West Tennessee Haiti Partnership

Ed’s story

The First Sunday of Advent, AD 2009, was very pleasantly warm and sunny so I decided to go to the 11 o’clock Communion at the Cathedral instead of St Elisabeth’s {Bartlett, TN}. Everything was very tranquil, and as it should be, as I sat admiring the high vaulted ceilings and the High Altar and the ornate but also not over elaborate decorations. As the Clergy and the other worthies processed in, I saw there Fr Ollie Rencher, from Holy Communion Episcopal and a Deacon from Raleigh, NC, Jill Bullard. There was a lot of pungent blue smoke somewhat reminiscent of the fumes of Gitanes and Gauloises in a French working man’s bistro; and being Low Church in orientation I wondered how that helped us in meeting the Millennium goals with regards to safeguarding the environment. I reconciled this with recalling the imagery of our prayers and supplications going up to heaven so I accepted this unhealthy practice. As the service made it’s familiar way through hymns, readings, psalms and into the homily I could not help feeling confused and I couldn’t ascribe it to being in such august and evidently, very ‘High’, surroundings. Casting a glance sideways across at Drew “Vergil/Verger” Woodruff, who was intently studying his shoes, I could see a very perplexed expression on his face and looking across the pews I could see that Ollie, despite that great beaming smile of his, was looking somewhat bemused, or was it confused?, as well.
Then it dawned on me in a real moment like being born “from above” – everything was being conducted in French! possibly with a fragrance, an indescribable je ne sais quoi, a bouquet garni of Creole. And not just Cajun Creole y’alls – but Haitian Creole! Well, now with all the confidence of the recent convert it all made sense, the confusion was not caused by one too many glasses of wine (sacramental or otherwise) taken the night before at La Montagne (or Montana), Haiti’s swishiest hôtel often frequented, rumor has it, by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and other glitteratti.
We were in the Cathedral of Sante Trinité (Holy Trinity) in Port-au-Prince, Republic of Haiti, but that was okay because it was Episcopal, and not Roman, despite being very Catholic, as we started to try not to cough as another wave of incense billowed towards us. One thing I thought was really cool, and to this day I am not sure whether it was mere chance, or a back-handed compliment to us (we were not asked to stand up and show ourselves until the notices at the end), but the last hymn was in French, of course, but the tune was the same one as for “Sweet Land of Liberty” – maybe an allusion for all you EfM students out there – to the ‘Land of the Free’ – so Drew really perked up and I could see him and Sue Nelson singing “Sweet Land of Liberty” while I offered up a tenor baritone descant of “God Save the Queen” {after all, she is the Governor of the Church of England}. As the trumpets were playing from the organ loft it seemed to harmonise quite well with our accompaniment in French.

The next day we left for Miami. Was it worth it? Did it mean anything more than just getting some Caribbean sunshine and a souvenir of two pretty stamps in my passport?

What they are doing at St Vincent’s School for the Handicapped is truly remarkable especially considering that Haiti is not just Third World, a “developing” country, it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I am speaking as one who has visited Gambia and Senegal five times and Nigeria once, in West Africa.With very little they “adopt, adapt and overcome”, as I and Allie Russos, an R.N. from Raleigh, NC, began to realise as I attempted to translate what our teacher, a Haitian physical therapist, was demonstrating about plaster cast therapy for young children and new borns unfortunate to have club foot syndrome, the morning of the day after our arrival. That lady volunteers one day a week, and her hands get ruined with constantly touching the drying-out caustic plaster of paris; but she does it with a smile and love. Drew was overcome to see a little girl Diane St Vincent (when abandoned their family name becomes St Vincent after the school) who on the previous visit had been confined to a wheelchair and who was now able to walk, albeit only for short distances before she tires herself out. On the day when we ran a clinic both morning and afternoon we attended to over 90 patients. That included some serious cases which required immediate referrals to the University hospital and a young lady who was suffering from a high malarial fever. Malaria is still the number one killer of people in the world and Haiti has it. Dr Sue Nelson and Dr Jackie Harris, in her 80’s and also from Raleigh, had to go through interpreters, sometimes for French but more often for Creole, as did our first and second responders and our three medical students from Tulane working the pharmacy, at every stage. Father Ollie did a terrific job with triage and assigning priorities, I also found that we were needed if only as a ‘bouncer’ to stop macho Haitian males trying to cut in “in line.” Our group which had only really met at Miami and Port-au-Prince International Airports a few days before really worked as a team. The business school gurus have a word for it – synergy. Even giving each of the children their very own cuddly toy, which might seem inconsequential, was something which even nearly brought tears to my eyes. Those kids have very little to call their own, when you see big 15 year old boys fiercely clutching their toys one full day later you know that even that was so appreciated. A very big highpoint for me was going and seeing our shipping container with wheelchairs, clinic supplies, powdered milk and peanut butter, and the food from the “Stop Hunger Now” packing event at Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin’s compound with John Mutin, Fr Ollie and Rev Drew. It was even sweeter to see all the Customs seals were still intact. Bishop Duracin was true to his word, he was there at four in the afternoon and he had plenty of strong men there to unload and a very smartly uniformed security guard toting a pump shotgun. Members of the Bishop’s family have been kidnapped in the past so he took security very seriously. A big bearhug from Bishop Duracin (not the guard) was very reassuring to me while, coming from Memphis, I weighed up the chances of an armed robbery taking place.
As I write this I also remember a little girl. She was abandoned outside the gates as her mother obviously couldn’t manage looking after her anymore, she was about nine months old and well looked after, hair neatly braided, clean and in nice clothes, but she also had a big hydrocephalus of the brain. We named her Marguerite (Margaret) and Father Ollie and Père Sadoni christened her a day later in a wonderful bi-lingual service which we and some of the staff at St Vincent’s attended. Now I am beginning to realise what it really means to be a God parent even if only in an honorary way. There is a plaque, near the stairs at St Vincent’s commemorating an American dentist who used to visit there over many years which says, “I see the face of Christ in the next face I look at.” Now I understand what Fr Bill Murray once said in a sermon about Mother Theresa telling some Baptists the same thing.

Miracles? I think that they still happen. Everyday.

It was both unusual and fortunate to be in such a big group of 15. Diane, Jiselle, Lauren, Kellar and Amy, Adam and Sienna you were all awesome! Also we cannot forget Jean-Robert.

This was originally written shortly after returning to the U.S. Despite the recent earthquake which has devasted Port-au-Prince and destroyed what was once a beautiful Cathedral, and the school, college and convent complex adjacent to it, the author would not change one word. His faith has been “stirred but is not shaken!”
Ed Lisney
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