Haiti and Jesus of the polis
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor
Here in the US, whenever I tell people I have gone to Haiti, they shake their heads and look doleful as if I told them I had just returned from a wake. I think many Americans regard this tiny Caribbean nation as if it were already dead, killed by acute poverty and a succession of corrupt and brutal governments. (Few are aware how much the US has fueled that corruption and brutality.) True, I saw enough suffering during my recent trip there to keep me weeping for years. But the paradox of poverty is this: Among the poorest of the world, there is often great vitality and faith.
I am thinking specifically of St. Claire’s Catholic Church, located in Place Cezeau, one of Port au Prince’s many poor neighborhoods.
The big yellow church sits on a hillside, amidst a maze of dusty, rutted streets where squalid shops and houses press upon each other. Its interior is open and airy, its compound full of people milling about. The Crucified Christ, painted on the back wall of the choir loft, is a young Haitian, with tight black curls, wide eyes, and wounds on his hands that look like bright, red almonds. Down below, the elderly women, clustered in the front pews, raise their arms heavenward during a final litany and cry out, “St. Jude, Au Secours!” (St. Jude, Help Us!)
The pastor, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, is a charismatic leader, sensitive to the needs of his flock and aware. For more than three years, St. Claire’s has offered a bi-weekly meal program that feeds between 600 to 800 neighborhood children and Jean-Juste, known to many as Father Gerry, is now working with an American medical team to add a health clinic.
The medical needs of St. Claire’s parishioners are numerous. Because of dust and poor hygiene, the children suffer from chronic skin infection. There is no available emergency care and no money to buy the most basic medicines. Every month the church has a healing service because, “We don’t have a doctor. We can’t afford medicine. So we turn to God as a last resort,” Father Gerry says.
Last fall, Haitian police snatched St.Claire’s energetic pastor from the rectory and threw him in prison for forty- eight days. His crime? Being an outspoken supporter of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was ousted by a coup in February 2004. Far from being cowed, Father Gerry called his incarceration, “a retreat,” a time when his eyes were opened to a new ministry –serving the imprisoned.
On February 29, the one-year anniversary of Aristide’s expulsion, parishioners from St. Claire’s joined Port au Prince’s March for Democracy. After praying at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, they danced and sang with a large crowd of demonstrators, chanting “Bring Back Titi (Aristide).” Although police fired on the crowd, killing one person and wounding several others, Father Gerry and his parishioners remain undaunted in their call for a government that legitimately represents the Haitian people. St. Claire’s recently organized another March for Democracy held on March 29.
In an address entitled, “Option for the Poor” given six weeks before his death in March of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero urged Christians to submerge themselves in the world. The “Church is not an elite,” he said, “but rather a follower of that Jesus who lived, worked, struggled and died in the midst of the city, the “polis.”
At St. Claire’s the world, with its harsh poverty and political turmoil, has already crashed in upon the people here. Last year’s coup removed a leader they believe legitimately represented them. In the chaotic aftermath, common to all coups, their streets became more dangerous and social services, already barely existent, collapsed.
The country’s current crisis infuriates American attorney Tom Griffen, a frequent visitor to Haiti, who recently spent eleven days in Port au Prince, investigating human rights abuses there. Like many others, Griffen is convinced the US and French facilitated Aristides’ removal. “If you switch the head of government in a country that was more comfortable life would go on,” he says. “But to switch the head of a government when people are living on the brink is incredibly selfish. It is incredibly evil.”
If Haiti’s present woes are as Griffen describes, then the parishioners at St. Claire’s are facing this “evil” in the only way a Christian can. With bold faith.
With their litanies, their demonstrations and their meal programs, they are keeping close to this Jesus of the polis.
Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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