The Rev. Roberto Perez, Miami pastor, prepares to embrace President Barack Obama during the White House ceremony honoring him and 12 other Americans receiving the Presidential Citizens medal. UMNS photos by Jay Mallin.
A retired United Methodist pastor was one of 13 Americans honored at the White House on Oct. 20 with the nation’s second-highest civilian award.
The Rev. Roberto Perez, 68, of Miami received the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama “for his caring spirit and dedication to serving others.”
Perez — who is president of Alfalit International, a faith-based nonprofit that promotes literacy around the world — told United Methodist News Service that many other Americans are equally worthy of the honor. “I’m just a common Christian who wants to do the will of God,” he said.
In his speech at the start of the medal ceremony, Obama noted that all 13 recipients had faced the “Good Samaritan moment” of whether to stop to help others.
“They come from different backgrounds, and they’ve devoted their lives to different causes,” the president said. “But they are united by the choice that they’ve made. They could have made excuses to do nothing. Instead, they choose to help.”
The Presidential Citizens Medal was established in 1969 to recognize American citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens. The White House spent four months sifting through nearly 6,000 nominations from members of the public to select this year’s recipients, who were chosen, he explained, “not just for the work that they do but (also by) the example they set.”
To honor the recipients, Obama said, the government must not only hand out medals but also follow their example.
“I hope they inspire us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes,” he said.
Representing a variety of ages, locations and ethnic groups, the recipients have created programs to help others, called attention to injustices and worked to improve their communities.
It had been a rough few weeks just before he learned of his selection. His brother died shortly after Perez returned from Uganda, where he attended a denominational roundtable on mission work in South Sudan. Then Perez collapsed and ended up in the hospital, where a pacemaker was implanted.
“I was in the hospital, and I had a call from the White House that the president himself actually picked me,” he explained.
Perez looked happy and healthy sitting with other recipients on a platform in the East Room, near a large portrait of George Washington. He hugged Obama both before and after his medal was presented.
“For more than four decades, Roberto Perez has dedicated his time and passion to bringing the gift of literacy to communities around the world,” said the military aide reading the citations for the recipients.
“Through his leadership of Alfalit International, he has provided basic education opportunities to underserved youth and adults in 23 countries on three continents. From the barrios of Miami to the villages of Africa and the pueblos of South America, he has guided a force of more than 6,000 volunteers in delivering independence through education.”
In the audience was a Perez cheering section: Hickey; his wife, Liliam; his son, the Rev. Michael Perez; his daughter-in-law, Yvette Perez; his grandchildren, Micaela and Robert Jonathan Perez; Hickey, the church member who nominated him; and his longtime friend and colleague, retired Bishop J. Lloyd Knox of Gadsden, Ala.
Knox called Perez “a loving, caring person,” and he, in turn, thanked Knox for inspiring him to join the ministry.
“I’m proud to be United Methodist,” Perez said. “My church gave me my formation, my character, my spiritual growth.”
The bishop, whom he considers both a mentor and member of the family, has known him since Knox served as a Methodist missionary in Cuba. “I was the pastor of the church in Santiago de las Vegas; Roberto was a youth,” Knox recalled. “We had a very active youth program there.”
Perez left Cuba in January 1961, when he was 17, eventually landing in the Northeast, where he lived with relatives and finished high school. In 1965, he was drafted into the Army, and when his commitment was finished, he moved to Miami to work with Knox, who was director of Hispanic ministry. He started a new Hispanic congregation, Coral Way United Methodist Church.
Perez also has worked in Miami as a chaplain at the Dade County Jail, where he witnessed the stress of drug and alcohol addiction and “saw the need to have a place for young people who have been thrown into the jail system.” He helped develop a recovery ministry, Riverside Health, an outreach of Riverside United Methodist Church.
He has been involved with Alfalit since 1967. Originally founded in Cuba in 1961 by Justo and Luisa Gonzalez — the parents of the Rev. Justo Gonzalez, a well-known United Methodist church historian and theologian — and the Rev. Eulalia Cook, Alfalit International has helped more than 7 million people learn to read and write during its 50-year history.
Other programs focus on nutrition and sustainable agriculture practices, health and disease prevention, community development and micro-credit lending.
According to U.N. statistics, almost 1 billion people cannot read or write, Perez said. “Bringing education to the people where they are,” through Alfalit, is his passion. He has a simple motto: “Education is freedom.”
Recognized as an Advance Special for The United Methodist Church, Alfalit has a shoestring operational budget. “We’re proud to say that 92 percent of the money goes to the field,” he said.
The other medal recipients are Steve and Liz Alderman, Armonk, N.Y.; Clarence Lee Alexander, Fort Yukon, Alaska; Camilla Bloomquist, Penn Yan, N.Y.; Judith Broder, Studio City, Calif.; Vijaya Emani, Strongsville, Ohio; John Keaveney, Los Angeles; Roger Kemp, Leawood, Kan.; Janice Langbehn, Lacey, Wash.; Ida Martin, Bluffton, S.C.; Margaret Martin, Los Angeles; and Michelle McIntyre-Brewer, Jefferson, Md.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.