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The Priests of Haiti

Authored by: The Rev. Deacon Clelia Garrity, LCSW

Pictured: Deacon Clelia and Pere Jean Berthol Phanord

"We are alive, but we are still fighting for [our] life. Even though the situation is very, very difficult, we continue to work very hard. Perhaps another time I might have more to say to you, but for now the shaking continues. The buildings shake. The shaking is everyplace. That is why it is difficult to stay in one place. Right now, I stay under this tree. My bed and my car stay here. But God knows everything. We always, always have hope. The situation in Haiti should be changed. I don't know how long, but we [can]not continue, continue the life like that. It is not a human life. I think it is very difficult…but we continue to work. We continue to pray…we are all one in Jesus Christ." Jean Berthold Phanord, Episcopal Priest, Bondeau, Haiti.

I first traveled to Haiti in 1999. It was a spur of the moment trip. I was working in Palm Beach County as the HIV/AIDS clinical program manager and was increasingly curious about the Haitian culture and Haitian attitudes regarding healthcare. One afternoon I said to my husband, "I need to go to Haiti", and literally overnight, I found a group that was headed there the following week. I booked my flight, met them at the airport, and was in Haiti the following Thursday afternoon.

As our plane sped down the runway for the brief 90-minute flight to Port au Prince, the tiny nation's capital, I was blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen to me. To say that I fell in love with Haiti would be doing an injustice to the complex feelings that welled in my heart and in my head throughout five brief days of meeting, visiting, and caring for countless souls -all of whom welcomed us with open arms, loving hearts, and incredible hospitality.

I returned home stunned by all that I had encountered – the crowds, the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the absence of medical care…the list went on and on. And yet, despite conditions in what was most clearly a "third world" country, a people so vibrant, so talented, and so in love with God. Perhaps to say that I fell in love with Haiti would be far too simplistic. Perhaps, more accurately, I could say that Haiti entered my soul, and it has never left.

I write this little piece two weeks following the devastating 7.2 earthquake Haiti experienced on August 18, 2021, only 11 years after the 2010 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of Port au Prince and Leogane, Haiti's two largest cities. Although political unrest and COVID-19 have prevented me from traveling to Haiti since the fall of 2019, I have not ceased to care deeply for the many friendships and projects that were an integral part of my life for 20 years. And so, uppermost in my mind and central to my prayer life these days are these relationships and projects.

And, while I pray for all of Haiti, today it strikes me that it is the priests of Haiti - men and women whose commitment to their vocation is without parallel – for whom I am the most concerned as I write this brief reflection.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians writes, "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:13-17)

I do not believe that one can know or understand the life of a Haitian priest without having had the honor and the opportunity to work closely with them over an extended period of time. To be embedded among them if you will. I was so blessed with that opportunity and today as I read Pere Phanord's comments and await word from my good friend Pere Kesner Ajax, I find myself overwhelmed with grief as I think of the grief and trauma that these souls have endured over the years and their commitment to never question God, but rather to always, with the armor of God, to live in hope and faith.

Pictured: Pere Kesner Ajax

I remember Pere Kesner who several weeks after the 2010 earthquake stood beside me at the collapsed cathedral in Port au Prince. He was pointing to a small cross in what appeared to be a newly cleared area beside the rubble of the cathedral. He said, so quietly, "This cross is for the children who died here. I listened to them crying for help, but we could not reach them." (Personal communication) I take a look a Pere Kesner's Facebook page this morning and watch him in a series of photos standing straight and strong as he hands out food and water to hundreds amidst the rubble of Les Cayes, his home, a smile on his face and I would bet love in his heart.

Pere Phanord sent out a short video this morning, the opening quote above is extracted from his recorded comments. In the video he is seated in a plastic chair under a tree, his car behind him. His entire community, including his house, is now rubble. Many people have died. There is no food or water. They are miles from anywhere that might offer significant help. Yet he continues to hold services to which many people flock, in the hope that God will bring relief to a life that, as Pere Phanord says, "is not human."

It is clear from the video that Pere Phanord is not well. He is struggling to breath. Perhaps he had COVID-19 and is suffering aftereffects. I will have to ask him when we next communicate. But despite it all, there he is in his collar, ministering to his flock and advocating for their needs.

Paul encourages us to be warriors in a battle to remain steadfast in our love of Christ. I can think of no greater example of what these warriors might look like other than the priests of Haiti. Let us keep them in our prayers.


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