We took off from Reagan National for Miami at about 6am, then made a quick transfer there to our flight to Port-au-Prince. Surprisingly, it was a big plane and it was full. Many of the people on the flight were with Church groups (Evangelical Church groups), clearly identifiable by their T-shirts. As we would learn, Evangelicals have a huge presence in Haiti, especially since the earthquake.
Once we landed we were immediately introduced to our new normal. The airport was wrecked by the earthquake, sheds now serve the purpose instead. And beyond the physical disruption the scene as a whole was not what you would call an orderly one. In fact, it was a bit overwhelming to be in a mass of people pushing and shoving and shouting, without a clear idea of where we were suppose to go. Eventually we made our way through customs, retrieved our luggage and found our guide and host, Dr. Rod Mortel. Dr. Mortel is a native Haitian who spent his professional life at Penn University. Now he is devoted to bringing assistance to his country, precisely by connecting local churches here with local parish churches there. Along with Dr. Mortel we meet his very efficient assistant Rachel. We loaded up our large van with the help of our driver, Max, and made our way out of the airport.
It was outside the airport that we were encountered complete chaos. Traffic was grid locked, people, especially children, where all over the place (including all around the van), and there was rubble everywhere. Oh, and it was hot, really hot.
The plan for the first day was to drive away from Port-au-Prince to the city of San Marc to the north. But just the little we saw of the capital that day was unbelievable. Tent cities stretch for miles and miles in every direction and to call them primitive would be an understatement. The tents are just plastic sheeting, there is little water available, no electricity, little or no sanitation, unreliable food sources. These cities are lawless and dangerous and filthy. Later that day there was a terrible rain storm, typical for this time of year, and in these storms these cities, such as they are, are wrecked. The tents collapse, the dirt turns to mud, and any semblance of a plan is lost.
The drive north was long and tiring: though a new "National Road" has been built (by the Americans we were told), it is still rough going in many places. The effects of the earthquake were felt throughout the country and the evidence is everywhere, everywhere crumbled, broken buildings and more rubble. But there is amble evidence of deeper, more long standing problems too: generational sin and self-serving leadership that has led to ruinous consequences. The land has been denuded of plants, trees and vegetation, most people's only source of fuel for cooking. The result is a stark landscape that is prone to erosion and floods that, over the past few years especially, have done as much, if not more damage than the earthquake did. Beyond the National Road there is virtually no infrastructure and the villages and towns we passed through were shanty-towns filled with illiterate unemployed people who mostly survive on subsistence farming.
It was also interesting to note that as we drove along the coast, we were, in fact, on the Caribbean...as beautiful in Haiti as anywhere else. But, there is no development along the Sea, no resorts, no hotels, no beaches. It is a vast resource the country has never even turned to.
We arrived in San Marc late in the afternoon. Our home that night would be the school of the Good Samaritan. It is a private school Dr. Mortel founded to serve only the poorest of the poor children of San Marc. BUT, it provides them with one of the most progressive educations available in Haiti. The school is the only one in the country with a computer lab and science lab, and one of only a few with a library and play ground, as well as a chapel area and dining room. Our accommodations were simple but neat and clean with some running water and electricity. Compared to the city around us, a cacophonous riot of horns and dogs and traffic and dust and dirt, Good Samaritan was an island of peace and good order. We enjoyed a dinner of Squash soup and bread.
Thursday, July 15
We were up early (at least by our standards...the Haitians are early to bed and early to rise, so that they can get their work done before the heat of the day makes work more difficult). To our surprise, the coffee was really good, and this proved to be the case everywhere we went. This morning we were visiting the first parish Dr. Mortel would introduce us to as possible partners. We were traveling north from San Marc through the city of Gonnaives. There we stopped to pay a courtesy call on the Bishop, who himself served us more excellent coffee and spoke of the extreme challenges that the people of the region face. One of the main commitments of the church there is education, because 80% of the country is totally illiterate and education is the only hope for lifting children out of the cycle of poverty.
From Gonnaives, we travelled deep into the interior of the country to Labranle, driving mostly along riverbeds and dirt paths to the church of St. Anne. Here we were meet by what surely must have been the entire town, very enthusiastically greeting us. The Pastor, Father Wilner, led us on a tour of the parish facility which included a small shed style central building, which turned out to be the church, surrounded by still smaller sheds which served as rectory, parish center and school. One of the school buildings could no longer be used as a result of the earthquake.
Then we sat in the shade and listened to the Pastor and his very articulate Parish leaders outline their priorities for moving forward. St. Anne's was so impressive to us because dozens of lay leaders do nearly everything: teaching, pastoral ministry, outreach, evangelization as well as building and maintaining the church buildings. And in the parish missions the lay leaders also lead the weekend worship. After their presentation, they sang for us a beautiful song about being the Body of Christ together. It was very moving. Then we were served an elaborate lunch of rice, beans, beets, potatoes and a special treat: roasted goat.
