Hollis’ Story You Were With Us
We were but representatives of you, the Church of Nativity, on our pilgrimage to Haiti as we walked among the many that are so much less fortunate than we are. Our trip to Cap Haitien to see the three projects that benefited from the 2006 Starfish Lenten campaign ended up being the experience of a lifetime. The nine parishioners and one former parishioner who made the trip were each profoundly affected by what we saw and experienced. I will try to give you a few words about my impressions.
Haiti is a small country in the Caribbean that shares the same island with the Dominican Republic and is not much more than an hour’s flight from the United States. It is estimated that it has a population of over 8 million people and is considered to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It has few resources beyond its people and cement. Its people have continuously been exploited by corrupt governments and a privileged few.
Our goal was to see the three projects we support in the far north: a tilapia fish farm, a housing project at Prolonge, and a fishing village project at Petit Anse. We were not able to go to our project of the last few years, Nativity Village I, in the Port-au-Prince area due to security problems. When we landed in Port-au-Prince, we had an extra hour beyond what was needed to go from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, so we went to Food for the Poor (FFP) Haiti headquarters that was a few blocks away. We were reminded of the security situation due to the large number of UN troops patrolling the streets in armored cars. When we arrived at the FFP compound, the staff was in the process of distributing a prepared meal to thousands of people from the local neighborhood at their feeding center. It is then that it hits you the first time when you see mostly women and children standing in line to get their only meal of the day that consisted mostly of a corn meal mush. These are people just like you and me. These children are just like the children that we raised.
You have to take a small turbo-prop to travel from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien. You don’t have to worry about a security screening, you can take your bottle of water along, and there was no preflight briefing by a flight attendant because there was no flight attendant. As you fly over the countryside you can see the mostly bare hills and mountains. They have been deforested for the harvesting of wood to make cooking charcoal. You see extreme erosion. Everything washes into the sea when it storms and there is a dead zone along the coast with very little fishing.
When you land in Cap Haitien, the terminal is no bigger than the cry room at Nativity. We had already had a hard day of travel, but we were only beginning. The drive through the center of the city is amazing. During daylight it is a constant beehive of activity. It seems the whole world is going on right along the street. Everyone is either making something, selling something, hauling something, or going somewhere in one of their little Asian manufactured light pickups that have been converted to “tap-tap” buses. The density of humanity is incredible.
Our first visit was the tilapia fish farm. In a cooperative effort supported by Nativity, FFP is teaming with Taiwanese experts to establish a sustainable fish farming operation. We were enthusiastically greeted. The ponds had been built and the first set of fingerlings had been released. The celebration of the day was the blessing of the ponds by the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Cap Haitien. Fr. Martin cut the ribbon to the project and was given a bouquet of flowers. There was a large group of small school children and Fr. Martin began passing out a flower to each child. There were so many smiling faces. How could anyone look into the face of those kids and not see the face of Jesus?
We finished the day with a wonderful meal at the local FFP office with Fr. Duken, the local pastor, and his staff. We shared traditional Haitian food, music and talk. We were very tired pilgrims that night.
The next day was spent entirely at the housing project at Prolonge. The Archbishop of Cap Haitien was there to bless the houses. It was a very festive occasion. The Archbishop conducted the ceremony in both Creole and in English. The thing he said that will remain with me forever is that we were there to bless the houses, but first we bless the people, always. After the blessing there were speeches, music, dancing, and singing. It was all so colorful and wonderful. The children were all around, hanging onto hands and looking at their pictures that had been taken with digital cameras.
We then took a tour. First we saw the swampy area where the people were coming from that were moving to the housing project. It is a tidal estuary area barely above sea level and prone to constant flooding. This coupled with the traditional construction of sticks and mud with dirt floors made for horrific housing circumstances. We were then invited into a new house made of cement block, with a cement floor and on higher ground. It was so small it would not seem much to Americans, but to these people it was the world. They could live in dignity.
Your pilgrims were then asked to feed the people of the village. We dished out beans and rice, chicken, broth, and a cooked piece of fish. Only then did we have our lunch under the shade trees with the children all around us. After lunch we split up three ways: some talking to the women, some talking to the men, and some doing activities with the children. I had two experiences. As always, taking bubbles along to a third world country to play with the kids is enchanting. I was doing fine until Fr. Martin walked away with my bottle of bubbles. I was one of three of our men engaged in a question and answer session with the men of the village. What I learned is that they have the same wants and aspirations as families everywhere. They talked about the need for jobs, medical care, education for their children and electricity. We are all the same; they just want to be able to provide for their families.
That night we were invited to supper with the Archbishop of Cap Haitien. It was wonderful Haitian food again. What most impressed me was that he spent most of the night serving us and talking to us. He had little regard for eating and drinking himself. I couldn’t think how hard it would be to minister to a flock with almost no resources to work with. He must depend mostly on the generosity of outside donors for resources.
The final full day in Haiti began with going to the site of our fishing village project at Petit Anse. We were again greeted by many people and especially the children. We were able to talk at length and get a good understanding of the need. At the present time there is nothing yet in the village as the boats are being built in Jamaica and will need to be transported to Haiti. There will eventually be several construction projects for a gear house, a community center, and a fish market. We met a fisherman who had just come in from fishing. He had a small mess of very little fish. He was going to sell them and give the money to his family. The catch was so little. It is obvious why bigger boats are needed to go out beyond the reef to safely catch bigger and more fish.
That day we also went to the place where the Missionaries of the Poor take care of very ill and disabled elderly people and young children. The order is based in Jamaica and is composed of men from third world countries. Seeing the elderly and children brings you to tears. The order is trying to do their best with very meager resources. Certainly they are answering to the Gospel.
The trip was a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word. We saw the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, and those in the prison of poverty. We saw how the people of Nativity were answering the commandment to care for those less fortunate, that we must do these things for the least of our brothers.
Everyone who went on the trip was changed. It didn’t matter if it was the first trip or they had been there before. I think everyone cried at one time or another, I know I did. Our job now is to report back to you, the people of Nativity on the stewardship of your hard earned resources and to tell the story of what we saw.