Yesterday was Sunday. Leon is the Bishop of the Church in Christ for Haiti. His grandparents established a church on a mountain many years ago near their home. It is up 205 stone steps, cut into an entirely vertical mountain. We prayed our way in the truck up the mountain path-- and it is a path, barely large enough for Leon's van. We didn't pray because we are religious people. We prayed because the city of Port-au-Prince lay panoramaed three hundred zillion miles below the sheer drop of the side of the road. PRAYED. And I almost had a stroke when the van BACKED UP and tried to turn around. It backed TOWARD Port-au-Prince. Our rear end teeetered toward the brink. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there are no atheists in a machine in Haiti. NONE. Miraculously, we didn't die. I think it was because Papa Leon was in the van. He's good luck. Our Father, Who Art in Haiti...Leon is His Name.. Either that or it's because I've apologized to the Voudoo Mama for any offense I may have caused. My camera roll is frozen on a picture and I'm worried it's because the Voudoo Mama didn't approve of me taking her picture. What to do? I mean this in all seriousness, without joking: maybe I'll have Leon bless my camera. Maybe that will seriously work to fix it.
But I digress. So! We made it out of the van alive and scrambled like the baby goats all around us up a gravely dirt hill. Then we saw them. All 205 steps. Lord. The dang sprightly yoga-doin, vegan-eatin, long-walk takin, size-6 wearin part of our group just charged right up. I took the steps one at a time, huffing and puffing, only pride keeping me moving. Don't be the last one. Don't be the last one. Yeah, but I was, but our beautiful Haitian translator stayed with me, smiling patiently. I took pictures as cover when I needed a breath. And I made it to the top.
The world unfolded like a satin robe. The airy blue Carribbean. Tiny toy boxes, all in a jumble-- Port-au-Prince. The long green runway for the airport. The radio towers. And far away, the encircling mountains, wearing their cloud hats. I turned around and was greeted warmly by a tall man in a suit, smiling gently and beautifically. He welcomed me to his church and I went inside.
The church was destroyed by the earthquake. That means that all of the clean white cement walls, the towering wooden supports for the roof, each piece of tin for the roof, all the pipes and rock-- all of it-- was carried with love and devotion up that crazy fake road that was really a trail, up those 205 steps-- by a person. It was cool inside. Silk flowers cascaded from columns. Long wooden pews faced a round window in the front.
In this country with no running water available to most people, no washing machines, no electricity for most, and no no no no money, everybody was dressed in sparkling clothes. The whites were blinding. No skirt, dress, shirt or coat had the slightest wrinkle. Women were singing already. It is one thing to be wakend by angels singing in a neighboring church. It is another to be in it. I immediately started to cry.
It's the only response that makes sense. You are suddenly thrust into a cauldron of beauty, and you melt. The voices of these people. These women! They do more than their share of holding up the sky. They may be the ones who hold it up for us all. I think of the woman who will die of breast cancer because there is no treatment here. I think of the children whose teeth have rotted to the gum because their mothers give them soda rather than the filthy water available to them. I think of my students at home, beautiful, intelligent, dressed in filthy clothes for school in a country where everybody has running water and electricity. I think about Marie Estelle and her long dusty walk to work in the guest house....and how she arrives spotless, smiling, her face radiant. In the words of the civil rights mother who spoke them, "My feet are tired-- but my soul is rested." Marie Estelle takes pride in her work. Her shoes may be dusty, but her warm hands make the guest house a home. In Haiti, parents helplessly watch their children starve or die of preventable disease. They respond with song. Their throats pour liquid goodness, strength, love. In awe, I cry.
We are ushered to a long wooden pew. We are told it is not rude in this church to take pictures. The service, in kreyol and French, begins. The women stand up, turn around, and kneel, their elbows on the wooden pews, their bony knees in the cement floor dust. And suddenly I'm pissed.
Why should these women-- the trees that grow and spread and sustain the whole country-- grovel in the dust? It has to hurt. Their knees are bare. The floor is rough. They are down there a long time. What the hell??? Why should these magnificent human beings kneel? To anything or anyone? In the DUST? Hell NO! I want to rush around the room and lift them up. I want to knock the lovely preacher aside. I want to magically speak French and shout, "Get up! You kneel for nothing- not man, beast or god! Get the hell up! Don't you ever kneel again!"
