Friday, 12 November 2010

What I Saw in Haiti: Chapter 2

"Di Bonjou Se Lizaj."
I do apologise for the lack of updates to my Haiti adventures. It took a lot longer than I expected to get into the swing of things upon my return. One of the main factors for the delay was a cockroach infestation that was being dealt with after my return--and which, scheduling-wise, went a bit shakily. But the bugs are now dead or dying (I hope), and I again seem to have some time to continue. Thanks for your patience--assuming you're all still out there...Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?
In my first chapter, I mentioned Père Philippe, and his dream of twinning parishes in Hamilton and Haiti, and how in 2008 this dream became a reality when St. Margaret Mary, of Hamilton, twinned with the parish he founded, St. Gabriel, in Beau-Sejour. And now, I was planning to go and visit our twin parish with a team of five, including my priest, Fr. Bill Trusz.

In the wake of the earthquake, however, many saw this planned venture as a hopeless waste of time. After all, in the midst of such devastating tragedy, what could we really hope to accomplish? We weren't engineers, or doctors, or anything that seemed at all "useful". Wouldn't it be better, people repeatedly asked, to just send money? The logic of their question weighed heavily on our minds, and caused no little amount of second guessing. My own wife often wondered whether it would be better (and safer) if I just stayed home. But I felt a call to go, and I felt I had to respond. When we settled on the purpose of the mission as being to teach First Aid, we started feeling the first glimmers of actually having a legitimate reason for going. The snag, of course, was that of the five of us, only one of us, Nassrin, was qualified to teach First Aid. On the one hand, we couldn't just send her alone, but on the other hand, what would the four of us do that weren't teaching? We still felt useless, despite Père Ronal's insistence that he wanted us all to come.

Despite our doubts, we did feel God wanted us to go, and so we pressed on in our plans, hoping that God would reveal the reason that all five of us were travelling to Haiti, and what we could contribute to the mission and to the people of Beau-Sejour. Part of this preparation, and in turn, part of the answer, came again from Père Philippe, who graciously took time out of his busy schedule to teach us some basic phrases in Créole.

Language is an interesting thing. Not only is it our principle means of communication, but it can at the same time be our principle form of alienation. This is the lesson in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Common language and understanding can bring great unity to people--but when you take that away, the frustration and loneliness resulting from the inability to communicate can be overwhelming. This is the obvious fact about language. But there are subtler aspects to language as well, which serve to highlight not only differences in the words people use to express different ideas, but even differences in those very ideas. In other words, language is an important clue to what is important in a culture. And the little bit of Créole that the team learned from Père Philippe helped us to know that what was important to the people of Haiti, was our presence.

The first thing Père Philippe taught us was a Haitian proverb: "Di bonjou se lizaj." It means, "Saying hello is good manners." To the people of Haiti, especially in the rural areas like Beau-Sejour, everyone is family. Respect, love, and service are key aspects to their relationships--indeed, they are essential to their very survival. Every time you see someone, you stop and say hello--and not simply Hello, but that greeting takes on a dynamic expression. Recall my description of Père Philippe himself, when he would greet a person and make them feel like they were his brother, even if he had only just met them. It is not a particular good quality of Père Philippe's (though it does certainly make him a wonderful person and a wonderful priest), rather, it is a cultural way of life for his people. In fact, he told us that if you do not greet another person, you are considered rude, or perhaps learning delayed.

Père Philippe also taught the team a series of phrases about food and eating. Food is obviously an important and integral aspect of every culture, being a basic human necessity. However, how a particular culture approaches the issue of food says a lot about the prosperity of a nation, as well as the culture's understanding of the really important things in life. Whereas we in North America, with the availability, and indeed over-saturation of food, struggle with things like obesity and the opposite, eating disorders of various sorts, and so often need tragedies like the Earthquake to prompt us to share from our abundance with those who are less fortunate, another Haitian proverb reveals their attitude toward the little food that they have: "Manje separe pa janm fini"--"The food you share never ends." The people of Beau-Sejour depend very much on subsistence farming. Whatever they can produce from the mountainside is their dinner, and so this principle of generosity and solidarity is again a truth of survival and yet more--it is a truth about peace.

