Thursday, November 6, 2008

Helen Johnson's Testimony Finale

We Went, We Worked, We Received and Were Blessed

We supervised the cutting up of a pig! We painted the exterior of a recently completed home (and the color scheme, well, let’s just say that it fits Haiti). We hung a new door for the storage room in the Bakery. We did some very extensive cleaning up in the Guest House and the Convent/Chapel. We helped on the day for distribution of food for the destitute; we helped on the day for distribution of uniforms. We visited the hospital and Missionaries of Charity.

Anybody can go to the mission and paint, or clean-up, or perform the many odd jobs that need to be done. But, I believe we are primarily called on mission to reveal and be the Jesus in each of us: the Jesus that listens, the Jesus that loves unconditionally, the Jesus that embraces and defends the marginalized of society; the Jesus that forgives, turns the other cheek, goes the extra mile, and gives from the heart.

Certainly, one reason for going on mission is to serve others. But, it is also an opportunity to be still and listen for the Lord to speak. During this mission, the Lord spoke to me on several occasions, one being through the Gospel of Sat. Sept 20th, where Jesus speaks about the seed that fell in different areas/types of soil. In speaking about the “seed that fell among thorns and was choked”, I feel like I have one foot in the “thorns”, where I do get choked by the anxieties, riches and pleasures of life, and fail to bear “mature fruit”; and I feel my other foot is in “rich soil”, where the Lord says I will “bear fruit through perseverance”. I am hopeful that through patience and perseverance, the Lord will provide the opportunity for me to bear mature fruit by planting both feet in rich soil – the question is where.

The Lord also spoke to me through the Gospel of Sunday, Sept. 21st, which told of laborers being sent to work in the vineyard at different times of the day. The last ones are asked “Why do you stand here idle all day?”, and they answer “Because no one has hired us”. This speaks to me that, even at my “late” age, Jesus still seeks me out and asks me why I am not working for Him. And I believe that His response to me is the same as the owner’s response was in the Gospel, “You, too, go into my vineyard”.

A little message in the Gospel of Monday, Sept. 22nd, was to “take care then how you hear”, where the Lord is asking me to listen carefully. He will speak to me about where He wants me and what He wants me doing, I just need to “take care how I hear”. The following day, the Gospel has Jesus saying “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word and act on it”. In taking both Monday and Tuesday’s Gospels, I believe I need to listen carefully and then act on it.

When considering whether to do missionary work, here or abroad, it’s important to remember Matthew 25: 35-36:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

The SOLT Mission in Haiti provides the opportunity to serve the Lord in many ways. While a personal trip may not be feasible for all, we can certainly contribute the financial resources needed to continue these good works, and always pray for the Mission and all who serve and are served in it.

Helen Johnson's Testimony Part 4

School Uniforms

One day we also distributed school uniforms, which had all been sewn at the mission’s Sewing Center. Once again, the people waited outside the gates of the mission. The staff members would call a child’s name (and we heard names like “Smith” and “Johnson”) and they would come forward, with one adult chaperone, and enter the grounds, where they would be seated and later called up in small groups.

We knew we wouldn’t have enough of all the sizes for all the children, but wanted to distribute as many as we could since school had been delayed throughout the country because of the hurricanes. It was really heartbreaking for us when a child would come forward for his/her uniform, and we had run out of their size. They, on the other hand, would just accept it, shrug their shoulders, and move on, as they knew more uniforms would be made and, in due time, every child would be getting their own.

We had brought a lot of candy with us, and we gave each child two pieces while they waited. After they received their uniform, the mission fed the children a bowl of corn mush and beans. We then sent them on their way with a piece of bread (baked at the mission), an orange (from the citrus orchard), and one more piece of candy since we had enough left over!

Sunday Mass

As with all functions at the Mission, the people gathered outside the gates for Sunday morning Mass. When they were allowed in, they walked in quietly, in single file and sat in the “pews”. The music is lively, but respectful, and the cantor has a great voice and, like most Cajuns, loves to use her hands! We also had a special treat that day, a Baptism. The little girl was just beautiful in her special white dress. When receiving Communion, the Haitians generally cross their arms, as they will not touch the Eucharist out of their deep respect and humility.

All in a Day’s Work

Life for the Haitian people, and the workday’s cycle, revolve around the rising and setting of the sun as they don’t have electricity in their homes. There is an underlying current at the mission; one of respect and love for one another, an atmosphere of mutual cooperation – team work. People know what their responsibilities are and fulfill them. Not that there aren’t disagreements or problems, but the people have been taught how to resolve conflicts when they arise. Fr. Glenn has a terrific group of Haitian men in charge, and he lets them run the show for the most part. He provides instruction and gives his opinion(s) to the men, not with an air of domination or superiority, but with an attitude of fatherly guidance, experience, and wisdom.

Helen Johnson's Testimony Part 3

Our Daily Schedule

Our days would begin with Mass, and we were always joined by 3 or 4 of the mission leaders. We would then have a cup of coffee – usually our local Louisiana brand, Community Coffee – and maybe a granola bar. Then, it was off to do whatever the day held in store for us.

