National Catholic Register


‘Living Stones’ will pay for half your house…...but, yes, there is a catch!

BY Jim Cosgrove

March 30-April 5, 2003 Issue | Posted 3/30/03 at 1:00 PM


An ambitious project is uniting Catholics from around the world to rebuild the broken lives of children while providing the opportunity for families to, at last, permanently lift themselves out of poverty. Fundamental to the project is a matching program to enable poor families to afford a dignified home in a community that offers a new parish church, a school, a clinic, job training, water and sewage treatment, basics that have been unavailable in rural areas. “We are applying a proven model, based on two other communities we have built in the aftermath of natural disasters,” said Fr. Pedro Pablo Elizondo, LC, President of Catholic World Mission. “The ‘Living Stones’ community has been embraced by the Church hierarchy and the local and federal governments as the best hope to truly transform the poverty of body, mind, and spirit which crushes the hopes of so many.”

The disaster

In January and February 2001, three large earthquakes in just 40 days devastated El Salvador, the largest registering 7.6 on the Richter Scale. Ten thousand aftershocks followed. Massive landslides followed the earthquakes, destroying homes and the coffee fields that were the only source of income to so many manual laborers. Thousands of people were killed or seriously injured.

It's estimated that one million homes were destroyed in a country of only six million people. A third of the Catholic Churches were destroyed. Survivors lost everything and were left in abject poverty.

The situation today

And the world, distracted by other issues, has now turned away. Two years later, homes still lie in rubble. An El Salvadoran government official said, “We received international aid for the initial emergency two years ago, to feed and clothe survivors—but not enough to actually reconstruct. It has taken us two years to rebuild less than 25% of what was destroyed in just two minutes.”

In fact, the world has forgotten the people here – families forced to live without shelter in blistering heat, torrential rain and mosquito-filled nights. People are living in cardboard boxes, plastic bags, falling down shacks. Disease is rampant as children bathe and drink from dirty streams.

The chance for a dignified home, not a quick-fix shelter

After El Salvador's 1986 earthquakes, the government erected shelters measuring 35 square meters each and gave them free to the victims of the earthquakes...and in less than a year, these huts were overrun by gangs, drugs, and crime. Every single one of the families who had originally received the shelters had moved out to protect themselves. Following the 2001 earthquakes, similar shelters—simple one or two room huts—were built by a number of international charities, but many already lie empty and abandoned, because mere shelter does-n't really solve the problems of the impoverished earthquake victims.

Juan Jose Siman, an El Salvadoran businessman involved in the emergency relief efforts, noted, “I saw that the people we were helping weren's just survivors of the earthquakes, they were survivors of life. My experience convinced me that we required a different approach to make a permanent impact on their lives: we required Jesus Christ. I approached Catholic World Mission to see what help could be offered to rebuild and break the cycle of poverty at the same time.”

The response: apply the experience from rebuilding communities following two natural disasters in Mexico. Two communities were rebuilt—one near Mexico City after an earthquake, one near Acapulco after devastating mudslides three years ago. These efforts really work, too. After 17 years, the community near Mexico City is vibrant and still growing— a proven model for long-term transformation of a community.

‘Living Stones’

A complete community

On a private donation of 17 acres, groundbreaking for the ‘Living Stones’ community took place in November 2002 after months of ground preparation to make it able to resist both earthquakes and hurricanes. Located in the municipality of Santiago Nonualco, the worst hit by the earthquakes, ‘Living Stones’ is minutes from the International Airport and near the government's industrial magnet zone. With these jobs nearby, new homeowners can also become new employees with good-paying jobs.

Real Homes for the poor...

The Living Stones community is attacking the family housing shortage by constructing 232 cement and tile roof homes at a cost of $7,000 per home ($1.624 million dollars total). Rebuilding El Salvador will take years and cost billions, but these 232 homes will be a strong beginning.

These are not only shelters, but dignified homes. Twice the size of the typical house built with charitable aid, the ‘Living Stones’ homes are 70 square meters, with separate rooms for living, sleeping, and cooking—plus running water, toilet facilities, electricity, and telephone. Instead of cramming the entire family into one immodest sleeping area, they have three bedrooms: one for the parents, one for the girl children, and one for the boys.

Plus what is needed for a healthy Catholic community...

Construction began Feb 4th on a “Mano Amiga” (“Helping Hand”) school—the 17th one Catholic World Mission will support—so area children will receive a top-notch Catholic education, offering them a bright future overflowing with opportunity. In March, work will begin on a clinic to care for the families, job training facilities to improve the skills of the breadwinners, recreation center and parks for all to enjoy, and a new Catholic church to serve all those in the parish.

Half-price homes...with a catch

The El Salvadoran government has guaranteed low-interest 20 year mortgages covering half the cost of the house— $3,500. The residents will be expected to make payments on these mortgages and will eventually own a home for the first time in their lives!

The catch? To obtain these mortgages, Catholic World Mission must put up an equal amount of money—$3,500 per house.

“We are offering generous donors from North America the chance to ‘buy a home for half price,’ explained Fr. Elizondo. “With a gift of $3,500 to build one home for one family, a beautiful bronze plaque with your name inscribed on it will be placed in a place of honor inside the home. Parishes and other groups of Catholics are pooling their funds to make this down payment, which will be matched by the El Salvadoran government—and more than matched by the gratitude and prayers of a new homeowner in the Body of Christ.”