The Gardens of Haiti: Immersion Trip Reflection

by Matt Gray, originally published in the Catholic Community of Pleasanton bulletin

Matt and students in rural Haiti
A couple of weeks ago, I went with two others on a missionary immersion trip affiliated with the Maryknoll order of priests and nuns. We traveled to Haiti and spent one week in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. We didn’t go to “do” anything or to try to build or “fix” anything. The model that we used was one of encounter. The metaphor is to walk with care through someone else’s garden. This posture is central to what it is to do “mission” work today.

There was a strong spiritual dimension to our time in Haiti. On three mornings we celebrated Mass at the convent of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. We also joined the Sisters at their clinic. Inside the clinic is a room that contains 44 cribs and in each crib is a malnourished infant. The infants’ mothers bring their babies to the clinic because they have no food for them and their tiny bodies show signs of starvation. I spent two hours holding and feeding these babies. My experience with the Missionaries of Charities was Eucharist, pure and simple: We gathered for Mass and then were sent to the clinic to somehow be Christ to others. As Catholics, we gather to be sent. This is who we are and what we do whether we live in Pleasanton or in Haiti.

Fr. Frank (center) discusses parish twinning
The immersion trip included time with Fr. Frank, a diocesan priest from Connecticut who found his “niche” in Haiti. Fr. Frank connects parishes in the United States to parishes in Haiti. It’s the encounter: Through time and visits, the pastors and the people of two parishes in two different countries develop relationships. We were able to visit with a pastor in a parish located in a very poor neighborhood to see how this model works. The Haitian parishes receive critical resources from US parishes and the US parishes develop relationships and friendship with the people they support. Both communities learn from the other and benefit from this model of mission. It’s the mission of relationships, of encounter in the other’s garden.

Port au Prince is a city that is home to one-third of the country’s 11 million people. The population density is overwhelming -- so much traffic and so many people in such a small space. In addition to experiencing Port au Prince, we spent two days with three nuns who live and minister to families in rural villages. These nuns showed us a school where tuition is less than $10 a year. We also saw two orphanages: one which houses and schools 53 girls; the other, an orphanage that focuses on orphans with mental illnesses and special needs. To say that we saw some heartbreaking stuff would be an understatement.

Sr. Dianne (left) with the group at a school
We also saw hardworking people very proud of their history. Many are living on the margin, one day to the next. They display their dignity through neatness of dress, shoes that are shined, children in school uniforms. By appearance alone, one would never know the depth of their struggle with poverty. Haitians experience first-hand what we preach: A faithful God who never abandons His people; His love is stronger than human misery. Sometimes the best that we can do is admit that we don’t understand. We don’t have all the answers. With faith and deep trust in the mission of Jesus, we know our stories are still unfolding -- stories that when connected to each other through Jesus lead us from being broken to given to others, from having no hope to hope, from death to new life. This is the world in which we live and, together, are called to cultivate.

Much Peace,
Matt Gray