One day we went into town (Hinche) and visited the local hospital; no private rooms or air conditioning here. It’s your typical, third world country hospital: your family or friends are responsible for feeding you, cleaning you, getting your medication, etc… room service or button to press to call the nurse. One man we visited was there just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had been shot in both legs – by a policeman – he said they were after the man he was with…..

We also visited the local Missionaries of Charity compound in Hinche. They take care of orphaned children, the elderly, dying, and abandoned; all ages of people were there. One child in particular stole my heart: she was maybe 18 months old and just sitting in her crib (there must have been 30 cribs in that room); her little face swollen and bruised, no doubt from being abused. Her face is etched in my memory. Not surprisingly, many of the children would just stand up in their crib and look at you, hoping to be held – maybe even just touched. All of us made the rounds, holding a few of them, but touching or stroking each of them as we would go by.

Back at the Mission, the school provides free education for the children, including uniforms, school supplies/books, and the most precious gift of a solid meal. They’re given a very generous portion of corn mush and beans in a stainless steel bowl – and they eat it all. It’s probably the only meal they will eat that day. The bakery, one of the most recently completed projects at the mission, provides bread for the children, usually twice a week.

Feeding the Hungry

The “kitchen”, and I use that term loosely, is a simple, tin-roof covered area, where the meals for the school children are cooked over open fires in big black kettles. If you’re imagining a big wooden paddle for stirring – you’re right on! But, it’s not just a flat paddle, the end is like a big scoop or spoon – and it is definitely hand carved. Near the cooking shed is a huge stack of wood for fuel; the children are required to bring one stick a day when they come to school. Can’t help but think about them with their piece of wood, and Jesus with His piece of wood (the cross). And, there is no commercial dishwasher around either, all of the kettles and stainless steel bowls and spoons are washed by hand! No union or labor laws or Department of Health to worry about here!

Once a month, the mission has food distribution for the destitute. Imagine that, the poor giving to the even poorer. The organization of the day is quite impressive. People from surrounding villages gather outside the gates, and are let into the mission, usually by village, and directed to sit in certain areas. Those who have come with their burro go and tie it up in the “burro parking lot”! Some of these people come from miles away, and having/sharing a beast of burden to carry the commodities back is a luxury; but, most carry their goods back home the old fashioned way – on their heads.

They come with sacks for the grain and beans they receive. They are also given about a pint of cooking oil (they bring their own container), a bag of chicken bouillon cubes, and a huge slab of soap. There is no shoving, yelling or disruptive behavior. They are quiet, respectful, and most grateful, as they always reply – in Creole French – “Thanks be to the Great Master”. To say that helping in this distribution was a humbling experience is a great understatement.

The Housing Project

The mission is also involved in building good, quality homes, which are on a concrete slab with a tin roof (both major improvements to what they are currently living in). The new homes have four rooms; there’s no electricity (it’s not available), and no plumbing (no water lines either). The home is usually painted when construction is completed.

The building crews and volunteers have constructed about 50 homes so far, and hope to build as many as 500, one or two at a time as money and supplies become available. One of the most impressive things is to “hear” the people building/working on the home. Some of the men will play bongo drums or tin cans or five gallon buckets to establish a rhythm/cadence as they do their work. This not only brings a “teamwork” kind of philosophy to the project, it establishes a joyful atmosphere. Everyone in the surrounding area can hear the music, and they know something is going on, so before you know it, the construction site is surrounded by onlookers! They also do the same thing when they’re out working in the fields, hoeing or digging to the rhythm of the beat! It’s uplifting!

Helen Johnson's Testimony Part 2

This is the SOLT Haiti Mission

We arrive at the mission and spend some time settling into the guest house. It has 4-5 bedrooms with a total of maybe 15 single beds. The kitchen is large and fairly well equipped. There is a dining room area as well as office/reception area, a front porch, and a couple of good sized storage rooms. Also waiting for us are fresh eggs, fruits & vegetables – the hospitality and generosity of the people are already beginning to show.

We’re given a tour of the mission grounds, which is “fenced in” by their own manufactured cinder block and a lot of “au natural” cactus. Also on the grounds are 18 classrooms, Fr. Glenn’s house, dining/kitchen/cafeteria building, storage silos, convent (with a chapel), church/grain storage building, a bakery/sewing building, security/staff living quarters and a staff office building.

There are also areas where the animals are raised, a citrus orchard, corn field, and various fruit trees. The mission has developed and nurtured these grounds over the years, and all of its fruits are used to feed the children and/or the destitute. Water is provided to the mission from a natural spring – known as “the source” – which is some 8 miles away. There is one corner of the mission property, which has separate faucets on the street side, where the local people can obtain fresh, clean water. It is an oasis for these people, and they have been taught over the years to respect and appreciate this gift. If they don’t, they know the mission will turn the water off – they tested Father once! When the aqueduct system had first been completed, and the water first flowed from these community spigots, there was some unruliness and misuse of the water. Father turned the water off for one week, and when he asked the people – at Sunday Mass – how they were going to resolve the issues of misuse, they came up with solutions and he let them implement their plan.

