Two years ago when I was named chairperson for Project Starfish- Building a Village in Haiti at St Joseph’s in Hope Valley I never dreamed where this journey would take me and the people of my parish family. We have now traveled in one way or another from this valley of hope into the shadow of the valley of death. But what a great privilege and honor God had already bestowed upon the people of St Joseph’s parish family to have called us to an intimate relationship with the people of Haiti two years ago! And it is no small thing that when the earth shook in Haiti, a small handful of dirt from Haiti that lies at the foot of Our Lady in the front of our church, held still and steady, like hope. Yes, hope is like the dirt and the stars.
This past June I traveled to Port-au-Prince and stayed with the family of Dr & Dr Pouchon and Ghislaine and their six children on the outskirts of the city. With Pouchon, the obstetrician and Ghislaine, the pediatrician I had access to tours of clinics and hospitals both in town and in Citi Soliel, one of the largest slums in the world. It was an educational trip of many dimensions.
I came home with many painful and stirring images of the poor in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, a mere one and a half hour flight from Disney world. But I also came home with some beautiful images of joy and happiness in Haiti and the thought that perhaps Haiti would one day find its place in the modern world. For in addition to Ghislaine and Pouchon’s love of medicine and their love of their children, was their passion for competitive dancing- cha cha, tango, rumba. I remember Pouchon twirling Ghislaine across the dance floor as I snapped photographs until he pulled me out there on the dance floor to give it a whirl. It was a delightful evening in a world deeply mired in economic strife.
Two days after the quake hit I learned that on the fourth floor of one of the many hospitals where they both often worked twenty four hour shifts, Ghislaine and Pouchon had reserved a small room in which to practice their dancing between shifts. They were there dancing on that Tuesday afternoon when the earthquake hit. Strong sturdily built Pouchon was able to pull himself from the rubble of the crashing concrete pillars; small beautifully petite Ghislaine, mother of six, pediatrician did not make it out.
On the third day after the earthquake I was in Washington DC and I saw on the front page of one of the newspapers the photograph of a man running with his dead child in his arms. Its caption read: “The Face of Haiti.” I looked at this man’s face and I felt the beautiful image of Pouchon and Ghislaine dancing recede from my memory.
Now radio and television images rolled in by the hour, emails and phone calls came until my heart and senses reeled with pain and a sense of unreality. Gone, far far gone was the beautiful beautiful evening of joy and dance. I wondered how much suffering can be understood, how much can be endured? And I asked myself what we are meant to learn on such a journey with the people of Haiti.
Then there came to me a story on the radio about a make shift hospital where the doctors had spent the day amputating gangrenous limbs with a rusty saw and probably little or no anesthesia or antibiotics. Once again at the end of the day Haiti plunged into utter darkness. Patients lay on blankets slowly dying from infections and pain and grief. And then out of this heart of darkness came the singular pure voice of a woman as she began to sing the Haitian National anthem, a song of strength, and beauty, and survival. One by one the other patients joined in until the entire hospital rang out in song as one great unified voice against the night. I wept as I listened to this story and I felt the image of the dancers stir in some far recess of my mind.
I thought again and again about the journey we have been called to take with the people of Haiti. When the Lord calls you to journey it is always to learn something. I heard the Lord say “Look now to the people of Haiti to teach you how to live and how to die, for they do so with grace, and strength, and a deep abiding dignity.”
The next day I heard that Food For the Poor got ready to re-open its feeding station in Port au Prince. Outside I am told were at least 1500 miserably hungry, thirsty, emotionally and physically ravaged men, women, and children. I have been there and I can imagine the workers fearing the result of opening the heavily guarded gates and letting the mob in. As the gates opened, I am told that 1500 people fell to their knees in prayer and thanked God. And again I heard God say to me “Let the people of Haiti teach you how to live and how to die.”
As I sat in silence and contemplated this story of this true face of Haiti, I bowed my own head and gave thanks. Thanks for the journey I have been called to take in my own small way with the people of Haiti. And as I lifted my head I suddenly knew that at the moment of the earthquake it was not that falling concrete post that had taken my friend Ghislaine’s breath away, no, rather, it was that last incredibly beautiful twirl across the dance floor.
Kiki Latimer is the author of Islands of Hope