Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Holy Week in Haiti Reflection

Communities in Haiti find refuge under tents at a nearby basketball court.
An UMCOR Photo by Mike Dubose

It was Tuesday morning. Since Palm Sunday I have been experiencing Holy Week in a different way from previous years. I have been preparing for my first trip to Haiti, which is also my first trip as Deputy General Secretary nominated to lead the Mission and Evangelism Program of Global Ministries. The trip to Haiti brought me a special meaning of Jesus’ walk to the cross. In a sense, I saw His experience of death and resurrection re-lived by the people of Haiti. I felt I was about to meet Him again through the suffering of the Haitian people.

I traveled to Haiti through the Dominican Republic. That morning, as my flight was about to take off, my little knowledge of French was coming back to mind. I wished I could speak Creole. With a series of bumps, we were suddenly off the ground, and in God’s hands. Below, I saw Santo Domingo and the poor neighborhoods close to the airport. I wondered how the other side of the island of Hispaniola would compare.

I read the passage of Jesus in the temple watching the widow offering her two last coins. Her gift of life was much more valuable than the riches of the wealthy. The passage made me think about what we were giving to Haiti. Charity? A gift of life? The possibility of rebuilding a nation with justice and dignity? Our love must turn into action.

I landed in Haiti excited and anxious about what I would encounter. I started the day thinking of the widow and her gift of life, and kept seeing her in person all day long in Port-au-Prince. The plane was still high and could see the signs that I had crossed the border into Haiti. Bare mountains and dried rivers, which resembled the dried rivers and washes from the Arizona desert—no vegetation. But I was in the tropical Caribbean, not the desert! Something was wrong with that picture. Or is it the Earth crying because of the pain from its recent devastation… the same pain that afflicts the people of Haiti?

When the plane was approaching the airport, we flew over the capital city, I realized that it was no longer the Earth that was crying, but it was the city—the flattened buildings, the inexistent roofs, the damaged structures, which all caught my attention. It was a different cry. The first was the cry of nature violated by humans trying to escape poverty. The second was the cry of humans in poverty violated by nature—the two are so connected. Later that day, I heard that areas with more trees were less devastated than areas with no vegetation because the trees absorbed the energy of the earthquake to some extent. Could it be true, that the devastation of the environment has increased the devastation of the earthquake?

To arrive at a country which speaks two languages that you don’t understand well is always challenging. But there was something familiar in the air, which I didn’t identify with until later. Then it came to me: I was back in Baixada Fluminense, in Caxias, the city where I started my ministry in Brazil. What a discovery! There was nothing to put or take from that context of poverty and misery in Brazil, just the different sounds coming out of the mouth of the people. Without that language difference, I could swear that I was on a time travel to the periphery of Rio de Janeiro some 25 years ago.

A car picked me at the airport and started its journey to the Methodist Church of Haiti’s office in Petionville. My first sight visit was one of many tent camp housing sites where thousands lost their homes. They are white and blue. Every flat space that was clear after the earthquake is covered with tents, even the hillsides.

I once saw an image of the Exodus: the Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong on their day off. They occupied the business center of the city to meet and chat and eat together. They were thousands and thousands of women resting from their wanderings in the desert. Today I saw the tents of those living and wandering in the desert for 40 years, yearning for a new home. Once again the image of the desert in the Caribbean crossed my mind.

The car continued to snake the streets and the traffic. I saw signs of destruction and rubble all along the streets. Then I saw a collapsed building. It had two or three floors. It was flattened as if a giant had taken a seat on it. If there were people inside at the time of the earthquake, they could not have gotten out alive. If there were people inside, their bodies are still there, because there were no signs that the building has been touched at all. At that moment, I realized that I was looking at a grave. All of this in few seconds. My heart was pounding. My mind was spinning. Then I saw another one, and another, and another. Then I saw a row, a block, all full of rubble. But the randomness is distressing. Was it a lottery? Why did one building fall and not another?

We got to the school where the church office is located. Children were under blue tarps and classrooms were in session. What a wonderful view… beautiful smiles, and bright eyes everywhere. No wonder Jesus said that from these little children you would get perfect praise. Looking into their eyes, I asked if they had experienced the earthquake as I was feeling it. The devastation was still there around us, but life had continued.

