Jacmel, Haiti May 2019
Greetings in Christ! We have just returned from Haiti as bearers of good news! Our mission, by your prayers and support, continues to grow. The Haitians continue to be our solid supporters in prayer by beseeching the Almighty on our behalf! Three children were Baptized at St Augustine Orthodox Church outside of Jakmel. The beautiful services of our Church during this Pentecostarion season were well attended, especially by the youth! We were the recipients of incredible hospitality. Our medical clinic continues to be busy and is much appreciated by the entire community. With all of this activity there is also great need in regards to the building projects at St Augustine Church and School and at St Dorothy Church and St Nicolas School. Your donations this summer will help by making these structures safe for the faithful and visitors. The situation of building safety has become paramount amidst the many needs at both locations. Also we are raising money for the successful food program which provides 150,000 meals per year to our students and faithful. The valedictorian candidate at St Augustines Orthodox School has received a full scholarship to finished her high school education here in the U.S. While here, she will be attending St Maximus Church in Owego, NY.
We have scheduled a longer visit to Haiti in January of 2020 with Bishop Maximus, Dean of Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently Haiti is in a state of eruptive political instability. Please keep our Haitian Orthodox family in your prayers this summer. Your donations are incredibly valuable to each of these our brothers and sisters in Christ!
Lazarus Gehring MD
Jacmel is a town nestled into the southern coast of Haiti, bordered by a wreath of mountains on its inland front. On our weekend visiting the Orthodox parish and school of St. Augustine, we rode down through those mountains on a road pocketed by erosion and trafficked by plenty of motorcycles and occasional goats. We were bringing the priest, Father Ambrose, to visit from Port au Prince and conduct the services at this parish which, at the moment, only has a reader. He sat between my father and I in the back of the van, all of us knocking our knees together as the van jumped over the broken road. On the outskirts of the town, where the dense foliage began to be interspersed by concrete brick buildings and roadside vendors, our van took a sharp turn off the main road and onto a thin dirt lane that snaked its way through a banana tree grove. The place we were to stay that weekend was at the end, but just past a bend in the lane, the school rose its heavy gray concrete walls amidst the greenery. The location was stunning, the walls were wrapped about in a wide green field where occasionally a cow or donkey wandered, the mountains cast their looming shadow from above, and from the second floor of the school, there could be seen the glimmer of blue from the sea.
We had barely a moment to unload our suitcases from the van before we were told that the baptisms would begin at the top of the hour. I was never sure afterwards if the service had been planned ahead at that exact time, or if things happened in Haiti on a whim. It seemed as if as soon as the priest arrived, word got out and the families of the children gathered expectantly. However, it didn’t take long to walk from our lodgings to the compound within which the school and the church coexisted. To me, the church seemed spacious, but the open air walls and doorless entry ways granted to that illusion and the bare concrete floor, spattered occasionally by rain brushing through, was clear of rugs or benches. A few folding chairs hugged the low half-walls, and when we arrived, they were occupied by children. They continued to sit, watching the service begin with wide, dark eyes. The service was in French, with an occasional Kyrie Eleison, but the two chanters sang with a melody that reminded me of Russian chant without the harmonization. It was a mix that resounded with the atmosphere, a cobbling together of traditions. There were three children that were baptized that afternoon, two baby boys named Lazar and John and a toddler girl named Kassia. They all seemed too big for the oversized cooking pot that was their baptismal font, but Father Ambrose found creative ways to submerge the important bits like their heads and torsos. At the end, when traditionally the priest walks the newly baptized three times around the church, the Haitians wove their arms together and circled the font in a manner that reminded me of Greek dancing.
The liturgy Sunday morning brought flocks of children in their neat pressed green and white school uniforms. They congregated against the back wall and a dull undertone of whispers flooded the church. When it was time for communion, the line of children wound its way out the door and into the dirt courtyard that also served as the courtyard of the school. Many of the smallest children wore pure white, and it was difficult at first to pick out the newly baptized amidst all the little starched suits and downy white dresses. For someone who didn’t understand French, I could make out the structure of the service relatively well. The litanies were very easy to distinguish, the whole church would sing Kyrie Eleison and the old woman on the chair in front of me sang loudest of all in a cracked and toneless voice. After the service was over, the children dragged their desks out of the classrooms and arranged them in a giant circle about the dirt courtyard. They waited quietly while the woman served the clergy and guests the meal and then worked their way around to them. I was struck by how well-mannered they were. For a people so steeped in poverty, where the meal of fish, rice, fried plantains and coleslaw would seem sumptuous, the children had been taught respect and patience and were able to harness their energy and their hunger.
We saw many of them again later that day after the desks had been cleared off the grounds and in turn tables arranged in the back of the church for the clinic. The children overall seemed healthy, rambunctious even, like the two boys playing hide and seek between the wooden pillars in the nave. My cousin, a nurse, took patients vitals and sent them to my father, the doctor, who had a table beside hers and was seeing patients and administering prescriptions. My younger brother and I taped an eye chart with a Band-Aid to a wooden pillar and had a table full of eyeglasses for our optometry clinic. We all saw patients until there were no more patients to see and the last of the stragglers had wandered across the doorstep and then wandered off with a grateful smile. The whole clinic took about two and a half hours, significantly less than the first one that my father held which lasted about six. We took that as a good sign.
The last morning of our weekend in Jacmel, we visited the classrooms and I was able to see their education in action. The school itself is a long building, open mostly on one side with the same low half-wall that the church had, separating the rooms from the courtyard. The children in their uniforms could be heard reciting their lessons, and the combination of classes created a cacophony of voices that echoed throughout the courtyard. We entered a few of the classrooms, visiting the first year students and the highest year students on the second floor. They all stopped their lessons respectfully to greet us and my father spoke to them briefly in Creole before we moved on to the next. The last room we visited was to me the most heartbreaking. Their library was on the second floor with a magnificent view of palm trees and the sea, but the shelves were next to bare, with a few books draped limply about them. I can only imagine what kind of treasure a library filled to the brim with books would be to the children. There seemed to be much that the school was lacking physically, but from the math equations on the board and the grammar they were learning, they seemed to be receiving a good education. As we walked between the classes, I could feel their eyes watching from the open doorways and I wondered if we seemed just as curious to them as they were fascinating to us.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a country like Haiti. There is so much corruption and poverty, so much to fix, that as one person, I felt like I could be toppled over by the wave of misery that the people were living in. Where do you start? The volume in which these people need help is staggering. Whole countries have donated millions of dollars to Haiti and the money disappears inexplicably, usually into the pockets of the thin crust of upper class that rule the country. How can one person put a dent in this place if whole nations couldn’t do it? Yet after seeing the parish and the school and feeling the link to these people that Orthodoxy provides, I realized that I had been looking at Haiti too broadly. We were truly there for this one group, for our fellow Orthodox. It seems that no one can save all of Haiti, but we can help our brothers and sisters in Christ, living amidst the banana trees and singing Kyrie Eleison in their open air church. It’s a place to start, and a beacon of hope for our suffering Haitian Orthodox.