Saturday, May 25, 2013

All Roads Lead to...

It’s the last full day of our trip, and the sense of wonderment, sadness, spirituality, humor, adventure and fulfillment have only increased.  Our well thought out itinerary has completely collapsed during our trip, as the road we set out on has taken unexpected twists and turns every day. 

Yesterday’s loosely scheduled visit with a local priest caused such a change in our itinerary that even the director of our guesthouse came looking for us.  But what a welcome twist in the road it was.   Besides getting a tour of all the work this priest is doing in Haiti, we ended up seeing and learning so many things about his work, getting invaluable insight into Haitian culture, and we even learned some things about ourselves.   This colorful, innovative and Christ-filled priest welcomed we four strangers into his world, and we parted having made another wonderful new friend in Haiti. 

Today started out appearing to be a more “ordinary” day in Port au Prince.  We planned to hit the road early and head up to Reiser Heights to see the completion of our new roof at the school (yes it’s done!), 
but God had other ideas for us.

First, there was a delay in leaving as we waited for our interpreter to arrive.  Then halfway up the mountain, the radiator overheated.  After a stop on the side of the road that involved a couple paint cans of water and an old broken 2 x 4 piece of lumber, we were back on the road.  We finally arrived at Reiser Heights.   We are happy to report that the new roof looks beautiful!  After that, we revisited a couple of the families we’d met two days ago to ask if they would like to use some of the old sheet metal from our original roof to replace the roofs on their houses (our OLD sheet metal was even better than what was on their roofs).   The final item on our agenda was to see if we could visit the Catholic Church in the area that many of our students and their families attend.  When we asked how far away it was, the director of the school assured us he walked there all the time, but he wanted US to drive there.  So we got in our truck with the fragile radiator and set off for what I thought would be a two-minute drive.  As it turned out, the road to the church was an extremely rutty, rocky path built into the side of the mountain and filled with terrifying hairpin turns.   When we were able to steal looks at the scenery, during the times our eyes weren’t squeezed tightly shut, the view of the valley and the mountains rising above it was breathtaking.   No doubt, it was “God’s country.”  And at the end of this inspirational road was a rustic but beautiful church that was every bit as inspirational.  As seems to be the custom in Haiti, the kind priest gave us a warm welcome and all the time we needed to ask our many questions.

On our drive back, I had such a strong image of all the mountain families in the area walking down this long road to church every Sunday, leaving their one-room shacks, their dirt floors, their few possessions, and their extreme poverty and coming to worship God.   And gladly, they seem to find every step of that walk worth their while.   What an inspiration.

So that was where our road took me this week—on a wonderfully joy-filled, and spiritual journey filled with surprising twists and turns.  But the
 journey and twists and turns didn’t exhaust me.  Rather, they rejuvenated me and gave me direction to continue our Reiser Relief ministry.   And I’m certain that my wonderful uncle, Father Reiser, who traversed these roads long before I did, was helping to lead me every step of the way.


Reasonable Happiness

Our last full day in Haiti.   We made another trip to Reiser Heights with many side adventures including an overheated radiator, a zoo with less than 10 living animals (including 2 goats and 3 bunnies), visiting our new friends who live near Reiser Heights, an indescribably bumpy road to a church in a small village with the most breathtaking scenery I've ever seen in Haiti, a stop at the Haitian auto parts store to buy a new battery for the 'pikop,'  and passing newlyweds on a motorcycle (white tux, white gown, red bike). 

We started our day at Mass where we were encouraged to pursue reasonable happiness.   I finally have a phrase for what captivates me when watching many Haitians.  Poverty is not glamorous.  It's dirty, difficult, smelly and unjust.  Yet time and again I see poor Haitians who seem happy.  Often happier than many Americans I know who are materially rich.  What gives?

Do we have a tendency to seek unreasonable happiness?  Is seeking out the finest products, the ultimate experience, or the most power going to make us happy?  It may give us a temporary sense of triumph, but is it reasonable?   Or is joy in the little moments in life.  Is joy allowing a childlike sense of wonder and awe fill our hearts and minds, uncluttered by the pursuit of anything?  Is it taking time to chat, to smile, to joke, to lighten another person's load that we should pursue?

