Is fuller collaboration between the Church in the United
States and in Nicaragua possible? The good work of the
Florida-based charity Food for the Poor suggests that it is
more than possible. It is already happening! By Jack Wintz,
1972 a terrible earthquake struck Managua, the
capital of Nicaragua, leaving over 6,000 people dead and
leveling 250 blocks of the city. That devastating quake,
whose effects are still seen, is a symbol of the many major
tragedies that have befallen this Central American nation.
Nicaragua, bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica
to the south, has indeed a history of suffering. Still
vivid in the memories of many is the bitter civil war that
raged during the 1980’s between the Sandinista government
and the contras and other opposing forces. That conflict
brought death and injury to thousands and left the country
torn and poverty-stricken.
In the preceding four decades—from 1937 to 1979—three
successive dictators of the Somoza family were responsible
for widespread corruption, assassinations and bloodshed,
and exploitation of the poor. In the revolutionary struggle
against the Somoza regime, led by the Sandinistas and other
opposition forces, an estimated 30,000 were killed.
The turbulence and death and impoverishment that were
taking place in Nicaragua did not happen totally
independently of the United States. The U.S. government was
involved through its support of the Somoza regimes. Also,
during the Reagan administration, it funded the contra
forces and helped cripple the Nicaraguan economy by
withdrawing U.S. aid and imposing a trade embargo.
These children live in a poor barrio
near the Lake of Managua where catechists teach of
God’s love and provide wholesome food.
This must all be seen, of course, within the complicating
framework of the Cold War and the clash of the superpowers,
with the Soviet Union and Cuba backing the Sandinista
forces and the U.S. government backing their opponents. As
usual, it is often the poor who end up the principal
victims and pawns of such struggles.
Thanks to various peace efforts in the late 1980’s and to
internationally monitored free elections in 1990, peace
came to Nicaragua. Violeta Chamorro, with U.S. backing, won
55 percent of the vote for president while Sandinista
candidate Daniel Ortega received 41 percent.
Chamorro is the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was
the editor of the Managua newspaper La Prensa, which
was often quite critical of the Somoza regime. Pedro
Chamorro was assassinated in 1978, an event which angered
the Nicaraguan public and quickened the overthrow of
Since 1990, the country has remained at
peace, but continues to face difficulties and extensive
poverty. In the 1996 elections, Managua Mayor Arnoldo
Alemán was elected president, winning 51 percent of the
votes to Daniel Ortega’s 38 percent, with various minor
parties splitting the rest. Only in recent years has
Nicaragua begun to show faint signs of economic growth. It
has been a long struggle, and the country is considered the
second poorest of our hemisphere after Haiti.
Glimpses of Hope
Last March 23-27, I traveled to Nicaragua, along with other
writers and visitors, as a guest of Food for the Poor. This
charitable organization, founded by Catholic businessman
Ferdinand Mahfood in 1982 and now based in Deerfield Beach,
Florida, has shipped more than $280 million worth of food,
clothing, medical and educational supplies, and self-help
tools to needy people in some 15 countries.
At first, Food for the Poor concentrated its efforts on
Caribbean nations like Haiti, Trinidad and Jamaica (where
Mahfood was born into a successful Lebanese shipping
family). More recently, the organization has moved into
Latin American countries like Guatemala, Belize, El
Salvador and Peru. Nicaragua is the latest country to
benefit from the outreach of Food for the Poor.
As we visited various projects of Food for the Poor in
Nicaragua, it seemed obvious to me—in many small and
not-so-small ways—that the organization is already helping
Nicaraguans in their struggle for a more hopeful future.
According to Mahfood, Food for the Poor wants to create a
greater solidarity between the United States and Nicaragua.
"Food for the Poor," he says, "tries to
build a bridge between the Church of the First World and
that of the Third World. Only then will the Church be what
God wants it to be."
An organization like Food for the Poor is helping to
fulfill a key goal of the Synod for America (which met in
Rome last November 16 to December 12), namely, to create a
spirit of collaboration among all the peoples of America.
The synod, attended by bishops from North, South and
Central America, and the Caribbean, was convoked by Pope
John Paul II as a way for the entire American hemisphere to
prepare for the new millennium. In the pope’s plan, the
Synod would help build the whole hemisphere into one
American family of faith—one People of God.
