There is wisdom in those words for one who, like myself, has visited a country for the first time, then returns home and promptly writes a column about his experiences.
With that cautionary note clearly sounded, let me share with you some "snapshots" of my recent trip to Haiti. These are not the splendid photographs found in National Geographic nor the photos of an enthusiastic tourist. After all, my companions and I did not go to Haiti as photographers or tourists. We came on pilgrimage and, for a few days, we were blessed as the sights and sounds of but a small portion of Haiti impressed themselves on our minds and hearts.
At 6:30 a.m., on Monday, February 18th, I joined Dr. Michael Cappello, a tropical infectious disease specialist at the Yale University School of Medicine, for the flight to Port au Prince. We were met at Kennedy Airport by Hope Carter and Betty Flynn whose husband, Dr. Tom Flynn, was already hard at work in Haiti. Traveling with Hope, there was no mistaking that this trip was to be a pilgrimage. She gave us a care package that included a prayer book, a journal, and a flashlight. One way or the other, we would find our way.
Truth to tell, I was a bit apprehensive as we landed at Port au Prince because I really did not know what to expect. But there wasn't much time to worry. Hope spotted a man named Parish, an old friend and driver, who took us to a nearby smaller airport where we quickly boarded a Tropical Air Flight for a short flight over the mountains to Cap Haitian. If I was nervous upon landing in Port au Prince, I was actually a bit terrified flying over those mountains in a small plane during a rainstorm. At that point, a Haitian proverb seemed appropriate: "Over the mountains, more mountains!"
In reality, I had nothing to fear. We landed safely and soon were on our way to Milot where the Sacre Coeur Hospital is located. That hospital, sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, is part of a project known as CRUDEM (Center for the Rural Development of Milot), a project begun in 1968 and generously supported by the American Association of the Order of Malta. Along the way to Milot, I got my first glimpse of life in Haiti. I experienced a rough gravel road, shared by many: uniformed children walking home from school; horses carrying their burden of wood for charcoal or kindling; enormous dump trucks stirring up mounds of dust; buses and "tap?taps" (small trucks used as cabs) ? along with two chickens, roosters and goats.
On both sides of the road were small houses made of cinderblock or wood that was thatched together. Almost all the houses had corrugated tin roofs. Many were partially finished due to shortages of time, money or building materials. "A bird builds its nest little by little," says another Haitian proverb. These houses are built by proud and determined families, little by little.
Once settled at CRUDEM, it was time for Mass. The Gospel of the day was Matthew 25, which challenges us to see the face of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner. I knew I was about to see Jesus.
The next day, Tuesday, was packed. Drs. Flynn and Cappello, joined by Dr. David Dannis and Dr. Pierre Paul, spent the day treating sick children. Hope, Betty and I joined Father Paul Carrier, S.J., and Doug Perlitz for another bone jarring ride, this time from Milot to Cap Haitian. There we visited Project Pierre Toussaint, an initiative that is also generously supported by the American Association. It was begun by Doug Perlitz, an alumnus of Fairfield University, when he was 25 years old. The Project has two phases. First is the 13th Street "intake" point for street children between the ages of 6 and 15. Some are abandoned, all are woefully neglected. Among them are kids known as "sanguine" ? "the soulless ones". When we arrived, Andy Schultheis, Doug's assistant, was bandaging the arm of a young man with a nasty burn. Amelie, a young woman from Lyon, France, was helping a group of unruly, ragtag children to learn basic skills ? bathing, eating breakfast at a table, a few school lessons. After a short time, it was recess and we were surrounded by those young men who greeted us with "bon jour" and "sak pusse" (how's it going?). Some gave us "high fives" and others touched their fists to ours and then placed their fist over their heart.