While we were in Haiti, we met some Brothers who truly lived this proverb. Les Petites Frères de Ste. Thérèse is a Religious Order uniquely Haitian. Their mission is in part to run the parish schools around Beau-Sejour, but it is also one of farming--trying to revitalise the soil denuded of trees, and eventually to re-tree the mountains in order to make Haiti a place of good harvest. In this venture, they encourage a co-operative gardening project among the residents of Beau-Sejour. Those who help tend the gardens may reap the harvest with the Brothers in order to help feed their families and others in need. In this way, this shared food really does never end, but through the tender hearts and green thumbs of the Little Brothers, the harvest of crops as well as the harvest of souls will indeed be plentiful.
Again, sorry for the significant delay. Coming up next, we get to the good stuff: the departure and arrival in Haiti!.

2 comments:

Kane Augustus said...

Gregory,

"Language is an interesting thing. Not only is it our principle means of communication, but it can at the same time be our principle form of alienation. This is the lesson in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11."

Given the fact that Genesis 11 was expressed in language (duh! But necessary to say, overall), and your admission that the events described therein are a "lesson", are you of the mind that the Babel story was an actual happening? Or do you consider it more of an illustrative piece; i.e., not real but allegory?

Gregory said...

Interesting question, Kane. I'm not sure that any answer I give you has any actual bearing on the topic at hand. Nevertheless, I'll try to give a brief, but thorough, outline of my understanding of Genesis 11.

The first thing I'd point out is that you seem to create a false dichotomy between a story being a literal, historical event, and having a moral or spiritual lesson. I'm not sure why it has to be one or the other.

That said, I approach Scripture in light of the Church's teaching on biblical interpretation--namely the traditional approach of the four senses of Scripture. That is, Scripture has, first and foremost, a literal sense, and also an allegorical, a moral, and an anagogical sense. The literal sense is the foundational interpretative sense, and the other three take their cues from it. It involves understanding the passage in question as the author intended, according to genre and style. The allegorical sense interprets a passage according to what it teaches us about Christ and His plan of salvation. The moral sense shows us how we ought to live, and the anagogical sense reveals our final destiny.

When we approach the narrative of Babel, we look first at the literal sense. That's not to say that we take it "literalistically" as certain fundamentalists are wont to do. It means we look at the narrative according to the genre in which it is written, with a mind to trying to discern what the author intended when he wrote it. I'm admittedly not an expert in ancient Semitic literature, but based on the context, and on things that I've read pertaining to the first eleven chapters of Genesis, it seems that it follows a classic "myth-type" structure. Please don't confuse "myth-type" with the modern sense of "myth" being something akin to a "fairy tale". A Myth-type Narrative is a story that seeks to reveal a universal truth, or explain a universal problem--such as the Genesis 3 account of the Fall of Man. That doesn't mean that the story itself is ahistorical, but that the historicity of the account is not the primary focus of the story-teller.

To sum up, I would deny the assertion that Genesis 11 depicts a Deity who felt threatened in some way by the combined might of men to overthrow or rival His greatness, in some sort of "Clash of the Titans" scenario. Rather, using anthropomorphic language to describe God's actions in a particular event, the author conjectured what God might have been thinking, had the author been in God's place.

I would suggest, then, that "literally", we're seeing the result of mankind's disobedience to God's primeval command to "fill the earth and subdue it." Rather than spreading throughout the earth, men decided to congregate in one city in opposition to His command. The confusion of language was God's way to gently force the situation so that His purpose could be achieved.

Allegorically, we find that this is an antitype of the Pentecost event, where the Holy Spirit reversed the Babel effect by enabling the believers to speak in all different languages, and so effectively communicate the Gospel across the language barrier.

Morally, we see that there are consequences to disobeying God and especially to pridefully setting ourselves up in the place of God.

Anagogically, we are reminded that Heaven is the Kingdom where all people, regardless of race, tribe, or tongue dwell together in perfect unity, in a final reversal of the dispersion of Babel.

That, at any rate, is my gutshot reply to your question. If I have the time, I'll probably look up Catholic commentators and see what their opinions are.

Either way, it does nothing to affect the point I was making in my account of my preparations to go to Haiti.

God bless,
Gregory