What has praying got them? What does all this time singing God's praises really done for them? And then I remember to have a little humility. I can not know what their faith means to them. But it most likely is part of what sustains them, of what waters the trees. I can not decide for them that it is stupid. I am an outsider. So I sit there and cry instead, watching a tiny brown angel dressed in a diaphonous white dress trimmed all over in lace.
This baby is universally loved. About one year old, her head is encircled with lace. Her tiny ankles are covered in creamy white lace socks and her feet in miniature shoes. She toddles down her pew. Each woman, sitting, supports her, touches her. The baby stops, all tired out. She drops her head in the soft head of the woman at the end of the pew. The woman gently strokes her head. The baby, rested, toddles toward us. I hold my breath. Will she come to us? She stops, fingers in her mouth, and regards us. Here is all the treasure in the world. The most precious, the most beautiful thing. She assesses the all-white pew I sit in-- all of us on the trip. Unafraid, unintimidated, she swerves and goes to the pew in front of us and begins her walk down it. Again, parishoners know and love her. One very old woman in a green head scarf picks her up and snuggles her, whispering against her cheek.
I realize that Americans have every material thing and a rotting culture. Haitians have no material things and a culture that embraces what matters. I pray that this baby will make it long enough to be a spreading tree, full of wisdom herself.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry gives the sermon. Leon translates. It is the day before Yom haShoah-- Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sharyn speaks of Neg Maron-- the symbol of Haiti. Untoppled by the earthquake, he watched the presidential palace fall. He will never crumble. He is the spirit of Haiti. She speaks of Viktor Frankl, whose wife sewed his life's work into his coat before he was deported to Auschwitz. When Frankl arrived at Auschwitz, his coat-- carrying his life's work-- was taken from him. It was replaced by a coat that had belonged to murdered man. Inside was a small piece of paper-- the Shema-- the central prayer in Judaism. Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel! The Lord is One! Frankl realized his new life's work was to retain his humanity in the most inhumane place.
Sharyn spoke of those many Jews who sang Ani Ma'anim as they walked to the death chambers. It is a song expressing perfect faith in God. To me, this act was an act of rebellion. As if the Jews were saying, you may kill me in a million ways, but I will not be moved. I will remain myself. I am indestructable.
At least one Haitian wept. The rest listened, rapt. Sharyn said, we are alike, you Haitians and we Jews. We cleave to the same five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These books and our faiths have helped us survive. You rebuilt your church and your lives against enormous odds. You have a mighty and glorious history. So do we.
Later, at the guest house, Jimmy-- Julienne's fiance-- welled up. He was trying to express what it meant to him to hear Sharyn's words. He said he cried in church as he listened. He said no one has ever compared his culture to another culture favorably. His forefathers did their part, he said, they gained their freedom from the French, the Spanish. But his people are still enslaved. They have given up hope. They don't know their past. They don't teach their children. They don't know about Toussaint.
Jimmy speaks Portugese, French, kreoyl and English. He was not born speaking these languages. He sacrified and walked and worked and finangled a way to learn. He wants to study politics, linguistics. He can not do that here. There are no civil services-- no trash collection, no mail service, no human infrastructure, let alone universite. He hopes to go to Canada to study, then come back here to serve his people.
Wadson, one of our translators, walked from Thomassin to Port-au-Prince as a child with his brothers to school every day. From Thomassin to Port-au-Prince. They started before dawn, had no lunch at school since none was available, and then walked home again to study. I think of our privileged, corpulent children stuffed with all manner of food they don't need who ignore books so they can use a lever to move light around a computer screen as if it is the only thing that matters.
Wadson's daughter, Shaamela, has a developmental delay. She is three but is the size of a tiny two year old. She doesn't speak. One eye doesn't track. Wadson lives in a one room house. They must gather wood to cook with and they cook outside. Every day. I don't know where they get water. Wadson is here before eight and stays after five. He never takes a break or stops working. He remains strong and smiling all day. He makes twenty US dollars a day translating for us. It may be a month or more before there is work again. What will Shaamela's future be?
