A song for Haiti, from the heart
NEAR CROIS DES BOUQUETS, Haiti – In the shade of a mango tree on the rear playground of the Louverture Cleary School 20 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, Cassandra, 11, sits on a tiny, wooden chair, the kind you might find in kindergarten.
A dozen or so kid-sized chairs are neatly arranged in a circle on the smooth, bleached river rock. At 44 inches – diminutive even by Haitian standards – Cassandra fits the classic mold of a “timoun” student (Kreyol for “little one”).
After the “timouns” clap their hands and recite their alphabet, Cassandra’s volunteer teacher smiles, looks in her direction and asks: “Would you like to sing for us?”
A voice rises
Cassandra rises and walks silently to the center of the circle in her two-inch platform sandals. A soft breeze swirls through her pleated hair. Cassandra crosses her arms over her chest, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and opens her mouth.
The haunting Kreyol chant resonates with innocence and with the assurance that God sees and loves everyone, especially this tiny speck of a Haitian who is pouring out her heart under a mango tree in gratitude for some unseen, divine love.
It is a pure sound:
“Pour out thy life in me by the waters of your Spirit/ Create in me a new heart I pray/ You call yourself ‘I AM’ to tell me ‘I know’/ Because nothing can disturb my heart at peace!/ Hold my hand along the way/ Come put your hand on me/ Make my tomorrows shine/ Tender friend, O Shilo, come take out the falsity in me/ Establish in my heart what you must!”
Cassandra lives in Santo 5, a neighborhood of one- and two-room cinderblock huts with tin roofs, just a short walk down a dusty, cratered lane from the school.
When she passes through the 10-foot stone walls of Louverture Cleary, she is in another world. The former orphanage is an educational oasis that now serves as a coed Catholic boarding school for 350 secondary students. The school expanded its college-prep curriculum a few years ago to give special attention to the forgotten timouns with a program tailored specifically for them.
In many cases, the timouns are throwaway children in a country with 60 percent illiteracy. Normally they would have little chance to attend school, which fuels Haiti’s misery index.
Deacon Patrick Moynihan and his wife Christina have run Louverture Cleary School since 1996 when they made the decision to bring their young family – then consisting of son Robert and daughter Mikhaila – to Haiti. Their two youngest children, Timmy and Mariana, now attend the school and have lived nearly half their lives in Haiti.
Selling what they have
The school is the cornerstone of The Haitian Project, Inc., which operates under the auspices of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., and has thrived because of a decision by one Catholic family to essentially sell what they have and go all in. Not that it has kept Deacon Moynihan from waking up in the middle of the night, sweating beneath his mosquito net when the power for the electric fans goes out, wondering if he’s crazy. Living 15 years as a missionary is one thing; making it a family affair is quite another.
“I tell all the volunteers who come here, ‘This is not about you. This is an invitation to white martyrdom (asceticism). You come in here and die,’” Deacon Moynihan said.
When the graduates of the Louverture Cleary School finish their final secondary grade, 13th, they are fluent in four languages – their native Kreyol, French, English and Spanish. Nearly 100 percent of their seniors pass the national graduation exam.
But the key to Haiti’s emergence as a new Jerusalem, Deacon Moynihan says, is to keep the Louverture Cleary graduates in Haiti to pursue their higher education and then remain so that they can become the foundation for a country long identified as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, a country reeling from a devastating January 2010 earthquake.
“Do not call Haiti a poor country,” Deacon Moynihan says, sounding like the high school teacher he once was in Connecticut. “It is an institutionally poor country. Haiti has too few working institutions to be a state. It is institutionally impoverished; therefore, it is poor. There is absolutely no question that what Haiti needs is education.
“We only need to look at how Catholics in the U.S. got out of the ghetto (in the early 1900s). We did it with education. Katharine Drexel just kept building schools, and she decided to let educated people fight for justice.”
It might take a New Orleans perspective to analyze what has happened – and has not – in Haiti since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. Port-au-Prince was home to 2 million people. Although official death estimates have varied widely from a more realistic 80,000 to the government estimate of more than 300,000, there is no question the damage to the city’s infrastructure made 1 million people homeless overnight.
Anyone who has criticized the U.S. government’s haphazard response to Katrina can appreciate the magnitude of difficulty Haiti has faced in the last 29 months trying to plan and execute its rebuilding.
It’s a familiar refrain: wasted resources, uncoordinated response, institutional incompetence and lack of local control over the multimillion-dollar nongovernmental agencies imposing their will on the rebuilding process.
Speaking in gattling gun bursts, Deacon Moynihan uses the parable of the hospital in the middle of nowhere to buttress his argument that the world does not get it.
Is there a plan?
In Mirebalais, located about 40 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, the nonprofit Partners in Health collaborated with the Haitian government to build a $23 million teaching hospital. On the surface, a sparkling, state-of-the-art facility that can save lives hardly sounds like something to quibble about.
Look closer, Deacon Moynihan says. The hospital is at least 90 minutes by car from Port-au-Prince. The main public hospital in the city is crumbling, and people wait hours – if not days – to see a doctor. The plan is that in five years, the hospital will be turned over to the Haitian government, but the facility’s projected $10 million annual operating costs would represent 10 percent of the entire Haitian health budget.
“How is a project like that going to be transferred to the state?” Deacon Moynihan asks. “Does that look like something the state can maintain? How does this hospital fit the overall health plan? Are teaching doctors going to be willing to leave a city of 2 million people? This is a $23 million institution in a country where the biggest university can be bought and sold for $5 million.
