'We need you'

Haitian church leaders ask for partners so their children might recreate a nation
May 4, 2004

"HAITI IS NOT POOR," declared the Rev. Octave LaFontant as he sat in the bishop's office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before two dozen church leaders and a visitor from the United States.

"If we can inspire all these priests to work for the country, gather those who are leaders, attract volunteers who accept the sacrifices to come and work with us, then Haiti is not poor. Haiti has much."

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, 100,000 strong and growing, rich in pride and accomplishment, rich in friends who want to see her succeed, rich in faith and spirit and ministers who carry hope to the furthest corner, a reach well beyond what most other churches can claim, does indeed have much. With 111 congregations, more than 100 schools, 11 hospitals and clinics, a university recognized for its achievements, a major art museum and the nation's only symphony orchestra, the church provides a real source of hope. Yet, it is suffering dramatically in the aftermath of the power shift that threw this nation into economic turmoil and unleashed a bloody period of violence and vengeance.

Political stability elusive

Known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti ranks 150th out of 173 countries in the United Nations' Human Development Report. Political stability eludes it, as it has frequently since its independence in 1804. At this writing, its schools are closed, its roads barricaded, its hospitals unable to function. Its citizens are terrorized by armed gangs, released convicts and former military members. The political conflict may take years to resolve.

Savings banks have folded, their directors gone with the money. Warehouses, raided and looted during the unrest in February and March, are slow to be restocked by donor nations and nongovernmental organizations. Vaccine stocks, never plentiful, are decimated, and the always high death rate among infants will show a spike this year. With food prices climbing and farmers unable to afford or find seeds as the growing season starts, the hope of avoiding long-term food shortages is disappearing.

In mid-March, during a visit by Episcopal Life, the capital city Port-au-Prince showed a dirty, disastrous face to the world. Trash and garbage went uncollected. Burned and looted buildings often were left unsecured. Bodies of murdered partisans on both sides of the battle over departed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide festered under bridges or along the sides of market streets. The electricity-deprived, unrefrigerated city morgue became a place of horror. Burials were impossible. Only the grieving could begin.

Painful stories

Priests and lay leaders from around the country gathered at the diocesan office March 15 to describe the experiences of their congregations and communities and to ask for help. (See page x for some of that testimony.) They told of armed gangs terrorizing and killing the innocent, of returned military--still angry at being ousted by Aristide--turning their communities upside down.

"They have killed around 25 young people, young boys of Lascahobas," said the Rev. Jean-Jeannot Joseph, who serves four congregations there. "It is a nightmare for everyone."

They told of Aristide supporters, known as Chimères (a chimaera is a fire-breathing, mythological creature), breaking into their churches during services, suspicious of gathered crowds. A February wedding in Gonaives was interrupted when armed men invaded and threatened the priest in front of the congregation.

NATIONAL OF HAITI by the numbers
Population 8.3 million 
Area 27,800 sq kilometers
People per sq. kilometer 299*
Life expectancy 52 years
Illiteracy 48.1%
Infant mortality rate per 1,000 71
Access to safe water 39%
Malnutrition, children under 5 50%
Vaccination coverage 25%
Doctors per 100,000 people 10
Telephones per 1,000 people 20.7
Roads paved 25%
Income per capirta $440
Present vale of debt $817.4 million
Arrears with World Bank $40 million
Foreign aid sent 2002 $136 million
Foreign aid sent 1995 $600 million
* Maryland, a slightly smaller state, 27,090 sq. kilometers, has 176 people per square kilometer.
Figures drawn from World Bank Group; World Development Indicators database, August 2003; Reuters Foundation; U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affaires Statistics Division; Maryland State Data Center; Episcopal Medical Mission Foundation.

Several priests told of being held up at gunpoint by masked squads of men or by mobs of youth carrying weapons that they said the president had given them. One priest was arrested, his money stolen--50,000 gourdes, the salaries of all his schoolteachers and employees--and his car and belongings ransacked. The Rev. Max Accimé was released when the commandant of the local police station remembered he had been taught by an Episcopal priest in his youth.