There is no electricity in the immediate area, so power at the mission is provided by solar panels which are hooked up to large batteries. When the batteries run out (and they do, usually during the early evening), there is a generator for backup. The next day, when the sun comes up, the batteries get recharged and the process starts all over.

A “Bouchere” in the Mission

Oh, oh. Fr. Glenn’s a little disappointed. He understood that the men at the mission were going to be killing a pig early in the morning before we arrived so we could have a little meat for our first supper – but they didn’t. Now, we’re on the line for a “bouchere” tomorrow morning, and we are expected to give instructions to the Haitians on how to cut-up the pig, as Fr. Glenn says they don’t do it “right”. Remember, Fr. Glenn grew up in rural South Louisiana where a “bouchere”, or pig butchering, is considered an art. Well, at least this time we don’t have to kill it! He said the Haitians usually just take as much meat off the bone as possible and then chop up the boney parts. What he really wants is to have his favorite cut – the Boston butt. Lord, help me! I attended one Bouchere Festival in St. Martinville and he thinks that makes me an expert on cutting up a pig. One interesting thing that the Haitians do to remove most of the hair after they kill the pig is lay it on the ground, cover it with dry straw, and then burn the straw – kinda like singeing.

Receiving as Well as Giving

On the morning of our arrival, the 1st reading of the mass was from St. Paul which dealt with the body, although one, having many parts, and that God has designated and given each of us certain gifts and responsibilities in order to serve Him and our fellow brethren. In arriving at the mission, we see many people, doing many things………..and I begin to wonder how does God want us to serve while we are here? On one hand, what does God want us to give to these people, and on the other hand, what does He want us to receive from them? They have the “need to give” just as much as we do. And learning how to receive is a challenge when our thought process, as “rich” Americans, normally tends to material things. God has not sent me here to receive anything material; please Lord, help me to be open and humble enough to receive your Spirit of joy, humility, generosity, and gratitude that lives in these people.

Helen Johnson's Testimony Part 1

SOLT Haiti Mission Witness Statement of Helen Johnson – Sep. 15-23, 2008

The Call to Go

There comes a time in life when you begin to search for a little deeper meaning to it all. For me, that search began a few years back when I felt the Lord calling me: calling me to a closer and deeper relationship by serving Him more earnestly, more faithfully, unconditionally, obediently, and totally surrendered. In order to do that, I’d have to reprioritize everything in my life, by first coming to the foot of the cross, where – through His mother – I’d find the will of God for me. And in looking back at my life thus far, the crosses I’ve had to carry have been kindling sticks compared to His. But even more revealing has been just how little my crosses are compared to the people He has sent me to serve in the mission fields. And it is in seeing the crosses that they carry that I lose any pretense that my life is difficult. From the moment I get up in the morning to the moment I lay my head down at night, I am truly blessed. And in the night, I sleep with a comfort level in regards to shelter, food, clothing, employment, etc. that the majority of the world envies.

Having spent a few months on mission in Mexico, I was excited about the opportunity for a new experience. And while we seldom hear anything positive about Haiti, I knew that all of that needs to be disregarded to go on mission, and, I trusted that Fr. Glenn wouldn’t put us in harms way.

Setting Out

So, off we went, leaving on Sept. 15th, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and I thought that was rather appropriate, as we were going to a nation considered one of, if not the, poorest in the western hemisphere. How Our Lady of Sorrows must look down, not just on the people of Haiti, but on all the poor and destitute of the world, and be so sad that the riches her Son has poured out on so many is not shared more generously so that all can have the dignity and respect they deserve as His children. She continues to look down and see her Son, persecuted, abandoned, abused, naked, cold, thirsty, and with nowhere to lay His head.

After spending the night in Ft. Lauderdale, we flew to Port-au-Prince on Tuesday. As you enter the airport, you’re greeted with beautiful Caribbean style music that puts you in a rather cheerful spirit. While it belies the political situation in the country, it does represent the joyful, warm, and friendly Haitian people that we have come here to serve.

After the unbelievable hustle and bustle of the main airport terminal – so many men wanting to handle your luggage for a couple of bucks– we’re driven a short distance to a smaller terminal for the connecting flight with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) to the city of Hinche. Since we’ll be flying in a puddle jumper, every passenger and piece of luggage must be weighed for proper distribution and placement in the airplane. So, we’ve decided that proper etiquette calls for everyone to turn their back to the scales whenever one of us is being weighed!

It’s only a 15-20 minute flight and a comfortable way to see the beautiful countryside (as opposed to the optional drive through unfriendly territory and roads that are unpredictable – if there at all). From the coast, you fly inland over mountainous terrain to the area of the country known as “The Plateau”. When approaching the dirt strip landing, you pray that all the people and animals will clear out of your way!

From there, the ride to the mission is exciting as you pass through the streets of Hinche, full of people, little shops, and homes that vary from the nicer, cinder-block style, to the more common stick and mud shacks of those less fortunate. It’s our first real glimpse of Haiti and her people, and they are just as curious about us as we are about them.