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Holy Week in Haiti

by Jorge L. F. Domingues

Communities in Haiti find refuge under tents at a nearby basketball court.
Communities in Haiti find refuge under tents at a nearby basketball court.
Image by: Mike DuBose
Source: United Methodist News Service
Jorge Domingues
Jorge Domingues
Image by: GBGM
Source: GBGM Administration

It was Tuesday morning. Since Palm Sunday I have been experiencing Holy Week in a different way from previous years. I have been preparing for my first trip to Haiti, which is also my first trip as Deputy General Secretary nominated to lead the Mission and Evangelism Program of Global Ministries. The trip to Haiti gave me a special insight into Jesus' walk to the cross. I saw His experience of death and resurrection re-lived by the people of Haiti. I felt I was about to meet Him again in the suffering of that people.

I traveled to Haiti through the Dominican Republic. That morning, as my flight was about to take off, the sky was cloudy, with some rain approaching, even though the sun was persistently shining. My little French was coming back in my mind and I wished I could speak Creole. With a series of bumps, we were suddenly off the ground, in God's hands. Below I saw Santo Domingo, the poor neighborhoods close to the airport, and wondered how the other side of the island of Hispaniola would compare.

That morning I had read the passage about Jesus in the temple watching the widow offering her two last coins. Her gift of life was much more valuable than the riches of the wealthy. It had made me think about what we are giving to Haiti. Charity? Or a gift of life? The possibility of rebuilding that nation with justice and dignity? Our love has to turn into action.

I landed in Haiti excited and anxious for what I would encounter. I started the day thinking of the widow and her gift of life, and kept seeing her in person all day long in Port-au-Prince. The plane was still high and I could see signs that I had crossed the border into Haiti. Bare mountains and dried rivers like those in the desert of Arizona--no vegetation. But I was in the tropical Caribbean, not the desert! Something was wrong with that picture. Or is it the Earth crying the pain of devastation, the same pain that afflicts the people of Haiti?

When the plane was approaching the airport, flying over the capital, it was no longer the Earth that was crying. It was the city. The flattened buildings, the nonexistent roofs, the damaged structures caught my attention. It was a different cry. The first was the cry of nature violated by humans trying to escape poverty. The second is the cry of humans in poverty violated by nature. And they are so connected. Later that day I heard that areas with more trees were less devastated than areas with no vegetation because the trees absorbed the energy of the earthquake to some extent. Could it be true that the devastation of the environment has increased the devastation of the earthquake?

To arrive at a country that speaks two languages that you don't understand well is always tense. But there was something familiar in the air, which I couldn't identify until later. Suddenly, it came to me: I was back in Baixada Fluminense, in Caxias, the city in Brazil where I started my ministry. What a discovery! Without the language difference, I could swear that I traveled back 25 years to the periphery of Rio de Janeiro.

The car that picked me up at the airport started its journey to the Methodist Church of Haiti's office in Pétionville. And my first sight was one of the many tent camps housing people who had lost their homes. They are white and blue, in the thousands. Every flat space that was clear after the earthquake was covered with tents, and even the hillsides.

I once saw an image of the Exodus: Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong on their day off. They met in the business center of the city to chat and eat together: thousands of women resting from wandering in the desert. Today I saw the tents of those living and wandering in the desert for 40 years, yearning for a new home. Once again the image of the desert in the Caribbean crossed my mind.

The car continued to snake through the traffic, and I started to see the signs of destruction, rubble along the streets. A collapsed building that had two or three floors was flattened as if a giant had sat on it. If there were people inside at the time of the earthquake, they couldn't have gotten out alive. If there had been people inside, their bodies were still there, because there were no signs that the building had been touched at all. And I realized that I was looking at a grave. All of this in a few seconds. My heart was pounding. My mind was spinning. Then I saw another collapsed building, and another, and another. Then I saw a row, a block, all full of rubble. But the randomness was distressing. Was it a lottery? Why did this building fall and not that one?

When we got to the school where the church office is I saw the children under blue tarps. Their classes had resumed out in the open, so they didn’t lose the school year. What a beautiful sight. Beautiful smiles, bright eyes. No wonder Jesus said that from little children you would get perfect praise. Looking into their eyes, I wondered if they had experienced the earthquake as I was feeling it. The devastation was still there around us, but life had continued.

