Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
There’s an adage that says, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”
Such was the focus of the Haiti Summit Oct. 18-19 at Church of the Redeemer, Mechanicsville. Approximately 80 people from the Richmond Diocese learned and shared ideas on how to give Haitians a hand up rather than a hand out. They discussed how to invest in Haiti in ways that are permanent and that help Haitians take ownership of the challenges they face, in part by building better homes and neighborhoods and teaching them to farm in difficult situations.
“I think it’s time now for us to change the way we receive,” Bishop Desinord Jean, bishop of the Diocese of Hinche, Haiti, said in his address at the summit. “Today you help us, but help us so we can help ourselves tomorrow.”
His “priorities” include a diocesan farm, a vocational training/garage, a hospital for nursing training and a warehouse for food donations to enable diocesan schools to serve lunch, according to the Haiti Summit schedule booklet.
The Diocese of Hinche occupies 2,167 square miles in the center of Haiti and has a population of 746,236 people, most living in dire poverty.
The summit workshops offered five tracks: education, healthcare, sustainability and partnership, project planning and development, and parish ministry. The two keynote speakers were Bishop Jean and Father Jacques Volcius, who is the financial administrator of the Diocese of Hinche, director of Caritas Haiti and also serves on the advisory board for Midwives in Haiti.
In his address, Father Volcius described a country in strife.
Speaking through a translator, he said the unemployment rate in Haiti is 65%, and inflation has dropped the value of its currency from five gourdes for each American dollar in 1991 to 95 gourdes per American dollar today, so projects that will generate income such as fish farms, small businesses and agriculture are essential. He added that hiring local workers to construct and run projects is a must.
He said the impoverished in Haiti are struggling with poor education, limited access to healthcare, food insecurity, poor water quality and waste management.
Rampant deforestation that has stripped all but 10% of the land and poor agricultural farming practices have resulted in “poor soil” in which crops cannot grow. People from the countryside are fleeing to big cities where they take low-paying jobs. Thousands are moving to other countries.
Caritas has extended credit to Haitian farmers to purchase seeds and equipment, loaning machinery and teaching the villagers how to farm responsibly and effectively so they can grow crops to feed themselves and sell to others, Father Volcius said.
Virginia parishes are also helping.
In a breakout session on “Engaging the Parish: Best Practices,” Virginia Cotter explained how her parish, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Tabb, partners with Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tenn. and their building partner St. Anselm Church in St. Louis to assist St. Michel Parish in remote Boucan-Carre.
Their ministry supports two Catholic schools, a tertiary clinic and “the beginnings” of a clinic in one of the chapels. St. Kateri Parish funds its Haiti projects through an annual 5K race, sponsorship drives, memorial gifts and Living Our Mission grants. A large portion of donations pays for lunches for students. St. Kateri parishioners receive updates on the ministry at an annual free Haiti dinner.
In their workshops at the conference, Alison Fram, director of college, young adult and family ministries at Nativity Catholic Church, Burke, in the Diocese of Arlington and parishioner James McDaniel described how their parish’s Operation Starfish is working with Food for the Poor Inc. to build healthy, productive communities.
In addition to providing shelter, sanitation and clean drinking water, Operation Starfish addresses education and healthcare through the establishment of schools, clinics and vocational training programs. They work to make communities self-sustaining by creating sewing co-ops, ocean fishing co-ops, fish farming, agriculture and animal husbandry to generate income for the residents. Operation Starfish, using local workers, has built 1,400 homes in 11 Nativity Villages since 1998.
Recruiting people to support the parish’s Haiti mission doesn’t have to be drummed up through dedicated homilies, Fram said. She was 8 years old when her pastor, Father Dick Martin at Nativity Parish, started Operation Starfish, but she still remembers how he promoted the ministry.
He wove stories and everyday discussions about his experiences on a Haiti mission trip into his homilies, hung photos of Haitian children in the hallways and tacked up a map on which Disney World and Haiti were marked to show people the proximity of the country. Today, she said, similar posts on social media can do the trick.
McDaniel and Fram offered suggestions on how to get young adults passionate about Haiti ministry, noting social media and personal invitations are the key.
Fram has made two mission trips to Haiti with college students.
McDaniel said the college students realized the beauty of presence, of just being with the individuals. They brought joy as they hoisted children to their shoulders, sang and danced, played ball with residents, painted women’s fingernails and performed skits of Bible stories.
When the students returned home, Fram said they shared their experiences and newfound passion with parishioners and on social media.
She asked them to discern their calling, and in a reunion in December following each of the summer trips, the students talked about how the mission continued to affect them. For example, some said they want to work for a non-profit agency, help the homeless within their communities and enter the health profession.
McDaniel said that his mission trips have taught him about hospitality, love and acceptance.
“There’s so many benefits that come back to us,” he said.
Editor’s note: For further information about the Diocese of Richmond’s Haitian ministry, contact the Office of Social Ministries at 804-622-5206.