Haiti: On Doing Something Mildly Radical

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I gave the following speech at a fundraiser for the Colorado Haiti Project at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, October 15, 2011.

Our purpose tonight is to honor, support, and carry forward the long-term partnership between the Colorado Haiti Project and the parish of St. Paul’s, Petit Trou de Nippes. I’m going to try to serve that purpose by articulating what I believe to be some of the important context, both geographical and historical, in which the Colorado Haiti Project works.

​If there’s one organization working in Haiti that most Americans have heard of, it’s Partners in Health. As Dr. Louis Marcelin, a Haitian professor of anthropology at the University of Miami, put it drily when we were discussing just this point in his office in September, the thinking process of many Americans goes: Haiti, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul Farmer, Partners in Health, “end of story.” But in fact Partners in Health is only the beginning of the story of Haiti and all that needs to be done there, as its staff, to their great credit, are the first to acknowledge.

PIH works only on the Central Plateau, and it doesn’t have the intention or, really, the capacity to expand its operations to other parts of the country. PIH staff I’ve talked to believe that if they did expand geographically, it would compromise their primary and overriding mission, which is to address the health care and other needs of the extremely poor people specifically of the Central Plateau.

This puts PIH in a paradoxical position because, as I’m told, with five thousand employees it’s already the third-largest employer in Haiti, behind the government and the cell-phone company Digicel. The very impressive 300-bed teaching hospital under construction just outside Mirebalais represents an ambitious stretching of PIH’s capacity. After the hospital is operational next year, PIH will employ another thousand Haitians, as well as training young Haitian physicians who will eventually work all around Haiti. But PIH is very mindful to deploy its considerable clout carefully and thoughtfully, and explicitly in partnership with the Ministry of Health. I want to emphasize here why it’s important, especially after the earthquake, that we be mindful of the message that’s conveyed by that stance and, even more, by the overall situation of Haiti itself.

The string of Partners in Health-run clinics across the central part of Haiti, from Las Cahobas near the Dominican border to St. Marc on the coast, were crucial after the earthquake, not only because they were well run and long established, but just as importantly because they were not near the epicenter of the quake, which is to say they were not damaged and not in Port-au-Prince. The same is true of the resources that the Colorado Haiti Project supports in and around Petit Trou de Nippes on the southern peninsula. This is why the Colorado Haiti Project’s work is important, and why it’s important for Americans throughout Colorado – and beyond – to know that what you’re doing is very similar and analogous to what PIH does, and that you’re doing it in a part of Haiti where, rightly, the famous Partners in Health does not and will not work. And, just as important, you’re doing it anywhere but Port-au-Prince. Anne Hastings, director of Haiti’s leading microfinance organization, Fonkoze, expressed the frustration of many when she told me:

​For years and years and years, decades, we’ve been trying to stop or slow the migration of people from the rural areas into Port-au-Prince, and in thirty-five seconds we reversed the whole thing, and everybody started moving out. Six hundred thousand people, minimum, moved out into the provinces. And then all the cash for work was in Port-au-Prince! So there’s no way for them to make a living out there, they’re putting incredible stress on their families and people that they were trying to stay with, and so now they’ve all turned around and moved back. So we missed a tremendous opportunity to really make something of that.

*

​There is still plenty of opportunity in Haiti, though, and plenty of need, and we in this room, as supporters of the Colorado Haiti Project, are well positioned to make something of it, if we are willing and steadfast. In addition to the fact that their Haitian founders, Father Fritz Lafontant and Father Octave Lafontant, were brothers, Partners in Health and the Colorado Haiti Project have in common three things: both are in it for the long haul; both work not in Port-au-Prince but in remote provincial parts of Haiti; and both are offspring of the Episcopal Church. The first two of these commonalities should give us Coloradans confidence that we’re working in Haiti in the right ways, especially at a time when a lot of effort and money are being wasted by international agencies that lack the needed experience and humility. The third should make us proud to be Episcopalians. At a time when the Episcopal Church in the United States has been struggling with its own damaging and embarrassing institutional and ideological divisions, it should be comforting to know that the Episcopal Church is one of the best-run and most effective institutions in Haiti.

​And it’s doing things in Haiti that any church ought to be doing anywhere. Jackie Williams, a self-described little old lady from the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina that has been crucially supportive to Partners in Health all these years, spends most of her time at the Partners in Health compound in Cange, where her late husband designed the innovative running water system and where she herself is now a revered elder and carrier of historical memory. She says the worst fate for any elderly person is to be useless and in the way, so she’s determined to remain useful, employing local Haitians in a handicrafts program she runs and teaching English classes (and much more).

Jackie is an inspiring and very interesting person. She describes her personal politics by calling herself “a Republican in South Carolina, and a Communist in Haiti.” And when I asked about her religious beliefs, she told me about a Sunday school class she participates in whenever she’s back home in Greenville. She told me that she got tired of all the doctrinal and ideological infighting among American Episcopalians.

I said I really did not have an answer [she told me], I would leave it to the good Lord to decide what’s the right or wrong of that, [but] what I see in Haiti is that the sick are healed, and the hungry are fed, and the illiterate are educated. Well, one of my dear friends called me up and said she was really worried about my immortal soul. She says, “You’re just making the Church into a Rotary Club.” So be it.