Haiti forces me to unplug.  Until I'm back at the guesthouse with WiFi, my cell phone doesn't function, I don't know that time it is, and my mind has freedom to wander, wonder and be.   

Given this freedom from life I had so many moments of reasonable happiness today: 
-Watching the little Haitian girls at Mass extend the sign of peace to every smiling nun in the room
-Visiting once again 'Little Miss Attitude' at Reiser Heights and holding 2 month old Rose Darling while she made cooing noises
-Finding new sheet metal for 2 families living in oh so humble homes with leaky roofs
-Listening to a country priest explain with pride the numbers of faithful members of his flock and his plans for the parish feast day
-Seeing the completed roof on the Community Center at Reiser Heights.
-Seeing tropical farm land flourishing with vegetables as well as banana, bamboo and mango trees.
-Watching Ann trying to keep up with a fast moving Haitian on a country road while they were both passed by a lively donkey.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

In many ways it reminds me of my Uncle Fr. Reiser.  He used the phrase "Excellent!" to summarize a positive attitude toward life and finding the joy in the moment.  I know he was with us today in spirit today.  And I think he is reasonably happy.


Friday, May 24, 2013


This morning we watched two nuns renew their vows at morning mass.  What a touching ceremony.  These sisters, who from my perspective already give of themselves totally to Christ, annually renew their vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and to love and serve God in all ways.  I wish I could begin every day witnessing such dedication and faith.

We were privileged today to also meet with a Catholic priest who has served in Haiti for decades and supports multiple ministries throughout the country.   His stories and experience were invaluable to us and left me with a sense of peace and a renewed commitment to follow as God leads us in Haiti.   Short term missionaries to Haiti are often asked what they do in Haiti.  This priest suggested that to respond "I did nothing" is appropriate and desirable.  Rather than come to Haiti from an American perspective of doing, fixing, and changing we can better serve by coming with a humble attitude of learning, listening, building relationships and breaking bread together.  We are all broken, we all have faults and imperfections, and God loves us unconditionally as we are.

We toured some of his ministries ranging from educating barefoot children to providing a meal and safe place to rest for impoverished elderly.  He does much more than nothing.  It's a ministry that has been built shoulder to shoulder with Haitians over a period of 20 years.  Fantastic.  Inspiring.  Humbling.
When my husband Greg and I were married by my uncle, Fr. Reiser, he gave us a Bible and encouraged us to read this passage from Romans 8:38-39 together:

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Walking back to the guest house mid day a young boy ran to put his arm around me and walk with me.  I asked the usual questions:  how are you?  what is your name?  Than I asked, "What are you doing today?"  (mid-day when children his age ought to be in school...but this is not an option for this little boy).  His response brought tears to my eyes.  



Thursday, May 23, 2013


Every day in Haiti is full of surprises.  Because we are traveling with a team of only three on this trip, we have been riding in a pick-up truck versus our usual mode of transportation in Haiti, a tap-tap.  Over the course of the last two days, we have learned the Haitian version of drive-through dining.  We have purchased everything from bags of plantains to cell phone minutes to large quantities of fresh produce through our truck window simply by having the vendor on the side of the road hand us our purchases through the window.  Sometimes they even need to run alongside of our moving vehicle to complete the transaction.  What great levity this has added to our more often very serious encounters.

With our hunger satisfied through the truck window, I then had a lesson in humbleness when we visited Reiser Heights today.  We made the long trek up the bumpy mountain road to visit the school, distribute shoes and backpacks to many of the students, and check on the progress of the new roof we are putting on the community building at the school.  When classes were over for the day, we asked the school director if it would be possible for us to walk home with one or more of the students and meet their families.  Several students eagerly agreed.   The first little girl ran just ahead of us down the tiny, muddy trail to her nearly hidden house and came out of the front door dumping a large dishpan of water outside to make her house more presentable.   We stepped into the tiniest home of a family of five—one small room with a tin roof, a dirt floor and one bed.  The family survived by raising and selling vegetables at the local market and by taking in some laundry.  As meager as their possessions were, they welcomed us with pride into their home.  They patiently answered all our curious questions via a translator and let us take photos of them standing outside their tiny shack. 

