Friday, April 13, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part X)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part X:  The Good News

When Jesus first started His public ministry, He was given the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah. He chose to read the section that spoke of the good news for the poor.

FFP Videographer Ian Wood with some new friends
This trip was not lacking in good news for the poor.

We visited a thriving animal husbandry project (pigs and chickens) for widows. We played with the children of El Chulin Feeding Center, having bought the food at the market earlier and helped in the kitchen to prepare this special meal for them. We visited a successful tilapia-farming project for a community of 75 homes, both funded through the generosity of our donors. Here we were treated to freshly caught, nicely seasoned, fried tilapia. We were also treated to a delicious meal at the “pelibuey” project. Pelilbueys are a special cross-breed between goats and sheep, and the community had already increased their stock from 50 to more than 80 animals.

But there was also good news that was more intimately connected to the emotional content of our trip. Besides bringing food, clothing, shoes, mattresses and hope for the families we visited, our local partners in Guatemala managed to procure land for all those we visited who were renting from others. This means that, again, through the caring of our beloved donors, we will begin to build homes for all families visited on this trip. In particular, Catarina Sacrohope owned the land by the cliff, but we could not build there. However, during our visit, a kind neighbor decided that she would give Catarina a piece of land further up the mountain and away from the edge of the precipice.

The greatest gift that we can share with the poor is our gift of presence. It comes with a feeling of brotherhood, of caring, of walking the extra mile, of coming out of our very comfortable worlds daring to understand their world of suffering and sorrow – it comes with an offer of love and hope.



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part IX)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

 Part IX: The Silence

On Sundays, I have my immediate family to our home for dinner. I cook for 21 people (four generations of us) including six wonderful grandchildren (by next Sunday there will be seven!). There is always the noise of children at play – laughing, crying, shouting, running, music, television, video games, and more. I love that beautiful noise – it is the noise of immortality, of legacy, of the future.

I noticed that there were many children at all the homes we visited; yet the only noise we heard was the sad sound of crying. The silence of the children was almost unbearable, for each of us knew from whence it came. It was the silence of hunger, the silence of deprivation, the silence of malnourishment, the silence of lethargy – in short, the silence of poverty!

Another generation robbed of its childhood simply because they lost the lottery of life – born in a poor country to destitute parents.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part VIII)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

 Part VIII: A Widow on the Edge

We then visited Catarina Sacrohope, a 27-year-old woman with four young children. At first sight, Catarina’s predicament has much in common with many of the other destitute families we had visited: she is a widow; she is very poor; she lives in a cramped, wretched hovel; she and her children scavenges for food at garbage dumps; she has no means of support for her family; her children are malnourished (the youngest did not stop crying until we gave him some food); their clothing is ragged and threadbare.

Angel with Catarina and her family
Yet her sadness was different for the others we had seen – it was more distracted, more desperate, more urgent; more intense. As we walked down the treacherous, slippery, rocky, narrow pathway that sloped sharply downhill towards her house, I understood why.

You see, Catarina lives with her family on the edge of a cliff, literally one foot away from a hundred-foot drop down a ravine that people use to dump their useless garbage, debris and human waste. There is slow but chronic erosion, as the shack is directly in the path of frequent mudslides caused by the heavy rainfall and the area is further afflicted by earth tremors.

Catarina is a woman who lives in constant fear – not only of long-term consequences of malnourishment, contaminated water and other scourges of poverty, but of an instant and immediate danger to the life of her children and her own. She is a woman living on the edge of a cliff that has her teetering always between life and death, robbing her of anything even remotely resembling peace of mind.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part VII)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part VII: Ruth & Naomi

Maria Macario was a 61-year-old widow. She did everything possible to keep her family of twelve from succumbing to the ravages of poverty. She had, by her own introduction, five daughters and six grandchildren. It was only on further conversation with Adriana, the person that we thought to be her oldest daughter, that I found out that before becoming her daughter she had been her daughter-in-law. Maria was a brave widow who had only one son. He married Adriana and had given Maria four grandchildren. He took up with a mistress, and Maria, uncharacteristically and against all cultural mores, denied her only son and welcomed Adriana and the four children into her heart and home.

“I was ten when I lost my parents,” said Adriana crying, “I had no family but this one, no home to which to return.”

If that household were a drama, sorrow and pain would be the lead characters.

Maria lost her husband to poverty and hunger. They live close to a ravine that becomes a swift river with the areas frequent torrential rains. Often, the animals that perish with the floods are swept downstream in these waters. Maria’s husband, using a pole with a hook, tried to fish one of these animals from the fast moving waters in order to give his family the protein that they needed and could never afford to buy. The current pulled him into the water and he drowned – a good man lost his life for the Guatemalan equivalent to road kill.

The tiny house was divided into two even smaller rooms. Adriana and her four children lived in one, while Maria, her other daughters and grandchildren shared the other. Of all the places we had visited, the humidity here was the worst. Adriana explained that when it rained, the room got filled with slimy slugs. They got in through the many holes in the mud walls. They had used cornhusks to plug them, but it was a losing battle. They had collected some in a plastic cup as evidence of what she was saying. As we looked at the wall and the plugged holes, we saw a large long-legged spider. Adriana spoke about the fear of sleeping on the floor and the horrible sensation of stepping on the slugs at night with bare feet.

