DIVINITY Online Edition
Holy Week 2004 in Haiti
by David Williamson and Jamalyn Peigh Williamson

David Williamson and Jamalyn Peigh Williamson, both D’03, are missionaries in Fondwa, Haiti, serving with Family Health Ministries of Chapel Hill, N.C. During a trip to the U.S. in early February, the couple’s planned two-week visit had to be extended when civil unrest erupted in Haiti. They returned safely in March and e-mailed the following account of Holy Week. There’s simply no way to describe the wonderfully unique and Haitian touches we witnessed throughout the Easter services.

 When Jamalyn and Dave Williamson, both D’03, left Haiti in early February, they promised the children at the Fondwa orphanage they’d return in just two weeks. But civil unrest and the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide prolonged their stay in the U.S. for more than a month. The couple used the time to raise funds for a generator for the school where they work.

FONDWA, HAITI -- Most of our memories of Holy Week center on the church, which is still the center of Easter festivities. The call of liberation was evident in all the church services we attended. Thursday’s mass emphasized that Christ has chosen to be particularly present when we are sharing our riches with one another, symbolized in the sharing of a meal. The emphasis upon social justice continued to Sunday morning, where the message of “resurrection” was indistinguishable from the call to rebuild Haiti and, in particular, the local community of Fondwa.

We quickly realized that St. Antoine Catholic Church offers a Holy Week more recognizable to us than Fondwa’s Protestant Church.

On Palm Sunday, when most U.S. churches begin the service with children parading in waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna,” the Primitive Church passed on this tradition and chose to focus on the meaning of reconciliation.

Some may think they missed the meaning of Palm Sunday, but what better way of proclaiming Christ’s arrival than by sharing His greatest commandment “To love one another,” without which reconciliation is impossible?

The Catholic nuns and novices of Fondwa offer amazing spiritual guidance to the youth. Wednesday was a day of reflection for them, dedicated to improving their relationship with Christ and their community. Even lunch was a quiet affair—not a word was spoken as food was passed out to all the children. It was something to see children of 9 and 10 quietly singing and praying for a period of time that would challenge most adults
We watched 50 youth from the ages of 7-22 undergo catechism with the nuns and novices and learn how to deepen their prayer lives and how to be still before the Lord.

It was a beautiful sight to witness the 7-year-old to 10-year-old group sit in prayer and contemplation. Later we asked 10-year-old Fabiola to share what she thought about during the day.

“I asked God to change my life, ” she said. She wanted to learn not to feel the desire “to hit someone” who made her mad or whom she just didn’t like.

As we talked about Fabiola’s response, we wondered if we fail to challenge our children in the church. We forget that such young minds are able to think theologically. The children’s sermons we have been guilty of giving on Sunday mornings have not always honored children’s deep spiritual lives.

Good Friday

Good Friday is THE kite-flying day in Haiti: every child comes out to the bluffs to catch the updraft of the wind, and the skies are filled with homemade kites—white and black plastic scraps stretched taut over sticks skillfully arranged in a hexagonal pattern.

Another tradition, with roots in the colonial days when slaves were given this one week to celebrate, involves the “Ra-Ra bands.” During the Holy Week, people pull out beaten trumpets, tubas, tambourines and drums, and they form small bands that process through the region. They are usually accompanied by four or five dancers dressed as jesters and carrying brightly colored flags. A crowd of dancing people is usually caught up in the call of the rhythmic music.

The band that paused in front of our house was led by a man who directed the players with timely whistle blows and the mighty “thwap” of one of the longest whips I’ve ever seen. It was a sight to see: the procession took off, thronged with dancers and players, over which the whip could always be seen arcing and dancing, accenting the music still hanging in the air. Although that is the only Ra-Ra I saw close up, the music of Ra-Ra groups can be heard at any time of day (and night) somewhere in the valley.

Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross service on Friday was in some ways like any other. At each station, we’d listen to a Scripture reading and a reflection on the reading, followed by a time of silent, and then corporate, prayer. Between the stations, we sang one or two songs, depending on how far we were walking. What made it so special was the setting.

We walked along the only “road” in Fondwa, starting at the bottom of the valley and walking up the mountain. As we rose, the road afforded beautiful views of the area’s poverty and grandeur. It was blazingly hot. We didn’t get started until 9:30 a.m., and the service lasted almost two hours, so toward the end was the hottest part of the day. When we started the walk, there were trees that offered shade every five minutes or so, and we walked from tree to tree to have our stations.

