As Crisis in Venezuela Escalates, This Ministry Provides Material and Spiritual Help
Venezuelan priest Miguel Romero gives insight on what's happening in the socialist South American nation. For over a decade, he and his team have worked to change the situation.
With violent protests, skyrocketing food costs and thousands fleeing daily, the national crisis in Venezuela continues to spiral into chaos. Its extensive oil reserves once made Venezuela the richest Latin America nation. Yet the socialist policies and corruption of Presidents Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chavez have led to over 90 percent of Venezuelans living in poverty.
“The level of poverty, malnutrition, lack of medicine and deficient public services are staggering,” says Father Miguel Romero. He heads up FUNDASE, a nonprofit aid group that partners with the Archdiocese of Valencia in north Venezuela. “Yet we are fighting and not giving up. We work to make Jesus present in every way.”
Nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans profess Christian faith, according to Pew Research Center. Yet the Church has also fallen on hard times as incomes dry up.
Fr. Romero recently visited Washington, D.C. to appeal to faith leaders for help. Speaking through a translator, he shares how their work began, what results they have seen and why he does not support socialism. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nation in Desperation
Many Americans are unaware of the crisis in Venezuela. How has your nation declined over the past decade?
Father Miguel Romero: When we tell the story of our country, most people don’t believe what is happening. Venezuela has a lot of rich resources and oil. But in the 20 years since this complex political process began, it has destroyed the country — especially institutions and relationships between people.
Inflation in the economy has gone up one million percent just this year. The gap between the rich and poor has increased. Now we have widespread poverty, hunger and lack of medicine. It has become worse and worse. In anarchy there is no justice.
Recently, many institutions offered help but the state is putting up barriers. It is not allowing them to come and help. Needs have increased. Three to four million Venezuelans have emigrated to neighboring countries. Today, 60 percent of the population lives off money that comes from other countries. It is a disaster.
The Church is working really hard to provide food, medicine, soup kitchens and housing to take care of kids and seniors. We are navigating around the obstacles the government has put in place. It has become a movement.
Hearing and Doing
In English, your group FUNDASE has the full name Lord, Let Everyone Hear Your Voice. What inspired you to establish this foundation in 2010?
Fr. Romero: God showed us the way to begin this work. One boy named Francisco Jesus was the motivation for us to do something to help those on the streets. We met him at age nine, three years after he became homeless.
Though we tried to save him, the laws in Venezuela did not allow us to help. He died at age 11, while we were working through the government process. We consider him our patron. The birth of this foundation was August 6, 2010, the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In that text in the Gospel, the Father says, Listen to My Beloved Son.
The voice of His Beloved Son called us to be faithful — to help others listen in. We host masses and an annual evangelism festival by the beach, as our state is on the coast. About 800 people came to our festival in August. Those numbers have decreased recently; fewer people are going to the beach as this crisis grows.
Our work is about helping others go to heaven. Yet evangelization goes beyond declaration. We feed those who are hungry. Every week, we care for 300 to 400 homeless kids who have been taken off the streets. Other programs prevent people from falling into poverty.
As we keep evangelizing, such as on a radio and TV program called Global Vision every Sunday, it helps spread the word about what we do. The Lord is truly making himself present through this foundation.
Saving the Next Generation
How is your foundation meeting the needs of children in Venezuela?
Fr. Romero: Our project Learning to Live offers young people a way out of misery and poverty. There is another way for them that is not how they are living now. We gather 25 kids for four months, feeding and discipling them. Twice a week, they hear testimonies from artists, athletes, counselors and others. We show the kids they can also go far in life.
One artist from a very poor home told the group how he began his artistic work. There was a hole in the ceiling of his house, shaped like a triangle. That artist learned to create art using plastics by copying that triangle. One boy in our group started learning from that artist. He motivated himself because the artist said he was gifted.
