Finding Light in the Darkness
By Kemp Williams, Grace Episcopal Church
We were exhausted on our last day in Mirebalais. We’d driven high into the mountains above the city to learn about Fonkoze, a very successful micro-lending program in Haiti, by attending one of its meetings. That morning trip was followed by an afternoon trek up to Cange to tour the first hospital built in Haiti by Partners in Health. Both visits left us encouraged about what we were seeing in Haiti, and despite the fatigue of the day, we were eager to return to Mirebalais for one last meeting with the children of the Haiti Micah Project. Our plan was to take books to read to them for a short while, so the children could practice their English. But like nearly everything else in this country, things don’t always work out the way you envisioned they would.
The eight of us walked into the yard of the home that serves as the orphanage, and we were immediately surrounded by throngs of excited children. Each of us grabbed a book from the stack we’d been provided and sat down wherever we could. I sat on a short bench with a young man on each side of me, and a small audience standing behind. I had no idea what story I’d be reading, but it couldn’t have mattered any less—since I soon saw that my book was written in Haitian Creole. I have a background in linguistics, and Creole is written phonetically, so I was confident I could sound it out intelligibly. I’d just have to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t know the first thing about what I was reading.
My ignorance was my blessing. I quickly learned that one of the young men seated next to me, Jackie Estema, was quite gifted at languages and as a teacher. As I read the story aloud, he helped me with pronunciation—so the children around me could understand the story—and then helped me to translate it so that I could understand it myself. He didn’t know translations for all the words, but between his knowledge of English and my high school knowledge of French, we were soon reading and translating the story so that he, I, and the children around us were all following along. Until, of course, the power went out. We had arrived at dusk, and the overhead lamps in the yard of the house had given us just enough light to read by. The darkness when the power goes out in Haiti is palpable, and so our reading together came to an abrupt end. But Jackie was eager to continue our lesson, and when he realized that I also know a little Spanish, we were soon learning new words together in English, French, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.
I left Jackie my English-Creole phrase book, hoping he could use it to continue his study of English. We left the children with heavy hearts, since we’d grown so fond of them in the short time we’d known them. We finished our day with yet one more encouraging sign that there is hope in Haiti.
Grace in Community
The Haiti Micah Project continues to be blessed by the involvement of faith communities who have taken the children of Haiti into their hearts and minds as a focus of their outreach ministries. Among those communities, Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, has a long history of outreach and mission efforts toward the poor and disadvantaged.
Months before the disastrous earthquake in January 2010, Grace parishioners became acquainted with the work of Father Joseph Constant, who taught at the nearby Virginia Theological Seminary. Fr. Joseph had developed a program that brought Haitians to the seminary to study for the priesthood, and he brought his students to Grace to introduce his program for helping street children in Mirebalais. Shortly thereafter, the earthquake decimated Port-au-Prince and hundreds of refugees fled to nearby Mirebalais. Grace parishioners immediately responded.
Since that time, each year on Mother’s Day, the Outreach Committee organizes the Haiti Micah Child Sponsorship Event. What began as support from the Outreach Committee for one child has now grown to sponsorships for 70 children. Each year, the Vestry and parishioners at Grace have responded to the needs of the Mirebalais street children, and each year their goal to keep all “their Haiti Micah kids” in the Grace “family” has grown.
In October 2010, when cholera broke out at the United Nations facility just outside Mirebalais, the need for a clean water source became critical. Grace Church coupled with Immanuel-on-the Hill in Alexandria and the Diocese of Virginia on a joint project to finance the structure that houses a new water well and water treatment facility. The new water system is now a clean and safe source of water in an area still threatened by cholera.
In response to the need for post-secondary educational opportunities, Grace has given strong support to the establishment of a vocational school in Mirebalais. In cooperation with the Diocese of Virginia, Grace provided a matching grant in support of a new vocational center.
When the Diocese of Virginia organized its first mission trip for young adults, Grace responded with two participants.
This kind of feet-on-the-ground participation continues. Last November, Grace Church sent an 8 person team to Haiti led by its Assistant Rector, the Rev. Leslie Steffensen, and supported by fund raising efforts of the congregation. (see story above) Team members embarked on their “mission of perspective” to build relationships with the children in the Haiti Micah Project and the adults who help care for them, to develop a better understanding of life in Haiti, and to witness God’s work in other successful programs in Mirebalais, Leogane, and Port-au-Prince. Team members gained great respect for the very hard working, positive thinking, and devout people of Haiti, and all described the trip and experience as “amazing”.
Grace is an example of what a faith community can accomplish not only through its own efforts, but in working with other churches toward a common goal of helping children live healthy and productive lives.