Adriana’s pain was palpable. Whether she was expressing appreciation, affection or hurt, the expression of her profoundly haunting sorrowful eyes was unchanged. It was as if she were the gatekeeper of the world’s anguish and her mouth was the floodgate – every time it opened tearfully, it reduced us all to tears.

Everyday, the family goes to the garbage dump, like so many from that area, to search for food. “We are animals,” Adriana said, “we battle the dogs, the pigs and the goats to get the food at the dump away from them for our children to survive.”

When speaking about the constant fear in which she lives that she may lose her children to hunger and to the unhealthy living conditions, she said, “I wake up in the night weeping and I cry out to God, ‘Lord, I know I am not alone, but until when will I suffer without deliverance. Until when Lord?”

Until when Lord? Adriana had imprinted her sorrow deeply unto my heart.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part VI)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part VI: To Market, to Market…

On Tuesday, we once again head out with Hector, our fearless bus driver, who gave us many thrills on narrow mountain roads, riding the edge of a precipice without the benefit of guard rails. Things are different inside the bus – we are all friends now, bound together by the pain and sorrow that we had witnessed in this life-changing experience.

After witnessing the hunger of those visited the day before, we decided to go to the main street market of Quetzaltenango to buy some corn for the families that we were going to visit on that day. It was just my type of place – loud, busy, densely populated, colorful and full of the vibrancy of life. The fruits and vegetables were like jewels in the sunlight; many were recognizable, while others were typical of the Caribbean Basin. My mouth watered for the “zapote,” (also know as Mamey), which brought back memories of my native Cuba.

Walking through the market that was so jam-packed with all types of foods, I thought of my beloved late father telling me stories of the depression. He had told me that the markets were bursting with food, that the food was dirt cheap (a dozen eggs for 5 cents), but that few had the money to buy anything. “On May 17, 1936,” he would say, “the entire family woke up that morning and went to bed that night without eating anything.”

I thought of the poor, who would have to bypass all the attractive stalls with fruit and vegetables, and the butcher stalls with the deep red sides of beef hanging there. Dried corn for tamales and tortillas would be their only purchase and if they came in to a few extra pennies, chicken feet would be the only affordable protein.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part V)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part V:  Juanbi

While we were visiting Josefa Morales, I received a wonderful gift – a surprise.

Five years before I had met a young man, Juanbi, who helped 15 widows with a pig-rearing project in that area. Although he only spoke Quiche (one of the four main Mayan languages) I immediately felt a fatherly affection for him. He was so hardworking and he treated the pigs like pets, naming each one of the ten. He was orphaned from a young age and now he found himself responsible for the care of his three younger siblings.

Whenever I visited Guatemala, I would always try to see him and three years ago, when my wife and I vacationed in Guatemala, we took him shopping for clothes. I was amazed that for someone who had little, he had great dignity, refusing many of the pieces of clothing or shoes that we offered to buy for him. I often commented to him that my one regret was that we could not communicate without a translator.

Aloma with Juanbi
Pastor Chan, one of our partners in Guatemala, arranged for Juanbi to come and see me during our visit to Josefa. It filled me with joy to see him. He said, through Pastor Chan, that he had a surprise for me. Suddenly, he started speaking to me in the most beautiful Spanish that one could imagine. I hugged him and he started crying and so did I. I was moved that he credited me as his inspiration for learning the language, but I also thought that practically this would open job possibilities for him.

I invited him to dinner with us and I marveled at what he told me. Having learned Spanish at the Mayan Institute (a free school for Mayan descendants) he was able to get a job in construction from Monday to Friday. On Saturdays he continued to study all day and had just finished grade school and was about to begin secondary school and had ambitions for going to college. On Sundays he would study and play soccer with nine friends who lived in his tiny village of nine homes.

If this sounds amazing to you, please understand that he walks five hours each day to get to work and back home, and four hours on Saturday to get to school and back. What a great example of discipline, tenacity and will. What a great surprise!

To be continued....

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part IV)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part IV: Josefa Morales

Angel Aloma with Josefa Morales and her family
All the people we visited on our first two days had a certain sadness about them, but with Josefa Morales, her sadness and pain was constant and devastating. During our entire visit she never stopped crying for a moment, she seemed inconsolable.

Josefa is alone; her husband abandoned her four years ago and left her with ten children aged 4 to 16. They all live in a mud house with rotten wood and nothing inside. The mountains are cold and the clothing is sparse, so they huddle together at night to keep each other warm on the damp mud floor. Josefa’s oldest daughter, Juana, shares in her mother’s sadness, as she is the only one old enough to understand the reason for it.

Josefa is shamed and hurt that her children live in such poverty and she, as their mother, is not able to do anything to make their lives better. Her eyes always look towards the floor, no matter whom she is addressing. She seems like a person suffering from a broken soul.

