Friday, April 2, 2010

Reflecting on Scripture in the Aftermath

Adapted from a sermon given at Grace Church, Martha’s Vineyard

March 14, 2010

Joshua 5:9-12

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

This morning’s Gospel is challenging to hear in light of all that we have witnessed in Haiti since January 12th. We know it best as the Prodigal Son, but it could just as easily be called the All Faithful, Loving and Forgiving Father. And, of course, that is the image of God we are to take away from this parable. A portrait of our Heavenly Father who cares infinitely and deeply for each one of us, who lavishes us with his love, even at the cost of alienating those to whom his gratitude is perhaps most due: the hardest working and most deserving of his children. In the aftermath of the quake, I find myself as touched as I am incredulous at this tender image of the Father.

When the quake struck I was teaching seminarians in the building adjacent to the Seminary, the Episcopal Diocese’s College St. Pierre, one of Port-au-Princes most respected secondary schools. My students and I darted out of the classroom and fled to the campus’ soccer field, where we hoped to escape the deadly devastation. Others who worked and lived close by also sought refuge there. Between the powerful aftershocks that followed, several women collapsed to their knees. With tears streaming down their tormented faces they breathlessly protested in loud voices, “Poukwa Bondye? Poukwa ? Poukwa?” (Why God? Why Father? Why?) And “No more, please, no more! Enough!” But their protests fell on deaf ears as the earth continued to thrash about in its death throes.

I remember that moment very vividly: mothers pleading for Heaven to relent as I gazed silently upon the ruins of the building I had been teaching in only minutes before. In that moment I felt a sudden and intense anger rise within me as I recalled Jesus’ famous words in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? …If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7-12).

Port au prince was an entire city seeking, asking, praying for bread. They believed their Heavenly Father was listening; so did I. Things were looking up. Clinton had just announced a major multinational investment to update Haiti’s antiquated infrastructure. The country seemed finally to begin recovering from the trauma inflicted by the 4 hurricanes that struck in the summer of 2008. And the World Food Program’s urgent appeal to the international community on October 27th to replenish Haiti’s diminishing food stores was meeting with some success. The people lifted up their voices to heaven and cried out for bread, and for a time it seemed like their prayers were being heard. But on January 12th they were answered instead with a torrent of stone—crushing, dismembering stone. Brittle concrete: splintering, cracking and slicing its way through everything in its vertical fall back to the earth.

I am at a loss. Have been since that fateful Tuesday evening. I know it sounds cliché, but where was God when the quake struck? How could I possibly cling to faith in a benevolent Father when so many of his children were maimed and dying on that field, or buried under the rubble? Where was their Heavenly Father then? Surely, if I had to tell the parable over today, I would tell of a Prodigal Father, not of a Prodigal Son. I would invoke Job’s cutting observation that “It is all one;” that “he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.” That “when disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” And with Job I would demand, “If it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9:22-24)

The closest experience I had of God in the aftermath was tending to an injured boy, about my nephew’s age, probably 7 or 8 years old. He was one of the children taken to the field from St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped about a mile farther south in downtown Port-au-Prince. Mallory, the other Young Adult Service Corps missionary, had courageously gone back to her apartment just beyond the field and recovered basic first aid supplies to help the injured. As word of these new resources spread on the field, Mallory quickly found herself overwhelmed with requests for help, and so enlisted me and a seminarian, Goursse, to triage the requests. At a certain point, one of this boy’s peers came up to us and asked for our help.

We approached the boy and Mallory asked him, “What is your name?” She always asked for a name before proceeding with diagnostic questions—a simple gesture of human kindness in the midst of so much senseless, natural violence. But the boy didn’t answer. Instead he winced, clutching his sides as he rolled over, making sad little noises that were something between a squeal and a cry. “Timoun, quel est ton nom?” (Child, what’s your name?) Mallory asked again. But this time the young girl seated next to him—who had no arms—told us that he was deaf and mute. There was a sad resignation in her voice as she looked upon him with all the loving compassion of an older sister, and I marveled at how these children had become a great, extended family in the absence of their biological ones. The boy could not tell us his name, and the girl did not offer one. In his namelessness, that boy became for me every child suffering and dying in Port-au-Prince that night.

