Accompanying an Immersion Group to Haiti

Published originally in Not So Far Afield Volume 22 Number 1

In the days leading up to a trip to Haiti, I felt like I really should not be going.  With a busy life at work and home, and with my wife being pregnant, it just seemed like a crazy a thing to be doing.  But I went anyway…

Getting off of the plane in Port-au-Prince and working my way through customs and baggage claim was an overwhelming experience. I quickly instructed others in my group to simply say “No, m├ęsi,” (“No, thank you) to men offering to “help” with our bags, and they followed my lead. In the days leading up to this visit to Haiti, I felt like I really should not be going. Soon, we were in a van riding through the streets of Port-au-Prince, which swelled with the over three million Haitians that populate the city. As the sights and sounds of the city enveloped us – people buying and selling goods, intense traffic, Red Cross vehicles, UN trucks mounted with machine guns – I suddenly felt that God was calling me to be there.

As a mission promoter for the Maryknoll Society, my role was to provide a spiritual component on this parish immersion experience. I hoped to help the group place their experiences in the larger context of God’s mission. As part of this task, each night I led prayer and reflection on one of the Beatitudes, a strategy that I had learned from Matt Rousso, a veteran Maryknoll promoter. On the third day of our journey, we visited a feeding program in Port-au-Prince. A local woman, Madame Samson, approached a non-profit twenty years ago with a proposition: if they provided the funds, she would prepare a hot meal six days a week for the neighborhood children. For many, this would be the only full meal that they would receive each day. Now in her eighties, she still fulfills this duty for 75 local kids.

When we visited, we met a young woman named Gloria, 17. She spoke impeccable English, which she had largely taught herself by watching television shows from the US. She was helping out with feeding the kids, so I asked her how long she had helped out in this program. It was the wrong question! She explained that she had been receiving meals there since she was a little girl. Sure enough, after the others were fed, she, too, sat down to eat. We also met Mackenson, 19. He had graduated high school and now needed work. (Haiti has a 70% unemployment rate.) He asked members of our group if they could get him a job. When he learned that one of us was a priest, he asked that he pray for him.

That evening, I led the group in reflection. Our Beatitude, fittingly enough, was “Blessed are the Meek…” I explained that the meek are sometimes described as those who “hunger for bread and thirst for dignity.” And here we had just witnessed this in raw form: the young people like Gloria that rely on Madame Samson for their daily beans and rice; people like Mackenson who thirst for the dignity of work and opportunity. On the last night of our immersion in Haiti, members of the group thanked me warmly for the reflections that I led, and commented on how much they looked forward to them each night.

I have come to appreciate more and more the role of Maryknoll in accompanying people towards a deeper experience of faith. The presence of Christ in the poor and vulnerable is so central to our faith that if we do not choose to encounter it directly, we are denying ourselves a deeper relationship with God. As a mission promoter, I am privileged to play some small part in helping people make sense of these experiences. Needless to say, I no longer doubt why I went to Haiti!

Mackenson and Gloria with a member or our immersion group