Two of Josefa Morales' 10 children.
She talks about her attempts to make things better. She and Juana walk the neighborhood every day, knocking on every door asking for neighbors who are not a lot better off than she is for dirty clothes to wash for them. Even when the neighbors oblige, the most that she and Juana can earn in one day is less than $3.00 and that’s not counting the cost of washing soap and the effort to walk to a suitable source of water.

Amidst tears, she talks of her pain at having to feed her children only corn tamales, or broth “made from bullion, not real meat,” or weak coffee to try and “kill the hunger.” She cries because her children never get to taste meat; because a couple boiled potatoes are considered a full meal; because sometimes she is forced to fry leaves and grasses and give that to her children as dinner; because sometimes she has no food and no money and she has to listen to their cries of hunger.

How can we abandon this woman to her sorrow and her pain?

To be continued...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part III)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

Part III: Santiago and Marta

Santiago, Marta and their children.
 We climbed further up the mountain and visited another couple, Santiago and Marta, both 25 years old. The living conditions were almost identical to those of Martin and Isabela – mud hut (even smaller), handloom, no steady income, three hungry, malnourished children, including an infant swaddled on Marta’s back, ratty clothes and shoes on the kids, profound sadness and shame in their eyes.

Like Martin, Santiago spent long hours every day bent over his loom, weaving his cloths one thread at a time. Because he was less experienced than Martin, it actually took him twice the time to produce the same size cloth. Marta and the children took daily trips to the garbage dump to find food, clothes or recyclable materials that they could sell for a small amount of money.

There was a sweetness, humility and dignity about this couple that immediately drew me in emotionally. I think they had the same effect on the rest of the group that accompanied me on this visit.

Santiago's loom
It broke our hearts when, with embarrassment, he told me that his family was being evicted from that health trap because they could not keep up with the $7.00 a month rent. His shame broke our hearts. Marta explained that they could not feed their children properly or send them to school and their dreams for them were so different to the reality they were living.

In an attempt to help, we asked him if he had any of his cloths ready for sale. He had two. When we were paying him the price that we had paid Martin for his, he asked us to pay him less because he was less experienced than Martin. This from a man who had little more than nothing – we would not be bargained down! More tears… from the entire group.

As the mattresses we brought for them arrived, I was telling him that we were going to pay the next four months of his rent so as to take away his worry of eviction. The relief was so overwhelming for him that he fell immediately on his knees to thank us. I grabbed his outstretched arms and raised him from the ground and gave him a huge hug, totally humbled by his own humility. And again, group tears…

I told Santiago that he had the name of my birth city in Cuba and the patron saint of Spain (St. James) and I told Marta that there was a well known namesake in the New Testament that worked as hard as she did, but who was somewhat quarrelsome. I asked her if she was quarrelsome with Santiago – finally… a smile!

The family's "kitchen."

 Their little 5-year-old son was very serious the entire visit and I had heard from others who had visited before that he was very gregarious. I asked him why he was so sad, he responded, “My daddy doesn’t have any work.”

To be continued...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part II)

I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii...

PART II: Martin and Isabela

As soon as we got to Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela (pronounced Chela) we traveled to the mountains just outside the city and visited our first family in the town of Nimasac.

Martin, Isabela and their daughter
Martin and Isabela are a young couple that are not able to make ends meet. I was shocked to learn that they actually had to pay rent for the mud hut that they call home – dark, dank, moist crowded area with no furniture other than a handloom. They have four children, ages 9 months to 11 years old.

They sleep on the damp dirt floor, which worries Isabella as she realizes the danger to her children’s health, particularly since their immune systems are already compromised by severe malnutrition. That afternoon, the only food they had consumed all day was three small corn tamales shared among all six family members – less than a hundred calories each, minimal protein.

Isabela searches the garbage dump for clothing for her children, as the cold in that region can be bitter. Unfortunately, the clothing found in the dump of that area is in horrible condition and those who scavenge at the dump for a living will pick the better of the worst. One of her boys had on a pair of shoes that left most of the front of the feet exposed.

No one would dare say they are lazy.

Martin labors at the backbreaking task of weaving colorful, beautiful cloths at the loom, his back bent over at an almost 90 degree angle for hours on end. It takes him weeks to complete one 8-yard piece. To make matters worse, the retailers, knowing the desperate condition of these poor people, pay them far less than what the cloths are worth and then mark them up by 300-400% when they sell them to the tourists. He barely earns enough to pay the 50 quetzales rent (US$7.00), and at times, not enough even for that. His eyes betray the terrible shame of a man who cannot feed his slowly starving children.
The shoes belonging to Martin & Isabela's son.

Isabela takes all four children with her to the neighboring woods to collect branches and sticks to sell for firewood for only pennies a day. The older three help Isabela, while she bears the weight of the baby on her back all day as she works. On one occasion, the income from one day’s sale of wood was only enough to buy one egg. Isabela cannot help but weep when she speaks of the needs of her family, of the children’s hunger, of their sometimes incessant crying for food.

 We took them clothes and shoes for the children, we bought all four cloths that Martin had completed for a fair market price and we brought them mattresses to put on the floor. They expressed tearful words of appreciation in Quiche, which was translated to Spanish, which I translated into English – there was not a dry eye there.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Guatemala Journal – The Silence and the Pain (Part I)

 Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
I traveled to Guatemala on a Saturday with our national senior account executive from Salem Radio, five of my colleagues from Food For The Poor (FFP) and the 13 coolest Christian radio hosts (some also pastors) that one could ever imagine, coming from as close by as the west coast of Florida and as far away as Hawaii.

