Turning it Over
When you turn your will over to God, you will be amazed by the journey He takes you on.
It was early on a cold Saturday morning, the week after Easter, when I boarded a plane at O’Hare Airport bound for Miami. I was traveling with my friend and fellow electrician, Justin Smith, who had asked me to accompany him on a mission trip to Haiti to perform electrical work on a school sponsored by a Catholic mission organization and located in the mountain village of Despinasse, Haiti. Justin also just happens to be the president of that mission organization, Catholic Assistance Missions, CAM for short. Once we landed in Miami, we were transferring to a flight bound for the city of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. Traveling with us were four other volunteers, including Justin’s sister and father, along with two ladies who were sisters and nurses as well.
After a flight filled with many questions and much anticipation, we landed in Port-Au-Prince where the morning temp was already above 90 degrees, a stark difference from the cold blustery weather we had recently left behind in Chicago. The airport was hot and crowded, and the air was heavy with smoke and pollution from the city. We were ushered through immigration guided by a man Justin called Mr. Big, a fitting name indeed for this very large man with the most disarming smile. With our passports checked, we were soon whisked through Haitian customs and on our way to our ride. Reminiscent of a scene from some African safari movie, our bags were hoisted on top of a waiting four wheel drive vehicle, and lashed to the top. Most of these bags we had packed the week before and contained clothing and medical supplies to be given to the needy here. Soon, we all climbed aboard and embarked on the beginning of our week long journey of discovery and service.
We traveled through the city of Port-au-Prince on our way to our first destination, an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity in a poor rundown part of the city. Our foray into the city reminded me of scenes from a war movie: broken, buckled and upheaved roads; toppled buildings, walls and ceilings collapsed; piles of garbage along the roads, burning, contributing to the heavy smoke in the air, or with pigs, goats, or feral dogs scrounging in them for scraps to eat. The poor and homeless seemed to be everywhere, displaced and living in tent encampments in the parks and open spaces all over the city. There were entire encampments made of tarps, sheet metal, or wood, anything that could be scrounged to build a makeshift shelter; many huge camps surrounded by fences, totally enclosed and the entrances patrolled by U.N. soldiers. And with every corner and turn in the road, gasps of disbelief were elicited by me and my fellow passengers. As Justin had told me repeatedly before our trip began “I can tell you and describe it to you, but you can’t comprehend it until you actually see it for yourself.” Nothing he had recanted to me in his stories about Haiti prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the damage the earthquake had caused and the enormity of the crippling poverty and homelessness that existed in its aftermath.
It had become all too obvious why we were travelling in a four wheel drive vehicle; the conditions of the roads made it nearly impossible for an ordinary car to circumvent the endless potholes and broken pavement. After about an hour of visual overload navigating the crowded streets among motorcycles, cars, and small converted trucks turned into taxis known as “tap-taps” (people tap on the side to signal the driver to stop, hence the name) we arrived at the orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. The Sisters who lived here care for countless children orphaned by the earthquake, and those whose families were too poor to feed or care for their children. The children ranged from very young babies to young teens, but mostly babies and young pre-schoolers, most of them mal-nourished and undersized. They also ran a school for younger children through sixth grade, providing them with a free education, free uniforms, and a daily meal. Here, we would spend the first half of our trip, helping the Sisters care for the babies in the orphanage, working with the Sisters at their wound clinic, helping out at various food distributions, or serving the poor infected with TB or AIDS at a home for the dying run by the Sisters.
It was a very humbling experience whether holding a baby that might not live past the next month, knowing that you might very well be the last bit of warmth and love they felt in this world; or distributing food to the poor some of which had traveled a long way to get the meager amounts of rice, beans, oil, and flour we gave them; or treating wounds that were so infected and horrific, that you’d swear they needed amputation to save the person and yet they were grateful even through their pain; or washing the heads and shaving the faces and heads of men who contracted Aids or TB, a disease that is easily curable in most developed countries in the world, yet these men would slowly die from.
Whether it was the children, the people in the food distributions, the sick, or the dying, they all had two things in common: their stoic faith and reliance on God; and their unending gratitude for the service we gave them. I was even more impressed by these people when I attended mass while serving in Port-au-Prince. The first Mass I attended was in an open-air makeshift church where the original church had been destroyed by the earthquake. The church was filled with people, dressed in the best clothes they owned, singing loudly, praying fervently, and giving alms, each and every one, no matter how poor they were. The second Mass was an annual pilgrimage by many people, probably as many as 20,000, who came to attend a Mass concelebrated by the archbishop of Haiti and seventeen other priests. Many of these people had walked for 2 or 3 days to attend this Mass. The people filled a park and pressed as close as possible to have a glimpse of the service, standing in the heat for over two hours, and waiting in endless lines when it was time to receive communion. Even with so many priests serving, it took half an hour to distribute communion.
I attended this Mass along with some of the Sisters, Justin’s dad, a lady by the name of Mary who was a nurse/social worker/advocate that worked with the orphanage, and three of the orphanage’s children they had brought with them. One of the children was a precocious little girl of about 4 or 5 with beautiful big brown eyes, an infectious smile, and the prettiest yellow dress who loved having her picture taken. She had recently been adopted by a family from the U.S. and was awaiting their arrival. Another child was a good mannered young boy of about 7 or 8 who, according to Mary, was in need of open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect he had. He was infatuated with my sunglasses and persevered in pestering me until I eventually handed them over. He was the epitome of cool in them, and he knew it and wouldn’t take them off until we arrived back at the orphanage several hours later. The third child was the oldest, a young girl of about 11 or 12. She wore a pretty dress, and seemed to take an interest in reigning in the enthusiasm of the young lad. The whites of her eyes were yellow, due to a kidney problem according to Mary. I was sad to learn that she died about a month later, never receiving the medical treatment she so desperately needed. This happens all too often in Haiti, as medical treatment seems to be in dire need and out of reach for all except the most affluent people.
Each day we ventured out of the orphanage into and through the neighborhood, whether going to Mass in the morning, or off to perform service work at one of the Missionaries of Charity facilities, I was continually fascinated and engrossed by the world around me. Whatever problems I might have waiting for me at home, they seemed so small and inconsequential compared to the enormity of what these people faced on a daily basis, and yet most of the people I met were so alive, filled with hope and joy even in these dire conditions. The most difficult problems for me while I was there were dealing with the heat and the endless raucous chorus of roosters crowing all night long. Sleep was never more than an hour to an hour and a half at a time. The roosters crowed all night, answering each other trying not to be outdone, and constantly woke me up. It became quite the joke between all of the guys, so much so that I set the alarm on my phone to be a rooster’s crow. During the night, you could also hear the chanting of people practicing voodoo in the distant darkness; an oddity to us, but something that many Haitians readily mix with their belief in Christianity.
Those first four and a half days passed quickly, and soon it was time for us to say goodbye to the sisters and the children and depart for the village of Despinasse, up in the mountains to begin the second half of our mission trip. This would be another new adventure!!