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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Listening and Hearing the Haitian Stories

By Cecile S. Holmes
What is happening to Haiti is one in a series of misfortunes visited upon the Haitian people. Journalist Cecile S. Holmes visited Haiti summer of 2009 and learned first hand the Haitian people’s stories. More than one story, this blog is a reprint of an article for “Crosswalk,” the official publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina ( Currently Haiti is in need of your help as they deal with the recent earthquake that left thousands dead or injured. Check our earlier posts for ways in which you can help the Haitian people.
Photograph courtesy of
When I think of Haiti, images not words flash through my brain in a mind-numbing panorama of contrasts. I see the countryside of rolling hills and mountains shrouded in rain-filled mists in late afternoon and bedecked in pink-and-orange sun in early morning. Yet the majestic hills have few trees. Haiti’s rich forests were chopped down two centuries ago, leaving most hillsides raped of their rightful foliage.
     I see the beaming faces of parents as their sons and daughters processed into the Episcopal Church of Haiti’s Church of Our Saviour at Cange on a sultry Sunday morning. Dressed in pearly white dresses, sky-blue socks and matching ribbons, each little girl walked in beside a little boy. The boys were clad in dark blue pants and jackets; their pale shirts chosen to match the girls’ socks and hair ribbons. Almost every child smiled shyly. Hands clasped in prayer, the boy-girl pairs bowed before the altar and then to each other.
     Joy radiated from parents’ faces at this kindergarten graduation. I couldn’t help but smile, my delight linking me to the hospitable Haitians and to the other 11 Episcopal “missioners” on this Trinity Cathedral trip to Cange with Canon Joye Q. Cantrell.
That same Sunday morning, I also couldn’t help but weep in fear for the children at Church of Our Saviour.
     The vital statistics for surviving to adulthood in Haiti are daunting. Haiti has the highest rates of infant, under age 5 and maternal mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. Diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are the leading causes of death. The average life expectancy is only 47. Poverty, disease, violence and almost every negative imaginable plague this nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
     But those realities have not deterred the commitment of the Upper Diocese of South Carolina to Haiti for some 30 years. The Rt. Rev. William A. Beckham, who died in 2006, was a key figure in the development of that close relationship which began with the building of a water system in Cange. Even today, getting to Cange --just 30 miles from Port-au-Prince –is a perilous 3-hour journey along a rut-ridden, single lane dirt road.
     Yet giving to Cange, being in Cange remains a diocesan priority. The Rt. Rev. Dorsey F. Henderson has emphasized our ties to Haiti throughout ties his tenure.
     In January, Bishop Henderson issued a statement stressing that faith without outreach is not really faith. He likened the diocese’s current capital funds drive for Haiti -- “The Gifts of Bread and Water” – to the Christian call to “love with the heart of Christ, think with the mind of Christ, and act in the world as the body of Christ.”
     Noting that at least $1.6 million is needed to alleviate the water crisis in Cange, Henderson said the water system built by the diocese to serve 800 now serves 8,000 daily. Indeed, many of Haiti’s problems are linked to the lack of such basic necessities as potable water.
     In addition, unemployment rages with some estimates putting it as high as 70 percent. Densely populated, Haiti too often has been plagued by political upheaval, violence and lawlessness. The resulting uncertainty severely limits access to the essentials that would help the children of Church of Our Saviour grow up safely.
     Going to Haiti took me way beyond my comfort zone. I struggled to muster the energy to make the trip since it occurred less than three months after the death of my father following a lingering illness and the unexpected death of my husband from a heart attack. I felt emotionally raw, personally bereft and spiritually unsteady. My uncertainties paled in comparison to the daily facts of life in Haiti. Going, especially with the other “missioners,” gave me perspective and courage.
     In Haiti, it wasn’t the cold showers, or lack of fans and air conditioning that made me uncomfortable. What jarred me was recognizing just how often I am self-absorbed rather than focused on God’s call to serve others.
      I had seen abject poverty in nations as disparate as the United States, Mexico and Russia through my work as a religion journalist. I had experienced the dissonance bred in hope and sometimes destroyed by church projects gone wrong when Christians tried to help victims of everything from hurricanes to terrorist attacks.
     Haiti is different. It is geographically closer to South Carolina. Our efforts are ongoing. Our relationship is certain; our work rooted in what the Haitians say they need.
     For Trinity, completing a school at Morne Michel -- a 3 ½-hour hike straight up a mountain – is a priority. Six missioners hiked to see the school. Near the climb’s end, Trinity missioner Rhett Wolfe watched the “outlines of the new school rising through the fog,” deciding that while the church cannot help everyone; it can “have a major impact.”
     When I returned from Haiti, a friend told me about her own experience there. “Haiti changed me when I went there in the 1980s,” she said, “changed my life, changed my values. I’ve never seen such poverty, nor such joy.” This summer, missioner Lucy Dinkins returned more cognizant of the importance of mission and ministry. “Interacting with Christians in a completely different part of the world gave me a true sense of just how vast the kingdom of God is,” she said.
     Missioner Elizabeth Clark came home troubled that so many “Haitians are educated and ready to make their way in the world, but trapped in a country with no real economy to support them.” She hopes diocesan programs to build agricultural schools and improve farming will help, but worries that what is being done will not meet the enormous needs. Like Elizabeth, I cannot answer those questions, but I am certain we should keep trying, keep giving, keep praying and keep going back to Haiti. We need the Haitians as much as they need us.

Cecile S. Holmes, who worships at Trinity, is a USC associate professor of journalism and the author of “Four Women, Three Faiths.” If you are interested in hosting a book review party, contact us at

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