To Proclaim the Gospel

Haitian childrenTHE WORLD IS OUR HOME," wrote Jerónimo Nadal, one of the early Jesuits, commenting on their attitude toward mobility. These words were in my mind in 1992 when I wrote to Fr. Godefroy Midy, SJ, asking about joining the Society's reborn apostolic efforts in Haiti, his homeland. I, a U.S. Jesuit, was following through on a desire to work with some of the poorest people on earth, the Haitians, leaving one part of the Jesuit "home" for another. It was the beginning of a journey that brought me in contact with three French Canada Jesuits with the same desire to work in Haiti, Jesuits in whose minds Nadal's words also resonated.

I'd come in contact with Haitians years earlier when I was a layman working at a parish on Long Island and later, when as a Jesuit novice I spent the summer of '78 at St. Ignatius Parish in Brooklyn. Since I spoke French, I visited Haitian parishioners, the majority refugees from the Duvalier dictatorship. They were a shy, patriotic, and religious people who called themselves "the diaspora," reminiscent of the ancient Jews who fled Israel. I began to wonder what I could do to help them.

My work at a l'Arche community in Haiti in '82, my first direct experience of this Third World country, was a trip back in time to an age without electricity or running water. The people with whom I lived and worked were illiterate and undernourished, spending most of their energy just trying to survive.

Ten years later, when I was studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic with Jesuit novices, we crossed the border to Haiti and found conditions far worse than during my first visit. The experience rekindled my desire to contribute to this country and prompted my letter to Fr. Midy.

That letter bore fruit: he was sure I could help in Haiti. I arrived in September 1995, when the Society was recovering from years of suppression by the Duvalier dictatorship.

The experience of suppression was not new to Jesuits in Haiti. They first arrived in 1704 but were expelled about 70 years later during the Society's worldwide suppression. Jesuits established a permanent presence again in 1953, building a retreat house and running a seminary, a radio station, and a parish. But twelve years later they were out again; François ("Papa Doc") Duvalier found Jesuit activity incompatible with his totalitarian vision.

For years only a few "clandestine" Jesuits remained here, including Fr. Midy, who taught at the seminary, but his sympathies with the call for liberation cost him his job. He then handled retreat work, spiritual direction, and training those joining the Society.

Freedom returned to the country when Duvalier was expelled and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president. This freedom helped make possible a new Jesuit work in Haiti, the Pedro Arrupe Center, which is establishing programs in spirituality and theology, rural development, human rights, and socioeconomic research. It will coordinate existing Jesuit apostolates and launch new programs as well. A rural development wing, in operation since 1993, distributes foreign financial aid to communities and gives technical assistance to farmers. The spirituality and theology wing began in September 1995, and other wings will be activated as soon as Jesuits in formation complete training. Right now we operate in buildings scattered throughout Port-au-Prince, but we have purchased land where we hope to bring things together.

The center owes its existence to financial backing from the French Canada Province and the United States Catholic Conference. It also owes much to the three Jesuits from French Canada. Of the 40 Jesuits now in Haiti, the three are the only foreigners besides myself. Fr. Jean-Guy Bilodeau, SJ, former spiritual director at the major seminary, has been superior of the Jesuits here since 1988. He spends hours with the countless poor who come to our door, accompanying the sick to clinics, buying them medicine, and making sure they understand when to take it.

Fr. Bernard Bélair, SJ, came from Canada just days before the 1991 coup d'état that exiled President Aristide. Working in nearly impossible conditions, he nevertheless was highly influential in making the Pedro Arrupe Center a reality. "The Society's desire," he says, "is to serve faith which does justice to Haiti. By offering the Spiritual Exercises together with a solid theological base to a wide variety of people, we hope to enliven the faith of our participants. Their renewed vigor will encourage them in their cooperation with Christ in the establishment of the kingdom."

The third French Canadian Jesuit in Haiti is a newcomer like myself. For the last 26 years Fr. André Charbonneau, SJ, taught Scripture at the Université du Québec. "I resigned because I am 66 years old and if I want to do something else in my life, now is the time! The provincial told me there was a need for someone to teach Scripture in Haiti, and I took up the challenge."

The Society is again responding to the needs of the people, but the challenge is enormous. How can it proclaim the Gospel in a country where nearly naked, barefoot men pull carts laden with hundreds of pounds of goods under a tropical sun through mud streets while other people, smartly dressed, drive by in air-conditioned BMWs? What can it do for a woman I see every day who, like Lazarus, lives in a hovel next to a mansion gate? And what can it do for the people who live in the mansion itself? How can the Society serve people for whom the prayer "Give us this day our daily bread" is quite literal? Listen to their cry in the words of a Creole hymn: po vant nou kole ak do nou (telman nou grangou) (the skin of our bellies cleaves to our backs [we are so hungry] ).

The French Canada Jesuits and I know that the future of the Society in Haiti lies with Haitians themselves. It is remarkable, miraculous, that there are as many Haitian Jesuits as there are! The number of young Haitians interested in joining the Society is encouraging, but most of those accepted have to go through formation abroad: to Mexico and Panama for novitiate; Mexico, Nicaragua, and El Salvador for philosophy studies; and Canada, France, and El Salvador for theology and graduate studies.

But for the first time several Jesuits are doing regency here: Jean Castel Jean-Baptiste teaches Bible in the slum areas of Port-au-Prince, Jean Domervil works with the handicapped in a l'Arche community, and Milien Gabriel and Berthony Saint-George work in the rural development wing of the center.

And there are two young Haitian Jesuit priests at work at the center: Jean-Marie Louis coordinates the rural development wing, and Kawas François the socioeconomic research wing. Another Jesuit priest, Fr. Claude Souffrant, teaches sociology at the state-run university and conducts continuing education sessions for teachers.

During my last mass at St. Ignatius in Brooklyn just before coming to Haiti, parishioners came up to bless me, praying that I might communicate hope to their country. I brought that hope with me to Haiti, where daily I witness the people's tears of frustration and hope; they realize that human efforts alone cannot reverse their poverty and misery, but they also know that God wants to establish the kingdom here and is doing so in many ways.

One way is institutional and organizational: those studying at the major seminary express gratitude for the training they receive from Jesuits; it will enable them to kindle the fire of love to transform this country.

Another way is very personal and direct: in a one-room box of a building that serves as a school in Cité Soleil, a slum of Port-au-Prince, a young man told me how his weekly Scripture study meetings with Jesuit scholastic Jean Castel Jean-Baptiste reaffirmed his faith that inspires him to work for justice.

Last December 1, our community celebrated the feast of the 26 Jesuit martyrs of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. We remembered the words of one, Edmund Campion, who spoke of efforts to spread his faith in the face of opposition that eventually took his life: "The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood." This is the spirit that animates the Society in Haiti.

Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, works in the spirituality and theology wing of the Pedro Arrupe Center in Port-au-Prince, teaching English and theology to those applying for admission to the Society.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Created: 5/22/96 Updated: 5/22/96