Food for the Poor is obviously trying to accomplish
something like that in Nicaragua, that is, to bring about a
sharing of faith and resources among the U.S. and
Nicaraguan Churches. What are some of the ways that Food
for the Poor does this?
Educating the powerless. Certainly, education is an
important area where this can happen. We visited several
schools run by dedicated Catholic sisters and lay teachers
deeply committed to the betterment of their students, who
are often needy. Food for the Poor is assisting in the
educational efforts of the Nicaraguan Church by providing
desks and other school furnishings, even computers in some
instances. It often provides food for lunch programs, as
In one extremely poor neighborhood of Managua, called
Barrio Dimitrov, known for rampant delinquency and crime,
education is one of the few signs of hope. Food for the
Poor assists six Josephine sisters from Mexico, who work in
this neighborhood and provide preschool education to the
youngsters at San José Children Center. The sister in
charge, Sister Consuelo Padilla Aquino, indicated that,
even if it is difficult to have high expectations for the
older people of this area, she did have "hope for the
children now being educated here." Through education,
she believes, the young people have the opportunity of
someday breaking out of the cycle of poverty in which many
Another educational project that Food for the Poor
committed itself to assist is the John Paul II Technical
Institute. This vocational school, already under
construction, is the dream of Msgr. Silvio Fonseco
Martínez. This institute hopes to train talented but needy
high school graduates in electronics, a skill greatly
needed for the country’s future development. Food for the
Poor has promised $700,000 over the next three years to
cover needed laboratory equipment.
Feeding the hungry. Our group visited a feeding
center near the Managua parish of Concepción de
María. The area is so poor that many people there,
living in cardboard or tin shacks or without a home at all,
simply do not have the money to buy food. The parish allows
some of its buildings to be used as a place for preparing
and serving food. Thirty-five volunteers help at the
feeding center, while Food for the Poor provides the food
for the 280 people who go there to eat three times a week.
"Only Nicaraguans with extreme needs would come to a
place like this to eat," said one of the Teresian
sisters who works with the poor in this area.
We also visited a very poor barrio on the shores of the
Lake of Managua. For food, many of the poor have relied on
fish caught in this large freshwater lake. But the lake is
one of the world’s most contaminated bodies of water. It is
polluted not only by sewage flowing into it but also by
tons of mercury left behind by a U.S.-built factory. When
we visited the lake, we saw children playing in its
polluted waters, as well as fishermen casting nets into it
for fish. Despite being warned of the danger, many families
continue to eat the fish because it’s the only food they
Because of this health risk acknowledged by the Nicaraguan
government itself, Food for the Poor is taking measures to
provide opportunities for at least certain neighborhoods
near the lake to receive more healthful food in place of
the contaminated fish.
Caring for the sick. Adjacent to the St. Damien
Dermatological Center in Managua, a hospital for treating
skin diseases, is a small community of 17 simple homes
surrounding a garden and housing 26 people with Hansen’s
disease (once known as leprosy). The Food for the Poor
group visited here to talk with some of the residents, as
well as with "Friends of St. Damien." The
"Friends" are volunteers who see to the needs of
the residents and distribute food, clothing and other goods
donated by Food for the Poor.
The volunteers also provide human contact to these men and
women who may feel isolated from the world and abandoned by
their families because of the traditional stigma still
attached to the disease. Before he left the small
community, Mahfood made this offer to the volunteers:
"If you find any people with Hansen’s disease in
Nicaragua who do not have a house, let me know and Food for
the Poor will build a small house for them. We do this in
Haiti also. We will build it anywhere. The people do not
have to come here for us to build it." Food for the
Poor also promised to provide the residents with two
washers and dryers.
Other places visited by our group during our tour of
Managua were several medical clinics serving needy
families. For these, Food for the Poor donates medical
supplies and equipment. We also made a tour of the State
Psychiatric Hospital for which Food for the Poor has
donated beds, furniture and hospital gowns, as well as
A Visit to Granada
Granada is a picturesque, colonial city of 74,400 situated
on the Lake of Nicaragua some 40 miles southeast of
Managua. During the last full day of our visit to
Nicaragua, we visited several Food for the Poor projects in
that area. Of special interest were:
La Providencia Home for the Elderly. This
senior residence is unique because of the interesting
interchange that takes place there between the senior
residents and "street boys." The home, run by the
Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, takes care of some 105 men
and women, many of whom are destitute or abandoned.
