Lessons from Gobert, Haiti
September 17, 2008
I must admit that when asked some years ago if I would like to go to Haiti, I never imagined saying yes. But God works in mysterious ways. Saying “yes” to God often involves going to new places and entering new experiences. It means being able to leave the known and familiar, much as Abraham did. What we discover on the other side of that “yes” is the gift God has in mind for us. I traveled with our St. Matthew parish medical mission to Gobert, Haiti earlier this year and learned some valuable lessons.
My first peek of Haiti from the window of our small plane revealed a mysterious and beautiful island, covered in green mountains. It seemed to beckon. A new beginning…
The trip leader told a young adult who had chosen to travel on a mission trip to Central America: “If you think you are coming on this mission to ‘help’ the people of this country, then don’t bother coming… but, if you go with the desire to seek your freedom together with them, then come!” As we left for Gobert, Haiti, these words remained in my mind. Because we humans are all in this together, our journey would be one in which the people of our sister parish and our medical team would seek our freedom together in the Lord. In the exchange of love, both we and they receive very important gifts. We know the face of the Lord in their faces, and they meet him in our faces. This is how Christian community works. In their patience, joy and gratitude, we experienced the beauty of the Lord. Though very poor in material terms, they brought us countless and immeasurable blessings.
Each day in Haiti was an experience in contrast: immense natural beauty (ocean, rivers, mountains, and lush tropical growth) and incredible poverty. Hints of former greatness in the city of Cap-Haïtien (formerly known as the pearl of the Caribbean) now filled with open sewage and garbage. A great bustling energy among the people and yet a certain edge of chaos about it (chickens, pigs and burros share the streets with cars, motor scooters, and “tap-taps”—the public transportation of Haiti). In Gobert, warm tropical air and blue skies in January and a village without indoor plumbing, electricity and phone lines. No police, fire halls or hospitals in the village, but people using cell phones and sometimes listening to portable CD players. With little food to eat, the faithful at Our Lady of Miracles parish walk for hours in their finest clothes to give God thanks at Sunday Eucharist!
One of the greatest blessings of our trip was the profound joy of working together in community. The members of the medical mission experienced the simple joy of working hard together doing something that matters. We rediscovered the simple joy of letting go of one’s self for the sake of others. The day by day meeting of those coming to our medical mission made it all worthwhile. The words of Jesus: “If you try to save yourself, you will lose yourself, but if you lose yourself for me and the Gospel, you will find yourself” are really discovered in community. Love that is self-forgetful brings real joy. Those of us who journeyed together now share a deep bond that comes from “being there together.”
In Haiti, one learns to live one day at a time. Each day brought its own gifts and surprises. Saturday brought the bumpy trip to our sister parish and our welcome and first meal. Sunday brought the celebration of Eucharist and the beginning of the mission. Monday was the first full day of mission and it was filled to the brim with people who had arrived at midnight waiting outside the parish gates. Tuesday evening brought the arrival of the gentle “hum” of mosquitoes at night to go along with the crow of roosters.
The saddest moment of the trip occurred one morning when a mother arrived who had carried her newborn infant all night. The child didn’t make it through the night. The mother was carried in wailing. Sometimes we are powerless to help. We gathered with Fr. Rex Pierre. He prayed for the child and mother; I prayed with our team in English. The interpreters cried, we cried. Another child (a boy of three or so) was carried in so dehydrated that we couldn’t even start an IV. He seemed to face certain death. Fr. Edwige Carre (a priest from Haiti who is now pastor of Holy Name in Nashville, Tennessee) used some of our money to take the child to a clinic in a neighboring village. A couple of days later we were overjoyed to see that he had lived. Sometimes miracles happen! I am reminded of the words of a priest from India: “Life is a blessing to be celebrated and a challenge to be lived!”
Treating 2,500 people a week in a medical clinic is exhausting work at times. The crowds seem almost biblical. Everywhere one goes, one is followed by a crowd. Hearing about their suffering day by day was difficult. I was told that many of their medical symptoms are signs of “Haitian malaise,” a result of poverty, malnourishment and lack of clean water. It made me think about “American malaise.” Our symptoms are different: ingratitude, self-centeredness, apathy. It is amazing, but the same treatment works for both! The treatment: love, expressed in action. Love that reaches out to neighbor. Love that connects and heals, simply love. Love like Jesus.
One of the moments of profound joy on the trip for me as a pastor was seeing how much the parish in Haiti has grown in the five years our missions have been traveling there. The ongoing generous support from St. Matthew for our sister parish has made an incredible difference. Fr. Rex has been a good steward of our gifts. They are so grateful for our support. They keep us in their prayers constantly. As I stood looking out over the beautiful mountains and at the river down below (in one of many reflective moments) I became convinced that we can do more. St. John of the Cross once wrote: “In the evening of our life, we shall be judged by our love.” May we be generous with all the Lord has given us.
Fr. Mark Beckman lives in Franklin, Tennessee U.S.A.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Mark Peters.