Haiti-Maine: Walking together in companionship

December 9, 2007

The Dioceses of Maine and Haiti have shared a companion relationship with one another since 2002. The roots of the companionship are in partnerships between several Maine parishes and congregations in rural Haiti that were formed even before the official relationship began.

The initiative really began with lay persons and local clergy who were seeking ways to live out the Gospel across cultural boundaries. When Maine Bishop Chilton Knudsen began searching for ways to expand diocesan outreach, the template was already present in these partnerships and the structure of the Companion Diocese Relationship program.

Conversations with Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin revealed similarities between the two dioceses that would help to foster understanding. Both dioceses encompass predominantly rural areas, dependent on agronomy and sustainable use of natural resources. Both are places where the French language and culture are important. Although on different scales, both are communities in which people struggle to find work and to feed, house and clothe themselves.

The Diocese of Maine hosted Duracin at its October 2007 convention where it was resolved to extend the Companion Diocese Relationship for another five years.

The Episcopal Church has committed itself to the Millennium Development Goals to alleviate extreme poverty. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is crying out for the tangible work of the Gospel. Ten congregations in Maine have partnered with local churches in Haiti to provide teacher salaries, to build schools, and to fund lunch programs for hungry students. Infrastructure is a major challenge in Haiti.

Help from the Diocese of Maine, and other partners, is bringing satellite communication to isolated areas. Congregations have raised contributions to help other organizations in Haiti. St. Vincent's Centre for Handicapped Children receives support for their mission to house and educate youngsters with severe physical and mental disabilities. Financial aid is given to Hospital Ste. Croix in Leogane and to the Bishop Tharp Institute of Technology in Les Cayes. Maison de Naissance is a remarkable birthing center that provides prenatal care, health education and immunization to women and children in the rural south.

Partnership seeks to strengthen the private sector around local communities whenever possible. Contributing funds allows project staff to buy locally, thus strengthening their own economies. Supporting projects that recruit and educate local leaders adds to the brain trust that will help lift the nation out of poverty.

It is tempting for Americans to think of companion relationships in simply financial terms; as outreach only rather than exchange. But Jesus was not in the business of handing out shekels. Rather Jesus was intimately involved in creating opportunities for touch, for healing and for grace to happen in the exchange between human souls.

Despite political upheaval and the dangers of travel in recent years, several individuals from Maine have undertaken to visit Christian brothers and sisters in Haiti. The ministry shared is one of simply "being" together -- of shared experiences, friendship and worship. Anyone returning from Haiti will speak of their life as transformed.

Visits from Haitian clergy and a marvelous choir have brought the vibrant Haitian culture to Maine. Participation in Haiti Connection conferences brings together Haitian lay people and clergy with Episcopalians from all over the United States. When visits are not possible, theater featuring Haitian storytelling or book groups provide opportunities to learn about Haitian culture. Weekly, we pray for one another in our Cycle of Prayer.

Companion Diocese Relationships form connections in ways we cannot anticipate. God has drawn people into ministry even beyond the parameters of the Haiti-Maine partnership, as several individuals have worked with ecumenical projects that range from vacation Bible schools, to medical missions, to fostering children brought to the States for medical treatment. Companion Diocese Relationships are strengthening ties not only amid the Anglican Communion, but among the wider fellowship of Christian denominations.

One lesson is that the business of relationship can be "messy." Communications are sometimes challenged by cross-cultural differences and technological difficulties. Logistics of travel or shipping goods to Haiti are daunting hurdles. But like any family, our commitment to one another is strengthened by surmounting those hurdles. Whenever people from Maine and Haiti connect personally, we are blessed by the Holy Spirit's grace.