The fellowship that I enjoyed with the group would have made the trip worthwhile by itself, covering topics from the ridiculous, to the poetic, to the sublime; sharing tears and laughter without inhibition or shame; witnessing each other’s sensitivities, vulnerabilities and levels of sympathy and empathy. In short, we bared our souls to each other and gently comforted and loved one another as the circumstance may have required it. All that being said, there was so much more…

Moments of Sheer Joy

We wasted no time. As soon as we landed we were on our way to visit the Sor Lucia Roge Nutritional Center, where Sister Ana Cristina and her staff have been working miracles for some time. The children brought to her there are an inch away from death – so completely emaciated that some don’t even look human anymore. Some have had multiple death sentences pronounced on them, but Sr. Ana Cristina does not believe in death sentences.

With much efficiency, she provides these starving children with watered down milk, nutritional drinks, broth, pureed foods and lots of love. Eventually, they return to health – all in a day’s work – another life saved!

Aloma in rural Guatemala.
 The older children here were fully recovered; filled with energy, ready to attack all visiting adults with hugs and kisses; wanting to play, to be told stories, to be held… It was great seeing Lester again, a child pulled away from the very jaws of death by the devoted sister and her staff, now an adorable young man.

We met the mother of a little girl there who was so malnourished herself that Sr. Ana Cristina felt it necessary to take her over to the hospital next door, where she received three pints of blood. Now she is staying at the nutritional center until she recovers her strength. She still looked awfully debilitated and her eyes betrayed a fatigue so deep that it was a little frightening.

We left to a loud chorus of shouts of “Adios” from the children.


We got up early on Sunday and took the bus for the 5+-hour journey from the capital to Quetzaltenango. Our charming and knowledgeable driver, Hector, tied our luggage on top of the bus and we quickly occupied the interior.

Despite my herniated disks and out-of-joint S.I. joints, I have to admit that our times on the bus were golden. We shared so much, so deeply, so quickly… prayers, laughter, devotionals, laughter, movie/music/TV reviews, laughter, personal stories, laughter.

To be continued...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thirty years of hope

I wrote this poem for our 30th Anniversary celebration at FFP Florida, but it includes the efforts of all.

Thirty Years of Hope

Thirty years… Thirty years… Thirty years…
Voices crying out in the wilderness,
An army of ancient knights
Trading horses for metal birds
Church, to church, to church.
Battling ignorance with awareness,
Molding awareness into generosity,
Generosity into good works.
Dear knights who validate our mission

Thirty years… Thirty years… Thirty Years…
Blessed supporters – old and new –
How well you have loved from afar.
A love so pure it requires no name,
No face, no personal expression of gratitude.
You have answered the call with vigor –
Saving lives, loving the stranger, healing the sick,
Comforting the child forgotten on the garbage heap.
Obedient to His mandate; in imitation of His life.

 Thirty years… Thirty years… Thirty years…
You, here before me and across the seas,
Whose arduous work
In times of calm and times of crisis
Is undeterred by any earthly cause,
Who labor for the poor long hours by day
Praying consistently for them at night.
Foot soldiers of Christ’s beleaguered army,
Battling unceasingly for a godly cause.

Thirty years… Thirty years… Thirty years…
Missionaries selflessly devoting lifetimes
Loving the invisible who have no voice,
Giving of themselves without limit,
Living no better than their beloved poor.
Sharing the heat and stench of poverty,
Sharing their grief, their sorrow and pain
You, who have comforted orphans and widows,
You, who help the dying to die in peace

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A thank you to Food For The Poor donors

“I call heaven and earth as a witness this day, that I have set before you life and death...Therefore choose life...” 
(Deuteronomy 30:19a)

In many of our countries children die on a daily basis, not because of horrible, debilitating illnesses, but simply for lack of food. In Haiti, it used to be that one out of every eight children did not live to see the age of five for this reason, but because you have chosen life, now it’s one in fourteen.

Thank you for choosing life!

In Guatemala, many children are afflicted with diarrhea because they are forced to drink contaminated water from the only sources available to them. This treacherous malady is responsible for the dehydration and high fevers that put the children’s lives at risk, but because you have chosen life we are able to bring clean water to many communities, saving more than 66% of even those children who are in most danger.

Thank you for choosing life!

In Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti, thousands of families live in huts that we would not consider fit even for our animals – dirt floors, sticks, mud, cardboard, plastic, rusted metal, termite mounds, insects, roaches and rodents – all conditions that, combined with inclement weather, would gravely endanger the lives of children there. But you have chosen life, and by supporting our house-building programs in these countries you have invited the attention of an international financial institution that is willing to match, dollar for dollar, every home that you help build.

Thank you for choosing life!

