Archdiocese’s Venezuelan mission parish suffering in food crisis

| July 29, 2016 | 2 Comments
Yunni Perez holds plastic bottles used to carry water while she poses for a photo April 3 inside her home in a slum area of Caracas, Venezuela. CNS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, EPA

Yunni Perez holds plastic bottles used to carry water while she poses for a photo April 3 inside her home in a slum area of Caracas, Venezuela. CNS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, EPA

As the food crisis in Venezuela continues with no end in sight, the mission parish of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in that country continues to suffer.

“Everybody’s just going hungry,” said Father Greg Schaffer, pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado in San Felix, Venezuela, who last month was named vicar general of the Diocese of Ciudad Guayana. “You go to the grocery store and the shelves are bare.”

News reports describe a crisis that began in 2014, fueled by a severe drop in the price of oil, the country’s main export and the bedrock of its economy. Further exacerbating the problem is the ineffectiveness of the government, led by President Nicholas Maduro, whom some citizens believe is indifferent to their plight.

People having to wait in line for up to eight hours to buy food, said Father Schaffer, who has pastored the mission parish for 19 years. Hungry Venezuelans will show up at grocery stores as early as 3 a.m. to wait for a delivery truck to arrive. And, sometimes, the truck runs out of food before everyone has a chance to buy what they need.

The result is frustration that sometimes turns into violence, with desperate people breaking delivery truck windows and causing other damage when they are turned away after the food runs out.

“Everybody just has to wait in line [for food]; there’s no way around it,” Father Schaffer said. “You don’t know what time the truck is going to come and you don’t even know what’s in the truck, but you know it’s something you’re going to need. And so, you just wait in line. Then, you just buy whatever they have.”

The poor of Father Schaffer’s parish are also grappling with prices that make even the most basic food items almost unaffordable.

“For example, if you’re lucky enough to have a job that pays minimum wage and has benefits, it’s three days’ salary to buy one chicken and two days’ salary for a kilo of beef,” he said. “It’s hard to find rice. Sugar is really hard to find.”

Right now, Father Schaffer is directing food to the poorest of the poor in his parish and the neighborhoods it serves. He has been able to continue operating a soup kitchen that feeds lunch to 42 people daily Monday through Friday.

Exacerbating the crisis is a shortage of medicine, which results in untreated conditions that normally respond well to basic medicines. Sometimes, the results are fatal.

“People are dying a lot earlier because it’s hard to get basic medicines like antibiotics,” Father Schaffer said.

A group of seminarians from the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul recently had a firsthand look at the crisis and its effects on the people of Jesucristo Resucitado. Seminary Professor Father Scott Carl was in Venezuela July 11-22 with three archdiocesan seminarians — Aric Aamodt and Deacons Ben Wittnebel and Bryce Evans.

“It’s very difficult to see [people hungry and suffering],” said Father Carl, who made his sixth trip to Venezuela and the mission parish. “It makes it more real. . . . Seeing someone in person is the difference between a hug and reading a newspaper article. You experience the kindness and warmth of a person who’s struggling. You feel that this is your brother and sister.”

Father Schaffer said no humanitarian aid has reached his parish.

Although Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, serves more than 100 countries worldwide, Venezuela is not one of them. Jossie Sapunar, a communications specialist for CRS, said an invitation has to come before CRS can respond.

“We have to be welcomed,” she said. “We can’t work in secret [without the approval of the government].”

When CRS does enter a country, she said, it doesn’t just bring in food, but tries to help the citizens devise ways to meet their own needs by producing food within their communities.

Despite the lack of outside assistance, Father Schaffer remains hopeful — and continues to see God at work.

“You see more people helping one another,” he said. “You see God in people helping one another, sharing what little they have.”

To help meet the need, Father Schaffer and people in the parish are looking for ways to generate food within the community. Several options have been explored, including creating a fish farm and hydroponic agriculture. Father Schaffer has also consulted faculty in the engineering program at the University of St. Thomas, and he’s hoping that the conversations will lead to new food sources.

In the meantime, people are taking advantage of native fruits in the region, including bananas and mangoes.

“There’s lots of fresh fruit,” he said. “We get fresh fruit juice, which is really good. We can get some fish, but fish, beef and chicken are hard to come by. We’ve tried raising chickens, but the problem is you can’t get the feed. The feed is imported, and the feed for the chickens is really, really expensive and that’s what drives up the price for the chickens.”

For people here in the archdiocese who may wonder what they can do, Father Schaffer has simple advice — pray.

“That’s the biggest [thing],” he said. “Just pray that people can get fed, that people can get a fair wage for their work.”

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