Food For The Poor (FFP) executive director Angel A. Aloma spoke to The Christian Post on Friday about the organization’s Christmas prisoner release program and fishing village projects in Latin America.
CP: How did the idea for the prisoner release program start?
Aloma: We are very fond of the verse in Matthew 25:40 that says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Before that verse, it talks about visiting prisoners. So as part of our ministry, we decided to visit prisons and we saw not only some horrible conditions, but also that there were people who were in prison only because they didn’t have money to pay a fine.
They might owe the equivalent of $20 but they have been there for two years because they don’t have any way to pay that fine. So we never release those that have committed any heinous crimes; needless to say they wouldn’t release them. But the ones who are there because they couldn’t pay their fines – whether it be because they couldn’t pay rent or stole a loaf of bread for their children - we help pay the fine for their release.
CP: What is the usual amount of time these men are in jail before they are released?
Aloma: It varies. We try to release them on a religious holiday, on Christmas, Easter or Lent. If someone is there a few weeks with only a $20 fine we will do that. If our funds are limited and we have to choose then we will choose the one that have suffered the most. But usually we have enough to release all of those that are releasable by fine. And since we do it repeatedly in these countries, usually the people know this and they are not there for too long of a time just for fines.
CP: Why did you choose the Easter and Christmas seasons?
Aloma: Because of the renewal aspect of each. You know for Christians, Christmas is the season of hope because of the birth of Jesus. Similarly for Easter, it is also the season of hope because of the resurrection of Jesus. So it is a new life each time. So symbolically we thought they are fitting times to do it.
CP: Why did you choose the countries Jamaica, Guyana, and Honduras for the prisoner release programs?
Aloma: They are places that we actually have Food For The Poor offices. So in Jamaica, for example, not only do we have the prison release idea but then we have a department in our local office there where the prisoners are counseled afterwards and we help them.
CP: Could you talk a little more about the programs after the prisoners are released?
Aloma: So after the prisoners are released they come to our office and they are given a little “start-in-life” kit. You have to understand that these people have nothing. Often times their families have moved away from them, so to speak, so they are starting with absolutely nothing. So we give them a set of clothes, toothbrush, soap, etc.
If they don’t have a place to stay we try to find them accommodation or build them a small house depending in what area and if we are constructing or not.
What is more important is that we counsel them and try to build their self-esteem back up to a level where they understand that God’s love is unconditional.
It is not just let them out of prison and boom, they are free and then leave them alone to let them do whatever they did before and then get back in jail. We really try to help them financially and spiritually to get a better hold of their life.
CP: You counsel them using the Bible?
Aloma: Yes, definitely. The people who are involved in this prison ministry are doing it for God’s glory. They are not doing it as social workers. These are not social workers but these are people who want to change their lives so they find the word of God more acceptable in their lives. It has been very successful from that point of view.
CP: How do these prisoners perceive Christianity after their release?
Aloma: The large majority of them come from a Christian frame of reference. In other words, Christianity is not something new for them. Often times the kindness of the deed itself, seeing God’s goodness work through humans, really affect their conversion and accepting God’s word in their lives.
We have seen many of them become very solid and upstanding Christians after their release and working with them afterwards.
CP: I want to now switch topics to the fishing villages FFP helped build in Jamaica. Why did FFP set the standard that the fishermen contribute a minimum of five percent of their catch to help feed others in their communities?
Aloma: We were originally attracted to the idea because of the Biblical connection to fishing. The first disciples were fishermen. When we first traveled to these fishing villages we realized how terribly depressed economically they were. It was very obvious to see why they were economically depressed – they had little rickety boats and some had to be repaired because of leaks. They were very old, small boats. The only capability they had was go to the nearby reefs, which was bad for the environment because they were destroying them by fishing there.
So our president Robin Mahfood, who is an avid fisherman himself, thought of the idea that if we got some of the village families motor boats they could be trained to learn the technique of deep water fishing.
We started with Jamaica and we have almost 20 fishing villages currently and we have now started in Haiti also.
The results are amazing. We had a fisherman go out and bring back catches that were worth $200 or more in one catch. Now imagine the impact this would have on people who had been living sometimes on $1 to $3 per day and the impact on the villages because that boat is shared.
The boat has one person in charge with two other fishermen. They are obliged to also train a young man in the village to learn the skills of deep water fishing, so that is four families affected by each boat.
Out of that they have to give 10 percent of their catch. Someone like a leader in the community, usually a pastor or minister, will hold that 10 percent. Five percent of it goes to repair and maintenance of the boat so they learn responsibility to put aside for the future. The other five percent goes to feed those in the village who cannot work, in other words, the elderly, the crippled, and the blind. So they also learn charity. It is a beautiful concept.
CP: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Aloma: We are also involved in Tilapia farming which has been very successful. We started in Guatemala and have gone to Honduras, Haiti, and Dominican Republic. Within six month starting with Tilapia fingerlings, they grow into three-quarter pound to one and a half pound Tilapia that the villagers can sell.
For $6,000 we can do a Tilapia pond and at the end of six months they will have thousands of fishes. We also teach them the technology to have breeding tanks where you keep getting new fingerlings all the time so it is not something that happens in six months and then dries up.
So the ideal situation is that we do three ponds together so every two months there is a crop of fish that comes to maturity. It is an amazing experience to see the amount of fish swimming around in one pond and in the next the ones that about to mature and in the next the younger ones.