Rocking back and forth on his cardboard gurney, his little body shuttering with unimaginable pain, the boy twisted his head in my direction and stared plaintively into my eyes—his tears forging dark branches on his cheeks as they washed away the white concrete dust on his face. And for a moment the ivory-hewn Jesus of the crucifix that I gazed upon so many times in the SSJE Monastery Chapel in Cambridge seemed to gaze back at me in his innocent, tortured face and his slender, sinewy limbs.

I felt so helpless, kneeling over him, cooing in his ear and cupping his head in my hands, trying to comfort him as Mallory struggled to dress his wounds. I found myself humming the tune to My Shepherd Will Supply My Need as my own tears mixed with his. Goursse was with me then, and I spied out of the corner of my eye a single drop making its way down his cheek too. Deep patches of skin had become detached from the boy’s body, dangling like flesh lapels that needed to be pressed back into place. My heart broke as he recoiled in agony each time Mallory gently tried to secure them to his body with medical tape. After several attempts, she decided it would be less painful for him if we simply covered his wounds with loose pieces of gauze. She then instructed his friends to keep vigil over him during the night. His wounds were so grave, his fragile body continued shivering uncontrollably, and I wished that our compassion would be enough to heal him, but it was not. It was not enough. He had lost too much blood. His wounds were too deep.

I believe I saw into the Father's heart then too, though this time not from a place of bitterness or anger, but from a place of profound sorrow and sympathy. Tears welled up in my eyes as I glimpsed for only a second the unfathomable anguish the Father must have experienced as he watched his Son’s body writhe and scrape against the wood of the cross, as he looked on in horror at all the incomparable suffering his Beloved Son had to endure because of senseless, albeit human, violence. Of course, our tradition tells us that the Son’s suffering was not merely human, but a divine predicate of our salvation; that Christ became the paschal Lamb of God to ransom us all from death. As our New Testament reading put it this morning: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”—the Bread of Life broken and shared, commemorated and celebrated at the altar and in our hearts every Sunday in the Holy Eucharist.

As I witnessed his excruciating end, I was tempted to extend this same sentiment toward the nameless boy. His suffering must bear enormous merit, I thought: one of countless seeds sewn in Haiti’s native soil to bring forth new life, a new beginning for this impoverished island nation. A sacrificial grain whose death would bear much fruit, the pledge of a bountiful harvest and bread without end. Surely now, others would be moved to action and to help. Surely now the Haitian people would, as the Second Lesson today put it, “no longer be regarded from a human point of view”, but as the children of God that they are: endowed with the surpassing dignity of their Father’s image, infinitely worthy of our love and care. Surely now, we would not casually dismiss the sea of anonymous faces on the evening news, but recognize Christ’s own face in each one of his afflicted Haitian sisters and brothers.

In fact, like me, many people have been tempted to map onto the quake a kind of Passion narrative for the people of Haiti. But I hesitate to embrace this sacrificial logic, however politely advanced and well-meaning it may be. The implication that God allowed the quake to happen because it was the only way to rebuild Haiti seems absurd, perhaps even offensive. I believe in a God more powerful and more compassionate than that; a God of deliverance, not disaster. Still, many continue to suggest that through the torrent of stone Haiti will soon be getting much more bread. I’m not so sure, and I don’t think we should forget the dead and suffering so quickly, or be willing to offer them up like that.

Instead, we might consider enlarging our spiritual generosity toward the people of Haiti, as we have already extended our material generosity. While it is profoundly important and good for us to speak of and work toward resurrection, we must be mindful of the weight of the cross that our sisters and brothers continue to bear in the aftermath. We must not forget that this disaster is ongoing, both in its physical manifestations throughout the country, and in the broken hearts and lives of Haiti’s people. For them, Good Friday will not pass simply because we dream of a better future for them and send in our checks. Some wounds are too deep.

