Peace & Justice

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

Monday, December 22, 2008

Advent Series -- Part One

Prepare the Way of the Lord
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.

This beloved Advent refrain reminds us that we each have a role in the coming of Christ into the lives of others, as well as into our own. I invite you to begin the holy season of Advent by considering Haiti. Haiti? Perhaps the image that comes immediately to mind is ‘the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’. But that is only because you haven’t yet met Father Joseph Philippe, a man who believes in miracles.

When this member of the Spiritan Fathers (formerly called the Holy Ghost Fathers) looks at his fellow Haitians, he sees tremendous potential that only needs a little assist to succeed. “Join us,” he urges, “not because we are weak, but because we are strong.”

His ambitious dream a mere 14 years ago has become Fonkoze (pronounced fahn-ko-ZAY), an acronym for the Creole meaning The Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation. Modeled on the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, whose founder won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Fonkoze provides banking services to impoverished people who would be turned away by ordinary banks. But why would a poor person even need a bank?

In Haiti, most economic activity is carried on by women street vendors. Rising before dawn, a typical rural vendor walks on steep mountain paths to the nearest town to buy goods such as clothing, soap or food items. She then carries the these back on her head, or if she is lucky, on a donkey, and tries to sell them at a tiny profit. Father Joseph saw that with a small loan and a few more skills, these ‘little merchants’ and their families could lead dignified lives free of hunger and disease.
A group of at least five vendors forms a solidarity group, and as a group, they are given a loan of as little as $75. The money is divided equally among them, and the first thing they must do is to open a savings account with a small deposit. This starts a habit of saving which not only helps them to accumulate resources, but also relieves them of the gnawing dread of always being at the end of their rope and have nothing to fall back on when the unexpected happens.

With the loan comes responsibility: to learn to read and write (using a game created by Father Joseph that simulates market situations) and to learn business skills appropriate to their conditions. Members of the group hold each other accountable for repaying their share of the loan, and for a member who experiences an unexpected difficulty, the others will temporarily cover her repayment until she can manage again. The loan is used to expand the amount and diversity of goods a vendor can purchase, and so increase her profit. As soon as the loan is repaid, the group qualifies for a larger loan, with which the group members can purchase yet more stock, with no limit to the number of times they can qualify.

Fonkoze’s promise is: If you continue as a responsible member of Fonkoze for 5 years, you and your children will have a meal every day. You will know how to read and write. All of your children will be in school. Your home will have a cement floor, a tin roof, and a latrine. You will have assets that you can see accumulating, day by day. You will have the confidence to face your future, no matter what it holds.

This is not only economic development, but human development as participants feel self-worth and experience success for the first time in their lives. It is also building the economic foundation for democracy in Haiti. Previous failed attempts relied only on elections, and that was not enough.

Another Advent refrain is Come, Lord Jesus! Jesus has already come; it is our openness to his presence that we are asking to have increased. In the coming weeks, you will read more about the miracle of Fonkoze, in which Christ lives in the least of our brothers and sisters and ministers to them through people such as ourselves.

Barbara DiTommaso, Director of the Commission on Peace and Justice, has been to Haiti 4 times. Read more about Fonkoze at

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