Catholic Herald staff
On his second trip to Haiti, Fr. John Anderson was struck by how joy-filled the people were.
“They’re just happy,” he said. “They have nothing. They’re just happy.”
One of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti also struggles with frequent natural disasters, inadequate infrastructure and political strife, among other difficulties.
Despite their troubles, Fr. Anderson noticed Haitians dress in their best clothes for Sunday Mass. They don’t have drug or alcohol problems, “partly because they can’t afford it,” and despite months of civil unrest over a government gas price hike, he never felt unsafe.
“We were constantly treated with appreciation and respect,” he said.
The pastor of Immaculate Conception, New Richmond, traveled with a volunteer group for a one-week mission trip in November. Two parishioners, Dr. Steve Harrold, a family practice physician and Fr. Anderson’s personal doctor, and Cyndi Blader, a physician’s assistant, were working with two emergency room doctors and an emergency room nurse practitioner to provide medical care at a school in Petite Riviere De Nippes, about 70 miles west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. They also provided care in a mountain village via mobile clinic.
Fr. Anderson, along with other non-medically trained volunteers, helped out as needed.
“During the clinics, I did weights and heights,” he said. “That was my role … and entertained the little ones while they were sitting around.” In the mountains, he was “riding herd,” sorting out who went where for care.
Haiti is a predominantly Catholic country, but sacramentally speaking, Fr. Anderson had fewer duties. He concelebrated Sunday Mass with some Haitian priests and also celebrated Mass at the hotel.
The priest first traveled to Haiti almost 30 years ago as a seminarian with the organization Food for the Poor. Then stationed in Port-au-Prince, Fr. Anderson saw political workings, deeply impoverished people and not a lot of reason to be hopeful.
But this time, things were changing.
As Dr. Harrold and Fr. Anderson explained to Tom Lindfors, a reporter with the New Richmond News, the Complexe Educatif St. Antoine, or CESA – the school the mission group visited – was cause for hope.
Founded and sponsored by the American Haitian Foundation— a collaborative parish project stemming from a Haitian priest’s invitation to a Tennessee man, Jack Davidson, to visit his country in 1993 –the K-12 school was built beginning in the 1990s with local materials by a local workforce of about 500 people.
Decades later, now on a greatly expanded campus, Haitians are employed, trained, educated and, perhaps most importantly, fed.
“Food is critical,” Fr. Anderson added.
Provided daily meals from Feed My Starving Children and a container of food to take home for dinner, students are healthy and on the American growth charts, Dr. Harrold explained to Lindfors. Parents no longer have to choose which of their kids will eat at night, the Americans were told.
American benefactors have done much for those fortunate enough to attend CESA, who walk, on average, three miles to go to school. Fr. Anderson compares the lives of the 1,000 CESA students – the cost of their uniform and education supplemented by sponsors, electricity to ensure a full school day, safe water from a newly dug well, daily meals and access to technology, among many benefits – to students the mobile clinic visited in the mountains, who had none of those advantages.
“They live very different lives,” he said.
The “top price” to sponsor a CESA student runs $200 a year, he said; Fr. Anderson aims to attract more sponsors through a presentation at Immaculate Conception. He has been sponsoring a student from the Dominican Republic, the country that shares an island with Haiti, for years. Now that student is graduating, so Fr. Anderson plans to switch countries and help a Haitian child.
Dr. Harrold, who was on his third visit to Haiti, has committed to organizing annual medical missions to Haiti, and he hopes to go twice a year, he told Lindfors.
Corruption and inflation protests against Haitian president Jovenel Moise, ongoing since last summer, were heating up as the mission group’s trip ended. Rumors of rioting caused them to return to Port-au-Prince earlier than they intended, Fr. Anderson said.
According to current news reports, protests turned increasing violent in February. Rioting closed CESA for two weeks, the American Haitian Foundation noted on their Facebook page, and the U.S., Canada and France recommend against traveling to the country.
Three major airlines announced last week they were suspending or reducing flights to Port-au-Prince. Reports indicate the shortage of food, fuel and water could push the always-struggling population into a fresh humanitarian crisis.
Information from reporter Tom Lindfors’ interview with Dr. Steve Harrold was cited in this article. “Volunteers essential to Haiti mission” was published Jan. 12 in the New Richmond News.