Another outreach began years ago. On Christmas Day, we were out giving gifts to those scrounging in the landfill. A nine-year-old boy came to me crying. He said, “I hope Jesus would bring me what I ask him.” I prayed with the child and handed him the gift box. I prayed within my heart: God, may what he asked for be in that box. When he opened it, it was exactly what he wanted.
Every Christmas since then, we keep going back. This past year has been difficult, but with faith it will continue.
Helping Young Women, Assisting Priests
While abortion is illegal in Venezuela, statistics show it is common. In what ways do you help women who are struggling with decisions about a child in the womb?
Fr. Romero: We have a great conviction to be a voice for those who are not being heard. This especially includes women, those who are not born, the poor, the elderly and those who are mixed-race.
If people know someone who wants to have an abortion, they refer them our way. We have a team of 12 women who listen to their testimonies. They also provide psychological, material and spiritual help. Last year, we worked with about 200 women and 180 children were born.
This work has not been easy. In recent years, the practice of abortion has multiplied — and so our work has increased. The need is titanic, yet the work is filled with blessings.
How are the priests you work with faring in the midst of this crisis?
Fr. Romero: These 94 priests want to help. That motivates them to be occupied in running soup kitchens, taking care of the sick and reinvigorating society. But there are limitations. Many are sick, and there is no transportation.
Sometimes they get desperate because they don’t have the resources to do those things. This year, three priests in our diocese left to go to another country because they were sick. A fourth decided to leave the priesthood because his family needed help. He went to Argentina to find work to help his family. That was a red flag to the whole Church that we had to do something.
Our Bishop has delegated me along with other priests to start searching for help. We are hoping others see these priests are desperate and have needs. Although we have a lot of faith and hope, it is declining due to the increasing needs.
Responding to Socialism … and the Migrant Caravan
Socialism has driven the policies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. It’s a system some in America find appealing, including certain believers. What is your view?
Fr. Romero: I believe in the communion of brothers and the communion of faith, as the Book of Acts shares. The problem is that, in Venezuela, they practice a 21st century type of socialism. The majority of the population does not accept this. I do not believe in this socialist system.
This system of socialism humiliates and degrades people. There are those who want to divide us and assault the dignity of the human person. In Venezuela, across Latin America and all developing countries, it is important we understand these threats.
To be real brothers and help each other, at times we do share things in common. The gospel calls us to share — and we always think that is materially. But it’s also to share yourself and your heart with others. That truly gives us freedom.
This caravan of migrants, some of whom originally came from Venezuela, has been much discussed in the U.S. How should American Christians respond to these migrants?
Fr. Romero: Earlier I said we need to have communion as brothers and help those in need. But this caravan is a political one. The politics behind it are not clear, simple or transparent.
The way for Americans to open up their hearts and reach out is to those who are around them. Saint Paul compares the church to a body. May each of us in our own countries help from our hearts those who are weak. It’s when we work that way that we can be free from such threats.
Seeking A Firm Foundation
As the crisis has escalated in Venezuela, have people shown a greater interest in religion?
Fr. Romero: The search for God has increased among the people. As the Church, our work today is a new evangelization of faith and hope. We trust in God, who enables us to move beyond this crisis.
We have one God though many expressions of the Church. As a charismatic myself, I respect the spiritual gifts of each person. God listens to the one who sings and the one who doesn’t — and I sing horribly! But I love to listen to music.
That same God hears the ones who are crying and the ones who pray in silence, the ones who dance and the ones who lay prostrate or kneel. He loves us the same.
How can American Christians help the work of your foundation?
Fr. Romero: The first thing is to pray for us. We need a lot of prayer. Interest in voodoo and witchcraft has been growing in Venezuela, which is one reason why we need prayer. I am here to meet with people of good will about this foundation and our clergy needs; we pray for good outcomes from those meetings.
We need support for our organization. FUNDASE exists to make Jesus present — not only giving materially, but we show people how to love God. That is how to make a difference. To give your hand to the sick, the giving has to be from your heart.