Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

At the start of Mass on the Saturday evening before Lent, the celebrant at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, thought an introduction was needed. 

“My name is Joe Lehman, and I’m your pastor,” he said, to laughter and a few cries of “glad you’re back!” One reason he had missed liturgies lately was because he was one of six members of the parish whose return from a trip to Haiti was delayed by violent protests that disrupted daily life throughout the country. Their situation prompted prayers for their safety and statewide news coverage. 

“I had great confidence that we were going to come out all right because the people of Haiti really protect the people that come in from outside the country knowing they are coming for a reason; they are coming to help them,” said Clermann Dieudonné, another of the OLN pilgrims who also served as their translator.

OLN is part of the Haiti twinning ministry that links Diocese of Richmond parishes with a parish, school or other institution in the Diocese of Hinche. Since 1989, OLN’s twin has been the Ecole Normale de Papaye (Papaye Normal School), a college for teachers. 

The group left for an annual visit Friday, Feb. 8. State Department advisories told them to expect political unrest, but no travel ban was in place. Arriving in the capital of Port-au-Prince, they learned the road to the school was blocked and no one could come get them. They found room in a guest house and got to their destination on Monday. 

“You’d see a few boulders across the road and the driver would have to go around them,” said Cyndy Unwin, who kept a blog during the trip: “You’d see a tree pulled down or black, burned areas on the road where they had been burning tires. And certainly when we made our way back we saw a lot more of those remnants of roadblocks than we saw going up.”

The school had to cancel classes because many students and faculty couldn’t get in from outlying villages. A well that OLN had helped build had failed, so students had to haul in buckets of water. 

“They fed us so well,” said Unwin. “Haitian hospitality is such that you don’t refuse those gifts of generosity but at the same time we were beginning to feel like we were creating a bit of a burden.”

Some nights the power was out, and the students — young adults in their 20s to early 30s — would sit in circles to study, using cellphones for light. 

“Just the joy on their faces and how they supported each other really touched me,” said Dawn Luther, the only member of the group who hadn’t been to Haiti. “They were stuck at the school all week; they didn’t have classes. They had to haul their own water. But did you ever see a frown? No.” 

The students also held a talent show featuring poetry, skits and dances, and got their visitors to show them a few steps.

Msgr. Lehman celebrated Mass at a local parish and enjoyed the brunch with one of the Papaye teachers and two graduates, now teachers themselves.

“We don’t get a lot of chance to interact with the students one-on-one,” he said. “But to break bread with all these wonderful people both at the school and those who had been a part of the school was a real highlight for me.”

Trip leader Gene Yagow said despite the difficulties they did a lot, continuing to build relationships with the school staff and working out a plan to improve internet access.

As they prepared to leave, protests again made it impossible to get to the airport. The Office of Social Ministries for the Diocese of Richmond checked to consult on contingency plans. 

“Since the location of the Diocese of Hinche is located in the Central Plateau (about two hours from Port-au-Prince), the pilgrims were never really in any danger,” the office said in a statement. “They could have always left via the Dominican Republic if that was necessary.”  

In the end, they stayed at the school until it was safe to travel, got a flight on Sunday to Atlanta and flew to Roanoke the next morning.

“I think what I felt most as we were going down this long straight road is that we’re leaving and we’re OK,” said Colleen Hernandez. “What’s going to happen to our friends who stay here? We’re leaving and whatever it is that comes up they will have to deal with it.”

“The whole point of twinning is solidarity and here we are leaving and we’re fine,” said Msgr. Lehman. “And they’re thrilled that we are going to be fine.”

The violence subsided, though national carnival celebrations were canceled. The school re-opened. And the Haiti pilgrims are back to running water, food picked up at the store instead of delivered by donkey or motorcycle, and celebrating the Eucharist in their home church, grateful for the gifts they received from people whose hearts, as one sojourner said, are “wide open.”