After church, congregants embrace us. To a person, they all kiss us. Every one. I've never been kissed by more strangers and I've never liked it more. To be kissed by them is a blessing that will bring me joy for a long time.
Leon's great aunt welcomes us her grandparent's house. She and many church women have created a gorgeous lunch for us. We are welcomed with more kisses and a lovely buffet. Roasted goat, tiny pink fishes, fried whole, grilled dried sardines, fried okra-- absolutely sublime!!-- picklies-- a kind of spicy coleslaw without mayonaise. Fried plantains, mountains of fresh pineapple and oh give thanks to all things holy-- chopped Haitian mango. I overindulge. The mango is silky, creamy soft, luscious. That holy juice runs down your chin. A lemon gateaux the size of a wagon wheel. We sit outside under the beautiful trees and eat, Haitain and American. In the face of the all the volcanic things that challenge us, we can celebrate some of the joys of being human. Our skin warms in the sun. We sit close together. The lovely food smells, tastes, looks delicious. We kiss goodbye.
I think: these people are the most deserving of good luck and good fate and good will in the whole wide world. Allelujah.
Here is Rabbi Sharyn Henry's sermon:
Bonjour, good morning. My friends, the members of the FLM team (Marian, Nancy, Cindy, Barbara, another Nancy, Susan, Sue, Sheila, Robynn, Rebecca) and I are so very happy to be with you this morning; it is has been our pleasure and privilege to have worked alongside you this week, and we all feel blessed by our time with you. Thank you for so warmly welcoming us. I am deeply honored to be sharing the altar this morning with Bishop Leon Pamphile, my friend and teacher.
Hinei mah tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.
These words, set to a livelier tune, were the first words the students at Kolege devays Pamphile heard from us this week, and they apply to this moment as well. Taken from Psalm 113, the words mean Behold—or WOW—how good it is and how pleasant when brothers and sisters sit together.
My new friend Wadson suggested that I speak about faith this morning, the deep and unwavering notion that God is always with us. God is with us in good times and in hard times, at all moments, at every moment, and throughout our whole lives.
There are times when having faith in God is easy—when our children or our grandchildren are born, when we find love, when our days are fulfilling, when we make powerful connections to one another,
when the skies are blue and clear and when our hunger is satisfied and our dreams look like they might come true. On those days, or in those moments, it is easy to say, without thinking, as if by instinct, Hallelu-yah—praise God.
Yet, there are other occasions when life is hard; when people we love are gone, when our dreams don’t seem possible, when we are sick or worried, or impossibly tired from the weight of our burdens. It is in these times that we have to work harder to see God’s presence, to gain strength from God’s strength, to feel God’s gentle, healing compassion.
Your life here in Haiti is full: full of profound joy as well as immeasurable and vast challenge. You are strong and resilient, and you are proud to be Haitian.
My people, the Jews, have also endured unthinkable hardship throughout our long history. Our strength and resilience comes from the same fountain as yours: the long-standing, powerful, and meaningful traditions and the faith in God that we find in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, God calls Abraham, “Lech L’cha—go forth; go from your land, from the place of your birth, leave everything you know, and go where I will show you. Abraham and his wife Sarah were people of faith, and we, their children continue along the path they blazed.
Faith adds joy to our joy and lifts us up when we have fallen. And like the fragile flower that fights its way to emerge from amidst a pile of rubble—which we have all seen here in Haiti—faith can arise from darkness and despair and it can flourish.
In this spirit I would like to share some exquisite lessons; two lessons emerge from one of the bleakest and most horrific events in Jewish history, the Holocaust, and one has its source in the story of Haiti.
Tomorrow is a significant day for Jews, because it is [Yom HaShoah] Holocaust Remembrance Day. During World War II, half of the world’s Jews—nearly every Jew in Europe, six million people including one million children—were systematically degraded, humiliated, tortured and annihilated by German Nazis. Six million others, including those with physical and mental illness, and others who were considered sub-human, were slaughtered.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day we remember those who died and we say Never Again will we allow such hatred to come into the world.
