by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 21, 2016
Recently, our Sisters celebrated 20 years of journeying with the people of Haiti. Our IHM congregation has a special connection with the Haitian people through our foundress, Theresa Maxis, whose mother was of Haitian descent. We have deepened that connection over the past 20 years through the Tri IHM Haiti Outreach, in which the three IHM communities (Scranton, Immaculata, and Monroe) have twinned with the Little Sisters of St. Therese, a community of native Haitian Sisters. That twinning has been mutually transformative.
As we gathered at the IHM Center on February 17 to mark these 20 years of solidarity with the people of Haiti, we prayed the prayer, “Walking in the Light of God’s Mercy” and reflected on the invitation: “Name one way your heart has been changed by our 20 year relationship with the people of Haiti.”
“Only one?” I wanted to ask. I could name hundreds! For in 1993, 1995, and 2000, I was privileged to represent our IHM Sisters on trips to Haiti. Each journey was an opening to personal conversion, perhaps none so powerfully as the first. That first experience also happened to be my first trip outside the United States and came at the invitation of Pax Christi USA to be part of a human rights delegation.
In 1993, President Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, had been ousted by a coup, and the country was in a state of chaos and upheaval under the oppression of the Ton Ton Macoute. Our delegation’s role in going to Haiti during those dangerous, volatile days was to meet with peasants, catechists, priests, religious, activists–peacemakers all–to document their stories of torture, imprisonment, and attempts to silence them, and to bring those stories home with us to share with the rest of the world. Every person who met with us shared the same stories of suffering and yet the same nonviolent attitude, devoid of any desire for revenge. “We all have cause to fear,” one of them told us, “but we are about life and hope.”
I recently re-read the journal of my first time with the Haitian people in 1993 and was struck by how it changed my worldview—not a slight shift, more like the tremors of an earthquake.
“For me personally, being part of the delegation to Haiti was a baptism into Third World realities and a journey into deeper conversion,” I wrote. “On one level, being such a greenhorn was a plus: having never traveled outside the United States, I held no expectations. And I tried to remain that way, in the stance of one for whom listening is crucial, in the stance of one who has everything to learn.”
Most striking to me was the courage, the joy, and resilience of the Haitian people. Everywhere we went, we marveled at their inventiveness, their utter resourcefulness. If anyone could coax blood from a stone, I thought, it would be they. We saw children who lovingly, carefully crafted crude yo-yo’s from what looked like the remains of old tin cans. From our perch in the Hospice St. Joseph, we watched the women of Haiti set out their water barrels each night to catch the longed-for rain. And in the early dawn, we saw these same women carrying huge baskets on their heads as they headed to market. We saw them scrubbing clothes and laying them out before the intense sun rose to bleach them.
We traveled past a shantytown on the winding road to Cap-Haitien, a slum that was barely an insignificant dot on the map. Crumbling huts, alleys strewn with garbage, children bearing the unmistakable signs of protein deficiency and malnutrition. “Welcome to Little Nothing,” our guide announced. Yet I wondered: was this the identical scene that confronted the hopeful prophet who wrote, “And you, Bethlehem, you are by no means the least…”
These were the last words I wrote in my journal of 1993 and I offer them here as a prayer:
“As we prepare to leave, I thank you, people of Haiti. Never before have I both longed for and experienced God’s presence more than here among you. And with you I pray: ‘Let your coming be here, O God. Let it be now!’”
Have you traveled to other countries, other cultures than your own?
What did it feel like for you to be away from the place you call home?
What surprised you? Disturbed you? Resonated with you?
What were the learnings for you?
Name one way your heart has been changed by solidarity with others.