Soon we were on our way to the second phase of the Project, called "The Village". Located on the outskirts of Cap Haitian, it is a spacious area with a small chapel, classrooms, dorms and a dining hall. Here is where "graduates" from 13th Street come to acquire more life skills and a basic education. Those young men range in age from 12 to 18 years. It was difficult for us to believe that they were among the "sanguine" only a short time ago! Their progress was remarkable. Before we departed, one of them, Francillian, rushed up and nervously put a religious medal on a string over my head and said a prayer over me. I don't think, however, he was awed by his task. A soccer game was under way and he was temporarily out of the action!
Following a very cordial visit with the Archbishop of Cap Haitian, The Most Reverend Francois Gayot, we toured the market in that city ? another eye opener to this Stop and Shop customer. The sights, sounds, and smells of that experience left an indelible impression on this baby boomer whose daily intake comes from the store in plastic!
After a return visit to 13th Street, we headed to the Asile staffed by the Missionaries of the Poor, a congregation of brothers founded some 20 years ago. Brother John, who hails from India, showed me dormitories for the elderly, a section for retarded children and an after?school program ? all on the same campus. The brothers are men of intense prayer and they are lovers of the very poor. They are also expert gardeners and craftsmen.
Returning to CRUDEM, I celebrated Mass for the little group at Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel, another beautiful gift of the Order of Malta. At Mass, we listened as Jesus again taught us to pray. The unfading images of that fading day impressed themselves upon our hearts as we prayed afresh, "Thy kingdom come!" "Give us our daily bread!" "Forgive us our trespasses!"
That night and the next morning we were rejuvenated by the culinary skills of Fifi and Frances at CRUDEM. Soon, Drs. Mike and Dave and a wary Bishop Lori were on their way to the Citadel, a mammoth fortress built by King Henri Christoph shortly after Haiti won independence from France in 1804. The Citadel is perched atop a mountain that rises nearly 2,000 feet above sea level. We were driven up part of the way. The final leg of the journey was on foot. I was happy to be in the company of two physicians and they were happy to have a bishop along. The Citadel is a wondrous structure born of tragedy. Some 20,000 lost their lives in building this fortress erected as a defense against the French ? who never returned. Below the Citadel are the ruins of the San Souci Palace, also built by King Christoph. It must have been quite grand in its day, and perhaps a place of dreams.
Next Dr. Flynn and Sister Jean took me through Sacre Coeur Hospital, a 60 bed facility that provides the best medical care in the entire area. Physicians and other healthcare professionals from the United States and elsewhere come to that hospital to volunteer their services. While I was there, pediatricians were seeing sick children from miles around. Last week there were open?heart surgeries. I visited the wards, and with the help of Sister Jean, chatted with the patients and gave them a blessing. The visit to the hospital concluded with a look at the Nutrition Center where malnourished children are brought throughout the week.
After lunch, Sister Jean took some of us to Thibeau, to a school run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross from Canada. As the young people stood up and sang to us in Creole, it was not easy to have dry eyes. Soon it was time for Mass, where we heard the Lord calling us to a repentance even more profound than the one called for by Jonah. Every genuine pilgrimage is a call to repentance. This one was no exception.
The pilgrimage concluded with a return flight across the mountains and an expert tour of Port au Prince provided by Father Carrier. Driving through the capital city, we saw some of the worst slums in the Western Hemisphere. We also saw the Cathedral of the Assumption which features stained glass by the same artist who designed the windows for Saint Aloysius Parish in New Canaan. We saw the Presidential Palace on Independence Square. There we saw the sculpture of a former Haitian slave, prone and blowing a conch to the heavens?a reminder of the successful slave revolt in 1804 and a symbol of the aspirations of the Haitian people for freedom and independence.
Now I am home but the pilgrimage is not over. Yet another Haitian proverb tells us that "what the eye has not seen the heart does not feel." Many generous volunteers in this Diocese and beyond have seen and felt the realities of Haiti and other places, at home and abroad, where the needs are great. With eyes of faith and hearts of love, may we continue to walk with Jesus and to serve Him in the midst of poverty and suffering ? Jesus who is the way and the guide along the way.
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