfort zone, they like certainty. We need revolutionaries, people to stir things up”
In 1972, he famously approached General Franco for financial assistance for an orphanage in Asturias. To his surprise, the dictator agreed to donate but subsequently sent the trifling sum of 2,000 pesetas – equivalent to 12 euros. His response? “What was I meant to do with that?” An attempt to send it back was discouraged by the governor of Asturias who predicted dire consequences for them both, so he had it framed instead. He is outspoken on the lack of political action on the refugee situation which is currently unfolding outside the doors of Samur Social in Madrid, the municipality’s social services. “The politicians try to make it society’s responsibility to sort it out. Instead of feeling ashamed that local people are providing the food and blankets they encourage it. It’s like keeping the streets clean, we are paying for these things.”
Naturally Padre Angels boldness get himself into trouble on occasion. Besides his open door policy for his church, he has been criticised for mingling with celebrities and giving homosexual couples his blessing. “I don’t like being criticised,” he tells me. “I’m not a masochist. But at times I understand my critics.”
San Anton initially provided breakfast for the socially excluded but when people started turning up for dinner as well, Padre Angel and his Messengers of Peace opened the Robin Hood chain of restaurants in Madrid and Toledo which allow the homeless to dine with dignity every evening from 7-8pm, meals that are funded by paying customers at other times.
And this Christmas Eve there will be a dinner for around 200 sleeping rough hosted by Padre Angel and attended by Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida. “We do it every year,’’ he says. “We have held it in the Circulo de Bellas Artes and the Prado museum. We’ve asked to do it in the Senate this time and they’ve agreed. The purpose of the event is to make people aware that the poor have as much right to be waited on as the King and other rich people – to dine with dignity.”
As part of the Christmas mass given at the dinner, Padre Angel wants to flag up the ‘No room at the Inn’ issue and the ease with which we turn immigrants away. “We fear differences because we are not very adventurous,” he says. “People like their comfort zone, they like certainty. We need revolutionaries, people to stir things up.” And Padre Angel intends to keep doing just that.