After lunch we visited one of St. Anne's several missions, in an even more remote village. Here too, there was a council of lay leaders on hand to greet us and show us around.
Next came a long, rough drive in another direction, to the town of Bassin Magnant and the Church of St. Lawrence. On this drive we actually blew out a tire and found ourselves delayed for a while. By the time we got to our destination it was late in the day and we were tired, so we greeted the Pastor and made our way to where we were staying that night. This was the occasion of one of the funniest lines of the trip. We were staying at a nearby retreat house owned by the diocese but Dr. Mortel said "The van can't go there." After the harrowing ride we had all day long, it was inconceivable that there were worse roads ahead, but there were. "The van can't go there" quickly became and axiom for us: just when you think it can't get any worse, it can.
The retreat house, when finally reached, was primitive in the extreme but, sitting on top of a mountain, it afforded great views of the surrounding countryside. We were served a dinner of eggs and oatmeal. That night was really hot.
Friday, July 16
We were up early again and we celebrated Mass together in the Retreat House chapel. Then we had breakfast. inexplicably we were served spaghetti! (We were thinking they got their meals mixed up, but in Haiti there are not shared expectations about which foods go with which meals.) Then we were off to St. Lawrence, for our tour. The Pastor is a lovely guy but the situation could not have been more different than St. Anne's. St. Lawrence had just been established as a Church by the Bishop and the Pastor has only been on the job a matter of months, so there is virtually no parish leadership and it looks like he is trying to manage things on his own for now. The Church is a big concrete shell surrounded by rubble and trash (since there is no waste management, there is trash everywhere in this country,but we were frankly surprised to see it around a church). Next the Pastor took us to two of his missions: one in a little farming village and the other in a former mining town: both places filled with poor people without a plan or a way forward. St. Lawrence is a place with many needs, but first of all it is going to need leadership to even get headed in the right direction.
After lunch (beans and rice) we returned to San Marc. Once back there we had some time to take a look around. Besides the grade school, Dr. Mortel has two other projects that are both moving forward: a high school now under construction and a trade school, now complete. These two institutions will be a place for the most promising students to graduate into when they have completed their time at Good Samaritan (or the other grade schools in the area). It was very impressive to see this plan taking shape. That evening we dined out at one of the only restaurants in San Marc, where we really enjoyed hamburgers and french fries and Coca-Cola.
Saturday, July 17
This morning we travelled to the town of Montrouis to visit the parish of St. John. The very gracious Pastor, Father George, showed us around his parish campus, probably the most complete facilityof the three we saw. There is a charming old church, though far too small for his congregation, and a parish house and hall behind it. There is also a school building, large but primitive, just outside of the town. Father George has nine missions in the country surrounding Montrouis, some can only be reached by foot.We visited one of these missions and meet the leaders there. The mission church is constructed of palm branches and the floor is dirt, but all very neat and well cared for. The "pastor" of the mission was a young lay man of great enthusiasm who leads weekend worship and was also getting ready to preach that weekend (we thought of Chris speaking back at Nativity).
Saturday is market day in San Marc, so after we returned from Montrouis we spent a couple of hours wondering the streets, teeming with vendors selling fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, canned and package foods, housewares, clothes, hardware, furniture, tools, coal, live stock and more. Each vendor squatted in the dirt of the road, their wares laid out before them on matts. It was fascinating. That evening, after a dinner of ham and eggs, some of the students from the school came to visit us and talk about their experience and their dreams for the future. Though they do not have television or access to the Internet, they knew all the popular American songs and sang some of them for us. Turns out young people are pretty much the same everywhere.
Sunday, July 18
This last day brought us back to Port-au Prince where we toured the vast, shattered city. Our guides choose Sunday morning because traffic is light then. Most of the major roads are now clear and there was indeed very little traffic so we were able to see quite a lot from the crumbled National Palace, sitting neatly on a still lush and well maintained lawn to the once magnificent French Gothic Cathedral, only its facade remaining. It was explained to us that nearly half the remaining buildings will have to be removed because they are no longer safe for use, so the devastation is even worse than first appears. Beneath the rubble are still many many bodies, it is believed. And on top of the rubble are tents for displaced residents. There are tents everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere is devastation and ruin and crushed dreams and loss and heartbreak and grief. It is hard to imagine how this situation can ever be remedied. It appears overwhelming and almost hopeless.
Almost, but not quite.
Emerging from one of those foul tent cities, carefully steping through the excrement and waste, emerging from the chaos and rubble came two little girls in white dresses, patten leather shoes and white gloves, Bibles in hand...on their way to Church.