Congratulations to First Church Longmeadow for its nearly 20 year history of loyalty and investment in CONASPEH, the Haitian Council of Churches. Dr. Mark Pohlman, Rev. Gary DeLong, Mary Friedman and others who helped develop its programs are to be commended for their initiation, dedication, and sustainability.
In addition to our delegation of five nursing students and professor from AIC, other delegates from UCC First Churches Northampton joined our mission. My assignment was to work with 15 pastors and 22 students about what it takes to start a small business. These hard-working pastors and ambitious students who would someday like to own their own businesses radiate hope in a country where poverty is endemic and constantly visible.
Haiti is complicated. It is difficult for me to write about it based on only a week there. I was there to help Haitian citizens understand the dynamics of successful small businesses. I truly believe that small independent enterprises are a key to alleviating Haiti’s current 80% unemployment rate. Job creation through entrepreneurship is a practical foundation for building a viable economic development strategy.
The history of Haiti does not generate optimism. The strength of the church and the faith of the Haitians are the most hopeful dimensions of the country. Like Cuba and other Caribbean countries, music and art also play a very important role in the rebuilding of the country.
Our translator, Cedrak, for me, personified the hope for Haiti. Twenty-five years old and about to graduate from high school, (13 years in Haiti), he plans to go to law school when and if he can find the money. The youngest of six children, Cedrak credits his ambition to his mother, who neither reads nor writes. She insisted that all her children must be educated.
CONASPEH with its 600 students and First Church are making a significant investment in education and health care, the hope for the future of Haiti. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of the First Church delegation about which I have read with pride for so many years. The outreach and mission committees of the church are in sync with the ideals of our global economy and Christian ideals in trying to promote the equalization of opportunities and wealth. Haiti presents a challenging and important opportunity for meaningful impact. Thank you Mark Pohlman and First Church.
Dianne Fuller Doherty
This was my fifth trip to Haiti. Every trip to Haiti is different and special and touches your soul. Upon arriving I was again struck by the poverty and the desperation of most people’s lives. The many men standing outside the airport pedestrian exit vying to earn a dollar by carrying your bag drives home their situation.
The three hour Sunday morning worship in a crowded and very poor “God’s Faith Church” was one of many examples during the visit of the deep faith of most Haitian people. This church was particularly interesting because of its charismatic worship style. The pastor often preached with his eyes closed and members would shout out phrases such as “praise the Lord.” Many had their hands raised high with eyes closed as the Spirit seemed to seize them. The church has a tin roof and unfinished walls but most of the bench seats were full.
I enjoyed lunch at the iconic Hotel Oloffson (as seen in “The Comedians” with Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness). The rum punches were especially strong. Our conversation with Richard Morse, the proprietor, was enlightening if not fully truthful. Once we moved beyond Princeton reunions he told us how he supported the election of his cousin Martelly, “Sweet Mickey” the pop music star, for President and at first advised the newly elected chief executive but then broke with him over the high degree of corruption. Richard also talked about his well known band, RAM (his initials), and their famous Thursday night stands at the hotel. He first began a band in NJ with three Princeton buddies after graduating.
Our visit to the national museum reinforced the pride Haitians feel about their independence, the only successful slave revolt in world history. But it also showed the tortuous and painful history since independence more than 200 years ago.
Monday was a delightful gift: beach visit due to widespread public transportation strike that closed the CONASPEH school. The turquoise ocean was perfect and the surroundings of the private beach resort luxurious by local standards. The denuded hills and barren landscape as well as rural poverty were very apparent on the two hour ride to and from the beach.
So, on Tuesday we finally arrived at CONASPEH and began our “work.” The pastors slowly trickled into the small business development seminar. Within an hour we had fifteen participants eager to absorb the knowledge and wisdom Dianne Doherty was imparting. I enjoyed observing Dianne’s wonderful and effective teaching style and assisting in any way I could, such as offering her feedback and putting key information up on the board. This seminar continued for three mornings with the pastors showing up each day and maintaining their level of interest. Dianne began with more general propositions and gradually moved to more specifics. At end of the first day she gave out an outline for a business plan in English and Creole and challenged the pastors to fill out as many of the questions on the planning sheet as possible and bring the results to the seminar. In the seminar she covered such topics as profit and loss, pricing, networking, marketing, business cards, business plans, and mentoring. Pauline did a segment on mentoring the second day and I covered leadership. Pauline and I both had the groups form small groups for a related exercise. Dianne was careful to ask for questions at the end of each topic and conscientiously responded. Each of the pastors’ seminars began and ended with singing a familiar hymn and a prayer, in Creole..