In Jamaica, there are children infected with HIV that would not be alive today, but because you have chosen life you have given them the opportunity to live happy, joy- filled lives in a loving environment. You also provide hope to HIV infected mothers who come to a hospital we support that specializes in the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMCT) and where 97% of all their babies are born HIV negative because of the administration of a special drug cocktail immediately before delivery. And for those who are in the final stages of their journey, your choice for life helps them to take that final step with dignity, hope, peace and spiritual comfort.

Thank you for choosing life!

Illiteracy is a terrible scourge in many of our countries. Even when education is free, those who live in extreme poverty cannot afford the shoes, the uniforms and the books required by the schools for attendance, but because you have chosen life thousands of those children who would have grown up in the darkness of ignorance now have an opportunity to enjoy a future brimming with luminous success – literate, eloquent and well acquainted with the world of technology.

Thank you for choosing life!

In some of our countries, unemployment and underemployment are higher than 80 percent. At times that segment of the population earns less than $2 per day, with almost half of these earning less than $1 per day. Because you have chosen life we have been able to support many self-sustainable projects. These return dignity and hope to parents who are now able to properly feed their children, send them to school and seek medical attention for them when needed. Self-reliance eliminates the shame of poverty and replaces it with self-respect.

Thank you for choosing life!

I want you to understand that every time you have supported any of our programs or projects that you have chosen life.

We can never repay your kindness, but we do assure you of our prayers and the prayers of the vulnerable people that your generosity has served so well.

For the poor,

Angel A. Aloma

Friday, August 26, 2011

Standing In the Shadow of the Cross

At a moment in the prayer service this morning, trying to avoid the sun in my eyes by standing in the shadow of the cross on the front of our building, I suddenly felt the urge to write this prayer, which I completed in within the time of a song that was being played there. I used the blank back of the program distributed that morning to write it. It just flowed right out, without pause.

Standing In the Shadow of the Cross
I am standing here, Lord, in the shadow of your cross.
I could not look upon you, Lord,
Were it not for that painful yet beautiful sacrifice.
But standing in its shadow, Lord,
I can look up at your light that would blind me
Were it not for the protection of your cross.
The brilliance of your light comforts me,
Warms me, illuminates me
And lightens my burdens.
Your light explodes
Behind the shadow of your cross, Lord,
To prove that you are indeed the Master of Death,
The giver of life, the provider of peace,
And the sole source of true and everlasting joy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Honduras: The agony and the ecstasy

I recently returned from another inspirational trip to Honduras. It is always good to visit with Linda Coello, her blood relatives and her extended family that comprise the organization of which she is president – CEPUDO. They are the people who do a great job of distributing the goods that we send for that country and who are our partners in projects that include the building of houses and water wells for the poor. Together with our excellent partners from the ICDF (Taiwan), CEPUDO manages the self-sustainable projects that we fund through the loving generosity of our donors. These projects include tilapia and shrimp farming, animal husbandry projects and agricultural projects.

Besides, my Taiwanese friend, Samuel, keeps me well supplied with a delicious Chinese treat pronounced “WAH – MAE” that I discovered in my years in Jamaica. It’s a dry salted plum that tastes a lot better than it sounds – and it’s very high roughage! :o)

Food For The Poor Honduras Tilapia Project.
Our first stop was in an area called Rio Lindo (Pretty River), in the neighborhood called El Borboton. Here the community had been giving a 20 acre piece of land and the government of the time had started to build cement ponds for the farming of fish. The funds ran out and the project was abandoned. The community waited and waited for help to continue the project, but the only thing they got was empty promises.

Along comes our caring donor and friend, Chris Cotter, and his generous contribution delivers the people from their 20-year bondage. Food For The Poor, in partnership with CEPUDO and ICDF (Taiwan), built two enormous ponds and filled the six existing cement ponds for the purpose of tilapia and shrimp farming. We inaugurated the project that day and we released 20,000 fingerlings into each of the new ponds. The fingerlings will mature in 4-6 months. I discovered that when the project is fully functional, it will produce 24,000 lbs. of fish every month! But that’s not all…

Chris also funded a third pond, connected to the two huge ones, which would serve as a catchment area for the water running off the fish ponds, containing the waste from the tilapia. This catchment pond would then feed a canal system that would in turn irrigate and fertilize a few acres of agricultural land that would be planted out with vegetables of different types. The men of the community would take care of the tilapia farming, while the women would be in charge of the agricultural part. We presented the women with a gas tiller and they were thrilled. They all looked so empowered.

You could cut the happiness with a knife - it was so palpable.

Pig Poo Power: Swine waste used to power homes.
The second stop was in Comayagua, in the neighborhood called La Isla. Here we saw an amazing pig project also funded through the generosity of our donors. Ten families in this community were selected for this project and each of them had two cement pig-pens built in their back yards. They were each given 20 high quality piglets to raise for meat. When the pigs reached 200 pounds each, they would be sold. The family would then replace the 20 pigs sold with piglets, keep the profit, and start the business cycle again. Our partners from Taiwan took care of the training and the butchering. What a great transformation, coming from extreme poverty to become self-sustainable entrepreneurs.

