Ever since the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, I have been fascinated with the country and its people (In fact, my first article for the CFJ blog was on Haiti.) Not because of the earthquake itself, but because before this disaster I knew relatively little about this Caribbean nation. For me, Haiti had always been trivia I used when giving presentations on social justice: What is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere? But after the earthquake hit, I was very much embarrassed at how little I knew about the country. Why was it so poor? What does the culture look like? What kind of government do they have? What are their needs? I decided to focus on Haiti as a topic for a youth ministry meeting. I spent the week researching and reading about its messy history and vibrant culture. Ever since, I have wanted nothing more than to visit Haiti and see it all firsthand. I wanted to go down and see what the people need and what could be done to make things better. A few weeks ago, I was blessed with that opportunity.
I, along with four other members of the St. Matthias pastoral staff spent four days with an organization called Hands Together. As a parish, we have had an established stewardship relationship with Hands Together for more than fifteen years. We pray for them each week at mass in our prayer of the faithful, we support them financially each month, and we occasionally host members of the organization for appeals. But until this trip we had never sent a group to visit. That is a very one-sided relationship. The purpose of this trip was to fix that and see how we can better help the people of Haiti.
I have learned over the years through my experiences with service and justice that Haiti does not need me to fly down there and fix them. And Doug Campbell, the executive director for Hands Together, was very honest and clear about that in regards to our trip. We were not going down there to build schools or cook meals. The Haitian people can do that (and probably much better than I can). And Hands Together takes great pride in the fact that other than Fr. Tom Hagan and Doug Campbell, the organization’s founders, all of their workers and volunteers are Haitian. We were going down there to build relationships and to form a deeper connection with this organization that we were supporting. Knowing all of this, I still went looking for answers. What do they need? How can I help?
The plan was to see the initiatives that Hands Together is involved in, mainly schools, a mobile health clinic, and agricultural projects. Not knowing any French or Haitian Creole, I was unsure about how well I could communicate and connect with the people down there. I also did not want to act like a “tourist” and just watch the people and projects around me. While four days seems like a quick trip, each day was packed with experiences. I do not think I could ever share the entirety of this expedition in a blog entry, but here are two encounters that were particularly profound for me.
Around the corner from where we were staying, the Missionaries of Charity (the order established by Mother Theresa) had a nutrition center. This was one of our only opportunities for service on the trip, and we were there each day for at least a few hours. The purpose of the nutrition center was to feed children who had been abandoned or those whose families could not provide for them. I have seen plenty of those commercials featuring starving children, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. The center had a few rooms filled wall-to-wall with cribs. Each one had a child under the age of three. Some of the children were sleeping, somehow able to find rest in the oppressive heat and the loud cacophony surrounding them, some were entertaining themselves, playing with their toes or a small toy, but most were crying, wailing because they were hungry or sad or lonely. This was overwhelming and almost unbearable.
After a few moments of attempting to process everything that was happening, the woman who was preparing the meal for the children motioned for me to pick up one of the children. I do not have a ton of experience with young children, but I did my best. The girl, probably about two years old, was not crying, but she kept staring and pointing outside. She had no real expression on her face. After holding her for a few moments, I somehow communicated my request to take her outside into a small courtyard, which was permitted. I walked around the courtyard desperately trying to appease her curiosity as she pointed at various things. She never truly smiled, but I could tell she was excited to be outside. Then we sat down and I fed her a pumpkin soup that was mostly broth. The few meaty chunks of pumpkin that were there, she liked to pick off the spoon and feed herself.
We spent at least an hour together. The whole time she was expressionless. Even as I placed her back in her crib when it was time to go, she had that same look on her face as when I first picked her up. I could not help but wonder if the time I spent with her had any effect at all. Before I left, I looked at the band around her ankle and saw that her name was Ketia.
We were blessed to return to the nutrition center each day. Each time I went straight for Ketia, hoping to bring a smile or some sort of emotion out of her. And each day she returned to the crib with the same look. It made me so sad. I tried to figure out what might be going through her mind. Did she know her situation? Why she was hungry? Why she had to rely on strangers to feed her and to spend time with her?
Our second day brought us to the north of the country. We drove almost four hours to Bassen in the mountains of northern Haiti. Here we saw some of the agricultural projects that Hands Together was leading. A major part involved drilling wells and pumping water to a large cistern that pumped water to various fields with mangos and other crops. The local people in the community handled all of the planting and harvesting. As great as these projects were to see in action, the most powerful moment for me came earlier that morning.
In Bassen, we stayed in a large building at the top of a mountain overlooking some small villages. That morning I was up before breakfast while the sun was just beginning to rise. While waiting for the other members of our group to get up, I went to the roof to check out the view down below. I was fascinated by two small huts and the people moving around them. One woman was working hard at the laundry washing her family’s clothes and hanging them to dry. At the other hut, a woman and a child walked to a nearby water source with jugs. Those are two simple actions, but for some reason their poverty-stricken lives hit me very hard.
I am still not sure why I was so affected by this scene. It might have been some of the conversations I had with the project leaders the night before. Or maybe seeing so much already in the short time I had been there. Or it might have been looking at my own life and how much I take things live water and laundry for granted. Looking down at them I thought to myself: this is their life. They have to walk for water and carry it back home. They have to do their laundry by hand. They have no electricity. But, this is their life. Some may see this and think they have been dealt a bad hand. But this is their life, and they continue to live it each day with pride. And while I never actually met those two women, I cannot help but feel connected to them.
I went to Haiti because I wanted to help in whatever way I could. I knew I could not fix everything, but I still went looking for answers. I left with far more questions. It was a truly amazing experience. The trip, the people I met, the things I saw have truly affected me. Not a day goes by without my thoughts turning to Haiti and the people I encountered there. I wonder what they are all doing. Who is feeding Ketia? What chores need to be done? And I would love to return someday to see how things are going and to build new relationships. But perhaps my physical presence is not what they need right now. Maybe I have a role to play here so that the relationship between Hands Together and St. Matthias – between Americans and Hatians – is strengthened. I’m working while wondering.