In October, 2012 my wife, Anne and I spent 3 glorious weeks seeing much of Peru. We loved the culture, the people, the history and all of the diversified places we visited. We started in Lima, then the Amazon jungle, up to Cusco, down to the Sacred Valley, further down to Machu Picchu where I spent my 80th birthday climbing the unbelievable ruins. We then journeyed up to 14,500 feet, the Puno area and Lake Titicaca (a favorite word for boys and old men) living in the homes of locals. Then back to Lima for one of the highlights of our trip…a visit to ALAS.
As the chair person for Global Mission at the Irvine United Congregational Church, before we left, I called the headquarters for the UCC Global Mission and asked if there were any projects in Peru? The Rev. Elizabeth Carrasquillo (Latin American and Caribbean GM Office) said that there was one in Lima called, “Asociacion de Ayuda Legal Y Accion Social.” She explained that they provide legal services and support services for individuals, regardless of their personal ideology or action, who are currently or were formerly incarcerated for political crimes during Peru’s civil war. Some 22,000 had been detained and accused of political crimes from that war which lasted from 1980 until 2000. Elizabeth also shared that ALAS has a taxi service as well as a restaurant run by the former prisoners to help the men start life anew.
This project sounded most interesting to us because we volunteer as tutors in the County jail working with inmates on a weekly basis to help them pass their high schoool equivalency exam. We get to know these men and women fairly well (our secondary task is being a "social worker") and are able to hear about the frustrations of being incarcerated, then being released from the jail, often with the “felon” label but with no money, no job, no strong (if any) support system, minimal education and a very small chance of making it. So many want to leave their past life behind and move on to a brighter future but there seem to be so many obstacles. Too often, with all these challenges, they end up back into the system, sort of like a revolving door. There has to be a better way.
Could the “ALAS” approach be part of an answer?
For years, our neighbors and friends down the street in Dana Point, were Larry and Sandy Hutchins. We were so delighted in 2008 when Sandy decided to run for “Sheriff” and even more delighted when, against some very difficult odds, she was appointed, then elected, Sheriff of Orange County. She has done an excellent job of turning around a badly tarnished Sheriff's Department. A few months ago, we saw her at a fund raiser, told her about our forthcoming trip and promised to share our findings about ALAS. She was most interested because she knows very well that meaningful incarceration includes meaningful rehabilitation. Thus, this report will be shared with her.
On with the story.
Before we left California we tried to make contact with ALAS but to no avail. However, as soon as we arrived in Lima we did make contact with Anibal Sanchez, their project director and attorney.
He said he would pick us up at our hote in Limal, in one of his group's taxis and take us to the project's restaurant in downtown Lima. Gabriel, the taxi owner/driver and Anibal arrived at noon and we drove to their restaurant, “El Ultimo Refugio: Especialidad, Pecado, Mariscos y Comida Criolla."
Here we were met by “Jaime”, the administrator of the restaurant, a very friendly man who was as much a social worker as the boss. Jaime explained what happened: once Anibal had helped a prisoner be released, that person could go to "Refugio", have a place to stay, be given clothes, money and could find a job either as a taxi driver, cook or server. All the men we met there had been in prison for political reasons, some for as long as 20 + years. Anibal had served 12 years. When he came out he completed law school and then started ALAS. Gabriel had been in prison for 17 years and when he was released. ALAS helped him buy his taxi which he shares with another former inmate, each doing 12 hours shifts daily.
Once we had finished our delicious lunch, we drove Anibal to his office and then Gabrielle took us to the Musee Nacion, a beautiful new facility where we hired a guide to lead us through the many floors of the cultural history of Peru. Once that was finished, we ended up on the top floor where we viewed an exhibition of photographs depicting the terrorism that prevailed in Peru in the 1980s and 90s. We saw the atrocities of a group known as “Shining Path” and the equally oppressive regime of President Fujimori. This was quite accidental but we witnessed through photography the very conditions that had put our friends from ALAS into prison. Rather ironical! We heard the men’s stories at lunch and then saw why they ended up in prison 3 hours later. That era in Peru's history was not nice!
Anne and I were really impressed and still are with ALAS. Let me share the words of one former prisoner being helped by them: “I was imprisoned for 15 years. I survived prison with the support of my colleagues who were with me and together we have overcome the most difficult moments. After a year of freedom I thank ALAS because, thanks to their help, I found it easier to rebuild my life and face the adversities of the world again. Today, I have a business that I manage with my partner. Definitely, if we had not counted on that first support, we would still be ‘kicking cans’ as we say here in Peru.”
We are home, back to the comforts of living in Irvine, but we intend to support ALAS with prayers, praise and finances. Want to help? There are a series of things you can do:
- Make Global Mission a part of your daily life by delving into the internet and reading about the myriads of projects they support.
- For Christmas, sponsor a child through Global Mission. It's the gift that keeps on giving! See me for an application.
- Give generously to the many projects sponsored by IUCC which support “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”
- Attend the many opportunities IUCC is offering to meet missionaries and hear their stories of supporting "the least of these...".
- Join Anne and me is sending a monthly check to ALAS to support their great work.
- Before you go on a trip, contact Global Mission and find out what projects they might be sponsoring in the area where you are traveling. Then go visit that project during your travels. It could change your life.
- Ask Anne or me about our quiet ministry to those incarcerated locally. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give ourselves away and receive more in return that we ever thought possible. They always need new tutors, if you are willing to go through the process of becoming “certified.”
- Never stop counting your blessings.
- Help keep IUCC on the cutting edge of responding to social issues by being involved.
- In May of 2013, vote for IUCC to become a full pledged caring, sharing giving Global Mission congregation.
Peace Love Joy
Bil Aulenbach, Chair, IUCC Global Mission