When reconstruction begins, and the intimations of resurrection appear as the stone is rolled away from the tomb which Port-au-Prince has become, we must know that just as our Lord’s resurrected body was indelibly marked by the wounds he suffered in the flesh (G. John 20: 24-28), so also Haiti will be marked forever by the piercing sadness of this tragedy. The glorious light of the resurrection is not unmarred by the unspeakable darkness of betrayal and death. It is all one. In the end, I must acknowledge that I can only sit in this space of ferocious ambiguity between believing that God truly is the source of all things, including devastating earth quakes, and that God cares for us all with a love that is beyond our meager powers of human comprehension. That like the blood and water gushing from Christ's side, these paradoxical realities are intermingled in the crucible of our Common Cup. Father and Son, bread and stone, death and resurrection—all are one.


Friday, January 8, 2010

La Gonave, Consecration of Two churches

As I mentioned in my advent reflection, we had an opportunity to visit the island off of Haiti's coast, La Gonave, at the beginning of the year. It was an eventful and wonderful visit in many ways, and rather difficult in many others.People came from all over the island to attend the consecration of the two new Episcopal churches, and we had over a hundred confirmations and baptisms all told.
was a moment to remember, and to mark the moment the people came out in their finest clothes. Young girls and women dressed in beautiful pastel summer dresses, and more often in what looked to my eyes like First Communion dresses: white lace, ruffles, and veils.
Men, young and old, dressed in slacks or jeans with button-down shirts and ties. The children were fascinated with our cameras and came close for several pictures, which was very sweet. We all sort of hung around awkwardly staring at each other for a few minutes before we ventured toward them to say hello.

La Gonave is very remote, and relatively untouched by modernity. To get there we took a speed boat, dubbed "the yacht," with the bishop, some seminarians, and a well-known Haitian journalist. The bishop was fearless and stood at the front of the vessel as it jetted over waves, rising and falling with a thud against the water. We were soaked by the time we arrived, and grateful for it too since it was scorching hot outside.

Being on La Gonave felt a little like stepping into the Jurassic period. It's full of lush vegetation, patched-together huts in small villages, and perilous clay roads covered in rocks and boulders of various sizes. On the footpath we took to get to Platon Balai I noticed most rocks that were protruding from the clay ground were riddled with marine-like fossils so that I surmised the island must have been some kind of ancient sea bed millions of years before.

Advent Reflection from Haiti (La Gonave)

"Ca viendra" ("It will come"): simple words of reassurance offered at precisely the moment when I needed them most. It was September 2001 and I had just begun an academic year abroad in France. I was lonely, lost, and I could barely speak a stitch of French.
I had no idea how I was going to take classes at the Sorbonne, and I was doubtful I would ever understand my sweet, little old host mother, Madame Deborckzuk. In the midst of my distraught frustration, Madame Denis, the resident administrator of Sweet Briar's Junior Year in France program, leaned over her desk and intoned those simple words of benediction as only a mother can: "Ca viendra, Jude. Ca viendra"

Simple as those words were, they achieved their intended effect as I felt a sudden rush of hope surge through my veins, displacing the fear that had settled in weeks before. Despite many difficult moments that year, Madame Denis' were the only words that really gave me any comfort and strength. In that instant, she had the words of everlasting life, and they remain with me to this very day. Indeed, after she passed away unexpectedly in 2006, Madame Denis' words took on a sacred character, becoming a mantra I recite in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances.

When I first arrived in Port-au-Prince I found mylsef reciting that mantra much more frequently than I would like to admit. My living situation left much to be desired and crossing the Champs de Mars-- the city's central square--every day required nearly superhuman energy and courage as I dodged heedless traffic, avoided gaping holes in the sidewalk and massive piles of trash, and passed the countless homeless, helpless and hungry who cried out, "Blanc! Hey Blanc, s'il vous plait, give me some money!" Life here is exhausting and tough and often unforgiving—as much for this "blanc" missionary as for the city's street people, though admittedly on an order of magnitude altogether different.

