Rev. David H. Garcia serves as Senior Advisor for Clergy Outreach for Catholic Relief Services. He also supports the agency’s Global Fellows program, a grassroots speaking initiative for Catholic priests and seminarians. He recently accompanied a group of Global Fellows to Nicaragua to see CRS programs in Fair Trade and microfinance.
My recent trip to Nicaragua with a Global Fellows group of seven priests, permanent deacons and seminarians along with Ted Miles from HQ put me through a roller coaster of emotions. This was my introduction to learn about CRS first hand for my new position as Senior Advisor for Clergy Outreach, which I began July 1.
It is hard to not be depressed by the sea of poverty all around you as you travel Nicaragua. Over 70% of the people in this country, second poorest after Haiti in the hemisphere, live on less than $2 a day. Yet the price of many items is similar to the United States. Gas is higher than in the US, hovering at $5 a gallon, while inflation this year is approaching 22%. People live trying to decide what they can and cannot do about the basics of life for themselves and their families.
Recent history has not been kind to this country. Managua has yet to recover from an earthquake in 1972 that devastated the capital city, destroying the downtown area, including the old cathedral. Although a new cathedral was built away from the city center with funds from donors in the U.S., the downtown has not come back. The Sandinista overthrow of the the Somoza regime in 1979 and the Contra War in the ‘80’s, along with Hurricane Mitch, which soon followed, have taken a harsh toll. Over half a million Nicaraguans have migrated to neighboring Costa Rica looking for work. There they are often treated harshly by the residents. Some have made their way to the United States in a desperate bid to provide for their families.
What we saw gave us hope in a sea of poverty. Hard-working people had received micro loans through Catholic Relief Services, as well as technical, educational and resource assistance. With this help they had organized their farms, small businesses and cooperatives into viable income-producing projects that have helped change their lives.
In one area, Yano Uno near Matagalpa, a group of 12 women told us how they began the FEM (Fundacion Entre Mujeres) cooperative as part of Proyecto ACORDAR with a CRS loan, which helped them rent land to grow coffee and other crops. They also received help from the local diocesan Caritas through a CRS grant to address issues of education, literacy, health, violence and domestic abuse. While we visited they showed us a new wet mill, which is a machine that separates the coffee bean from the fruit pulp. CRS provided it and we were asked to bless it, as they looked forward to a more efficient processing of the coffee crop this year. The women now have a growing business selling Fair Trade organic shade-grown coffee, which is among the highest quality possible. They have paid back the initial loan and their children are now dreaming of going to the university. It was impressive how much they are aware not only of good business practices, but also marketing, prices, organic methods, and preserving the environment. These women never had much chance at formal education and now are changing the future for their entire village.
Fe Y Esperanza (Faith and Hope) is the name of a cooperative of men and women in a small rural community near Esteli. They spoke of organizing to produce organic fertilizer. Other individuals in other rural areas spoke of increasing their crop yields through improved farming techniques like drip irrigation and organic practices. All told us they were doing their work to preserve the environment as they raised their crops. CRS had helped with micro loans and technical assistance through Caritas.
We were perhaps most moved by one man, Don Juan Alberto, who was helping build a home for his family of five children, including two who were disabled and one he had adopted. The materials were donated by the local Caritas, with CRS help.
Like I said, it was a roller coaster of emotions all week. I saw and experienced personally that the work of CRS changes lives. I heard from the people their extreme gratitude for our help. I felt the solidarity of our common brotherhood and sisterhood with them. The group of Global Fellows became more committed to our preaching ministry.
There was tremendous poverty and wonderful examples of hope. I chose to believe in the hope and the people who shared it with me.
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