During the rest of the day, we went around the city and saw the same thing over and over again, in every neighborhood we crossed. But when we looked down at the city from the top of a mountain, we saw how the earthquake affected mostly the poorest people. Hillside communities (not different from the slums of Rio de Janeiro, like Rocinha) were flattened as if there had been a dry landslide. And suddenly I remembered the rainy season, the hurricanes. My God! What will happen to these people when the rains arrive? It is frightening to contemplate.

Finally, we were taken to the site of the Hotel Montana, the place where two of our Global Ministries colleagues lost their lives. My heart was again pounding, my hands trembling, my eyes watering. Seeing all the destruction of that rich neighborhood, I didn't feel the same sense of death I felt before, not to the same degree. There was no place destroyed which had not been touched, searched, cleared. We got to the red tall metal gate of the Hotel with a sign that said no one could enter. The security guard said, "It is not safe. It is private. You cannot enter."

Why? We needed to see the place we had so much imagined during those anguished days of January. But we were turned away from the gate. We stopped a few hundred meters from the Hotel at a clearing near the street, where we could see the poor hills again. There were thousands and thousands living there, in tents and shacks, many of which will not survive the rainy season. And suddenly it came to me. Like a voice whispering in my ears: "Those whom you came to look for here are gone to heaven. Look around. These are the people you are here to look after. These are my sheep without a shepherd. Look after them."

My God, my Jesus! I saw the widow again! I saw Jesus suffering and dying and resurrecting in the eyes of children! It was Holy Week in Haiti! And Jesus is Haitian!

On our second day in Port-au-Prince we were able to debrief our short but intense visit of the previous day with the President of the Methodist Church of Haiti and discuss plans for the near and remote future. There is so much to be done. Our presence and our work there are just a tiny piece of what is needed to be done.

Our visits and meetings gave a sense of the magnitude of the task and of the capacities and limitations of the church there. We learned of their compassion in the middle of their pain. Those whose houses were not affected have opened their land and gardens to families who lost their homes to put down tents and have a place to live. The school we visited opened its sports field to hundreds of families. They have more than a thousand students taking classes under tarps, under trees, and another community of more than two thousand living on the grounds. Solidarity is not lacking.

Going from one place to another, we saw that life had not stopped in its tracks: hundreds of street sellers, thousands hired to clear rubble, people coming and going everywhere. We saw tired eyes, bright smiles, and detected a hint of hope in the midst of anxiety for the near future.

And on the way to the airport to drop off Bishop Ough and Melissa Hinnen (the others on our team), we stopped at the Grace Children's Hospital and toured the damaged facilities. It was scary to be walking under ceilings and walls sustained by metal beams that could fall at any moment. But it was so humbling to see every inch of space that was minimally safe being used to continue serving children with disabilities, AIDS, and other conditions who continue to come every day. Before the earthquake they were attending to 300 patients per day. Now they are seeing only half that amount.

We came out of the damaged buildings and saw the medical tents outside. Under the tents were the patients, nurses, and doctors. We went under a blue tarp during lunch hour for disabled babies and toddlers. What a heartwarming image. What hope. We had just visited the destroyed maternity ward and imagined the panic of the little children during the earthquake. And now we saw their bright eyes and smiles even under the scorching heat of noon under the tarp. We left the place sweating and smiling, too.

After a day and a half, I was the only member of our team left. More meetings and plans. Conversations about the needs of the country and how the church can help. It is evident that the capacity is limited. Help is needed for organizing, but the energy is high. And my last night in Haiti came. I wished I could stay longer and visit more people. There was so much more I wanted to learn. But suddenly I heard the rain. It had rained every night of the week. It was a short rain, lasting less than an hour. We almost didn't notice it in the morning. But for those living in tents, the rain was a wake-up call, literally. The hurricane season is on its way and the rain can be the next disaster. I looked outside into the rain and felt the urge to pray. Please, God, pour your grace over this suffering people.

It was Good Friday. On the plane, I read the passage about the Stations of the Cross. In the evening I attended the service of the Way of the Cross at my church, St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC. Jesus' death is for our redemption, for the redemption of the people of Haiti. Oh, God! May your Son's resurrection be a sign of new life for the people of Haiti! May this be a Holy Week for that suffering country. May it be Holy Week in Haiti! May it be Easter in Haiti!

Jorge L. F. Domingues is Deputy General Secretary for Mission and Evangelism of the General Board of Global Ministries.


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Date posted: Apr 07, 2010