The following article first appeared this past Summer in a parish newsletter called The Evangelist, and was sent to me only recently. It deserves wide distribution.-Fr Hart
by Chris Becher and Ted de la Haye
Photos by Tim Schmidt
As the sun beats down high onto the coastal hills northeast of Haiti’s capital, a group of young children, boys and girls all under the age of 14, walk down a dirt trail following the valley’s contours to the sea. Three boys lead the way with buckets in each hand, silent save the sound of dry dust kicked up with each step. The tallest wears rain galoshes, another sandals, the youngest a pair of Nike sneakers three sizes too large. Their destination, a point of pride to the people of Tapio, is the permanent concrete cistern containing clean drinking water.
By the time they arrive there’s a pack of locals crouched in what shade they can find, chewing grass and cooing aimlessly in Creole about the heat. Beyond them and out of sight lies the source of water: a well sunk deep into the earth with its series of pipes channeling the precious liquid into the cistern and onto a number of medieval hand pumping water stations in the area. Each boy waits his turn to operate the pump, gladly forgetting the days when his journey took him miles further down the valley to the old well. In a land that’s seen thirty-two violent coups in its brief history, constancy is a notion woefully unfamiliar to Haiti’s nine million people. But this cistern, like the man that constructed it, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.Father Bien-Aime, rector of the ACC’s parish St. Therese de L‘Enfant in Tapio, helped to organize and raise the funds to bring clean water this much closer to the people of Tapio. Born and raised in rural Haiti, Fr. Bien-Aime is acquainted with the sorrows that plague Haitian peasants and has dedicated the last twenty years of his life to serving his countrymen in an effort to better their livelihood. In the past ten years alone, he has erected a beautiful ACC (Anglican Catholic Church) church, school for 500 kids and the first health center in the valley. Beyond that, he runs an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and has added a school for 185 students in the city – all of this of course coming at no cost to the people.
We had the privilege of spending five days with Fr. Bien-Aime in Haiti on a fact-finding delegation from St. Matthew’s. Our flight arrived and we stepped out of the plane, muggy Port-au-Prince air filling our lungs. Within five minutes we were being escorted through the airport on the arms of our host. We were surprised to see Fr. Bien-Aime waiting for us on the tarmac, but soon realized as we watched him seize several airport officials’ hands with a smile, he is a well-connected man. We were off the plane, through customs, and driving to our hotel in a matter of minutes.
Though Fr. Bien-Aime grew up in a relatively poor Haitian village, he was given the opportunity to receive an education in the United States, attending seminary in the Bay Area. Making a life for himself and his family in the United States would have been easy, pastoring among the many Haitian expatriates abroad. However, Fr. Bien-Aime refused to forget where he came from and decided to do something about he plight of Haitians in his homeland. When he first returned to Haiti he tried his hand in politics and even entertained grand ideas of running for office. While this has provided a number of current supporters for his ministries, he found that a career in Haitian government is inherently dangerous and in his own words “dirty.” Instead, he decided to pursue a grass-roots approach to helping the people of Haiti, focusing on the rural outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
It was here that we witnessed Fr. Bien-Aime’s courageous humanitarian spirit. The immediate needs in rural Haiti are primitive by any standard: food, water, shelter, and health care. It is estimated that as much fifty-six percent of Haitians live in abject poverty, lacking the most basic human necessities. As Christ modeled with the crowds that followed him so closely, Fr. Bien-Aime feeds the masses before he teaches them. Feeding the hungry comes before proselytizing; hope for bodily change before ascent to objective spiritual principles. It was invigorating to see a man so connected to the sustenance of his fellows, as brothers and sisters.
However, after witnessing Fr. Bien-Aime preach at Mass one Sunday, we knew it would be ridiculous to think he adheres to the “Social Gospel,” allowing Scripture and church tradition to concede to the urgency of social issues. By all impressions a quiet man, we were fascinated to see him deliver a most animated homily. He preached for about an hour, and displayed all the trimmings of an impassioned Protestant evangelist; hands waving, feet stomping, voice inflecting. He even opened the floor for questions halfway through to ensure that his parishioners understood the lesson about the chief sacraments of baptism and communion. At one point an elderly man stood and argued over something that was said. A ridiculous image when placed inside our sanctuary at St. Matthew’s, but an obvious fit in Haiti where nearly eighty percent of the congregation is illiterate.
Taken together, Fr. Bien-Aime’s humanitarian efforts and spiritual shepherding demonstrate one of the most striking characteristics of his ministry: his genuine compassion for the poor and his commitment to their holistic development. He takes Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:35-40 literally:
“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me …Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Our team did not know what to expect when we arrived in Haiti, but we were under the ambitious impression that St. Matthew’s has something to offer the people of Haiti. After all, the most monetarily humble of our parishioners could easily afford to pay a whole year’s salary for a teacher in Tapio (a meager $1,800 US). However, on this side of our trip, having returned from a long week in Haiti, we’ve gained a better understanding for the economy of the Heavenly Kingdom. What we have to give the people of Haiti, namely monetary funds to meet their basic human needs through Fr. Bien-aime’s guidance, is the weaker part of the transaction; the easier “donation;” the small investment. In return, we receive the almost sacramental gift of being connected deeply to a distant member of the body of Christ, to feel their joys, struggles, pains and triumphs a little more deeply. As we develop a stronger partnership with our sister Church in Haiti, we begin truly to experience the communion of the saints.
This reality was most evident during Sunday Eucharist. Rhythmic Haitian drums, not our resonant organ; an assortment of park benches, school desks and stools, not our upholstered pews; a tapestry of the risen Christ, not our stained glass. By all appearances, we were in a distant land far from our family and homes. But when we all knelt together at the altar we received the same Sacrament with that familiar proclamation: “the body of Christ which was given for you, take and eat.” We were truly united into the one Body and Blood.
It is in this economy where all earthly distinctions are ignored and even forgotten. Mother Theresa famously said that the poverty of the wealthy is a far deeper and more dangerous kind than the poverty of the poor. Latent in her words is the fact that we are all impoverished; an easy reality to forget when we only see through temporal eyes. Yet, through a deep connection with what we often deem our “less fortunate” brothers and sisters we are reminded of our impoverished state. In our monetary wealth we rarely exercise the sort of faith that can be cashed in for spiritual riches. But thanks be to God that he has erected his Church for all men of all time, that we might become interdependent, giving and receiving freely of one another.
“There is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP 37-8).
If you are interested in learning more about how to support Fr. Bien-aime and God’s work in Haiti, contact Chris Becher—firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Becher and Ted de la Haye are members at St. Matthew's Anglican Catholic Church in Newport Beach, CA.