Each afternoon was a group of students, actually high school graduates, some of whom were enrolled in post-secondary education and all basically unemployed, the condition of most Haitians. This group of twenty-two young adults, mostly male, was also eager to learn and a bit more aggressive in their questioning and a few eager to show off their ideas, relevant or not. They too showed up three afternoons in a row. This afternoon seminar covered the same ground. On the third day we asked the pastors to a lunch and asked them to stay for the students’ seminar, which they did. The last day featured discussion of three case studies, two brought in by two pastors and one by a student. Two pastors want to enlarge what are small home bakeries producing bread, cakes, and cookies, to serve a larger population in their neighborhoods. They had some useful ideas for marketing and expansion needs.
On Wednesday I spent about an hour and a half with the Terminale or 13th grade class, which they call philosophy, on the topic of leadership. The sixty-student class in a small space was almost unwieldy. After a general discussion, I did get eight groups to write what they saw as the three most important qualities of a good leader on the board. The groups displayed good insight in their responses. Last year President Martelly was named as a leader they know and admired; not this year. Miguelson told us his popularity had nosedived and citizens up north even threw rocks at his car on a recent visit there. I also had the class brainstorm on what they saw as the most important problems facing Haiti. For the first time using this exercise the first problem listed was security. I was also interested to see the ninth and final problem suggested was “over-population.”
We got to see Miguelson twice. He and his friend Antonio came by Sunday evening and shared information about their lives and Haiti with the group at our evening meeting. On Wednesday Miguelson took Pauline and me and Antonio out in his new SUV to Petionville. We went to the outside restaurant and bar of La Reserve, an upscale hotel, where we had rum punches and tried the Haitian dessert best described as sweet potatoe pie. We learned more about their university careers and Haitian politics. Miguelson is now half way through his law program. Previously Miguelson and his friends had met and talked with Baby Doc at the same restaurant, though the former dictator appeared quite sick and has since died.
Friday afternoon Pauline, Heidi, and I took 31 schools kits to a small school in Cite Soleil, the largest and worst slum in Port-au-Prince. The pastor of the Church of God of the New Jerusalem, Bishop Luc Fontus, greeted us and took us inside. 160 students from kindergarten through elementary grades are housed in small spaces covered with tin roofs and divided by rough blackboards, with many children squeezed onto the wooden benches. We visited several classes where the students sang a welcome song to us. Since we only had 31 kits, all donated by Patti Richmond’s school, the pastor, with our help, divided up the contents to make enough for every student to receive something, such as a few pencils and small hand pencil sharpener, or a package of eight crayons. I referred to this turning 31 kits into enough for 160 children as our “fishes and loaves” miracle. The students came into the pastor’s office by class and each student seemed delighted to receive a school gift. At the end of the line the pastor gathered us and his staff around a circle and sang a song and prayers as we held hands.
Each night we gathered on top of the third floor of one of the Wall’s Guest House buildings to review the day and plan the next day. Our planned last night there party turned out to be more cathartic than celebratory. We were all moved by our experience in Haiti, and especially the obvious and ever- present poverty. Some tears flowed as we recalled a few of the difficult scenes we had observed: 1) a man sucking fuel oil out of tank into his mouth and then into a container; 2) our interpreter telling about having five siblings that were able to get some degree of education and his mother being so proud, since she could neither read nor write; 3) the students at the poor school being so happy to receive a few pencils; 4) our young interpreter humiliated when his name was read out in class because he had not yet paid his tuition bill, as he had no money. So many people so desperate to survive and somehow get ahead in life and yet thanking God for what little they had. All is a testament to the spirit of the Haitian people which pulls on the hearts of all visitors to that poor island nation.
David Entin is a member of Northampton UCC, where he is the chair of the Peace and Justice Committee. This was his fifth trip to Haiti.
I am still processing my experiences in Haiti. Instead of rehashing each day and activity, I would like to focus on four specific experiences or encounters – two that brought me joy and two that made me cry.
