Editor’s Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike visited Haiti in 2007 and offers a reflection on that experience and his reaction to the tragedy in Haiti. As reports of how devastating the effects of the earthquake was continue to come out, let us pray for the people of Haiti and be generous in our support of the actions to help the people of Haiti. To help with the relief efforts that Fr. Tom Hagan, OSFS, is coordinating in Haiti, please click here: http://www.oblates.org/haiti_relief.php
The images and stories coming out of Haiti are heart breaking. It was already the poorest nation in our part of the world; it did not need this earthquake.
In the summer of 2007, I visited an Oblate, Fr. Tom Hagen, who heads up a mission in Haiti called Hands Together. This organization sponsors seven grade schools, a vocational secondary school, a clinic, (each of which also serves thousands of meals each week to the kids and to elderly people), and a radio station, all in the Cite Soleil section of Port-au-Prince. We also visited some projects in the country and a school in the city of Gonaives.
The visit made an unforgettable impression. Tom is a man with abundant energy and charisma. During my four days there, we were in near constant motion, visiting each project. He spends over 25 Sundays each year in the US preaching and raising money in parishes across the country. So when he is in Haiti, he regularly checks up on the operation of each Hands Together project. He basically serves as inspector general, and I traveled with him to each project.
When we visited the first school, we pulled into its walled courtyard, and guards shut the solid metal gate behind us. We toured the school with classrooms of 40+ kids, in bright green uniforms, sitting close together on concrete benches, a young teacher at the blackboard of each room. Every building I saw in Haiti looked like it was homemade. The schools are constructed of concrete block, and stairs would appear in odd places. A visitor could see the record of addition after addition to the original structure. Doorways between sections were clearly just broken through walls. I often had to step over the remains of the wall to pass through the doorway, and the floor on the other side would be at a different level than the one on which I was just walking. Despite all this everything was functioning and clean.
At the completion of the school tour, Tom led the way outside the walls and into the neighborhood. He spoke with everyone we passed, promoting the school and explaining that meals are a part of the school day. If the concrete block buildings seem homemade, the houses in the neighborhood can best be described as “shacks.” They are put together from scrap wood, cardboard, plastic and sheet medal. Cite Soleil is waterfront property on a Caribbean Island, but it could not be further from anyone’s idea of a vacation getaway. In fact, the whole slum grew up on land that cannot be more than one or two feet above sea level, so the sea is always a looming threat.
At each stop, we visited a school and its neighborhood. There is so much I could say, but I want to illustrate my experience with two impressions.
Cite Soleil has no sanitation. Sewage collects in gutters; it sits there or washes to the sea. Calling the structures “gutters” is being very generous. There were just sewage and putrid standing water all over. Little kids were running all over, barefoot, paying no attention to running into the water or not. Tom’s dog accompanied us on this tour, and he, too, walked indiscriminately through all sorts of filth. I would get in to the truck after each tour, and he would climb in on top of me, drying his paws as he went. My impression of the whole place was how dirty and makeshift everything was.
However, as we walked or drove places, I have a clear picture of people cleaning: of men and women using big steel bowls with soapy water to wash. People were either bathing themselves or their children, washing dishes and pots, or soaking and ringing out clothes; everywhere we went this washing was going on. There was no infrastructure to support the cleaning: no running water, indoor plumbing, or sewage system, but people used what they had and did what they could.
Second, the children were striking. Like kids everywhere, they were playful, curious, and smiling. They loved seeing their picture on my cell phone and loved touching and pulling the hair on my arms, the long, light, wavy hair of an Irish-American visitor. In contrast to the children, my impression of adults I met, or simply observed from a distance, was how tired, and worn down they seemed from trying to make a living.
I was there only four days; I always say that if there were not a plane back to the U.S. on that fourth day, I would have swum to Miami to get back home. Despite this feeling, the visit was a very full and valuable experience.
Still Point in a Turning World
My home away-from-home was the Hands Together house in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince. This house was walled, gated and guarded by a couple of men with rifles. On the ground flood there were people cooking, sweeping, or waiting to talk to Father Tom. Chickens wandered in and out of the house. Twenty-five young Haitian men lived there, along with Tom and any guests passing through. The young men came expressing interest in becoming Oblate brothers or priests, and so they lived and prayed together, and worked as teachers in the Cite Soleil schools. They lived in a dorm in a wing of the second floor. The chapel was there as well, in a covered patio, one wall open to the courtyard below.
I stayed up higher in a freestanding, eight by eight, concrete block room on the roof with a bathroom, bed, and chair. There I could shower and approximate the sanitation I am used to as an American. For the four days this tower was my comfort zone in a tragically poor country, my “still point in a turning world.” Since it was up high, it provided a distant view of the neighborhood and beyond to the city and even to the sea. I could see lights from houses in the hills and the haze of smoke from thousands of fires in the valley and surrounding hills.
That building collapsed in the earthquake. Two young men were killed; four were seriously injured. Tom was in his ground floor office and is OK. My sanctuary room on the roof is gone.
Four Responses to the Earthquake:
There is so much to be sad about looking at the results of this earthquake. Every picture from the site gives us a thousand reasons to mourn. I think of people trapped under debris waiting, hoping in agony, all the injured and displaced. I think of all the good that has been destroyed, the progress and hope set back.
We can be angry that we have a world set up so that we are either winners or losers, and the winners get to take it all. This pattern must go back to Neanderthals. It was plainly at work in French colonial exploitation of Haiti, in cruel slavery. We can see it looking at our country’s history when leaders in our young republic gave in to racial prejudice and withheld support for Haiti emerging from a slave revolt: the first Black nation to join the U.S. in the experiment of forming a democracy. In our own time this same dark force finds expression in our intractable “military industrial complex.” So we can spend billions on two ineffective wars but can only promise 500 million to our neighbor now in dire need. It’s not about money; it’s about vision and priorities.
I do not want to try to make an easy lesson out of such enormous tragedy and pain. However, I think one key purpose of middle class people traveling to Haiti or to Camden, or to any tragically needy place to volunteer, even just serving at a local soup kitchen, is so that when we return to our usual place, we are changed. Serving where need is plain-to-see contributes to the good being done in that place, but it can renew our ability to recognize needs and to serve in our ordinary setting. It can bring us to deeper gratitude about our lives: a gratitude that brings us to our knees in humble awareness that so much of our accomplishment and security is beyond us.
The thought of the room that served as my oasis in Haiti, atop Tom’s solid house, now destroyed, serves as a vivid image of how all security is unsure. Disaster can strike anywhere, and does strike everywhere. In the end, God alone, and the values God offers us, stands.
Feelings are real, and we can learn from them, and it is good to take lessons from the events of life. But in this tragedy, at this moment, real people are suffering, and they do not have the luxury of distance to simply feel or learn. They are in the position of having to endure this tragedy. Action in this moment is required of Christians.
I am very proud that the Oblate provincial, Fr. Jim Greenfield (who was just in Haiti with Fr. Kevin Nadolski days before the earthquake, staying in the same rooftop room) has set a goal for us to raise $100,000.00 to give to Tom Hagen and Hands Together. Jim’s intention is to get emergency help to people to get through this crisis. It also will support our efforts in Haiti: there before this earthquake, still there after the attention fades, rebuilding, educating, encouraging, and healing.
The Earthquake in Haiti