But somewhere around station five, there were no more trees. People much wiser than Jamalyn and I had brought along umbrellas. We walked up the mountain two by two, but when we stopped at the stations, the lines broke so people could huddle under the few umbrellas. Finally, as we were heading into the twelfth station, we found some shade. Not just a single tree, but a whole row of trees that offered enough shade for us to stay in our long line without anyone in the sun. Then, inexplicably, we kept on walking. I simply could not understand what the leaders were doing. Didn’t they understand we were dying out here? Didn’t they see our shirts plastered with sweat? But on we walked, and as soon as we were all out of the shade, we stopped. The leader turned around and announced the twelfth station, the death of Christ. From somewhere in the middle of the line, one of the novices called out—“Tout moun tombe ajenou!” And there, in the middle of this broken rocky road, everyone bowed upon their knees.

The Haitians were not just kneeling in reverence. They were bodily participating in the suffering of Christ, at least to the extent they were able. They could have stopped a hundred yards sooner in the shade. But they knew that it was somehow wrong to listen to words proclaiming the death of Christ while resting comfortably. So there we kneeled, with the stones digging into our knees and the pitiless sun beating upon the back of our necks. And we listened as Christ’s final words were spoken.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Surely, this day, you will be with me in paradise.”
“Mother, here is your son. Son, here is your mother.”
I am thirsty.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
And, finally, “It is finished.”

I know it was only a few moments spent in silence after the reading, but those words, “It is finished,” resounded in what seemed like the silence of a lifetime. The procession continued from there—people slowly picked themselves up from the ground, and then we left the main road to descend along a footpath to a bluff that commanded a view of the valley. We finally broke our long line to proclaim over the valley the final stations, when they took Christ from the cross and laid him in the tomb.

Samdi Dlo Benyen

 Jamalyn and Dave Williamson with a newly found Hatian friend.

Holy Saturday was in many ways the climax of the religious services. Here the day is called “Samdi Dlo Benyen”—Saturday of Cleansing Water. As the name suggests, it is an important day for baptism. In the morning nearly 70 children were brought to the church, accompanied by family and godparents, to be registered for baptism. That night, those 70 children were baptized in an absolutely packed church during a mass that lasted for nearly four hours.

The actual moment of baptism was completely chaotic. After two hours of Scripture readings, singing and reflection, the moment these families were awaiting arrived. As the names of those to be baptized were called, parents replied, “Present.” Then the priest opened his arms and said, “Come as you are ready.”

Suddenly a deluge broke forth from the pews and the altar and aisles overflowed with people pressing forward for baptism. We were a little disheartened by the chaos because we had come especially to see the baptism of Ruth, one of our favorite children from the orphanage.

Ruth is one of the older children. She’s one of Dave’s more advanced students in the school, and because of her progress in English, she’s always one of our best ambassadors when groups visit the orphanage. She has a heart of gold. We moved to get a little closer, in hopes we would see what was going on, and ended up near the pews of the two sisters with whom we live. There we found out that Ruth was going to be last to be baptized. Because her godfather couldn’t make it to the service, I was asked to stand in for him and be Ruth’s godfather! There wasn’t much to it—I just stood behind her in line, and when the moment came, I put my hand on her head as the water was being poured over it. Ruth herself didn’t say much to me except, “Mesi.” But Dave will forever be tied to this one person in Haiti, and know that, in some way, he is always to look out for her and follow her life with care.

Looking back, that moment kneeling in the sun stands out still as the defining moment of Easter weekend. At the time, we felt the Haitians were participating in the suffering of Christ. But what strikes us now is the possibility that it’s the other way around. Maybe it’s that Christ, at that moment 2,000 years ago upon the cross, had some place in his mind for the suffering of these people and for the hardness of their life.

And in that moment upon the cross, he was participating in their hardship—taking their deep pains into his heart, and from that heart of pain came such human cries as “I am thirsty.” When he proclaimed, “It is finished,” I like to think he still had these people in mind. He wasn’t just saying, “I’ve done my job, I can go rest now.”

What if we understood “it” to have a different referent, namely, the system of violence and death that he came to destroy? Maybe, then, He was saying that the cruelties and injustices of the world are finished. We like to think that Jesus, upon saying those words, had in his mind the kingdom that he was establishing, the kingdom which has yet to be realized, but that some day will come to pass, when peace and justice shall roll down like the waves of the ocean. We hope that it is the case—it reminds us that our work here is more than just isolated acts of teaching or playing with the children. No, our work is connected with the larger work of Christ, and we are simply celebrating and living into the kingdom which He is advancing with each passing day.

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