It’s complicated

On one of the first days of my first visit to Haiti in 2001, I was introduced to a young man at one of the schools we were touring.  He was probably around 14 or so.  Remarkably, especially for someone so young, he spoke English.  I remember how polite he was and the question he asked me:  “So, Father, how do you find my country?”

Striving to be a gracious guest, my immediate response was to mention that it is a beautiful country, that the people are so warm and welcoming.  Those observations are all true, but to honestly answer the question – How do you find my country? – is far more complicated.

And if it was a difficult question in 2001, it’s only become more challenging as I consider our recent journey.  Seven of us from Newman and St. Stans traveled to our twinning parish in Lalomas, Haiti, last month; two from Sts. Joseph and Paul Parish in Owensboro, Ky., joined us as well.  For the others from Stevens Point it was their first visit.  Some had previously witnessed poverty in other Third-World countries.  Most had not.  One member of our group was flying for the first time.  Each of our answers to that young man’s question probably would include common elements, although there would also be significant differences because of the varied background, information and degrees of emotion we brought to the experience.

I’m reluctant at this early stage after our trip to say too much.  The others are still working to articulate what they experienced on the journey.  I don’t want to put words in their mouths.  At the risk of doing that, I will offer a few general observations:

  • I found Haiti in 2014 to be even more overwhelming and bewildering than on my previous trips, the second was in 2006.  Lingering devastation, still unfinished clean-up from the 2010 earthquake speak to the horrendous challenge entailed in almost any relief or recovery effort in Haiti.  We drove by fields outside Port-au-Prince, the capital, where nearly 200,000 people are still living in tents, left homeless by the quake.  This isn’t to say that the money we contributed to the recovery efforts of organizations like Catholic Relief Services were wasted, but looking at the big picture it’s often hard to tell.  We trust that somewhere, somehow amid the vast and deep devastation someone was helped and someone’s existence is more stable, if not complete.
  • The most frequently asked question, I think all of us in our group would agree, was “What will you be doing?” or “What did you do?”  It’s not that they are bad questions, but I think they presume a different answer than we provide.  Our point was not to accomplish something, which is a very noble American desire – to go somewhere, especially a place as dire as Haiti, and to build something, do something that will make that place better.  The organizations I’ve traveled with in these situations recognize that innate hope, but they also don’t want visitors leaving with some exaggerated sense of accomplishment.  They also don’t want Americans doing what Haitians know how to do.  They know how to build, to dig wells, to teach children.  What’s needed are the resources – yes, money – to help them do those things.
    So, what did we do?  We met people.  We visited classrooms packed with students.  We greeted teachers, a couple of whom had not been paid since September.  We played with children or, in my case, dazzled them with my yo-yo prowess!  We ate delicious Haitian cuisine prepared by women in huge pots over open flames in the backyard of where we stayed.  Most significantly, having accepted the invitation of the pastor, Father Eveneau, to visit Lalomas, we began to establish a connection with his people.
  • It became increasingly apparent that our response, how we might most effectively and generously assist Fr. Eveneau and his people, warrants careful discernment.  Teachers need to be paid.  Children coming to school need to be fed.  Families need ready access to clear water.  The open second-floor walkway at the parish school desperately needs a railing.  And those are just a few immediate needs.

Those who made the journey, as well as parishioners who’ve already invested themselves in this relationship, will ponder how to proceed.  Ponder is really the essential word in this process.  It’s more than merely planning and plotting.  What we do may not necessarily be the most efficient thing, but it might be the most necessary or maybe the most life-affirming.  And our pondering must include Fr. Eveneau’s analysis since he knows his community and its needs far better than we ever could.

You will learn much more as we ponder.  We’ll share stories and photos.  Our goal is to share our journey with you as extensively as possible so that we might all be engaged in our response.  And we hope that other parishioners – maybe you – are inspired or intrigued by what we report so as to accept Fr. Eveneau’s open invitation to visit and to realize Haiti’s beauty, the woe and wonder of its people, and the importance of this relationship we’ve merely initiated.  TL


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