On Tuesday, May 6th, a group of 19 of us – priests, pastors, deacons, the director of Speakers’ Bureau (Vicki Kaufman) and myself – departed from Fort Lauderdale to Port au Prince, Haiti. The humid heat, the “welcome” music, the crowds offering taxis and to carry our small pieces of luggage and the musicians in the parking lot were all happy reminders that we had arrived. Madame Pun, FFP’s Executive Director there, and Yvon, our highly skilled driver, were there to meet and greet us.
We went directly from the airport to our offices and distribution center. Here, we also operate the only free clinic in a very highly populated area of the city. We were introduced to some of the dedicated doctors and nurses who tend to so many on a daily basis. We also saw the many mothers there who brought their sick babies to be treated. I wondered what would become of those children if the medical care that we offered was not freely available.
I was happy to see that at the clinic they were distributing 2 very nutritional products for the children, many of whom were malnourished: The first was “Pampy-nut” – a paste with a peanut butter base that contains many of the essential nutrients for children; the second was “Akamil” – a meal of grains that makes a nutritious porridge. This last product was actually developed by one of our employees in our Haiti office.
From there we went next door to our own feeding center that supplies a solid hot meal (possibly the only one of the day), 6 days a week, to over 15,000 people in the area. As we entered, we saw a group of people preparing the vegetables for the next day’s meal (two mountains of spinach and egg plants) and I was thrilled to learn that the veggies for the daily meals are grown by our farming project at Santo.
Fr. Dave Delich and myself (adventurers by nature) decided that we wanted to have some of the lunch being served at the feeding center. The kitchen staff was so excited that we wanted to sample their wares! They ran happily to get us plates and utensils, and proudly served us some of the rice and the stew.
I marveled that they managed to cook 2,400 lbs. of rice in gigantic pots and it still came out loose. The stew, which was made with spinach and green beans, contained a base of some inexpensive protein (like pigs feet or chicken backs) and was well seasoned and tasty. I was happy that the staff took pride in their cooking, which added the ingredient of dignity to the meal.
When I stepped outside to the courtyard that is a second waiting area for the crowds that are standing in line to be served, I saw a lot of sadness in the faces there. Yet, there were 2 women who were so happy to see us! They approached us singing welcome songs and clapping their hands, with smiles that were truly contagious. I spoke to some of the people leaving the area with their plastic buckets or metal pots filled with food for their family, and that is when I saw her…
She was a young girl, pre-teen or early teens, and her poverty was more extreme than the others. The only thing she had to carry the food home for her large family was a plastic bag. I saw her struggling with the weight, as she was only using her left hand, with minimal support from her right. As she approached me, I realized that her right hand was incapacitated (I thought about Jesus and the man with the withered hand), and I observed that the entire arm was badly burned.
I engaged her in conversation, and found out that she had attempted to fill a kerosene lamp while it was still lit. The lamp exploded. A woman behind her showed me that it wasn’t only her arm, but her entire right side of her body was badly burned and scarred, right down to her legs. As I spoke to her I continuously caressed her right arm, as if to assure her that I was not repulsed… that she was not repugnant. I again thought of Jesus, and how he always saw the internal beauty in others and made them see the beauty in themselves. I hoped that, in some small measure, I had succeeded in doing this for her.
I grabbed her bag of food to help her and walked towards the exit. When I didn’t see her coming I looked back and saw a terrified look on her face – she thought that I was taking her food away. I pondered on how unaccustomed she must be to being helped and, between hand gestures and my bad Creole, I got the message across that I was just helping her lift it to the exit. When I got there with her, I gave her the bag and we said goodbye. She was totally unaware of how deeply she had touched my heart. 11 – 12 years old… tough life.
As the door opened to let her out, I caught a glimpse of the multitude of people waiting outside to be let in to this serving area. A guard has to stand there by the door for crowd control. I thought of the multitude of people standing out there, pasted on to one another, sweating, day after day, in the sun and heat, with that look of “quite desperation” on their faces… tough life.
As I turned back into the courtyard area, I saw Madame Pun, surrounded by the destitute, making their troubles and petitions known to her. She looked each one in the eye, attentively, sympathetically, patiently. They call her “Manmi Pun,” and indeed she has been a mother to so many. I again thought of Jesus, and how hard it must have been for Him to be constantly accosted with crowds in great need. I remembered the woman with the hemorrhage who touched His garment and he commented, “I felt the power come out of me.”
We then visited the Distribution Center, and it was a pleasure to see and feel the energy of the hustle and bustle in that place – containers being unloaded, trucks being loaded. Help going out to the poor – nothing stationary – everything dynamic. I feel energized!
We all went to the lunchroom for a delicious meal (my second lunch! :o) and I marveled at how much I had already experienced emotionally in just one morning.