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Hope for Better Days

[ Feature 1 Photo]

At St. Francis of Assisi School in Managua, this young girl takes pride in learning native dances.

Photos by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


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, O.F.M.

 Glimpses of Hope

 A Visit to Granada

  Joining Hands Across the Hemisphere

IN 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.

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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 Somoza.

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 well.

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 are trapped.

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 have.

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 food.

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.

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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 elderly.

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.

[ Feature 1 Photo][ Feature 1 Photo ]

(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 unmistakable.

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 of Nicaragua.

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.

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