“USAID is in charge of rebuilding the general hospital in Port-au-Prince. Why wasn’t that hospital rebuilt first? That tells the Haitian people, ‘Your government can’t rebuild your hospital, but a foreign group can build this one.’”
Deacon Moynihan understands he is crying in the wilderness, but that has never stopped him before.
“This is not a time for partial truth,” he says. “I’m like John the Baptist – somebody has to say this is wrong.”
Education can transform
What Deacon Moynihan knows intuitively is the ability for a country and a people to be transformed through education, which is no quick fix. He shows a graph of the comparative gross domestic products over the last 50 years of Haiti and its sister country to the east, the Dominican Republic.
Both countries show flat-line productivity until the 1960s, when the Dominican Republic skyrockets while Haiti, victimized by the ruthless regimes of Poppa Doc Duvalier and his son, Baby Doc, continues with no pulse.
That’s why Louverture Cleary exists. Every morning, after first-period classes, the entire student body gathers at the main basketball court for flag-raising, announcements and a motivational talk by one of the senior students. The student whose turn it is to speak jumps up on a stone table near the end of court and gives a rousing speech.
It’s a leadership exercise, forcing the student to confront the fear of speaking in public. It will pay off some day, Deacon Moynihan says.
Among the 11 courses taught each day is a Theology of the Body class, which Christina Moynihan uses to draw the connection between Haiti’s overwhelming problem of out-of-wedlock births and poverty.
“Is the sacredness of marriage something we see in Haiti?” she asks her students. “No. That’s why you are here studying and getting this education. You need to remember this. This is what we need for Haiti.”
CRS response has improved
Deacon Moynihan said after months of missteps in the wake of the earthquake, Catholic Relief Services began to concentrate its efforts on rebuilding neighborhoods and bringing people back to their homes rather than encouraging the building of temporary camps on land far outside the city, where there are no jobs or easy transportation.
CRS also has begun to see the necessity of investing in education as the ultimate answer to Haiti’s plight, he says.
As for the church’s institutional response, Deacon Moynihan has a priority list:
➤ Help Haitian bishops rebuild their parish churches and elementary schools. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption has been in ruins since the earthquake, and the winner of a design competition should be announced in November. But individual churches need to be rebuilt.
➤ Any twinning projects between U.S. and Haitian churches or other rebuilding plans should go through the Haitian bishops for their approval.
➤ With Haiti sliding away from its Catholic roots – especially with the rise of evangelical and nondenominational groups – the church should focus efforts on Catholic education, which teaches valuable social principles.
“If you’re not going to be truthful about poverty, you can hurt a lot of people,” Deacon Moynihan says. “There is social irresponsibility in Haiti, but you have to be blind and totally ignorant if you don’t think there is individual irresponsibility. People have to tell both sides of the story.”
➤ Advocate for an end to the “restavek” system, in which a child is sent by parents to work essentially as a domestic servant for a host family. “It’s a system conducted by the poor and it’s basically indentured servitude,” Deacon Moynihan said. “That type of system will keep a country impoverished.”
Deacon Moynihan is hoping one day to build another Louverture Cleary School in Haiti, but that will take time and money. His students learn the mission of the school, which comes from Matthew 10:8: “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”
Older students tutor neighborhood children and also translate in medical clinics near the school.
It also means that the Moynihans are here for the long haul. Deacon Moynihan has applied to transfer his faculties as a deacon to the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, a thought that occurred to him when he met Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot in 2003 after a Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption celebrating the beatification of Mother Teresa. Archbishop Miot and his vicar general died in the earthquake when the chancery offices across from the cathedral collapsed.
“I introduced myself to him and he said, ‘Oh, a deacon in my diocese, and I don’t know who you are,’” Deacon Moynihan said. “At that point, we did everything to align ourselves with the bishop. I’ve got to be physically present. I can’t ask anybody here to do what I can’t do.”
He sees the changing face of Haiti in his graduates. One has become a doctor – Théony Deshommes.
“I’m ready to serve the people for the rest of my life,” Deshommes said.
“He’s not kidding,” Deacon Moynihan said. “If you serve, you’ll be fine. He knows, ‘If I work, God will work.’ The plan works.”
One day, the plan may work for Cassandra.
As she finishes her song under the mango tree, someone approaches her with a tape recording of her performance. Cassandra holds the tiny speaker up to her ear. Hearing her voice played back for the first time in her life, her eyes light up.
Silently, she mouths every word.
Volunteers with a capital ‘V’
When Deacon Patrick Moynihan interviews U.S. college graduates interested in serving as volunteer teachers, he places little importance on their actual teaching skills.
“That’s what the capital ‘V’ stands for – volunteers,” Deacon Moynihan says.
What impresses Deacon Moynihan the most is the spiritual community the volunteers build among themselves. Every day starts and ends in prayer. There is no custodial staff, so the volunteers and students clean the grounds after each school day. There is no trash pick up, so whatever can be burned is placed in a school incinerator, and natural waste is placed in a compost heap. Discarded glass is buried in a pit.
The volunteers also lead students each afternoon to the main street, where they pick up and burn trash.
“The volunteers have seen students undergo metanoias before their eyes,” he says. “I don’t ever want to hear the volunteers say, ‘I got more out of this experience than I gave.’”
For information on becoming a volunteer, contact The Haitian Project at (815) 505-1287; www.haitianproject.org.