As many of you know, I was part of a group that set out for Haiti towards the end of September to visit our sister parish in Bassin Bleu, St. George’s. We had a whirlwind of a trip, and we ended up in Haiti four extra days due to the hurricane. I want to share some of our experiences, though they were so powerful I cannot articulate them even in my own heart. Before I speak of the tragedies there, I want to speak about the most beautiful things I saw in Haiti. There were many. I want to talk about what made Haiti real to me.
The first beautiful thing we found, right as we left the airport, was a bar. It is called the God is Good bar. We also spotted Sacred Heart Auto Parts and Mama Mary Barber Shop. Everything is stamped with the divine. But of all that great signage, the best was on the top of the windshields of almost all the vehicles, a strip where it is written, “Thank you Jesus” or “Merci Jesus.” Haitians are a very thankful people, as our gospel commands us to be today. I must confess, my first thought was: What do these folks have to be thankful for? Look—there is smog all over, trash everywhere, and sewers overflowing. But it didn’t take me long to realize just how rich these folks are, why they are so thankful: they have one another, they have faith, family, enough food, and Jesus. For that they are rich.
After a five-hour drive, we arrived at Bassin Bleu at our sister parish St. George’s, and there I saw a few more things. First, there was the well. It is built on church property. When people need water, they come to the church. It reminded me of Ezekiel’s vision of the church–a temple on the top of a mountain from which gush out waters that give life to all the animals and plants and people on the mountain and below it. That is church: from our church flow living waters, waters we are baptized into, waters that give us life here but also life everlasting. That is church!
Then I saw the basketball court, which is used more for soccer than anything. In Haiti, they don’t have televisions or iPads or computers or Rascals. But the kids do have each other and a ball. I had some of the most genuine fun I’ve had in ages playing soccer with those kids! They are pretty good at soccer, too.
Then we saw the schools–an elementary school with 800 kids and a high school with 350. I was incredibly happy to see a room filled with 12th graders. It’s a big deal for a school in Haiti to have a 12th grade, and St. George’s is the only place in the city with one. It is such a foreign concept there, a 12th grade, because most of the time folks are done with school after the 11th grade. But St. George’s has 24 folks in the 12th grade. So thankful are they, so much do they appreciate their education, that they threw us a party to thank us for helping to make it possible.
We also saw many Catholic schools under construction, including one of St. George’s mountain parishes, St. Michael’s in La Plat. Almost every Hatien parents wants his kid to go to Catholic school, so they are busting at the seams. All these foundations, they reminded me of what America looked like when Mother Theodore and her sisters were building schools everywhere. As we stood in the foundations, I wondered how many lives would be changed here.
The Masses were another beautiful sight. You ought to hear those folks sing. They sing with all their voices, all their hearts. They do the collection as we do communion: with two folks up front holding wooden boxes. Everyone–everyone–deposits a coin. Many people, come Wednesday, start thinking: Where am I going to get the coin I will put in this week? It is the widow’s mite, often all they have. They give from their poverty, with nothing left over, and for that they are rich.
Of all those beautiful things I saw, nothing of that beauty compared with the beauty of the people. We met Fr. Cholet, the pastor of our sister parish. A wonderful, competent man. We also met Fr. Rodolphe, who is rector of their cathedral and was with us most of the trip. Fr. Rodolphe and Fr. Rick Nagel became friends at St. Meinrad. Together, they have linked over ten parishes in the States with parishes in Haiti. I got to thinking about many lives have been changed because those two men became friends. Friendships, when they are built on Christ, bear so much fruit.
Then we met the kids. There is one boy, his name was Waltzie. Waltzie is 8 years old. His mother works in the marketplace selling anything she can make. She is lucky to make 50 cents a week. His father makes caskets. Waltize has five siblings. He and I became instant friends, though we could not converse easily. On our first day, after Mass and breakfast, Waltize tried to tell me something in French. I did not understand. So he took me by the hand–the ultimate sign of hospitality and love–and led me where he wanted me to go. First, it was to the soccer field for a game of soccer with a group of the older kids. Then, Waltize led me to a stoop outside of the well that is built there at St. George’s. There, he made the cross in Creole as he said, “Nan non Papa a, Ak Pitit la, Ak Lesprisen an. Amèn.” They know how to pray in Haiti. We sat next to each other for an hour as he looked through the pictures on my phone and pointed. Then he took me and our group to the marketplace to meet his mother and then to show us his house. They do not have running water. The walls are a combination of sheet metal and wood and palm branches. But it is home. They have very little, but they are rich. They have life, they have family, and they have faith. That is what they have to be thankful for. They may be poor, but they are richer than a good many of us. We also met up with some older kids, kids who we have sponsored for many years. It is something else to see who they have become in eight years. We met many new friends, too.
Then we went to the airport on Monday to leave, a five-hour car ride. Alas, the doors were closed at the airport. Our hearts sank. We learned that we would be staying in Haiti to weather the storm. We also knew we would have to stay in Cap Hatien because going back down to Bassin Bleu would leave us trapped there as the roads would deteriorate with the storm. Fortunately, Fr. Cholet knew a guy who would take us in, Fr. Valonne and his Missionaries of St. Jacques. These folks took us in, fed us, sheltered us, dispensed the works of mercy to us. They were God’s grace to us. We became fast friends with them. I cannot express how good these men were to us. With his broken English, Fr. Valonne said, “The Catholic Church is a family. You are home here.” It nearly made me cry.
Another beautiful sight was our group together. We were a helpless bunch. We didn’t know what was going to happen, how bad the storm would be. We had no radar, no money, no television, no clue how much flooding and wind would come our way. We had scant and most of the time no communication with the outside world. But we kept our spirits up. We laughed and prayed and told stories and bellyached and laughed some more. God was there. I miss being stranded with those people already!
Things are not pretty in Haiti. It was plenty messy even before the hurricane, as I described earlier. Now it is even worse. But, I got to thinking. As messy a place as it is–just like our world–it is fused with grace, with faith, with family, with love, with prayer. Maybe the mess is less of a mess when God is there.
Haiti needs our support. Please, please pray every day for them. I mean really pray for them. The official count of deaths is now 900. I’m sure there are more. They were people like my friend Waltize. Catholic Relief Services is already on it and helping the areas worst affected. We will have a collection soon for them. The buildings at St. George’s are okay mostly, but the area around it suffered a lot of damage–and that’s still pretty far north. What happened in the south and the west, that is a whole other story. Total destruction in many places. Those folks, they need our support. We pray also for everyone in the path of Matthew.
The Haitians, they are a resilient people. They will get through this. They know how to suffer, as St. Timothy talks about in our second reading today. Their sufferings show us how to suffer. How quickly we complain about the most minor discomforts and inconveniences. What we suffer does not come close to what they suffer. But they do it, because they do what Timothy says: in 2 Tim 2:8, he offers three words, one of the shortest scripture verses: “Remember Jesus Christ.” We remember Christ, in the good times and in the bad. We remember him, we lean on him, we receive him, we persevere with him.