So when I and the other three missionaries were invited by the Bishop to go to La Gonave, a remote island off of Haiti's coast, for four days I was thrilled. We were to consecrate two new churches recently constructed by American partners who would join us for the trip. Among the churches to be consecrated was Saint Simon and Saint Jude in the remote hamlet of Platon Balai. To get there is a real pilgrimage. La Gonave's roads are unlike any I have ever seen anywhere else in the world. They are covered in jagged rocks ranging in size from baseballs to watermellons and sometimes much bigger still. At some point, I was certain the only thing holding our van together was grace. After a two hour car ride over this unforgiving terrain, we arrived at a compound where we began our hike along a winding footpath over arid, shrubby hills as far as the eye could see. Drenched in sweat, our bodies faltering under the intense Caribbean sun, we finally arrived in Platon Balai two hours later. Entering upon the church yard grounds we set out greeting parishioners who had come great distances to be with us for the festivities.

I met a young man that morning about my age, Jules Thomby, under a leafy green tree in the middle of the church yard whose rich red soil betrayed the volcanic origins of the island. Jules beamed with pride as he spoke of his evangelizing efforts in the town, and the light seemed almost to dance around him as he proclaimed his profound love for Jesus and his deep faith that God had brought us there that morning for a reason.

He asked me how I was finding Haiti, and for some reason I felt compelled to tell him the truth, how I was struggling with the language, the cultural differences and the crushing poverty. As I was telling him all this, he donned a knowing smile, leaned in and looking directly into my eyes, wispered in a still, small voice: "Ca viendra, Jude. Ca viendra."

Jules heard the prayer of my heart, and in his own unassuming way, spoke it back to me in a disarming affirmation that God really is listening. He reminded me that morning that the first and most fundamental prayer is: Let your Kingdom come...Let us enter into it, until it enters into us and our whole world is transformed in the crucible of God's love. In Haiti, it's not easy to believe that it will come as there are so few traces of tangible hope for the people who need it the most: young people, like Jules, who want the same things as we do in the Sates—to go to university, graduate and land a decent-paying job, raise a family, do something interesting with their lives, feel like they're contributing and giving back in some way. For the vast majority of Haitian young people these will always remain unfulfilled dreams. Most people here live in a state of hope perpetually deferred, an interminable Advent without Christmas.

Still, they guard their hope that one day it will come, that one day the promise of a better future will become reality, that their faith in their beloved Jezi is not in vain. That he will come in power to judge the living and the dead, and to establish a righteous reign on this crooked earth. This Advent, the prayer of my heart is that it does come: that this beautiful people's hope is renewed, that justice and peace will finally prevail in this country which has so long been ravaged by famine and strife, that Haiti's rich spiritual and intellectual resources may be matched by her material resources to see her dreams through to fruition, that as Mary sang in her glorious Magnficat the hungry will be filled with good things, and the lowly will be lifted up (Lk.1:52-53). I am confident it will come, in the fullness of time it will come. In the meantime, I ask your prayers for my ministry here, for the Diocese of Haiti, and for the country—that God's work really will be accomplished in and by us this Advent season and always. I can almost hear the Spirit wispering in response to our collective prayer: "Ca viendra. Ca viendra."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

La Cuisine Haitienne

One of the things I've enjoyed most about my time so far in Haiti is the traditional Haitian cuisine. About two weeks after I arrived in PAP my fellow missioner and on-the-ground orienter, Kyle Evans, had to return to the States for a week unexpectedly. Before she left she agreed to let me house sit so that I could escape from the dilapidated, depressing Guesthouse where I lived for my first two months here, and she very generously employed a young woman, Jeanine, to prepare meals for me twice a day.

