West Tennessee Haiti Partnership


“Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself.” (Psalm 122:3, a selection from the psalms assigned for January 9th‘s Daily Office reading.) We know that Jerusalem is not a city “at unity with itself.” Just look at the newspapers or watch TV. However, the psalm expresses a vision and not the on-the-ground reality. Having returned today from a mission trip to Haiti [January, 2008], I would say that it is also a land not at unity with itself. Yet, this internal unity is the vision of God that we have been invited to assist in bringing about with the people of this remarkable country.

Seven of us met in Miami’s airport to begin our encounter with these people. Some of us had been before. For others of us, this was a new experience. Four of us are from Memphis, two from Florida and one from Virginia. Ruth Lentz, our Haitian Partnership chairperson [sic], gathered Dr. Susan Nelson, M.D., Madge Saba, R.N., and me together with two long-time friends of mine and a new friend as well. The long-time friends are the Rev. Bill and Margaret Squire. Margaret and Bill were missionaries serving in Haiti for over three years. Their knowledge of the people and culture allowed us to see with eyes that we might not have otherwise had. Our new found friend was the Rev. Lee Warren. Lee is a United Methodist Minister living in Virginia where she is a regional director for Stop Hunger Now, an exceptional feeding ministry for thousands. Lee was Ruth Lentz’s college roommate at Sweet Briar, and they had obviously made a pact to not tell too many “good stories” from college days.

We were late getting out of Miami by about an hour because, as the pilot announced, he “couldn’t get enough air to flow through the engine to take off.” I for one was more than willing to wait for that adjustment to be made. When we finally took off, each of us carried our own hopes, memories, and curiosity to this great venture in mission experience. We were met by Bishop Jean Zache Duracin at the airport in Port-au-Prince and ended day one at the Hotel Kinam in Petionville (pronounced “Pay-shun—ville.”)

I went to learn. Grace-St Luke’s, St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of the Holy Communion, Memphis joined with other volunteers from within and beyond the Episcopal Church last year to explore the relationship with St Paul’s Mission and School, Montrouis (pronounced “Mon-wee”). St. Paul’s is our designated mission connection, and we spent a portion of our time there trying to assess the needs, [to] learn from their loving and self-less spirits and set in motion new mission support for the future. Academic and health concerns topped the list.

Our second day took us to Bishop Duracin’s office in Petionville. He offered a warm greeting and a helpful overview of the hopes and needs of their diocese. It was often noted during our trip that there is a tendency, in a desire to be helpful, to come in with our own solutions to issues that, for reasons of culture and practicality, will not work in someone else’s world. He pointed out a number of ways partnership efforts could work hand in hand to address the many needs in Haiti.
We toured Trinity Cathedral with its colorful murals covering most walls and its beautiful hand-carved stone work. We visited the seminary in Port-au-Prince and met with the Dean, Oge Beauvoir and his spouse. A native Haitian, he left a position with the Episcopal Church in New York City to return to his home and raise up the next generation of indigenous clergy. Currently there are about forty priests for this country of eight million people that is the size of
Maryland. I learned a good bit about the ways in which they use lay worship leaders and other lay ministers to carry on the ministry when the clergy are serving at other places.

We went to St. Vincent’s, a mission facility for handicapped children in the heart of the city. The first Head of School was a woman who served generously there for many years before her death. She had founded the school “under a tree” with just God’s love as her curriculum. We met the children, and we also met others who were “graduates” from the school but who live nearby and paint or do other things to make a living. The reality that most of them are without
arms, legs or both makes this achievement all the more incredible.

It was to this mission that the Rev. Bill went to serve as Interim while the bishop was seeking the next Head of School. Margaret accompanied him on the journey and continued to teach among the community [sic].
Susan Nelson and Madge Saba both brought their medical experience and insight to each site throughout the trip that sought to address life and death as well as the many “quality of life” issues within this community. Their trained eyes were opened and their considerable medical knowledge challenged at what was being accomplished with so little. Thus ended Day Two, and we returned to the Hotel Kinam for dinner, conversation and rest.
We left early on Saturday morning. The local “market day” made our typical “trip to the grocery store” back home look a bit tame. Each side of the road and any space available in the alleyways were filled with merchants selling charcoal for heating, art for viewing, water for drinking and live chickens for that night’ s supper.

I must also say that the way the Haitian’s drove did wonders for my prayer life. Bill Squire noted that the people on the island do not consider horn honking to be rude. Rather, it is a way to tell you that someone is coming up behind you so that you might be less likely to run into one another. Other than a broken mirror on the side of our car and seeing a rather destructive bus wreck on the way back to Montrouis, we neither suffered nor saw many other collisions. It was, in this regard, quite surprising.

Our Haitian Partnership coordinator in Haiti is Pere Kesner Ajax. He was most helpful at each step of our journey, and we enjoyed getting to know him and his homeland. As we drove to Montrouis, Pere Ajax and Pere Michaud Fruitho, the local priest, provided hospitality that was well beyond what others might have been able to accomplish while working with so few material resources. We arrived at Montrouis on Saturday afternoon (a bumpy two-plus hour drive
from Port-au-Prince that covered about fifty miles.) That evening we toured the old seminary that overlooked the ocean and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. We retired for the evening in anticipation of the celebration of the Feast of Epiphany the next morning.

We had a great Sunday Epiphany worship service. I was honored to be asked to preach. Pere Fruitho, Pere Ajax, Pastor Warren, Father Squire and I gathered at the altar together as men, women and black and white members of the clergy to share our various ministries among the people of Montrouis. At the vestry meeting that followed, I was deeply touched by Pere Fruitho’s comments that they were honored to have me, as a bishop, come and celebrate my first Eucharist with them rather than in Port-au-Prince at the Cathedral. Other members of our troupe brought toys, school supplies and other items for the students of St. Paul’s. lt made for a full and rich day for all of us. Following the Eucharist and lunch, we packed and drove back to Port-au-Prince to spend the night at the Hotel Montana. This was a “reentry” hotel for us given its elegance and restful ambiance. It had been a full trip, and we hadn’t even gone home yet to digest all we had seen and done.

The next day we were at the airport early. Due to a mechanical problem on a flight scheduled to leave the night before for Miami, hundreds of people gathered in the terminal awaiting their take off. We actually boarded our flight on time, but by the time the “stand by” fliers were added to our plane, we were over an hour late leaving Port-au-Prince. This meant that we who had chosen to go back to Memphis via Ft. Lauderdale were not able to clear customs in time to catch our flight home. American Airlines put the “Memphis four” up at a local hotel where we had dinner and were early to bed for our next-day-one-day-late flight to Memphis. Three of us flew out and arrived back in Memphis about noon. One of us (that would be me) was able to finally get back via Detroit about five o’clock. But in the end, we all made it safe, sound and challenged.

The Millennium Development Goals fit Haiti perfectly. Why? They need help for women’s rights, children’s education, community sanitation, and all the other MDG goals that have been listed. (www.er-d.org/mdg) Many of us have been able to help with both the “Domestic and Foreign” mission that defines the Episcopal Church’s outreach to “this broken and sinful world” already. However, Haiti provides us a partnership opportunity in which we could never do enough but we where we can definitely make a difference. I look forward to exploring this mission opportunity with you. Until then, know that l am glad to be home, but something of my heart will always remain in Haiti. +Don

The Right Reverend Don E. Johnson, Bishop of West Tennesse

This entry was posted in Stories & Updates. Bookmark the permalink.