At the end of last month a group from my parish in Wildwood, Notre Dame de la Mer, our elementary school, Cape Trinity Catholic, and our high school, Wildwood Catholic, joined with a local organization, Hand to Hand Mission, on a mission to Haiti.
Our mission was under the direction of our parochial vicar, Father Yvans Jazon, a native of Haiti, to bring much needed supplies to various schools that we visited and to visit an orphanage as Father Yvans baptized almost 30 children, whose godparents were members of our mission group.
One of our parishioners, Dr. Maryann Haflin, set up a mobile clinic and provided medical assistance. During this Year of Mercy we thought we would go to one of the neediest countries in the world to minister some of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to those in Haiti that we encountered. But in reality we ended up receiving so much more in spiritual inspiration by the humility and deep faith of those we encountered.
At a meeting that he had with the bishops of Haiti, Pope Francis asked for more international help in Haiti in light of the devastating need that continues since the terrible earthquake in 2010. He said, “So far, a lot has been done in rebuilding the country. However, we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot that still needs to be done. Everything that has been done, and everything that God willing will be done, follows three principles: the human person, the ecclesial communion and the local church.”
Pope Francis said that all the help extended by Christians shows that the church is a “great body” unified by charity. He added, “Charity is more authentic and incisive when it is lived in communion. Communion shows that charity isn’t just about helping others, but that it also permeates all aspects of life and breaks down all those selfish barriers which prevent us from encountering one another.”
One of the desires that Father Yvans shared with the group before we left for the mission was that he really wanted us to meet and get to know the wonderful people of Haiti. His desire was that we would have a real “encounter” with the Church of Haiti.
When he first announced the mission at Mass the first person to approach him with the desire to be part of the mission was one of our model students from Wildwood Catholic High School, Julianna Roche. She and her mother Julie were enthusiastic members of the mission.
So many of the young people we met in Haiti were impressed by Julianna, who spoke with great eloquence and spiritual maturity about how this mission was touching her in ways she had not anticipated.
At one point in the trip Father Yvans handed me his cell phone and told me Cardinal Chibly Langlois would like to speak to me. He thanked our parish for coming to Haiti. I shared with him how much more we have received from the faith and warmth of the people entrusted to his spiritual care. Cardinal Langlois is one of the youngest cardinals and the first ever from Haiti. He is beloved in Haiti and he agrees with Pope Francis that the church must focus on issues of social justice and the poor. In Haiti and beyond Cardinal Langlois says this focus is not simply financial, as he explains, “Many people can have money, but they are very poor; they don’t have the right riches.”
After traveling to Haiti and meeting with both the parish council and finance committee of Notre Dame de la Mer Parish, we agreed that we will attempt to twin with a parish in Haiti and continue annual missions with Hand to Hand Mission.
Haiti is inhabited by faithful, kind, welcoming and joyful people. It is also the poorest country in the world. Around 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. As a result, malnutrition and anemia run rampant. Haiti is the third hungriest country in the world. Only 50 percent of the people have access to an improved water source, such as a hand pump or a well. A total of 80 percent do not have adequate sanitation available. Only 50 percent of children living in Haiti are able to go to school, while 30 percent of those only progresses to the fifth grade.
There is a large population of orphaned children in Haiti, many of whom live on the streets. There were an estimated 380,000 prior to the earthquake and untold thousands added to that number after it. There are also about 250,000 restaveks, or children working as servants and often as slaves.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, our parish feels the call to reach out to our Catholic brothers and sisters in Haiti. Already through this wonderful encounter we have been mutually blessed by the hand of the other.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.