Jeanine was such a delight to be around for the week! Her bouyant spirit and child-like laughter were welcome gifts in a moment of really tough transition. The meals she prepared were tasty, fresh and nutritious: usually chicken in a sauce, creole rice and beans, tomatos and avocado, and fresh juice of some kind.

Since Kyle left two months ago, Mallory and Lauren have regularly employed Jeanine's services in cleaning and cooking to help her pay for her education. She has had a tough life, like virtually everyone here, having already lost two sisters, and having been unfairly terminated from a previous employement. Still, she persists in a joy that clearly has its source in her God.

I remember when I first arrived here I thought it was strange that missionaries would have other people cook and clean for them. I thought that it may be sending the wrong message, that we should live simply and be self-supporting, not as privileged white people who could afford someone to look after their needs. But after a few weeks I began to realize that there is virtually no prospect for employment here apart from these sorts of service occupations. So being here as missionaries, employing people, can be a life-saving activity for the people we encounter. We could easily prepare meals for ourselves, and at breakfeast and dinner we do, but allowing someone else to cook lunch for us is a way to give someone here a future, and the dignity of money earned through legitimate work.
It's also a wonderful way to experience the culinary dimensions of a culture that is so often characterized as one in want, not as one that has something truly lovely to contribute to our own. Haitian cuisine is definitely something worth experiencing and celebrating!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Theotokos à l'haïtienne? Maybe...

Within a week of arriving in Port-au-Prince I made the aquaintance of another American missionary, Lauren Stanley, who hails from the Diocese of Virginia and recently served for several years in the Sudan. She lives in a suburb about half-way up the mountain from Port-au-Prince called Petion-Ville. She invited me up for an evening to get to know the town a bit, to meet her street vendor friends, most of whom sell painting, metal works, and wood carvings. We ate lunch at this lovely little restaurant, Fiore di Late, and I bought a painting from one of her friends. The painting is quite fascinating--at first glance it looks like a Haitian adaption of the Orthodox icons depicting the Theotokos with her son, the Christ Child. But upon closer examination, one notes that the woman's feet resolve into a fin-like structure. As it turns out, the image is a Vodou one, depicting La Sirene, the Mermaid spirit who inhabits the waters of the earth. I love the painting because it speaks to the polysemism and interpenetration of religious symbol and ritual on this island, particularly between Christianity and the ancestral traditions of West Africa. It's also a very appropriate confluence of personalities since both Mary and the Siren are associated with the generative, mothering power of water.

Does not wisdom cry out? Does not understanding lift her voice?

A few days after Mallory arrived, we had the privilege of participating in a celebration for the St. Vincent's School for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince. The school is an incredible place, offering educational opportunities to children who face developmental challenges that in this country might otherwise be life-ending. It is one of about 150 schools owned and operated by the Episcopal Church in Haiti, but it specializes in reaching out to the most vulnerable among us. In a place where the value and dignity of human life is often ounderstood in the context of "the changes and chances of this life," the school is an oasis of hope, a true testament to the healing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Episcopal Church's commitment to that Gospel. The Bishop of Haiti, Msg. Jean Zache Duracin, presided over a Mass to inaugurate the newly refurbished clinical suite and the general
renovations made possible through the contributions of several key benefactors. The Lessons were read by two young girls, both blind. It was a very moving experience, and one that put hardship into perspective at a moment when I was frankly beginning to wonder whether I could make it to end of my first month here. The courage, poise and wisdom emanating from those young girls was a testimony to Haiti's capacity to face her many challenges if she discovers the power that is already within, if she is able to access her own uniquely beautiful spirit and sync it to the Spirit who makes all things possible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Friend Arrives...

The other YASCer (Young Adult Service Corp), Mallory Holding, arrived in Port-au-Prince about a week and half ago. We went to the Cathedral for Mass and then had a photo op with Mere Fernande afterward. The trumpeter at the Cathedral added an extra sense of regality to the program that morning. I've added a clip below