First, teaching people to knit makes me happy. I love to knit so why not share my passion with others? However, what I enjoyed most was not teaching skills but connecting with the students via teaching. In fact, we did not get very far with knitting, partly due to the fact that I had about one hour. The hardest part of knitting for beginners can be casting on and then knitting the first row. I helped students cast on, but since the cast on stitches are so close to the needle, they had trouble practicing. Although one hour is not really enough time to learn to knit, I did have the opportunity to share with them in another way. More than knitting skills, I feel that I showed them kindness and patience, and knitting was only a vehicle to do so. After I demonstrated in French, I started helping individual students with their knitting. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by the students eager for me to help them with their knitting. I focused on each student and noticed as I did so that they got really close to me. I felt someone put her chin on my shoulder so she could see and another touched my hair. I didn’t mind that they were so close, even though I usually I feel uncomfortable when people are in my personal space. Although we didn’t get far in one hour with knitting, I later saw a few of the older girls practicing in the cafeteria and went over to help them. I encouraged everyone to look at knitting help videos on Youtube, if they could access the internet. I wish I had more time with these students. I let them take home their new needles and yarn, and as I anticipated, the same group wasn’t there the next day with their materials at lunchtime. I hope to knit with these students again.
Another high point of the week was meeting Shirlene at the small business seminar. The first day I met her she asked if she could cook something for me, asking me what I like to eat. The next day she brought “la poisson créole” and “le maïs blanc” (Creole fish and white corn) in a two-part stackable container. The fish and corn were delicious – the corn reminded me of grits. Shirlene was attending the business seminar when we discussed the idea of mentoring one day. Near the end of the week, Shirlene asked me if I could be her mentor then asked when I was coming back to Haiti so she could cook something else, and what would I like? I wish I could have spent more time with Shirlene, and I honestly don’t know when I will be back. After arriving back in the U.S., I found out that we were both born on January 23rd, although she is a few years younger than me. I suppose sharing a birthday is not unusual, but I have never met anyone who shares my birthday. I feel that we were meant to be friends. My hope is that we will continue to keep in touch and that I can be a good mentor for her.
Two specific situations deeply troubled me and made me cry. First, as we were driving somewhere, I saw a man suck fuel oil under the hood of his car and spit it into a container. I don’t know that I can articulate why this upset me so much, except that I see human life as precious and found it devastating to see a man have to resort to using his mouth to hold toxic material when he had no other way to service his vehicle. I felt like this action was polluting his body and demeaning his inherent, intrinsic worth. What made me sadder is that he’d probably done this many times and may be unaware of how this could be different. My dad and brother value taking care of their cars, and in some way I saw my dad in this man. I felt humbled.
The second experience that later made me cry was when David, Pauline, and I brought school supplies to children at an elementary school. The elementary school was an open building with plywood boards to separate grade levels. The children here were happy and excited to see us, and each grade sang the same song as we moved from class to class. The difference between their elementary school and the one I had attended struck me. I wanted to talk to all of them, and I did ask one time if I could speak to them in French. I spoke to one group of students, but it was not enough. We then handed out school supplies, but since there were 166 children and 31 kits, we broke up the kits so in the end each child got a couple pencils/pens or one notebook for each 4th grader. Their excitement and appreciation for a couple pencils/pens struck me. A typical American student might have gotten free pens and pencils in a goody bag at a book fair and promptly discarded them. More than the students’ appreciation, their happy and innocent faces in an unfair world upset me. I felt a desire to give them more than what was allotted to them.
In conclusion, my experiences in Haiti greatly impacted me. One thing that I learned is the importance of speaking Creole. I had thought speaking French would be wonderful, but the kids I met often asked if I spoke Creole. I think I would be able to connect more to everyone, kids and adults, if I spoke the language they prefer. By choosing to learn Creole, I am telling them that I honor who they are, and I care about them, as opposed to speaking a language I personally love that has unfortunate associations.
Now that I am back in the U.S., I feel like some part of me is still in Haiti, and I am not the same person. Throughout the day, various things strike me, including the difference between the large speed bumps we traversed at an angle while traveling in Haiti to the smaller speed bumps on the HCC campus. Perhaps a metaphor? This is just one minor example, but I am no longer blind to how some make do with little and others like myself have had a lot afforded to us. The latter situation comes with great responsibility.
Heidi Rademacher is a member of First Church in Northampton, and works at Holyoke Community College. This was her first trip to Haiti.