There was another aspect from this project that truly appealed to my environmentalist side. I was shown, first hand, how the waste from the pens would be washed, three times per day, into two large plastic containers. These containers would be rigged with a plastic tube that led out of the containers and into the house. The captured pig feces would produce the gas methane, which would travel through the tube and into the little kitchen. Here it would be connected to a stove and to a lamp, and so the methane would allow them both to cook and to see at night. I was amazed. Nothing was wasted – not even the waste!

The mother of the household was kind enough to cook some tortillas on the griddle with the methane gas and to demonstrate the use of the lamp. She explained that at any time they have a supply of methane that can last them in excess of seven hours.

I left La Isla feeling so good about our work and so thankful that we have caring donors who really want to transform the lives of those whom they may never meet.

By far, our most emotional activity was the inauguration of 159 two bedroom homes in the municipality of Danli, in the area called San Marcos de Abajo in the department of El Paraiso. In August of 2010, a number of communities of that area that were located by the side of the river because of the easy proximity to water, were severely affected by a two hour flash flood that caused the river to rise and devastated the entire community, damaging many homes and completely sweeping away 159 houses, leaving a large number of people homeless and six families mourning the loss of life of their loved ones.

Food For The Poor gives flood victims new homes in Danli, Honduras.
The country responded with an unprecedented display of collaboration – the Honduran Red Cross responded to the devastation, while the firefighters, the police, the boy scouts, the church and many other agencies, organizations and individuals responded with kindness. The mayor of the city went all out in his efforts to help and the municipality donated land on a beautiful mountain in the area. Our donors again came to the rescue and raised the funds needed to build 80 two-bedroom homes. Fortunately, SOPTRAVI (an agency connected to the Ministry of Housing) matches the homes that we build one for one. We were then able to build the 159 homes needed to help ease the emotional trauma suffered by our brothers and sisters there.

I walked around talking to the families that would soon be enjoying their new homes and their stories were heartbreaking. One woman survived with her 3 children – one was blind and a paraplegic; the other was going blind and losing her ability to walk; the third did not have disabilities. Through her tears, she explained how they had all survived because of God’s unfailing grace. I met another family where the mother grabbed the two younger children and told the older daughter that she would have to do her best to fend for herself. She worried that she would never see her again and through tears explained that God had saved her older daughter, as she was lifted unto the back of a crowded pick- up truck as she was attempting to save herself.

The Vice President of Honduras attended the event. The mayor of Danli had us all in tears as he broke down emotionally himself when he addressed the crowds. The mayor of Tegucigalpa gave a warm tribute to the donors of Food For The Poor, without whom that inauguration would not have been possible – especially in less than one year since the disaster. I was moved and humbled by the poor, who displayed such patience, faith and strength. Also by our staff, by our partners, and particularly by our donors who never disappoint us in our greatest times of need.

We made another visit in an area a good hours drive out of Tegucigalpa. Here we met a dynamic Italian priest, Fr. Ferdinanado, who had served the poor for years in Africa and was now devoting his time and efforts in helping the destitute in Honduras. A strong devotee of Padre Pio, he credited what he had been able to accomplish there to his miraculous interventions. Single-handedly, he raised the money from family and friends in Italy for a magnificent hospital that he has built in an area where there are no medical services. He has designed it with huge hallways where he will put cots so that the family of those who are ill can stay close to their loved ones. Only one problem, the hospital was completely bare of furnishings. He asked for our help.

Again, one of our gifts-in-kind donors has come to the rescue and we will be sending him container loads of hospital room suites to properly furnish this magnificent structure that will do such good for the poor of that area. As you might imagine, Fr. Ferdinando is very happy!

After touring the hospital, he took us to meet some of the people of the nearby communities that he has helped with housing, a home for the aged, and a center for troubled youth. But he also wanted us to meet some of the ones that he had not been able to help.

He took us to the home of Antonio Alvarez, a good husband and father of eight. Antonio is a “segador” (a harvester or field hand), but he does not have steady employment. Every day he goes out to the fields looking for work, but most days he returns home feeling defeated as he is not able to find any. On the few days when someone gives him employment he earns less than a dollar an hour. The oldest daughter, Maria Ester, is sixteen and takes care of the 3 youngest siblings who are yet not of age to attend school – Onaida Jocelyn, Maria Guadalupe, and the baby, Leonidas Ferdinando (yes, named after their beloved priest!) We asked Antonio for the other kids, and he replied that two were running errands and the other two were playing with neighborhood friends.

Their adobe shack was truly wretched, but they made every effort to make it a home. I wondered how they could afford to send the oldest five to school, as on one of the walls they had end-of-year photos of all the kids. Antonio showed me that with pride. I looked up at the corners of the walls, near the roof, and was horrified to see huge termite mounds inside their tiny home. On the termite mounds there were a number of cockroaches crawling around.

We enquired after the mother. The father was hesitant to answer. When Antonio was out of earshot, Fr. Ferdinando asked Maria Ester to tell me the truth about her mother. This 16-year old, way too old for her age, explained sadly that her mother worked everyday, seven days a week, a double shift at a local restaurant bussing tables. She left home at 6:00 AM and returned at midnight, only to earn in a month of double shifts what a busboy here would earn in less than a week – but it was enough to send the oldest five to school. My heart broke for that poor woman, working 16-hour days without respite. My heart also broke for the husband, who looked so embarrassed that his wife was the breadwinner of the family, while he often was forced into the role of Mr. Mom. This family so deserves our help.

