Monday, June 12, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 5

I’m writing from within the gates of the Palm Inn Hotel in Port-au-Prince.  It’s lovely in here, with small, tended gardens complete with sculptures; an attentive inn-keeper; and a buffet awaiting us.  Just outside the gates, of course, it’s a different story.  Driving back into Port-au-Prince this afternoon (blessedly on a Sunday, with light traffic compared with Thursday’s insanity), we all noticed the trash.  There is some minimal attempt to deal with the trash that fills the gutters.  Earth-moving equipment was scooping up trash as we passed by, presumably to take it to some collecting point.  But there are countless plastic bottles and wrappers that the equipment misses.  Someone needs to make a lot of money figuring out how to collect the recyclable plastic and sell it to some processor.  It would be perhaps the greatest gift anyone could give Haiti – right up there with a system of clean drinking water, which would eliminate probably half the plastic bottles.

More positively, the day began with worship – wonderful worship.  We started at Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes, St. Sauveur, where they were celebrating the second anniversary of the parish children’s association as well as several children’s first Communions.  The kids sang like there was no tomorrow – and so did the adults, for that matter.  Singing in Haitian worship is one of the most heavenly things you’ll ever hear – not because of the musical quality but because of the full-throated praise.  When these people thank God for their blessings, they are thankful in a way I wonder whether I ever approach.  And the offertory procession – complete with tomatoes, okra, mangoes, sugar cane, pineapples, and bananas (no goats or chickens this time) – it literally danced “thank you” to God’s altar. 

Dancing “thank-you” – that’s not a bad way to look at how my perceptions and attitudes might change following this trip.  That was the question for our group in our discussion last night.  (We’ve had a reflection time each evening, followed by praying Compline.  It’s become christened “Culligan Ice With Spice.”  Some experiences don’t translate so well….) We talked about how we might come home differently than how we left.  I always come away from Haiti with deep respect for the people’s orientation of gratitude, and this trip was no exception.  When people in Haiti are grateful, it’s not lip service.  When they praise God, they do so as if their lives depended on it … because they do.  Of course, so does mine.  But in a world of convenience and privilege, gratitude easily becomes expectation, and expectation can easily slip into entitlement. 

The image of the offertory at St. Sauveur became complete for me in a little girl who wasn’t supposed to be part of the official procession.  She was moving about through the service, clearly at home there.  When the dancers brought forward the produce of the land, she came into the group, too, bearing what she had been carrying around throughout the service: a can of Pringles.  As it happens, I love Pringles.  So she is my patron saint today, bringing forward what she had been given and joining the company of saints in praising God, because their lives depend on it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 4

I’m writing this sitting on the beach at Abaka Bay resort on Ile-a-Vache in the Bay of Cayes. It’s pretty stunning – CNN rated it among the top 100 beaches in the world. We came out to this island today for some down time in the midst of this mission trip, this experience of being sent to help accomplish God’s purposes. The group came in two wooden longboats, continuing the trip’s “adventure travel” theme. We had lunch and a wonderful swim in perfect water on a perfect beach. You could almost forget you’re in Haiti … but you shouldn’t. Because Haiti is beautiful, even in the midst of its ramshackle buildings, aching poverty, and intractable social problems. 

If you’ll permit a moment of theological reflection, perhaps Abaka Bay is Haiti before the fall. Our Christian story begins with God’s perfect creation, as well as God’s perfect love. God wanted to give us those blessings so we would care for both the good earth and each other. But it only takes two chapters of Genesis before we come to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent, and our preference for listening to voices other than God’s voice of love.

All of Haiti used to be Abaka Bay, before sin entered in.  And believe me, there is plenty of sin to go around: Spanish people who killed indigenous people; French people who enslaved African people and then demanded billions in reparations from them because the Africans won the war; Haitian leaders who preferred self-aggrandizement to fostering their people’s well-being; light-skinned Haitians who have lorded it over dark-skinned Haitians from the nation’s beginnings to the present day; Americans who occupied the country in the 20th century and re-enslaved people through forced labor; current Haitian leaders who prefer personal power and empty promises to playing the long game of structural change. That’s a lot of sin, and Haiti bears it as best it can.

And in the midst of our sinfulness, God keeps inviting us to join in Jesus’ work of redemption. Earlier today, before arriving at the resort, we visited the “city” on Ile-a-Vache, Madame Bernard. There we witnessed three in-breakings of God’s reign of love.

The first was an orphanage, school, and hospital where 23 disabled children live and learn as best they can. It’s run by a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Flora, once a physician in Canada, who came to Ile-a-Vache in the 1970s and stayed to build this place of blessing.  Asked what brought her here, of all places – from Canada to a remote island off the Haitian coast – she said simply, “God,” as if the answer were patently obvious. For decades, her students and patients have been grateful.