One after another, these men and women told how their communities in the mountains and in the cities could not feel safe. They couldn't provide security for students coming to the churches' schools. With threats and rumors whispered everywhere about children being fired upon, parents kept them at home.

Without the students' fees, the priests could not pay the teachers. Even in those places where the schools still functioned, many parents could no longer spare the money for school fees. With the roads frequently barricaded by rebels, transportation of workers to jobs or food stuffs to market became difficult or impossible. The economies of the towns slowed and stopped.

Now, they said, the worry is long-term food shortages. Planting season is just beginning, and the thousands of subsistence farmers across the nation cannot pay for seeds, cannot find seeds. "Even if someone gives us food now, what will we do in three or four months if we don't plant?" asked the Rev. Jean Mathieu Brutus of Darbonne.

In Leogane, a coastal city to the west of Port-au-Prince, the hospital operated by the Episcopal Church with the help of the Presbyterian Church faces severe shortages of medicines, of I.V. solutions, of necessary supplies. With hospitals in the capital closed or overwhelmed, the poor have been turning to Holy Cross Hospital, coming from as far away as Gonaives to the north.

"We cannot turn away patients," said the director, Dr. Jack Guy LaFontant. "Our mission is to serve the poorest people in the country." Yet he must accept them as his funds dwindle, as his electricity falters, as he feeds hospital generators with expensive diesel fuel. His income-producing guest house has been empty since January, all medical mission trips cancelled.

In Port-de-Paix, on the northern coast, political violence and disruption are only part of the current struggle. Floods devastated the region in December.

"Nineteen families in the church, 20 plus myself, lost almost everything," reported the Rev. Gesner Montes. All ground water has been contaminated. "Some of our families lost children, two children in one family – the water carried them away."

It will mean money

As the church leaders reported their situations, they offered ideas about how to solve recurring problems. Pleading for help from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the priests repeatedly thanked the church for material support and for the volunteers they know will continue to arrive. Now, they said, they need to depend on long-term commitments if they are to create a solid infrastructure and train leaders for tomorrow.

"The Episcopal Church in the United States has a role to play here," insisted Joseph, the priest from Lascahobas. "The Episcopal Church across this land, in the question of social service and education, is the strongest in the nation, strong in assisting the population. We must reinforce that. Give people more chances. It means giving us a lot of money… but it would enable our church to develop real possibilities for our people."

Joseph said he hoped the Episcopal Church would pressure the American government to support a real change in the politics. "The country needs assistance so that people can find work, can earn enough to support their families...become autonomous."

The Rev. David César, director of the 1,300-student Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, stressed financial support and education. "We are talking big money, not emergency funds, but millions.

"We need support to modernize our education … and create trade schools at different locations around the country." Loan programs administered by the diocese could enable families to become self-sufficient through micro-enterprises, he said.

"We need support to help us pay the teachers this year," said Brutus, the priest from Darbonne. "It is not easy. We have contracts we need to honor." Speaking for many, he asked, "How can the church help us assure that the schools will be able to function this next year?"

Brutus and the Rev. Octave LaFontant stressed the importance of sustainable agricultural projects--raising chickens, growing cabbage--and creating factories outside Port-au-Prince.

"Help us decentralize," said LaFontant. "I believe many people could work if there were more factories, if there were a program to create small factories in the mountains.

"At Dame Marie, at LaTortue, at Port-de-Paix," he said, naming places at each corner of Haiti. "If we could do that, people in rural areas would have work. If we could do that, we could free ourselves from the need to keep asking America for money. This is a place where the church can help."

One after another, the priests emphasized the importance of educating and training youth to be leaders, to be citizens, to think like servants of a nation, not combatants. No one said it better than the Rev. Jean-Elie Charles, communications officer of the diocese.

"The Episcopal Church of Haiti is solid, but we need education to give our young the impetus, the desire, to reconstruct this country themselves. … It is only education that will allow us to reconstruct Haiti for tomorrow. To do what must be done, we need money, lots of money. A real commitment."

Pausing for emphasis, he issued a message to his church around the world: "This is a long-term project. The church has the power to make it happen. Accompany us in the reconstruction. The children of today must recreate this country if it is to become what it should be, what it can be. We must give them the tools."

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