In Your Midst

Mission Trip to Haiti

Dec. 2010

An invitation to encounter Christ 

When the Haiti earthquake hit, the massive loss of life and the images of destruction and devastation stirred the hearts of the world.  For Jennifer Ibach, Pastoral Assistant for Social Outreach at St. James Cathedral, the disaster was a call to action.  “We had a precedent for mission trips here at St. James,” Jenn says, “the Youth Migrant Project, and our trips to Biloxi to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  It seemed a logical thing to organize a trip to Haiti.  It’s the poorest country in the western hemisphere, it’s a predominantly Catholic country, and geographically it’s pretty close to the U.S.”
          The need was immense, but finding a way to help was difficult.  There was no infrastructure following the earthquake; nor were food and lodging available for volunteers, since all resources were being directed to the refugees.  Jennifer remembers:  “I started looking at Catholic organizations already in Haiti—CRS, Caritas.  By chance, at a Cathedral Mass honoring Archbishop Oscar Romero, I met Sister Susan Francois of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace here in Seattle.  We got into a conversation, and I found out that the Sisters had a community doing work in Haiti.”  Jenn connected with the Center for the Rural Development of Milot (CRUDEM), an organization founded in 1968 by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.  Their primary venture in Milot is the Hôpital Sacré Coeur, built in 1986.  All year round, the hospital hosts volunteer doctors and nurses and other medical professionals from around the world.
          Jenn placed an ad in the Cathedral bulletin, inviting interested parishioners to an information session.  Cathedral parishioner Donna Clifford saw the ad.  “It had been a dream from the time I was in Catholic high school—more than 50 years ago!—to go to a poor country to work as a nurse.  But the prospect was, frankly, frightening, and the information session came and went without my doing anything about it.  Then Father Ryan gave a homily about leaving home, leaving our comfort zones.  That was the motivation I needed to sign up.“  Donna’s granddaughter, Sophia Jeannot, a nursing student, joined her.  “We went with a lot of trepidation, not knowing what to expect.”
          Jenn continues:  “It was a lot of work getting it all coordinated, but in the end we put together a team of eight volunteers, four with medical expertise to work in the hospital, and four of us to help out generally and renovate the hospital chapel.” With miles donated by generous Cathedral parishioners as well as Angel Flights, the group was able to travel to Milot in Haiti and to work from September 2-12, 2010.
          Arriving after four laborious flights at the tiny airport in Milot, the group was swarmed by people selling souvenirs, by others wanting to help with luggage, and by children with their hands out, begging with stock English phrases they had mastered—“I’m hungry,” or “Give me a dollar.”  It was an immediate—and overwhelming—experience of the tremendous need of the people of this impoverished nation.
          The group stayed at a compound a mile or two outside of town.  They were comfortably accommodated with other volunteers from around the world.  Because Saturday was a quiet day with not much going on, they took advantage of the time to explore the town.  The visit to the cemetery was powerful, and they witnessed more than one funeral procession that day. “It was 85 or 90 degrees, with 100% humidity, and yet the people in the funeral procession wore starched, formal clothes.  Professional mourners wailed—a haunting sound.  The sight of these processions moved some of us to tears.”  Mass was at the Cathedral of Milot, and the priest was kind enough to translate snippets of his homily (from Creole) into English for the benefit of the St. James group.  The group was able to visit the Palace Sans-Souci, a striking ruin, and the Citadelle Laferriere, a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated five miles uphill above the city of Milot.  On Monday, it was time to get to work.
          Those with medical expertise worked in the hospital, and the others began renovating the hospital chapel under the direction of Sister Ann Crawley, a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace from Ireland.  The pews needed refinishing, some of the windows wouldn’t shut right, plaster was flaking away in places, and the whole chapel needed to be painted.  They set to work with a will.  Meanwhile, they had many opportunities to visit different facilities in the area, including sharing time with UN representatives; visiting the nutrition center at the hospital: witnessing surgeries in the hospital itself; and visiting an orphanage run by the Missionaries of the Poor.
          Donna remembers:  “One of the dilemmas we medical volunteers encountered right away was that the on site staff had trouble finding things the volunteers could do.  We soon found that we had to find our own ways to help.  It didn’t all go as planned, but we all found a way to do what we needed to do; each of us took the initiative to find a way to share our gifts.