The second act of redemption was the reaction of our young missionaries to the disabled people they met at the orphanage. I didn’t know Pere Colbert (our partner priest) was planning to take us there, so I hadn’t prepared them for what they might see. It can be jarring to encounter people with developmental, physical, and psychological disabilities in your own context. Haitian facilities function under different standards than their American counterparts.  But our young missionaries reached out to the kids with open hearts, overcoming their own shock and taking kids’ open hands in theirs.

The third act of redemption we witnessed is just in its early stages. Pere Colbert is planting a church near the town of Madame Bernard. Actually the location is a 25-minute walk out of town, up a steep hill, because Colbert’s passion is to bring church to what he calls “the countryside” – rural Haiti, which has virtually no advocates other than people like Colbert (and partners like St. Andrew’s, actually). Like the people of Maniche, the people up the hill from Madame Bernard need the community that a new parish will bring, and they need the education that the church’s school will provide. It’s redemption in the making.

So as I sit here at Abaka Bay, I give thanks for having seen both sides of this lovely island: God’s glory revealed in the gorgeous beach and God’s loving redemption happening at Madame Bernard. Sin still persists, of course, as “the creation waits with eager longing … [to be] set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19,21). But today, it’s good to be able both to visit the Garden and glimpse its healing.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 3

Today was a somewhat short day at the school in Maniche, and I think it might be a “less is more” situation. Just being here and getting where you’re going takes a lot out of you. It’s summer in Haiti, so there’s the heat. In addition, the drive up the mountain that I remembered being about 45 minutes is now about an hour and a half. The “road” is in as bad shape as I’ve ever seen it, no doubt a result of Hurricane Matthew and the heavy rains since then.
So, we were at St. Augustin’s School for about two and a half hours, but it was enough to finish the photography for the Advent cards, which allow people to sponsor a child’s education for a year.  And it was enough for some wonderful outdoor fun as we continued the “field day.”  The photography and brief interviews is something that needs to be completed, and those of us who are wired as doers find that rewarding.  But the time just being with the students is what forms you.  Our team offered stations for an obstacle course; parachutes and balls; bracelet making; ping-pong ball toss; and a combination of soccer dribbling, spinning for 10 seconds, and hopping on one foot back to base.  Imagine all that through translators and in the midst of hundreds of kids really excited to get out of class.  Jean Long is my current hero and did a great job managing the chaos.  I was grateful to be the guy taking photos of the kindergartners (though I did work the soccer/spinning/hopping station, too).
It’s great being with the younger folks on our mission team, getting a chance to know Caroline Rooney as well as Allison, Elizabeth, and Ian Banks (and the kids from St. Michael’s, who are also amazing). A mission trip to Haiti is an environment in which one could encounter some inflexibility or whining. Not a bit here. Instead, it’s gratitude, wonder, insight, and perseverance when times get tough. Kudos to them. They’re living into their calling, sent to see what God has in store for them here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 2)

So, in the process of changing the world, our mission group had an exhausting but deeply rewarding day. 

Our two groups went to visit our partner schools – for the St. Michael’s group, it was St. Paul’s School in Torbeck; for the St. Andrew’s group, it was St. Augustin’s in Maniche.  Points of interaction included art projects with students at St. Paul’s, taking photos of students and doing brief interviews for the Advent Haiti fundraiser for St. Augustin’s, playing soccer and volleyball, making necklaces and bracelets, and doing home visits with a couple of students.  I find the home visits especially moving and informative, as we get to see where students live, hear their parents’ perceptions of the school, and hear their parents’ hopes for their kids later in life. 

I’m posting some photos to capture the joy, as well as this collection of thoughts from various group members. 
·         “The kids were just so welcoming!  I felt like I belonged there.”
·         “For years, I’ve heard about this school in the prayers at church.  It’s just a school – until you go there, and this little girl latches onto your hand.”
·         “The people were so hospitable, especially the ones who came out of nowhere to get the van out of the river.  One guy even went home to get a rope.”
·         “These kids don't have anything, compared with what we have, and I’m sitting there wishing I had Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  This trip will definitely change my outlook.”
·         “We’ve had the chance to experience what the rest of the world experiences.”

And, of course, we can’t forget our day of fun with the Adventure Bus, as it’s now been christened.  First, you have to know that getting to St. Augustin’s requires us to drive literally through a river.  The loose-rock riverbed has been called “Haitian ice” on previous trips.  Today, it lived into the fullness of its glory.  I’ve been to the school several times and never gotten stuck like this.  But it was an amazing example of community as villagers came out to push the blans’ van out of the river … twice.