This was the reception we received at all three homes we visited.  Part of me felt ashamed of being in their homes, so tiny that you could touch the beds from the small doorways.  It seemed inappropriate that we were asking them personal questions and prying into their family lives.  But they seemed undisturbed by it.  They were people who had nothing to offer but yet had so much to offer.  They accepted us as WE were without ever questioning us.   And I felt so humble in their presence. 

Oh the things I learn in Haiti…

Little Miss Attitude

Reiser Relief pays teacher salaries at a school called Reiser Heights which is 2 hours southeast of Port au Prince via a steep, beautiful mountain climb.  We ascended today to check on a construction project underway.  We are replacing the roof on the community center of the school and adding movable classroom partitions so that students who are currently receiving instruction in a dark and uninviting out building can move into the main school building.   

I'm happy to report that construction is going great and we expect it to be completed shortly.  It was so awesome to see the sturdy roof taking shape that will not leak rainwater on the kids.  But that wasn't my favorite part of the day.

We passed out shoes and backpacks to about half of the students today that were collected and purchased by generous supporters.  The kids were so delighted with their new shoes.  And one teacher who received a pair of be-dazzled canvas sneakers literally did a jig of joy.  But that wasn't my favorite part of the day.

Our day also included purchasing vegetables from a street vendor for the guest house.  Before our purchase was finalized it started to downpour sheets of heavy rain.  We were frantically trying to find places for multiple bags of fruits and vegetables before we all got soaked.  A large watermelon ended up being stashed between my knees.  I'm wearing a skirt.  Ann had bananas on her head and Shelley had very ripe tomatoes in her lap.  We laughed until we cried.  But that wasn't my favorite part of the day.

We were at Reiser Heights at school dismissal time.  We asked the children if any of them wanted to show us where they lived. One little girl kept posing for me and sticking her hip one way and her elbow another (picture Madonna in Vogue).  When I imitated her she found it very funny and led us everywhere until we left.  Her name is Rose Danna, but I called her Little Miss Attitude.  Her joy was contagious and her smile warmed my heart.   We carefully followed her through steep terrain, gardens and footpaths to her humble home.  She lives in a tiny place barely large enough to hold 2 single beds.   Her mother Jean Marie proudly introduced us to her 2 month old daughter Rose Darling.  We also met her son Kensli who is 9 years old and attends Reiser Heights.  Jean Marie does laundry for other families to make money.  She and her husband Anel Pierre had a tiny plot of carefully tended fruits and vegetables that they grow to sell and market and feed their family.  No electricity.  No bathroom.  A little lean to with a charcoal pit to cook.  And smiles a mile wide.  Materially poor and spiritually rich.

Anel Pierre, Jean Marie, Rose Darling, Rose Danna and Kensli

THAT was my favorite part of the day.

Rose Danna and Rose Darling

Questions and Answers

Yesterday morning, we attended daily Mass in a simple small chapel along with about 15 wonderful nuns.  It brought back poignant childhood memories of taking the train with my sisters to visit my delightful aunt who was a nun in Duluth, Minnesota.  My sisters and I would attend chapel with her, and I loved the devout elegance of the services and the simplistic way the nuns came together as one to worship God.  Without question or doubt, they placed every day of their lives in His hands.

I came to Haiti with many questions on this trip.  As our organization becomes more involved in Haiti, we find ourselves looking for more direction as to how we should proceed.  Our list of questions continues to grow!  But after a busy and exciting day yesterday, I found myself feeling frustrated that, not only had we found no solid answers, but our list of questions had grown longer.  I’m a person who loves “checking things off my list,” but my list had only expanded. 