During the rest of the day, we traveled the city and saw the same thing over and over again, in every neighborhood we passed. But when we looked at the city from the top of a mountain, we noticed how the earthquake affected the most vulnerable. Hill side communities (not different from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, like Rocinha) flattened as if there had been a dry land slide. And suddenly I remembered the rainy season, the hurricanes. My God! What will happen to these people when the rains arrive? It is frightening.

Finally, we were taken to the site of the Hotel Montana, the place where two of our colleagues of Global Ministries lost their lives. My heart was again pounding, my hands trembling, my eyes watering. Seeing all the destruction of that rich neighborhood, I didn’t feel the same signs of death I felt before, not to the same degree. There was no place destroyed which had not been touched, searched, cleared. And we got to the gate of the Hotel. A red tall metal gate closed with a sign that stated that no one could enter.

A security guard also stated, “It is not safe. It is private. You cannot enter.” Why?

We needed to see the place we had so much imagined during those anguishing days in January. But we were turned away. We stopped a few hundred meters from the Hotel at a clearance, where we could see the poor hills before us. There are thousands and thousands living there, in tents, in shacks, many which will not survive the rainy season. And suddenly it startled me. Like a voice whispering in my ears: Those who you came here looking for have gone to Heaven. Look around. These are the people you are here to see. These are my sheep without a shepherd. Look after them.

My God, my Jesus! I saw the widow again! I saw Jesus suffering and dying and resurrecting in the eyes of children! It is Holy Week in Haiti! And Jesus is Haitian!

It was Good Friday when I was on my way back to New York. On our second day in Port-au-Prince we were able to debrief our short but intense visit of the previous day with the President of the Methodist Church of Haiti to discuss plans for the near and remote future. There is so much to be done. Our presence and our work there is just a tiny piece of what is needed to be done.

Our visits and meetings gave us a sense of the magnitude of the task ahead, and of the capacities and limitations of the church there. We learned of their compassion in the middle of their pain. Those whose houses were not affected have opened their land, and their gardens to families who lost their places to live. The school we visited opened its sports field to hundreds of families. Thousands of students are having classes under tarps, under the trees, and another community of more than two thousand are living on the grounds. Solidarity is not lacking.

Going from one place to another we also saw that life has not stopped. We saw hundreds of street sellers, thousands hired to clear rubble, people coming and going everywhere. We saw tired eyes, bright smiles, and smelled a hope in the midst of anxiety for the near future.

And on the way to the airport to drop Bishop Ough and Melissa Hinnen who were part of the team, we were taken to a final site visit to tour the damaged facilities of Grace Children’s Hospital. It was scary to be walking under those ceilings and walls sustained by metal beams. Afterall, they could fall at any moment. But it was so humbling to see every inch of space that is minimally safe to be in used so they can continue to serve the children with disabilities, AIDS or other conditions each day. Before the earthquake they were attending 300 patients per day. Now they are seeing only half that amount. But where? How?

When we came out of the damaged building and saw the tents outside – there, under the tents were the patients, the nurses, and the doctors. We went under a blue tarp and it was lunch time for the babies and toddlers with disabilities. What a heartwarming image. What a hope.
We also visited the maternity ward, which was totally destroyed. Imagine the panic of the little children during the earthquake? When we saw their bright eyes and smiles under the heat of the scorching sun, we left the place sweating, but smiling too.

After a day and a half, I was the only member of our team left. More meetings and more plans. Dicussions about the needs of the country and how the church can help, continued. It is evident that the capacity is limited. Help is needed for organizing, but the energy level is high.

When my last night in Haiti arrived, I wished I could stay longer and visit with more people. There is so much more I want to learn. But suddenly I heard the rain. It had rained every night of the week. It was a short rain. It lasted less than an hour. We almost didn’t notice it in the morning. But for those living in tents the rain is literal wake up call, that hurricane season is on its way. Rain can be the very next disaster. I looked outside into the rain and felt the urge to pray. Please, God, pour your grace over these suffering people.

It was Good Friday. I read the passage of the Stations of the Cross in the plane. In the evening I attended the service of the Way of the Cross at my church, St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC. Jesus’ death is for our redemption, for the redemption of the people of Haiti. Oh, God! May your son’s resurrection be a sign of new life for the people of Haiti! May this be a Holy Week for that suffering country. May it be Holy Week in Haiti! May it be Easter in Haiti!

By Jorge L. F. Domingues, Deputy General Secretary for Mission and Evangelism, General Board of Global Ministries.

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