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 1)

I talked with our partner priest today, Pere Colbert.  We were discussing St. Augustin’s Church and School, as well as plans for the future there.  The bishop has sent a recent graduate from seminary to serve at Maniche, someone Colbert hopes and plans will soon be ordained and assigned to Maniche – just Maniche. 

The fact that this is happening is stunning and merits a little background.  Not so many years ago, St. Augustin’s was a sleepy country parish high in the mountains with a school of 150 or so students.  A lay leader officiated at most Sunday services, and Pere Colbert got there every couple of months to celebrate Eucharist.  Today, the school’s quality has increased its enrollment to about 380.  That growth has led to greater connection with the parents of children attending the school, and church attendance has blossomed, too.  The church is sponsoring celebrations and events for community members, not just its parishioners.  A few weeks ago, they marked the Haitian version of Mother’s Day by offering a celebration and small gifts for any and all mothers who came, parishioner or not – and many, many families came.  Between the school’s quality (highest test scores in the region) and an increasing community focus, the growth has been enough to convince the bishop to assign a seminarian (soon to be priest) there as his single assignment.  Priests in Haiti typically serve three, four, five, or more congregations.  St. Augustin’s at Maniche is growing to the extent the bishop wants to invest in it seriously and devote a priests’ resources to it alone.  The new priest will lead mid-week worship, visit people in his community, and teach religion in the elementary school, as well as all his other work.

About Pere Colbert: His leadership and commitment to rural communities has meant 10 years of focused development for Maniche, and he should receive most of the kudos for this amazing story.  But about the people of St. Andrew’s:  You have helped to make this happen, too.  Your increasing investment – in time, relationship, love, and financial support – has made the difference in St. Augustin’s School becoming an instrument for changing young people’s lives and for demonstrating the value of a church to the community.  Your consistent support for the school’s work (through the Advent fundraiser) has meant it can keep a staff of talented teachers and a devoted headmaster, Samuel, rather than plugging staffing holes with unknown quantities.  And your consistent support for the lunch program has meant we no longer see kids in our school with protein deficiency.  They can learn because they can think, and they can think because they aren’t starving. 

This is what it looks like when a church plays the long game in ministry – and through doing that, changes the world.

Haiti Journal, Day 1

Yesterday was a day for choices: either to rant about challenges or to remember blessings.

There were several “I’ve never seen this before” kinds of moments, and not in a good way.  I’ve never seen the kind of traffic we encountered in Port-au-Prince.  It was a perfect storm of leaving the airport late in the afternoon and construction on the main road leading south out of the city, which took the road to one lane at rush hour.  We crawled for an hour to make it perhaps a mile; so with delays in the airport and the traffic, we were probably 90 minutes later than we’d hoped to be.

That was before the flat tire.  Just as we were beginning to clear the traffic jam, one of our two vehicles succumbed to the world of potholes that is the Haitian road system.  As the other vehicle went on its merry way, mine didn’t.

And then came the blessing.  As it happened, the tire went flat just before we passed a guy on our side of the road who fixes flats.  He had set up his shop here that day, with his few tools, his air compressor, and his patches.  So we pulled over, and there was the “garage.”

Now, a more cynical person could look at this and imagine the young man having put sharp objects in the road and set himself up for a quick $20.  If you know Haitian roads, you know that’s not necessary.  But what I saw in this situation was the grace of God – or, as the tap-taps proclaim it, painted in bright letters over their windshields, “La Grace de Dieu.”

And that’s only the start.  Every time I come here, I’m struck by these proclamations of faith emblazoned on trucks and buses.  Here are several (translated) that I had time to collect in the creeping traffic:  God Alone Judges.  Eternal Power.  With God, We Will Do Great Things.  The Love of God.  God Above All.  Thank You, Lord.  Divine Grace.

Along with these are the businesses that witness with their signage:  Infinite Grace Body Shop.  The Eternal Is Great Food Shop.  Son of God Convenience Store.  Thank You Jesus Pharmacy.  Of course, it becomes manipulative, too, at some point:  Eternal Father Lottery. 

But as always, finding God’s grace is, first and foremost, a matter of looking for it, which our youth and parents did beautifully.  May our work today at our partner school in Maniche give us the chance to see such grace abound.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Normal, Everyday Apostles

Sermon from Pentecost, June 4
Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