          “Sophia and I took care of the basic needs of earthquake victims—the hospital was full to overflowing, so about a hundred were lodged in tents on the hospital grounds.  It was odd to do dressing changes in a tent with chickens running in and out!  We took care of these patients until Dr. Harry Sax, a volunteer physician arrived.  He invited us to assist him with surgeries in the hospital.”
          Dr. Sax wrote in his blog:  “While it is not unusual for parents and children to serve together, this was a grandmother, who attended nursing school in the 50’s, and her 26-year-old granddaughter, who was a nursing student just starting out.  Donna remembered dodging flying instruments and starched caps, while Sophie was idealistic, excited, and scared of what she would be asked to do.”
          Each night the volunteers gathered to reflect and share on their experiences.  “One of the most touching experiences for me was our evening reflections,” Jenn says.  “When we got to Haiti we invited the other volunteers to join us.  This turned our reflections into an ecumenical and interfaith time, which was deeply enriching.  We took turns leading reflection with one of the highlights being a Rosh Hashanah reflection led by the two Jewish volunteers in our community.  It was wonderful to hear how others describe their experience of God.  Taking time out each night for reflection helped the group process the joys and pains of the day as well as build community and trust.  On our last day in Milot, we all attended Mass together in the newly renovated chapel.  It was a joyous occasion and a fitting end to our week together.”
          “I’ve never lived in the moment the way I did that week,” Donna says.  “I focused on what was happening that moment, not what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.  And the stars aligned.  I don’t know how else to put it.  It was an incredible trip.  I realized as never before that the prosperity we Americans enjoy is nothing more than an accident of birth.  The people of Haiti are born under a failed government that gives them nothing—no public education, no clean water, no infrastructure.
          “It’s been hard to come back home.  I’m still trying to process it all—where do we go with what we’ve learned?  How do we even explain what we experienced?”
          Looking back on the trip, the most memorable moment for Jennifer was a visit to the hospital.  “A young man came to the hospital with terrible burns over 80% of his body.  This man had walked miles, with his wounds, to get there.  We were invited to watch him being treated.  So we all trooped in, in our scrubs, looking on as a team of doctors rubbed his burns with cream.  He was lying there, naked, surrounded by strangers.  Though it must have been incredibly painful, he didn’t make a sound.  ‘This is a human being,’ I kept reminding myself.  I asked if I could hold his hand.  I could feel him flinch when his wounds were touched, but he never made a sound.  He was incredibly brave.  It was a very powerful experience for me.  It was a moment where I was powerless; I couldn’t do anything at all; but I could hold his hand, I could be present.
          “To me, it was also symbolic of the whole trip.  We didn’t go to Haiti expecting to change the world, or much of anything, in a week.  We went to be there, just to be present, trying to bring the love of God with us, and that’s about it.  We couldn’t make a huge difference for the people there, but at least they could see that we were there, that we remember, we care, we want to help in any way we can.  While we all did a few concrete things for the people of Milot—nursing in the hospital, fixing up the chapel—we all took away more than we gave.  Those words from Matthew 25—‘As often as you did it for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.’  Those words are a promise that when you serve others, you encounter Christ.
          “We didn’t go to Haiti expecting to change the world, but rather hoping to shine some light in a dark situation.  In the process our hearts were opened, our community grew, and our faith was strengthened.  It was a life-changing experience.”

Maria Laughlin is the Director of Stewardship & Development at St. James Cathedral

The St. James group that traveled to Haiti September 2-12, 2010 were Elizabeth Thybulle, Shelagh Lane, Mali Main, Jennifer Ibach, Teresa Acosta, Donna Clifford, Sophie Jeannot, and Pete Lundquist.  

A view of the main street of Milot, with the Cathedral's dome visible in the distance.
All photos of Haiti courtesy of Jennifer Ibach.

The poorest children in Milot suffer from hunger and malnourishment.
These children are invited to Sacré Coeur Hospital to have a healthy breakfast
and lunch.  A highlight of the trip for our St. James volunteers was visiting
and playing with the children.   

The ruined Palace Sans-Souci ("without care") in Milot, destroyed
in an earthquake in 1842 and never rebuilt.

Jenn Ibach and Sophia Jeannot visit with UN representatives

Jenn and Pete work with locals on refurbishing pews from the hospital Chapel

Painted glass in the Chapel

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