My last visit, the day we were returning home, was with Sadie Yvette Rivas and her mother, Sadie Janelle Ramirez. If you remember, Sadie Yvette was the little girl that was featured in our newsletter who had a tumor near her intestines that was making her malnourished and stunting her growth – at 3-years old, she was almost the same size as her 10-month old little brother. The doctors felt that she needed to have surgery, but the family did not have the $1200 needed for the operation to remove the tumor. Again, one of our wonderful donors comes to their rescue. Scott Montgomery was so touched by their story that he sent the check to cover the cost of the surgery.

When I saw the mother and daughter, they had good news for me. The tumor had completely dissolved (a miracle?) and Sadie Yvette had gained two pounds, which is a good amount for a little girl of her size. I asked them what was their greatest need, and they told me it was a home, but they did not own any land. Scott decided to use the money that was no longer required for the surgery to buy them a piece of land and he has also offered to donate the money for their home.

Needless to say, Sadie Janelle is so thrilled at the wonderful generosity of someone who loves her family without ever meeting them, and she prays daily for Scott’s health and happiness.

I will sign off here with this beautiful happy ending!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Honduras Inaugurations

On Monday, Oct. 4th, 2010, I landed in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, (one of the scariest airports for landings and take-offs in the world). There is a very large mountain that appears to be right at the end of the runway – no matter whether you are taking off or landing! This was to be a “good news” trip because we were visiting there to inaugurate a number of housing and self-sustainability projects all over the country. Food For The Poor (FFP) has funded these communities in collaboration with CEPUDO, a local organization with which we partner that is devoted to the betterment of the lives of the poor, particularly women and children. The tireless, dynamic Linda Coello, who has recruited similarly energetic people to help her with her mission, leads CEPUDO, as founder and President.

We immediately set out for Valle de los Angeles in the mountains outside of the capital, where we inaugurated a village of high altitude, surrounded by beautiful mountains, with two nearby rivers whose rolling waters added their calming songs to the area. Truly, it felt as if there would be Angels hovering nearby. The homes looked like colorful chalets, and I joked with them when I was invited to speak, reminding them that my name was Angel and therefore they should build one of the homes for me in this special place. The happiness of the new homeowners was palpable and I reminded everyone that they should be very proud as they all, from youngest to the eldest, contributed their labor to achieve the completion of these long-awaited homes. I felt that I was in heaven – almost literally!

The community was named to honor Fr. Peter Drouin, a Canadian priest who devoted many years to helping the extreme poor of that vicinity. The First Lady of Honduras, Rosa Elena de Lobo, attended the inauguration. The community regaled us with music, folk dances and delicious food. A beautiful young lady, dressed in typical costume, invited me to join the dancers, despite my natural shyness :o), I quickly joined her on the stage area and allowed my Cuban/Jamaican heritage to come to my aid. I love to dance!

We then left for Nacaome, and I was warned repeatedly on the three and a half-hour ride, that even though it was their “cool time,” the city was well known to be the hottest in the country. We arrived at night and it was pleasantly cool. I gently chided my companions for their exaggerations. The next day, I went for an early morning walk in the city and it was equally cool. I felt myself wondering if the Hondurans in the group really new the meaning of the word “hot”. Having lived in Santiago (Cuba), Kingston (Jamaica) and South Florida all my life, I really understood “hot” – and that wasn’t even close to what I’ve experienced!

We left for the inauguration of homes at a place formerly called El Agujero (The Hole), but since receiving their new homes, the residents have changed the name to Valle de la Esperanza (Valley of Hope). At about 9:30 that morning, the gates of hell opened and it rained fire on that area as we all sat at the head table with sweat pouring off of us. It really was hot! My Honduran friends looked at me (rapidly dehydrating) with a knowing smile that shouted out, “I told you so!” - At the Miami airport, on the way back home, I met a young man from Honduras who was studying medicine in Madrid. He asked about our work in Honduras and I told him about the inaugurations. When I mentioned Nacaome, he said that he was from that area and he added that, “everyday at noon, the devil comes down to Nacaome in order to sell the cold sodas that he can’t sell in hell!”

The inauguration in Nacaome was an emotionally charged experience. Many of the women cried tears of happiness at the thought that the concept of being homeowners had suddenly become a reality. The poignant words of one of the women of the community that received a home truly touched my heart.

Someone pointed out a young woman to me, Guerlinda, and explained that when she was found to be HIV+ by her family, they threw her out of the house. An elderly woman from that village, Doña Francisca, took her in, nourished the sickly young woman whose health had deteriorated from being homeless and completely broke, and has treated her as a newly-found daughter since that time. I was so happy that now they would be able to live more comfortably, sharing their
new home.

I later had the opportunity to speak to Doña Francisca. I gave her a big hug and told her that I had heard of what she had done for Guerlinda. She looked at me with tears in her kind eyes and said, “We are poor, but even the poor can give.” So close to tears…

Again, we were treated to lively music, beautiful folk dances performed by small kids and adults, food, drink and many hugs. The poor have so little, but they are generous in giving what they have.

