By Father Stephen Perzan
In 1984 I ventured to Haiti. The news of the earthquake brought back memories from that trip.
Through a chance meeting with Father Tom Wenski, now Bishop of Orlando, I was able to make arrangements to stay with a group of Canadian priests. My purpose in going to Haiti was to see the country, of course, but also to be reunited with two former Haitian refugees who had been held as detainees in the United States upon their arrival as “boat people.”
It was questionable to authorities here whether their entrance was one of political asylum or “merely for reasons of poverty and economic survival.” Disheartened about their status, they had returned to Haiti. One of them, Jean-Claude St. Hilaire, was from Leogane.
The home of Jean-Claude was more impoverished than I was prepared for, yet in honor of my visit he had gone out and bought a chicken. Chickens in Haiti are treasured items, and not something that you eat every day.
While the chicken was in the pot – cleaned and prepared for cooking – it was snatched by a cat and dragged through Leogane. Finally, the cat got chased down and the chicken salvaged. All was politely put back in the pot. I never tasted chicken so good.
A less folksy and more disturbing memory involves the National Cathedral Notre-Dame de L’Assomption.
I had gone to the Cathedral to get out of the hot Caribbean sun and to pray. As I entered the Cathedral I was greeted by an unexpected din. A large number of people were praying at the main altar, hands held high, shouting to God in a tumultuous voice. Suddenly amidst this prayer, there was a chaotic clamor; the windows of the Cathedral were being shuttered and people, including myself, were being told, “Get out!”
It was as if Jesus were cleansing the temple all over again. I sought some answer to what seemed like an intrusion into my prayer life, “Why were we being asked to leave? Why did we have to go?”
“Too many beggars, too many beggars,” shouted the sacristan, most likely a member of “Baby Doc’s” dreaded Tonton Macoutes (a Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959, which reported directly to François “Papa Doc” Duvalier until his death and, subsequently, to his son and successor Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier).
“The people cannot pray,” he said. “Everyone must go – now!”
Another goal of my trip was to visit a section of Port-au-Prince known as Cité Soleil. Even then it was notorious. Cité Soleil covers a large area although I was never quite sure where it began or ended. Part of it appeared to be a government housing project, “cinderblock estates,” where blocks and blocks of poor people lived.
Those homes, however, appeared sturdy even if they were quite repetitious. Next to this area were “slums” where people lived with far less, where there were open sewers and smoldering garbage piles 10 feet high on which people climbed and children scavenged for food.
While in this area of Cité Soleil a young man approached me. He asked if he could accompany me to the marketplace to help me obtain some good bargains. I agreed to his terms knowing full well that I would have to “buy” him a meal at the end of the day.
After shopping as we sat down in a restaurant, ordered a meal and watched as it was put hot on the table, I noticed he was looking past me and focusing on something that was happening outside the window just behind my head.
When I turned around to look, I noticed a young boy, perhaps half the age of my guest, making gestures in a hand to mouth motion that indicated he wanted something to eat. Suddenly the young man who was at a table with me bolted from his seat and went outside. After what seemed like a heated argument, he took the younger man by the arm, brought him into the restaurant and seated him in the chairs beside his. He then proceeded to take his knife and his fork and split the food on his plate in two. Then both of them began eating from the same plate.
I was stunned into inaction. I never could have imagined something like that taking place before my very eyes. I never moved to share my food or offered to buy some dinner for that poor second child.
After the meal was over and we went out into the street, I asked him if he knew that boy. He said, “No.” I then asked him why he had done such a strange thing. He said, “Because he was hungry, too.”
I pray that in this new moment to share, none of us are moved to inaction.
Father Perzan is parochial vicar at St. Helena Parish in Philadelphia.