Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Advent Series -- Part Four

By Barbara DiTommaso

This is part one of an Advent series prepared by the Commission on Peace and Justice, which was printed in The Evangelist.

The deep emotions that many associate with the Christmas season is more than our need for light during the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemishpere; more than our need to express to others through the gifts we give them how much they mean to us; and more than our own need to receive their expressions of love. I believe that we are so open emotionally because at the deepest level we believe that God shares and so understands our humanity, especially as a helpless baby, and inspires our confidence that we are loved unconditionally, forgiven freely, and affirmed in the goodness of our humanity.

God’s unquenchable dream of a redeemed and renewed humanity are mirrored by Father Joseph Philippe. Starting with nothing but a dream and unshakeable faith in his people, this Haitian priest started Fonkoze (pronounced fahn-ko-ZAY), a foundation to empower poor Haitians so that their hard work, determination and resilience could result in a better life.

Fonkoze provides banking services such as money transfers from Haitians living abroad; almost 159,000 savings accounts that now total over $11 million; 55,000 loans that enable street vendors, primarily women, to increase the stock of what they sell and so increase their small profits; literacy and business skills training (including arithmetic); education in health, human rights and environmental protection; and home improvements such as a concrete floor, tin roof and latrine. In a place as destitute as Haiti, these facts constitute nothing short of a miracle.

This grassroots microcredit builds on people’s experience and strengths: As soon as a loan is repaid, the borrower qualifies for a larger loan, then an even larger one, etc. Such economic investment and human development have proven to be more effective than large-scale projects where it can be difficult to see immediate improvements in people’s lives.

But it also has its costs. Fonkoze’s success has deprived the loan sharks who profited from people’s misery by charging up to 400% interest, and they know who is responsible. About six years ago, Father Joseph was in Albany to meet with the Friends of Fonkoze, a small group that raised funds to pay for the training in literacy and business skills. He was asked about his safety. He said, “I try to work in the shadows, but my life is in God’s hands, and I’m ready to go at any time.” He was 47 years old. Since then he has had to go into hiding twice.

But the achievements of Fonkoze clients motivate him to go on, clients such as Agathe Poncet. When she received her first loan of $70 nine years ago, Agathe purchased sugar, rice and vegetables to sell at market. Today her loan is more than 20 times that amount, enabling her to sell tennis shoes, t-shirts, pens and other high-end merchandise. Her children all attend school, her home has been expanded and the thatched roof has been replaced by cement.

Would you consider making a donation to Fonkoze in the name of a family member or friend, or in memory of a loved one who has died? This gift would honor the recipient by expressing your confidence that he or she cares about people who would otherwide have no opportunity for a life free of hunger, continual anxiety and disease.

The need is especially great now in areas struck by four hurricanes and tropical storms in less than a month. For many, everything they had was swept away in the rain, winds and mudslides, including the rickety shacks that were their homes. Fonkoze has already recapitalized 18,000 loan clients who lost their businesses as the best way to help people return to improving their situation. Please become part if this success story.

Barbara DiTommaso is Director of the Commission on Peace and Justice. She works with Fonkoze and a small rural training school to improve methods of farming and animal husbandry in Haiti.

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