On this day we can learn powerful lessons about faith in God, from the stories of people who lived through that time of unspeakable horror, as well as from those who perished. These stories inspire us today—those of us with daily, heavy burdens, those of us with scars from the earthquake only three years ago, those of us with doubt and questions.
There is a tale told of Dr. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist from Vienna who was sent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. He survived, but all of his family was killed. Before they were deported, Frankl’s wife sewed one of his manuscripts, an unpublished book, into the lining of his coat. This was his life’s work. When he arrived at Auschwitz, however, his coat, with the manuscript, were taken away from him.
Later, he was given an old raggedy coat that had belonged to a man murdered immediately upon arriving at the camp. When Frankl reached into the pocket of this coat he found a single page torn out of a prayer book. The old man had stashed a page of his precious prayer book into his pocket, the page containing a verse from Deuteronomy central to Jewish belief: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Hear, O Israel, Adonai [the Lord] is God, Adonai [the Lord] is One. This verse proclaims our belief in the one God.
At that moment Frankl understood that to survive we need a reason to exist; we must have a purpose and a set of sustaining beliefs. Frankl’s book and his discoveries were not what would give his life real meaning. Rather, at that moment he understood what I now know Haitians understand: it is our inner lives—our faith in God and our connections to what is good and true and just and lasting —that give us hope and the strength to face the challenges of our lives.
Survivors of the Holocaust tell stories about Jews singing as they were being marched to their deaths. Often, the last words on the lips of these people were words of profound faith: “Ani maamin b'emunah shleymah b'viat ha-mashaich—I believe with complete and perfect faith in [God].” V'af al pi she-yit-mah-mayah, im kol zeh ani maamin—and even if [the situation looks hopeless right now], I still believe.” Regardless of how terrifying or painful the moment, no matter how bad it looks right now, we will not lose faith. No person or storm or illness or challenge can take away our confidence that God is with us and there will be something better, some day.
My last story comes out of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that destroyed lives and property and touched literally everyone on this island.
Dr. Joia Mukherjee arrived in Port au Prince less than 48 hours after the earthquake. Like many of you, Dr. Mukherjee has excruciating memories of what she saw in those first few hours, but the image seared most permanently into her soul is one of hope and faith.
After the first day, when she and the other doctors on her team treated 800 people, Joia asked an aide worker, “Kote Neg Mawon—Where is Neg Mawon?” He took her to the destroyed national palace, and there in front of it, still standing tall, was the statue of Neg Mawon. The symbol of Haiti, Neg Mawon represents nobility and freedom, and it cannot be toppled.
In 1804 the Haitian slaves defeated the army of Napoleon, making Haiti the first and only nation founded by a slave revolution. At the time of the revolution, 70 percent of the slaves had been born free men and women in Africa. This victory resulted in Haiti being feared—but also tormented in one way or another by the world’s powerful countries for the next 200 years. As a dramatic symbol of Haiti’s struggle for freedom, Neg Mawon stands, shackles broken, machete in hand, defiant and unafraid. He blows a conch shell to call others to freedom.
I wonder, what does it mean that Neg Mawon did not fall but the presidential palace was destroyed? Perhaps it is for the same reason that Frankl found the page from the siddur in his pocket after his manuscript was destroyed: the truth endures. One thing is undeniable: Haiti is broken in some ways but invincible in many others. Haiti remains strong in the most important ways. You, the free and faithful people of this hard-won land, alongside people of every faith who care about you, all of us, together, and together with God, we are Haiti’s strength.
Let me end by listing for you some of the little, but enormously meaningful ways in which we have seen your faith: you name your children Emanu-el—God is with us, and Shammaela—God is there; you name stores and tap-taps El Shaddai and Yahweh and Elohim—all names for God; your teachers read the Bible in the five minutes between classes, you pray as you wait in line to see the doctor. You get up and you find work and you care for one another with kindness and generosity and devotion, and you praise God with every fiber and bone in your body. And every day, in good times and in bad, you pray and you sing:
By faith we will walk
By faith we will triumph
By faith until the end
God will give the victory.
Rabbi Sharyn H. Henry
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Eglise de Dieu en Christ