Beliefnet
HAVANA, Jan. 14 (AP) - The elderly men and women applauded when the saxophonist showed up and some of the more audacious got up to dance to the old Cuban classic ``The Peanut Seller.''

Earlier, they enjoyed a lunch of steaming vegetable soup, a generous portion of chicken and rice, and bananas for dessert. Before their meal, some played dominoes, other watched movies - all for free.

``It is marvelous here, I never want to go home,'' Aida Del Valle, 74, said as she clapped to the music.

As Cuba struggles to overcome a severe economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the former Soviet Union and exacerbated by the U.S. trade embargo, Miraculous Medallion Roman Catholic Church in south Havana is trying to fill gaps remaining in the nation's social safety net.

The church's efort is one sign of the slow resurgence of Cuba's Catholic Chuch and other religious institutions, which for many years have suffered under Fidel Castro's generally anti-religious policies.

Cuba's older citizens - one out of every four Cubans will be over 60 by the year 2025 - have been particularly hard hit by economic need. They often live alone on montly pensions of about 80 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of less than $4.

And while most Cubans don't pay rent and receive much of their food at heavily subsidized prices, retirement pensions often are not enough to cover other necessities.

The need to attend to the nation's elderly will only grow with time. Cuba has the longest life expectancy in Latin America - 68.4 years, according to the World Health Organization.

At Miraculous Medallion Church, more than 100 elderly people every weekday visit the center established for them in Santos Suarez, a once fashionable neighborhood now characterized by pothole-marked streets and once splendorous homes crumbling in disrepair.

The government had operated similar centers for decades, but many had to be shut down during the worst years of economic crisis. Some are now reopening.

Miraculous Medallion's priest, the Rev. Jose Maria Lusarreta, saw the need for some kind of help for the neighborhood's elderly when he arrived here from Spain six years ago. Many older people lived by themselves in extreme loneliness and poverty.

Lusarreta established the center in a two-story building next to the church.

Here, volunteers try to ``create an environment of hope'' for the participants, to ensure that they are not alone and that they are enjoying themselves, while improving their diet, said Lusarreta, himself now 62.

The center opened in 1997 with just 12 participants and now serves 175. Participants eat breakfast and lunch, socialize with their peers, participate in a wide range of activities and receive medical attention.

Lusarreta said he would like to expand the program to include 20 more people but the center has neither the money nor the space right now. To be eligible, participants must live alone and have small incomes and no economic assistance from their families.

Lusarreta and a dozen volunteers seem to do magic with the donations of cash and clothing from private individuals, churches, and local governments in Spain.

The Cuban government helps by selling the center food for the breakfasts and lunches at heavily subsidized prices.

Along with the meals and the socializing, the center also offers twice-weekly haircuts and pedicures for both men and women, a library, a video room for up to 28 viewers, and a workout area. There is even a laundry service.

Participants enjoy the center so much that they say they spend their weekends waiting for Monday so they can see their friends again.

They, too, are involved in helping operate the center, assisting in preparation and serving of meals.

When one of their companions falls ill, they visit him or her at home, bringing food and medicine.

``We owe our well-being to Father'' Lusarreta, said Nicolasa Ordonez, 97.

With a cigarette dangling from her mouth and eyes that no longer see, Ordonez leaned in close to the priest.

``Do you remember, Father?'' she asked. ``You gave me my first breakfast here. You, yourself. Bread with cheese and a glass of hot chocolate.''

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