Stay Firm, Stay There ("Kembe la")
Written by Rev. Felix Ortiz-Cotto
March 26, 2012

Kembe la” in Haitian Creole means “Stay firm, Stay there”.  Those words were part of a song that fishermen used in the village of Arcahie, Haiti.  They use that song to synchronize their rowing as they go out in their canoes to fish.  But also “Kembe la” is a song that became a resistance song.  I heard it during the time of the military coup that violently overthrew the democratically elected President Jean Beltran Aristides in 1991.

The XII (12th) International Congress of the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti (CONASPEH) was held February 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Interestingly CONASPEH’s logo is of an inverted tree, with its roots up and its branches down.  This is a sign of a very down to earth, holistic and liberating theology.  With more than 5,000 participants representing 8,500 local grass-root churches, one of the leaders, Rev. Patrick Villier, expressed that Haiti has been confronting many adversities during its history.  He referred to those adversities as other earthquakes, many of them human made. 

Some of those other quakes happened many years ago, like the defeat and colonization of the first habitants of Haiti after Christopher Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola in 1493.  Sadly, the indigenous population was decimated as they resisted colonization. 

Another quake was the introduction of slaves from the continent of Africa to supplement the indigenous population.  Soon Haiti became the richest colony of the Americas, providing gold, sugar, indigo, cotton and woods to France.  During the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, there were approximately half million African slaves working in Haiti.  The high cost of freedom was another quake for the Haitian slaves.  The country was destroyed.  Haiti needed to pay to France for the loss suffered during the Revolution -- an amount that equals $117 billion today.

Furthermore, Haiti was isolated by the other European nations that owned colonies in the Americas: Spain, Portugal, and England.  Even the young nation of the USA did not recognize Haiti until 60 years later.  After its independence Haiti was divided.  It was occupied by US Marines from 1915 to 1934.  They were also had the Duvalier dynasty for 29 years, 1957 until 1986.

During the XII (12th) International Congress of the National Spiritual Council of Churches of Haiti a sign of hope surfaced, 20 nurses received their degrees.  Five of them were survivors of a collapsed school building where twenty other nursing students died during the earthquake of 2011. 

Currently, the Haitian people are still resisting and hoping for a better day.  We should celebrate that they have been leading and inviting others to join in the singing of that song of resistance and hope.  We should reaffirm our commitment to join them as they row and sing.  Lastly, we should celebrate their spirit by reaffirming our commitment to advocate for their freedom, affirming their lives and preventing further human made quakes.  Together, let’s sing “kembe la”!

The United Church of Christ has more than 5,277 churches throughout the United States.  Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation.  UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.

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Felix Ortiz-Cotto
Global Ministries Area Executive for Latin America/Caribbean
Partner Relations Ministry Team
Wider Church Ministries
PO Box 1986
Indianapolis,Indiana 46206
317-713-2563
fortiz@dom.disciples.org