Ana Rena McKenzie, 92, is one of the 105 seniors residing
at La Providencia Home for the Elderly.
During the day, however, boys who otherwise live on the
streets—often passing their time sniffing glue—come to this
senior home to do chores like washing people who are
incapacitated, brushing their hair or sweeping floors. The
children also take lunch and a snack here. Food for the
Poor helps with 75-85 percent of the food needs of this
home. It also provides beds and other items needed by the
A safe haven for "street kids." The reason
the above-mentioned young boys live on the streets of
Granada is that they come from broken families, have single
mothers who work, have been abandoned or are victims of
abuse. In any event, many of them simply roam the streets
during the day. Some even sleep on the streets at night or
in parks if they have nowhere else to go.
To provide a safe place for the boys during the day, the
diocese loaned the Sisters of St. Vincent the use of one of
its buildings in Granada. Here the boys can come during the
day and receive a basic education. They learn about God and
God’s love for them—and about hygiene and respect. There is
a small area where they can play basketball and Ping Pong
and learn basic crafts.
(Left) Granada street kids find a safe haven in this
building loaned for their use by the diocese.
"We are the children" is the meaning of the
Spanish inscription above them. (Right) Sister Elisa
Erro sits with two girls at Hogar Alegría.
At present, there are no living facilities in this borrowed
home. Food for the Poor has begun providing beds,
furniture, clothes, kitchen supplies and tools for learning
trades, so that the boys and staff may soon be able to stay
at night also.
Hogar Alegría (Home of Joy) for abandoned
girls. Our group certainly experienced this home for
orphaned or abandoned girls as a joyful place. The girls,
whose ages range from 7 to 12, are taken care of by the
Sisters of St. Teresa. Given the sad histories of the 37
girls who live here, it is a credit to the devotion of the
sisters that these young women have a stable and loving
home. The spirit of peace and happiness here is
Among the ways that Food for the Poor supports the work of
the sisters is by providing food, as well as desks and
other educational supplies.
Joining Hands Across the Hemisphere
During our brief visit to Nicaragua, we certainly caught
glimpses of a Church, the People of God, that is alive and
active. In many of the schools, clinics, feeding centers
and charitable institutions that we visited, we were
repeatedly inspired by the commitment shown to the poor and
the suffering by dedicated sisters, priests and lay workers
Time and again we encountered, as well, zealous volunteers
among the laity seeking to alleviate the sufferings of the
poor, the sick, the homeless, the hungry, the elderly.
Clearly, the Nicaraguan Church has abundant resources of
faith, energy and joy to share with its sister Church in
the United States.
Another important partner of Food for the Poor in carrying
out its work in Nicaragua is the American Nicaraguan
Foundation. The food, clothing, medicines and educational
supplies that Food for the Poor ships to Nicaragua end up,
after government approval, in the warehouses of the
American Nicaraguan Foundation near Managua. This
charitable foundation sees to it that shipped goods reach
the destinations intended and that the projects initiated
by Food for the Poor are fully implemented.
The American Nicaraguan Foundation is an association of
Nicaraguan and U.S. citizens, with offices in Miami and
Nicaragua, dedicated to helping disadvantaged and needy
people in the context of the social development of
Nicaragua. The founder and president of the Foundation is
Alfredo Pellas, a native of Nicaragua now living in Miami.
Although the Foundation is not a religious organization,
Pellas and many of its members, like full-time executive
director Alvaro Pereira, are Roman Catholic. They are
motivated by the gospel message to serve the poor. A
Nicaraguan priest, Father León Pellas, S.J., also has a
leading role in the Foundation and is a cofounder.
The few days spent in Nicaragua helped convince me that the
goal of solidarity between our two countries is both
important and achievable. We are one Body.
For more information, contact Food for the Poor, Dept.
17445, 550 S.W. 12th Ave., Deerfield Beach, FL 33442-9855.
Phone (954) 427-2222. Web site:
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication
and editor of
Catholic Update. He is also the author of
Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness (St. Anthony
Messenger Press), an inspirational book exploring the
spirit of St. Francis.