*

I first went to Haiti in 1982 with my father, Father Dayle Casey, and a group of Episcopalians from Milwaukee. My father once reminded me that I went simply because he asked me one day if I’d like to go and, without hesitating, I said, “Sure!” That Milwaukee group went to Mirebalais on the Central Plateau and worked with Father Fritz Lafontant. Right around the same time, an idealistic young medical student named Paul Farmer also began working with Father Lafontant.The readiness for adventure that led me to accept my father’s invitation at age sixteen has carried me through many adventures since then. And it was my father who, as they say, modeled that behavior for me. He grew up white in segregation-era Dallas and played baseball. “Playing with blacks was rare for us in Texas,” he once told me. “I recall playing one afternoon in a game somewhere in Dallas when there were only two, maybe three of us who were white. I don’t know how it happened; I think I was just asked if I’d like to, and I said, ‘Sure!’ I recall thinking it was a mildly radical thing to do, something most of my friends wouldn’t have been caught dead doing.”

On my way to Haiti for the first time at sixteen, I had no clue where it would lead me. But something that most of my friends wouldn’t have been caught dead doing was to me an opportunity and an adventure. Over the years since then, I’ve learned that the direct personal experience of the world that Haiti taught me to crave was not only an adventure, but also a test; not only a gift, but also a burden. As Jackie Williams points out, most of the world is more like Haiti than like the United States. And you can’t experience the world as it really is without learning, if you’re honest, that how it is is intolerably unjust and often brutal. The question then becomes: What are we going to do about that? You might have noticed, in the anecdote I just told, that my dad thought playing baseball with black kids was a mildly radical thing to do – and that he did it, without hesitation. If more of us did mildly radical things more often, the world would be a better place.One mildly radical thing that my father and Father Ed Morgan did was that they sat down with Father Octave Lafontant one day in 1989 at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Father Octave Lafontant was the older brother of Father Fritz Lafontant, who became the prime mover and patriarch of everything Partners in Health has accomplished. Octave was the prime mover and patriarch of the Colorado Haiti Project, and he died in Cange in 2009.

“We sat at the table outside the gift shop,” my dad told me, “and I asked him if it was possible to begin some programs with him that would maintain the church connection as well as the medical. And he said, ‘Sure.’ I’ll never forget our first trip from Jeannette one day to ‘scout’ out Petit Trou. All day – seven of us in a four- or five-person, small jeep, over all the rivers and through all the mud holes, with our medical gear sliding off the top of the jeep and sliding all the way down the mountain … and our retrieving it … and when we got back to Jeannette that night, I talked the day over with Ed.”

The American priests then told the Haitian priest: “We just can’t do it. It’s too far and too difficult. We’d never get our people and stuff there.”

Father Octave Lafontant replied: “If Jesus wants us to go, we’ll go. And besides, I’ve already bought the land [for the Church].” That conversation led to the founding of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Last September, Father Fritz Lafontant – who is now 85 years old – introduced me to Father Noe Bernier, the young priest at St. Peter’s parish in Cap Haitien. “Some people, when they’re ill in Haiti, they just stay there and die,” Father Bernier told me. “Or they pray, and a miracle happens. If you don’t have money, you cannot go and see a doctor here.”

“Unless you go to Cange,” I pointed out.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “But a lot of people don’t know about Cange. Because they don’t have a radio, they don’t have electricity. They will not know. But the good thing is [that] I’m an Episcopal priest; I can refer somebody to Cange, because I know there is a Cange there. And a priest in Cayes will do the same thing too. But we have a lot of people.”

“Could there be similar hospitals like in Cange?” I asked him. “Could there be a hospital like that here?”

“Yeah, we can have that,” he said. “But you need to have the leadership. I mean, Pere Lafontant has done a great job, but he’s taken a long time. Thirty years.”

*

​That’s the note I want to leave you with: that to do what needs to be done requires leadership, as well as steadfast commitment and continuity.But before I end, I want to take the liberty of offering a specific suggestion. A month ago I spent an afternoon in Milwaukee with Elizabeth van der Weide, who is the coordinator of the Diocese of Milwaukee’s Haiti Project. When I mentioned the magnificent murals that were largely destroyed when Holy Trinity Cathedral collapsed in the earthquake, Elizabeth told me that some Episcopalians in Wisconsin had complained to her about having been asked by the Church to contribute towards the $10 million needed to restore the cathedral when, as they understandably saw it, there are more urgent human needs in Haiti.

​Out of that conversation came an idea: to honor the memory and carry forward the legacy of the masterpieces of Haitian painting that were the cathedral murals, and regardless of whether the murals are ever replaced or the cathedral is rebuilt, let’s commission new religious paintings from some of the leading Haitian painters of our day: not for a rebuilt cathedral, but for Episcopal parishes in provincial towns around Haiti. These paintings could become landmarks and even tourist attractions, as well as symbols of the decentralization that Haitians know their country desperately needs.

​In the twenty-two years since Father Casey, Father Morgan, and Father Lafontant sat down outside the Cathedral gift shop, the Colorado Haiti Project has accomplished a great deal. When I last visited Petit Trou, in 1993, we slept in tents and only the foundation of the church building had been laid. Now I understand that St. Paul’s is a local landmark and that 700 children are enrolled at the school. With active and steadfast support from many people in this room over many years, and others not here – or no longer with us, notably Dr. Ted Lewis – the Colorado Haiti Project has drilled wells to bring clean water to Petit Trou and has projects in community health, nutrition, and women’s entrepreneurship in partnership with Fonkoze.

​All of that adds up to a good start. Now, since the earthquake, what the Colorado Haiti Project has been doing all along in Petit Trou is more relevant than ever. It’s time to build on our excellent beginning.

 

 

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