In Haiti, a Focus on Friendship

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kite flying in Haiti; photo by Pamela McKenneyInspired by the spirituality of Mother Teresa, the Divinity School’s spring break retreat in Haiti was devoted to praying, breaking bread, and visiting orphanages and hospitals. But there was also time for simple fun, including making and flying kites.

“Kite making and kite flying are very big in Haiti,” said Chaplain Sally Bates, who led the March 5-13, 2011, spiritual retreat, the school’s first following the January 2010 earthquake. “We made and decorated kites from scratch and went up on the rooftop of the Trinity House, where we were staying,” said Bates. “Only a few of us could speak Kreyol, but the kites did all the talking for us.”

In less than an hour, there were several dozen kites flying like crazy from the rooftop overlooking the Caribbean Sea, said Miriam Sauls, who helped lead the retreat. A frequent visitor to Haiti, Sauls is a Children making kites; photo by Pamela McKenneydocumentary filmmaker and director of theater and communications in Duke’s Department of Theater Studies. “The sea breeze taking the kites hundreds of feet in the air was like a breath of confirmation of the entire trip, and the joy on the kids' faces made our spirits soar as well.”

Meeting Local Pastors

On the morning of March 9, the 15-member group spent a morning with 15 Haitian pastors who spoke little or no English. With help from interpreters, they studied Scripture, sang hymns and prayed, and explored and compared their faith journeys.

The Divinity School group in Haiti; photo by Pamela McKenney“Our corporate participation in the liturgy with local pastors did not, nor did it intend to, run roughshod over the very real differences between a group of Haitian pastors and this group of American pastors-in-training,” wrote Cullen McKenney D’11 in the students' blog, Duke Divinity in Haiti.

“Yet our corporate participation in the Eucharist included a participation in a story that we do share in common. Along with our sharing of this larger story, we each received an invitation to participate in new friendships.”

Small Things with Great Love

The goal of the retreat, said Chaplain Bates, was to see the world through the theological lens of Mother Teresa, who “encountered Christ in the faces of the poor and suffering.” The enormity of Haiti’s needs, which were huge prior to the earthquake, made clear, she added, that the group was there not there to fix problems, but to make friends.

“One thing we do know is that we are here to love,” blogged first-year M.Div. student Jason Villegas on March 6. “We reject the notion of being missionaries who see a mission and not people. Through the exchanging of the Jesus in us with the Jesus in the people here we will, as Mother Teresa says, 'do no great things, only small things with great love.'”

Missionaries of Charity

The group visited two of the Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity homes in Haiti—a hospital for babies and a hospice for the destitute and dying. Bates, who led a similar spring break retreat to Haiti in 2009, describes the visits as “intense and moving. We offered massages, shaves, and nail polishing. Many of the people we encountered will not leave the hospice alive; it was very humbling.”

Colleen Bookter, a first-year M.Div. student, spent most of the morning at the hospital on her knees massaging women’s legs and feet and painting their toenails.

Construction at the St. Joseph Home for Boys, which was destroyed by the quake; photo by Kelsey Merlo“I knelt there and was reminded of Christ’s presence within each one of us,” she wrote. “And as Mother Teresa reminded us … in befriending those on the margins … we truly come face-to-face with God.”

The Rev. Lisa Yebuah D’04, associate pastor of Edenton St. United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C. and a co-leader for the retreat, saw “glimmers of hope” in the midst of Haiti’s destruction.

As she rubbed lotion on a woman at the home for the destitute and dying, Yebuah realized she was humming the tune to a Kreyol song that translates “The cross before me, the road behind me.”

As she sang the words, a nearby woman began weeping. “I realized that the mat the woman lay upon was her final resting place—until she met the Good Shepherd face-to-face.

“Death is very real there,” said Yebuah, who prayed with the woman. “I realized that I have to remember that death isn’t the end.”

Nouvo Vi Bakery

For most of the group, the trip to Haiti was their first. For Bates, Yebuah, and Sauls, Haiti has become a second home. They are supporters of the St. Joseph Family, which operates three homes for abandoned and orphaned children, and Bates was instrumental in getting commercial baking equipment from the port in Port-au-Prince to its destination at the Trinity Home for Boys in Jacmel following the earthquake (see “Miracles beyond Miracles,” in Spring 2010 Divinity magazine).Baking sweet rolls at Nouvo Vi bakery; photo by Pamela McKenney

At Trinity House in Jacmel, the group was treated to freshly baked sweet rolls as they toured the new bakery—Nouvo Vi, or New Life. The bakery has begun selling baked goods to hotels and guest houses in the area, and now roasts and sells its own brand of locally grown coffee, St. Joe’s Java.

“Once the commercial electric ovens are up and running, they can easily expand their production to meet client demand,” said Bates.

Amid the Ruins, Some Rebuilding Begins

Bates, who visited Haiti the summer following the earthquake, noticed significant progress in debris removal, but says much remains to be done. “Many buildings are still in ruins, but there seems to be less collateral rubble around, and some rebuilding is beginning.”

Construction is underway at the site of the original St. Joseph Home for Boys, which was completely destroyed by the quake. While the boys and their leaders live in temporary housing next door, a new six-level building for 24 children is rising from the foundation of their former home. When that construction is completed in December, phase two calls for adding a guest house, chapel, and dance theater next door. Architect Lionel Allen, whose buildings all survived the earthquake, has designed the new facilities.

Local metal art from salvaged oil drums; photo by Pamela McKenneyAs the recovery continues, Bates said that the Kreyol expression for “making do”—degaje ((DAY-gah-ZHEE)—provides perspective. On Easter morning, Haitians traditionally fly kites they’ve made of colored tissue paper and crepe paper. But more often, kites are much simpler—made in the spirit of degaje from black plastic trash bags.

And Bates said the arts continue to flourish despite many obstacles. The Duke group attended a performance by the Trinity Dancers, the St. Joseph’s Family’s popular dance troupe, and visited Croix des Bouquets, where metalworkers transform old oil drums into intricate works of art.

Markets selling beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables belie the need for clean water and shelter among those still living in tent cities, said Bates. “But it was wonderful to see so many little babies being carried into the 7:30 a.m. church service we attended.”