|Kindergarten teacher Bitoranne Guerda preparing report cards.
W. Evan Golder photo
Bitoranne Guerda was teaching kindergarten in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, when an inner voice prompted her to return to her home village of Thomonde in Haiti's Central Plateau. "Why not teach there?" the voice asked.
She answered that "call" and moved in with her 98-year-old grandmother into a rural house with three small rooms and dirt floors. Their home is neat and clean. Lace curtains separate the rooms; dishes are washed and stacked on shelves. Red flowers and scenic pictures decorate the walls. In a sunlit corner of the dining room, she sits at a desk and makes out report cards.
Not too far from Bitoranne Guerda's home lives a mother with seven children. When a visitor asked the oldest what he'd like to be when he grows up, his mother spoke up first.
"That's a very complicated question," she said in Creole, through an interpreter. "There's no hope for him. He has no future."
Eyes downcast, the boy glanced sideways at the questioner. "Engineer," he said quietly.
Hope and despair
Those examples represent the hope and despair of Haiti today, a contrast observed in June by three different UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) groups.
The first group from Coral Gables (Fla.) Congregational UCC visited Project Medishare, a medical nonprofit organization devoted to improving the health of the Haitian people.
The second group from Augusta Christian Church in Indianapolis visited two Global Ministries missionaries, Patrick and Kim Bentrott, and CONASPEH - the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti.
A third group, comprised of African-Americans funded in part by a Black Leadership Projects grant from Disciples Home Missions, also visited CONASPEH.
The African-American group had special significance, says the Rev. Felix Ortiz-Cotto, Global Ministries Area Executive for Latin America and the Caribbean, since Haitian slaves successfully revolted against the French colonialists and ended slavery 60 years before the United States did.
Each focused on gathering facts to be better advocates for Haiti. Participants in each group reacted the same way.
"I'm still on a high," says Patsy Harris of Mount Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland, whose great-grandmother came from Haiti. While in Haiti, she got to meet Rosermie, a girl she sponsors through the UCC Child Sponsorship Program.
"Haiti's effect is overwhelming," says Calvin Fotso of the Coral Gables church. "It makes me reflect more on what's important and what's not."
Hemisphere's poorest country
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with about 80 percent of its people living on less than $2 US a day. About two-thirds of the population exists on small-scale subsistence farming. Half the population is illiterate.
Of Haiti's 15,000 schools, 90 percent are non-public and are run by religious organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Only two-thirds of the children start school, while only one-fifth of the children make it to secondary school.
One inspiring visit made by the Coral Gables group was to HELP, the Haitian Education & Leadership Program. This NGO scours the countryside seeking gifted students to receive university scholarships. HELP's graduates have a 100 percent employment rate.
Another challenge visitors noted was accessibility to health care on the island. Currently Haiti has only one doctor for every 10,000 persons. Among HELP students are 20 medical students, who soon will provide a significant increase in the availability of health care in Haiti.
Four Hatian boys.
Verve and vitality
The three groups came back impressed by the Haitian people.
"Haitians are incredible, resourceful, proud, intense people," says Caprecia White of the Indianapolis church. "They live their lives making things happen with the most minimal of resources. I do mean minimal."
"I'm struck by the hard work that the community health workers have to do," says Leonie Hermantin of Coral Gables UCC. "People have problems and these workers have to visit them, mostly empty handed, and determine whether they need professional medical help and then help them to get it."
The verve and vitality of the Haitian people is reflected in the colors of their lives. On any day of the week, brightly-colored laundry drying in the sun dots the countryside. Vivid red, blue, orange and yellow painting decorates the buses, dump trucks and tap-taps (pick-up-truck taxis).
"We are still not a developed country," one speaker told the Coral Gables group, "but we are still unbowed" – one more example of the mix of hope and despair.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.