Something stunning is about to happen this morning.  It’s something you’ve probably seen before, even something that may well have happened to you.  But every time it happens, it’s new and miraculous.  Are you ready?  Here it is:  The Holy Spirit is about to descend upon three small, normal, everyday people – babies, in fact.  And that Holy Spirit is about to change their lives and change the life of the world.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit among Jesus’ apostles – his friends he sent out into the world.  We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church because it was on this day that 12 normal, everyday people became gifted in a way they could never have been on their own.  God sent the same Spirit that moved over the waters in creation to move among them and within their hearts, equipping these 12 normal, everyday people to be something I guarantee you they’d never imagined themselves to be: witnesses of God’s transforming love.  Each one of those 12 people changed the world, going places they’d never imagined going, meeting people they’d never imagined meeting, sharing their passion and experience of God’s love, and inviting people into eternal life – life in the here and now that means so much more than what passes for life in most people’s day-to-day grind.
So that’s Pentecost, when 12 normal, everyday people received gifts of language and calling that they never knew they had.
We’re participating in that story this morning.  A few minutes ago, we spoke and heard words that sounded odd and confusing, Good News from Jesus to his astonished friends, when he told them they should both be at peace and stretch themselves in ways they’d never considered.  “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you” to proclaim peace, and to forgive, and to love, and to draw people into beloved community (John 20:21).  In a way, his call sounds even stranger in clear, everyday English than it did in the multitude of tongues we just heard.  It sounds strange because, surely, Jesus can’t mean us, right?  We’re just normal, everyday people.
But then we come to the other way we’re participating in the Holy Spirit’s story this morning.  In a few minutes, these three small people, just beginning their journeys in life, will come to this font – and something stunning will happen.  You may have seen it a hundred times, but it’s still stunning because, as I said, it’s new every time.  They will come to this font to die with Jesus symbolically and rise with him into resurrected life, the life he brought to his friends in the upper room behind their locked doors.  And in that moment, the Holy Spirit will come upon them and enter into their hearts.  The three of them – Graham and Margot and Madeline – will come out of the water not just with Christian names, an identity inextricably intertwined with Christ, but also with the gifts of the Holy Spirit:  among them, “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works” (BCP 308).  God will open their hearts to grace and truth.  God will fill them with life-giving Spirit.  God will teach them to love others in the Spirit’s power.  And God will send them into the world to witness to Christ’s love. (BCP 305-306)  Those aren’t just lofty hopes.  Those are divine promises, the equipping power of the Holy Spirit anointing us, like the apostles, to change the world.
We don’t know how that will look exactly, any more than the apostles knew what lay ahead on that day of Pentecost, as they felt their hearts catch fire and knew they were, indeed, sent to speak words they didn’t know they knew.  Starting with these 12 normal, everyday people, the Word went forth from one community to another.  Soon, people in all kinds of unlikely places began to learn how following this way of our resurrected Lord can transform your life – people in Greece and Russia, people in Persia and India, people in Egypt and Ethiopia.  The travels and proclamation of these 12 saints reflect deep passion and commitment and trust, the stuff of legend.  But actually, those saints were no more special, and no differently empowered, than little Graham and Margot and Madeline about to be baptized this morning. 
And, those saints were no different than you.  Or you.  Or you.  Or you.  In just a few minutes, we’ll each renew our Baptismal Covenant.  We’ll remember who we know God to be, and we’ll remember what the baptized life looks like – gathering for strength and praise with a community of fellow travelers, resisting evil and repenting when we miss the mark, proclaiming Good News by word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in everybody, and striving for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of all.  Our Baptismal Covenant will remind us of this high calling, the job description of apostles today.
But as we remember that, I want you to remember something else, too.  If you’re anything like me, on any given day you’re likely to look in the mirror and think, “You’ve got to be kidding, Lord.  You’ve made a huge mistake.  I’m not exactly apostolic material.”  Like Moses on the mountain trying to talk God out of sending him to free the children of Israel, we all probably have our moments when we figure God must be crazy, when we just can’t see God sending us out for divine work – or, when we just don’t want to go.  “O, my Lord,” Moses finally said on the mountain, “please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13).
But here’s the mystery:  You’re the one.  Graham and Margot and Madeline and me … and you.  You have come through the waters of new birth.  You’ve been welcomed into God’s own family.  You’ve been cleansed of your sins.  You’ve been reborn by the Holy Spirit.  You’ve been marked as Christ’s own forever.  And you’ve been gifted and empowered as an apostle, sent “into the world in witness to [God’s] love” (BCP 306).  
The same Spirit that blew through that upper room on Pentecost blows through your life, too.  It was poured out on you in baptism, perhaps evoked again and claimed by you in confirmation.  That same Spirit wants to make your heart dance.  God longs to hear your heart beat with love, and God longs to see you to act on that power you’ve been given. 
What would happen if we lived as if it were all true?  What if you had words you didn’t know you had?  What if you had stories to tell about God blessing you in surprising ways, or turning your life in a new direction, or using you to touch another person’s heart?  And what if you had a commission from God on your heart to be an agent of change and healing and hope?  What if God actually loved you and believed in you that much?  What would you say and do in witness to that love?  How would your Spirit-filled life change the world?