by Constance Garcia-Barrio
A revolution with guns and machetes more than 200 years ago gave birth to the republic of Haiti. Today, nonviolent strategists, including Ray Torres, 65, of Germantown, have become midwives to new possibilities for the Caribbean nation. In 1994, with years of social activism under his belt, Torres joined a delegation from the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) as a volunteer to aid Fondwa, a village in southern Haiti.
Torres’ past social justice work has led him to do everything from peeling potatoes to defying the Pentagon. In December of 1978, Ray and other peace activists chained themselves to the doors of the Pentagon to protest the production of nuclear weapons. A guard had to climb in a window, fetch bolt cutters and use them to cut Torres and other protesters loose. Police arrested 11 people, including Torres, but later dropped charges.
Another time in the ‘70s, Torres and some colleagues planned to shadow Chilean secret agents during the infamous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) in order to protect Chilean exiles living in Washington, D.C. When the Washington Post broke the story about the group and blew the agents’ cover, the latter left the U.S., ending the threat to Chilean nationals.
Torres, a retired psychiatric social worker, has also run a soup kitchen, a post in which he gained potato-peeling experience, started a thrift shop, advocated for peace in war-torn Nicaragua, kept tabs on Pennsylvania’s nuclear reactors and launched a credit union in one of West Philly’s poorer neighborhoods.
Now Torres uses skills and savvy gained over decades as a volunteer for Haiti. He felt drawn by the country’s poverty and “outsider” status. “Since it threw off slavery and won independence, many nations have treated Haiti as a threat and an outsider,” said Torres, co-chair of the Haiti Committee of FUMCOG, a congregation known for its activism.
Born in Mexico City, Torres lived there with his parents until the age of three. His father, from Mexico, taught medicine at the National University, and his mother, from suburban Philadelphia, had gone to that university to study languages. When she decided to return home, she had to run a gauntlet of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requirements in order to bring Torres and his three sisters with her. Maybe his mother’s struggles deepened Torres’ sympathy for Haitian refugees.
“Many Haitians fled their homeland in leaky boats with little food and water, but if they reached Miami, U.S. Immigration returned them to Haiti,” Torres said. “On the other hand, Cubans who made it to Miami were allowed to stay.”
As a teenager growing up in Cheltenham, Torres further developed a sense of social justice thanks to his next-door neighbor, nonviolent activist Richard Taylor, who gave him a copy of Gandhi’s autobiography and works by Martin Luther King. Taylor also took him to a private meeting where King talked about the Poor People’s Campaign, a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for disadvantaged people in America. “It was the last time Dr. King visited Philadelphia,” Torres said.
Led by the vision of Father Joseph Phillipe, a Haitian Catholic priest and subject of a documentary film, Torres became a key member of a group that helped to raise money to start a bank in Fondwa called Fonkoze. “The bank provides micro-loans to the organized poor in Fondwa,” Torres said.”Fonkoze began with one office and three employees, and has grown to 46 branches nationwide and 230,000 members.”
Torres not only played a part in Haiti’s economy but also in the country’s environmental health. In 1997, he co-led a delegation from Witness for Peace, a national grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence, to lobby for proper disposal of toxic Philadelphia incinerator ash illegally dumped in Haiti. “We collected samples and held rallies,” he said. “It took years of lobbying, but finally the ash was removed and returned to the U.S.”
Among many other obstacles, Haiti faces a “brain drain.” “Only one percent of Haitians attend college, and of that one percent, only 15 percent stay in Haiti,” Torres said. He served on the board of Partners in Progress, a U.S. nonprofit organization instrumental in establishing the University of Fondwa in 2004, the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding. The first Haitian university to focus on rural needs, the school offers degrees in agronomy, veterinary medicine and business administration.
Torres stepped forward again after the earthquake in 2010, which destroyed much of what Father Phillipe had accomplished. He worked with Haitian neighbors in Philadelphia to help rebuild the island nation.
Fondwa had just begun recovering from the earthquake when Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016. “The storm leveled many homes in Fondwa,” Torres said. “FUMCOG raised over $20,000 to help in the rebuilding effort.”
Torres has felt great satisfaction in helping Fondwa. “Father Joseph’s vision of economic democracy in Haiti has motivated me to stay involved, and I’ve come to see him as the Martin Luther King of Haiti,” said Torres, whose volunteer work led to an unexpected treasure. He met fellow FUMCOG member Eileen Gilkenson, now his wife of eight years, through their mutual interest in Haiti.
To learn more about Haiti, see this.
This article is reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the publication of the Phila. Corporation for Aging.