After wrestling with that frustration all night, we attended daily Mass with the nuns again this morning, and suddenly my solution became so clear to me.  I don’t need to be looking for immediate answers as to how we can best be of help to the Haitian people.  I should simply follow the example that was right before my eyes this morning.  I need to place all my trust in God that He will guide me and guide Reiser Relief to bring us answers to our questions. 

I will be attending daily Mass again tomorrow!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Turn at the broken down truck

Our day began with a lovely Mass surrounded by reverent nuns who dedicate their lives to Christ and service.  It a peaceful start to an adventurous day.

We spent our morning serving sick and dying babies who have loving parents unable to care for them.  I held a little one for a long long time who was sad when her mother had to leave...her mother looked heartbroken too.  It is hard to imagine the desperation parents must feel when they are unable to feed or provide medical care to these precious children.

After lunch we set off to find an orphanage that 'wasn't too far away.'   Imagine finding your way through narrow rutted streets where there are no street signs, no Google maps, no GPS and no rhyme or reason.  At one point we were instructed  to 'turn at the broken down truck.'  Now our challenge became:  WHICH broken down truck were we to turn by?  What ensued was a mad cap adventure involving a non-functioning cell phone, asking many many Haitians for directions, getting in and our of the truck a half dozen times and making even more u-turns.  We finally did find our destination only by the determination and good humor of our patient driver with a sprinkle of divine intervention.

The orphanage, home to 18 children, is managed by an American couple who felt called to serve after the devastating earthquake in 2010.  That call eventually led them to sell all of their possessions in the U.S., depend totally on God to provide, and start a ministry in Haiti.  Some of the children are disabled and all are 'adoptable' (meaning they are true orphans with no living parents).  One boy was 2 1/2 years old and had suffered from both Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and malnutrition.  His growth was severely stunted and his gentle demeanor stole our hearts.

We also visited a ministry called Apparent Project, a 'work initiative designed to enable parents to take care of their children and help in the prevention of child relinquishment and abandonment.'  Child relinquishment is a term I hear rarely if ever in the U.S. and is an issue sadly faced by many Haitian parents.  When poverty prevents proper care of their children, parents choose between watching their child starve or giving their child to an orphanage or even servitude to another family.

Back to turning at the broken truck.  It is my metaphor today for all that is so difficult in Haiti.  Driving from point a to point b.  Finding employment.  Providing for your family.  Finding shelter and adequate medical care.   My prayer tonight is for guidance and courage.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013


As my sister and I exited a “shop” in Haiti today, there were several men outside in the hot and humid sun shoveling gravel and dirt away from the building.   A young man named Peter stopped shoveling long enough to cheerfully greet us.  After teasing us and asking us our names and where we were from, I commented that I hoped he was getting paid fairly for the hard work he was doing.  He happily responded that he was making what translated to $5 US dollars every two days.   Inwardly, I was shocked.   But yet, he seemed grateful to have a job and wasn’t wasting a moment feeling sorry for himself, but instead, appearing to be facing every day filled with joy.

Later, we were having a conversation with Elder Moreland, the wonderful gentleman who runs Terre Promise School in Cite Soleil, the slums of Port au Prince.  He explained that his students need to go to a different school for 12th grade, because he can’t afford to pay the salaries required for 12th grade teachers, $5.00 per hour.    How amazing that $5.00/hour in Haiti was considered an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a high school teacher’s salary.

During that same conversation with Elder Moreland, we were discussing setting up a college scholarship program for some of his graduating students.  We learned that sending a Haitian student to a local University Port au Prince for two semesters costs less than the price of books for a college student in the U.S. for two semesters.

There’s a part of me that is filled with guilt over the huge difference between the “haves” of those of us in the U.S. and the “have nots” of the Haitians.  There are moments as I’m parading through their world that it’s almost hard to make eye contact fearing what I assume looks to them like we spoiled Americans.  But yet, I’m continually amazed at how accepting they are of their own lives and how accepting they are of us.   I have so much to learn from them.