A Seminarian’s Haiti Experience

Praying with Mary in Haiti

 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *

the Almighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *

and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *

for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *

to Abraham and his children for ever.

 

In the Episcopal Church and many other traditions, we pray these words, called the Magnificat or the Song of Mary, each night at evening prayer. These words from Luke’s gospel, spoken by Mary at the Annunciation, get to the heart of the Christian message–thus its importance in our common prayer life.

 

I prayed these words every night when I visited Haiti with a group of undergraduate students in March. We were participating in an annual outreach trip with the University of the South, led by the outreach office and a professor of biology. Our purpose was to collaborate with Haitian farmers and agronomy interns to improve farming and environmental outcomes in rural Haiti. To that end, we divided into teams of American students with Haitian interns to measure the height and diameter of various kinds of plants, soil depth, and most importantly to build relationships with farmers.

 

But in addition to all of that, the trip became a mini-pilgrimage to the margins–to the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked, the easily and conveniently ignored. It became a pilgrimage into the heart of Christ.

 

The Sunday we were in Haiti we worshiped in a gazebo in Corporant, a small municipality north of Port-au-Prince where the Centre de Formation Fritz Lafontant is headquartered. Our priest was the storied Fritz Lafontant himself. Lafontant, now an old man, has become renown for his connection to Paul Farmer and Partners in Health.

 

No one really seemed to know what time it was, but we made our best guess and showed up a few minutes before the liturgy. Father Lafontant, a giant in Haiti’s recent history, hobbled out in purple vestments that were so washed out they looked pink. The liturgy was familiar to me, except it was in French with readings in Kreole. One of the hymns really took me back; it was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” sung in their native Kreole.

 

At Communion I walked up, stood in line, and Father Lafontant laid a wafer dipped in wine on my tongue with the words, le Pain de Christ, the Body of Christ. These familiar words and actions hit me in a way they hadn’t in a long time, for I had just received the body and blood of my Lord in a context so different than my own usual place, at the hands of a priest who has lived the Gospel in a way few have, while surrounded by the poorest of the poor.

 

I went to the table not as an American, or a rich person, or a blanc, or someone with something to dole out. No, I went to the table as a beloved child of God, nothing more and nothing less. And there I met other beloved children of God.

 

The liturgy, our worship, is the work of all the people. It is something we all do. Despite our differences, our divisions, our hatreds, our histories, we come to God as beloved children.

In that way, my entire trip was a sort of liturgy. I went as an ignorant seminarian who, frankly, had no idea what I was doing. I went to do work with other people–other students, both Haitian and American, and with men and women who tirelessly work the land daily.

 

Our work–and any good, decent, well-conceived outreach project–was collaborative in nature. The project was meant to be a collaborative effort between Haitian farmers, Haitian agronomy interns, and Sewanee folks. We worked together to build up rural Haiti and to improve the environment. We learned from one another.

 

In the end, I found we lived out part of the Magnificat for a few days:

 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *

and the rich he has sent away empty.

 

I was the mighty one who was cast down… I was the rich person sent away. But in this case, this wasn’t accomplished without my direct involvement. No, this was done through my active work–with the farmers, the interns, and with the other Sewanee students. And the work I was participating in was indeed lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. But in the same way, this was not accomplished by a company of white saviors. Instead, the work depended on the agency of those to whom we went.

 

That’s one way God works in us, and through us, and on us in the world.

Traditionally mission has been marked by a paternalistic, white-savior complex, where initiatives are driven only by the dreams and desires of the missioners. But that’s not mission–or at least, not a long-term, sustainable missional effort. Mission is only sustainable in as much as it is collaborative and intentionally seeks the participation and direction of those it is meant to help.

Happily this project is sustainable. It seeks the direct participation and direction of those it seeks to help. It asks the farmers, what do you need? How can we help you do what you are already trying to accomplish? And the project intentionally seeks to be long-term. Not only is it asking what can we help you do now. But it is also asking, what are your dreams for your family, your community, your country? And how can we help you in that effort?

 

But more importantly, this project is consistent with God’s call to us. We are called to conspire with God to usher in the Kingdom of God, to bring to fruition Mary’s song. We are called to look around us, to see what God is already up to in our world, and to join that effort.

 

Unless you go into a place with prayerful discernment, your eyes wide open, and a strong willingness to engage, work with, and learn from the people to whom you are sent, you cannot see what God is already up to. That’s as true for Haiti as your local parish church.

 

That’s exactly what this initiative is doing. It is joining forces with people in Haiti who are working to bring needed change and justice to their country. It is partnering with people like Father Lafontant, his family, and the vocational school named for him. It is learning from young Haitian professionals engaged in the arduous work of human rights education and defense. And it is showing people like me, who have been blessed beyond measure and undeservedly, that the only way to love God is to love our global neighbors and fellow children of the one God.

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