Angel A. Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor, may have left the classroom to take his position at the Christian international relief agency eight-and-a-half years ago, but that doesn't mean he's no longer in the education business.
The former Catholic schoolteacher, who taught for seven years at a Jesuit school in Jamaica and 21 years at a Dominican school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., now spends much of his time educating people about the plight of those his agency serves in 17 countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean.
During a visit last month to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Aloma spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about how the global economic crisis has affected Food for the Poor, the importance of spreading Christ's message, and why people in the United States should know and care about the less fortunate in developing countries.
Our Sunday Visitor: How important is it for Food for the Poor and for yourself to share the message of Christ?
Angel A. Aloma: It's very important, because we don't think of ourselves as social workers. We think of ourselves as spreaders of the Word. We don't evangelize at all, and, as a matter of fact, we don't deal with missionaries who make that a requisite of their delivering aid to the poor. We have no prejudices in regard to the poor -- as long as they're poor, they deserve our help and our aid.
A large part of our donor base is Catholic, but we are interdenominational. In other words, we accept help from any church, and we help any church down there.
OSV: Speaking of donors, obviously things are difficult in the United States economically. How has this affected your organization?
Aloma: Starting in 2009, we have seen some tough times, but our donor base is very loyal. Although we have not met our projected growth, we are fairly close to what we did last year. I'm still hopeful that by the end of the year -- the fall is our best time -- we will catch up at that time and actually surpass what we did last year. It's not so much that people are experiencing a tremendous amount of hardship, because some are, needless to say. But I think what has really affected it is mostly the fear and the uncertainty of future. I see a relaxing of that fear. I think people are beginning to feel a little more relaxed, more positive that we are going to overcome this economic situation.
OSV: What about the average American who might say, "You know, we've got poverty here in the United States, why are we looking to Central America?" How do people look beyond what's happening in the United States?
Aloma: I think it's education, because most Americans who feel that way don't feel that way because of a hardened heart. They feel that way because they don't understand the level of poverty that we experience in these countries. A family living in poverty in the United States is a family of four who is earning less than $23,500 a year. Now, our poor would love to earn that for a year. So, basically, poverty in the United States means a solid home, potable running water in their home, electricity in their home, many major appliances and some minor ones.
It's not a bad thing. It's a great thing that we live in a nation where we have developed to the point that the bottom rungs are not anywhere near the countries where we work. But if we are to think of ourselves as a universal brotherhood, as citizens of the world, we have to understand that we have to take care of our less fortunate brothers and sisters, because it comes back to haunt us if we don't.
OSV: How will it come back to haunt us?
Aloma: For example, we're hoping the work we do in Haiti will alleviate people risking their lives by [groups of] 26 trying to come over [to the United States] in a boat that should only be for six or seven people. We're trying to deal with that level of frustration, with that level of desperation in their country, so that we don't have to deal with the repercussions in our country. As long as there's that level of injustice, of frustration, of anger, we're always going to have issues worldwide. It's going to be difficult to enjoy a lasting peace.
OSV: Mother Teresa talked about people in the industrial countries having what she called a "spiritual poverty." Do you feel people in the developing world have a closer tie to their spirituality?
Aloma: What happens is, when you have nothing but God, you cling to God very tenaciously. When you have very little material to interfere with your relationship with God, it's a very strong, close relationship. It reminds me of the story of Job. Most people are upset sometimes when they read that story because it seems this good man had to suffer all these things. But to me, the larger symbol of this is that to have communion with God, we have to strip away everything else that distracts us from it. These people have the unfortunate situation that life has stripped them away from everything other than God, so they do have a very tight relationship in that way.
OSV: You work with local organizations throughout Central America and the Caribbean. How do those partnerships work?
Aloma: Our partners know our philosophy. Our mission is to turn the face of the Church of the First World to the Church of the Third World. So they understand we want to distribute to churches and missionaries because we want to help empower them to spread the word of God. The jobs that the priests and the nuns do are absolutely incredible.
Sarah Hayes is OSV presentation editor. In June, she traveled to Honduras with Food for the Poor, which funded the trip.