Early on Wednesday morning we took off in our bus for Cite Soleil (City of the Sun), a place that experiences horrendous poverty that has often manifested itself in violence and unrest. This gigantic seaside slum is home to almost 400,000 inhabitants of Port au Prince.
The first place we visited there is truly a beautiful oasis amidst the ugliness of extreme need. Margherite Nassau includes so many aspects of support for this impoverished community that it’s difficult to remember them all. Once you enter the gates of this holy place, it’s as if you have accidentally stepped through a time portal to a different place. The buildings are clean and freshly painted, the gardens are manicured, the teachers have their students under control, the children are uniformed and impeccably groomed – order and discipline in the midst of chaos.
But the school is just the beginning. Their immaculately clean kitchens prepare a cooked lunch for the hundreds of children here, for some, possibly the only hot meal of the day. This complex also houses a nutritional center for severely malnourished children and a large free clinic.
Behind the school there are rooms for skills training. Here, the mothers of the children attending the school and those whose children are in the nutritional center are taught how to sew the uniforms that their children will wear. Their sewing skills are honed in this room and so the mothers end up with a skill that will allow them to earn an income in the future. In another room, other mothers are taught how to embroider items that end up being sold to visitors at a little retail area there – tablecloths, napkins, shirts, greeting cards, and more, all beautifully embroidered by these talented mothers.
These Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul truly impressed me. Their age (some of the more mature ones had been there for more than 30 years) and distance from home (Spain, Brazil, Puerto Rico) have never dampened their enthusiasm for the mission.
They have recently hired a teacher to educate the mothers who are in the skills training room. Their rational being that they will learn a skill faster and more efficiently the higher the level of education they attain and, at home, it will be a boost for the children to have at least one parent who has broken the chains of illiteracy.
We saw a teacher outdoors, teaching the kids P.E., and we were exhausted just observing his great energy. The kids??? They were having a ball!!
From here we drove to the heart of the poverty of Cite Soleil. Here we have a feeding center that provides 5-7,000 people their only meal of the day. These are indeed the poorest of the poor – the least of His brothers and sisters. The faces of those in line to receive their servings of rice and beans betrayed the battering their lives had received from multi-generational poverty.
They would soon return to their shacks to share this modest meal with their loved ones – tiny structures of all-zinc with no ventilation other than the hole at the front where a door should have been. In the mid-day sun they swelter and sweat in what always gives me the impression of being a slow-cook roaster. The humidity from the often-muddy floors makes it difficult to breathe in there, particularly since the limited area is also shared with chickens and other animals. A family was kind enough to allow us to visit inside one of these – they would soon be receiving an FFP home.
Food For The Poor is building many houses there. We visited some of these. What a difference! Raised cement floors, concrete-block construction, corrugated metal roofs with hurricane straps, windows and doors… But the difference isn’t just one of construction, the amazing difference is the one that we so clearly saw in the people – more relaxed, easier smiles, their faces, particularly their eyes, spoke of reduced pain.
We walked through the winding back alleys of Cite Soleil, visited our school at Ti Haiti, saw the now-infamous clay cookies being sold and bought some for the speakers. Again, wherever we went, the desperate crowds seeking relief from their suffering surrounded Madame Pun. Again, I thought of Jesus. Back on the bus, one of the priests asked her if she ever got tired of this. “I wish I had a magic wand…” she replied, “but you can’t blame them… we are their only hope.”