From here we traveled about half-hour to an area of Nacaome called The Corner of the Donkey. We also built homes here. The villagers testified that one of the women of the community had had a vision from God in her sleep that the community would receive homes, and in less than a year that vision turned out to be prophetic. Again, the villagers expressed their gratitude for their newly acquired homes, as their homes before were literally sticks and plastic sheeting. They have since changed the name of the community to “Rincon de los Milagros” (Corner of Miracles).

It struck me, as I heard of the new name, that our donors, our staff and our partners in the countries we serve are truly performing miracles. I witnessed miracle after miracle on this trip to Honduras. Unfortunately, we have many left to perform, so let us be strong and take heart. We shall continue in our relentless pursuit of the miraculous!

From here we drove to Comayagua – a beautiful colonial city surrounded by both mountains and extreme poverty. Julio, our photographer for this trip, accompanied me on a two-hour walk/conversation exploring the beauty of this ancient city. In the morning I also took a more lonely early-morning walk and was able to see the inside of the charming Cathedral/Basilica of this first capital city of Honduras. The stay at the hotel, albeit for only one night, was typical of the city in its charm and loveliness.

After an early breakfast, we drove out to an area outside the city where is housed the technical mission of our wonderful partners ICDF (Taiwan), the charitable arm of the Taiwanese government. They have gifted FFP and the poor with their expertise in aquaculture (tilapia farming), agriculture, animal husbandry and education/technology.

On this occasion we joined them for the inauguration of five tilapia ponds, each with a capacity for 10,000 fish. We released 10,000 fingerlings into each pond and we thought of the tremendous difference that 50,000 adult tilapia would make to that community, both nutritionally and financially.

We then traveled with them up the mountain to inaugurate a “pelibuey” (hair-sheep) project. These are sheep that have hair instead of wool and they are known for the quantity and quality of the meat they produce. The herd of 50 females and 5 males are a mixture of hair-sheep and black-belly sheep. The recipients expressed deep appreciation for this wonderful opportunity that they had been given to feel the pride of supporting their own families through this project.

On to the long ride to get to Peña Blanca (White Rock) where we were inaugurating 12 homes in a community with a very interesting history. Fifty years ago, an American doctor from Texas decided to move to this area of Honduras and, together with his beautiful wife, he devoted his life to the care of the poor residents of the area. The couple founded an orphanage, which is still run by family members (a daughter and granddaughter who is a nurse) and they truly thought of the children there as their children. Sadly, Dr. Johnburg passed away some years ago, but his 89 year-old widow was there for the celebration. Her energy was incredible, as she maneuvered herself with a walker on the difficult, wet, sloping terrain while recuperating from a broken hip! Her eyes sparkled with love for her adoptive children and her smile was contagious.

It poured almost the entire time that we were there, but this did not dampen the spirits of any of those present. We were regaled with music and songs from a children’s choir and a trio of women, home recipients. All were originally orphans from the aforementioned orphanage. They harmonized beautifully as they sang a rendition of two Christian songs. As we listened, our shoes were stuck in the mud, but our spirits were soaring like kites. Beautiful evening!

Marale, in the department of Francisco Morazan, was likely the hardest hit area by Hurricane Mitch in 1997. They suffered great loss, including loss of life. Many promises had been made to them, but little was done. Now, for the first time, promises were fulfilled in the form of 44 new homes for the families living in the worst condition. I was proud to represent FFP in bringing a ray comfort into their chronic and profound suffering.

One can see the deeply-etched sadness in the faces of the people there. One of the speakers stated that the name of Marale has been written with pain, suffering, tears, sweat and blood. At long last there was some relief.

The town of Marale was amidst the department’s many mountains. The town’s one church, Church of the Black Christ, dominated the town atop its highest point. The road from the church led one down to the humble but quaint town square – a town obviously lacking resources.

When walking though Marale, I came across the town’s “loca” (“crazy lady”), named Virginia. I was captivated by her, initially because she reminded me of a drawing that appeared next to a poem by the Cuban black poet, Nicolas Guillén, called “La Muerte” (Death). Her face appeared skeletal. I believe she is homeless, living in the forest outside of the town. Her teeth were in terrible condition, she was in great need of a bath, her hair was uncombed and matted. Her face and hair were covered with dried-on dirt. When I spoke to her, I wondered how long since a human being had touched her (physically or emotionally). I wanted to hug her, but at that moment I could not find the courage. While I was talking to her, I did place my hand gently on the side of her face.

Later, when I spoke at the inauguration of the new homes in the village, I felt compelled to challenge the citizens to make efforts to take care of Virginia as a collective responsibility of the town. The mayor and the people responded kindly to this challenge after my talk and promised to do something about her living conditions. Some of the visiting mayors from nearby towns thanked me for bringing up what was surely a sensitive issue and they promised to do something about the mentally challenged people of their towns as well.

I have made a promise to myself that one day I will return to give her the warm hug that I was not brave enough to give her during our first brief encounter.

Her face continues to haunt me.

To view more pictures from Angel’s trip, please visit the Food For The Poor Facebook album.