Walk the Mile and Share the Load

Pilgrimage isn’t a word we hear often in our day-to-day conversation, but I started hearing it a lot in the weeks leading up to our trip to Haiti. I struggled to understand what my role on this trip would be and what it means to be a pilgrim, but a song entered my consciousness whenever I heard the word. We are pilgrims on a journey. We are kindred on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and share the load. Servant Song is one that anyone who’s been to Waycross will recognize. I imagined I would be a servant on this pilgrimage in some way, but upon my completion of this trip another line of the same song is ringing in my head. Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. The song isn’t just about acting as servant to others. It’s about receiving service with grace.

While in Haiti, I experienced incredible hospitality. Our brothers and sisters at the Diocese of Haiti who carry out Christ’s work in a country defined by dysfunction and disaster went to extra efforts to ensure my safety, comfort, and joy. They served me with patience and care. I’m beginning to understand my role as a pilgrim now—to accept service and to return the favor. This is not a transactional relationship, but rather a holy commitment to community and collaboration. As I rest comfortably in my own home, all my basic needs met, and a steaming mug of coffee next to my laptop, I am made perfectly aware of how I should return that favor. It’s time to tell you about all I’ve experience and learned, and to ask that you hear me and recognize the responsibility we have as servants to our friends in Haiti.

I wasn’t sure what to expect to see in Haiti. I had seen photographs of complete destruction and abject poverty. I had heard about the loss of worship spaces, homes, and lives to the earthquake in 2010. There never seems to be good news for Haiti. Upon arriving, I was overwhelmed too see those realities in person. Trash littered the streets and heaping mounds of it created walls out of alleyways that wild pigs rooted through, searching for scraps. Emaciated dogs with swollen nipples danced around people’s feet in the hopes of catching dropped crumbs. Little boys begged to wash your car in traffic jams for a coin or two. I saw bumpers attached to the car with papier mache, and tiny children crossing dangerous streets to get home from school with cars who followed no discernible traffic laws and with no crosswalks to aid in a safe passage. All of this from the van window directly after leaving the airport in transport to our first destination.

After this single drive (at least an hour and a half to travel 15 miles), I was reeling. The constant sounds of honking, what I witnessed on the streets, and the repeated jolting in my seat from the chaotic traffic had me feeling overwhelmed. I asked myself what I, what anyone, could do to make a difference in a place like this. Where does one even begin to serve a population this riddled with dysfunction? But I knew that God had paved my way to this pilgrimage for a reason, so I tried to keep an open heart. I was about to have my perceptions challenged, my fears addressed, and my world shaken by the many ministries overseen by Father Michelin.

Over the course of the week, Father Michelin showed us the work of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. I began to develop an awareness of the pivotal role of the Church in the communities we visited. The many services available to me in Bloomington, Indiana provided by my local, state, and federal governments are not as easily accessed by Haitians. The library I visit regularly, the state college I attended, the public bus system, and even my work that is funded by a grant from Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation are not resources Haitians get easily from Haiti, especially those who live in rural areas. Where the need arises, the Church has taken the responsibility of meeting it. We visited schools, a hospital, a college, a nursing school, the seminary, a center for children and adults with disabilities, and so much more—all resources available because of the Episcopal Church. Where the state fails them, Haitian Episcopalians have created access, community, and opportunity.

As I witnessed the good works Father Michelin was overseeing on behalf of the Church, a pathway to aid became more apparent. We are not starting from scratch. I met vibrant, energetic, and passionate Haitians who are acting as the hands and feet of Christ for fellow Haitians. They are making a difference in each other’s lives. They just need help continuing and expanding that work. The ministries in place are life-giving and important. I knew that God was calling me to share that truth with those that have the resources to support this work. My role as a pilgrim began to solidify and find clarity in my mind. I was moved by the passion of the leaders in the community who shared their work with me with such pride. It’s as if they have been waiting for someone to see the incredible work they’ve done and to recognize and name it as God’s work. And it was, indeed.

A powerful example of this was our trip to Mithon. I’ve prayed for Mithon every Sunday (although I’ve been pronouncing it incorrectly), but it’s always been an abstract image of a place and I wasn’t sure what I was praying for. It was important for me to visit on this pilgrimage to gain a real image of what and who I was praying for each week, but getting there was unexpectedly hard. The ride up the mountain was a frightening hour and a half. The road was unstable, unfinished, narrow, and bumpy. At times it was clear that a small mistake could mean toppling over the side of the mountain. Later, upon learning that pregnant women who begin to experience labor pains must ride down that same mountain on the back of a motorcycle in order to reach the hospital, I felt a knot develop in my stomach. Students who want to attend secondary school must also travel down that same mountain every day.

Once in Mithon, however, I got to see what our diocese had accomplished in improving the lives of these people. I saw a well that meant that people had access to clean, fresh water. It was cold and refreshing, and literally life-giving. I saw the huge, beautiful school with a Haitian flag flying over it. Students in clean, matching uniforms with hair barrettes that matched. I saw children laughing and playing with one another, drinking from the well when exhausted from playing. I met children the age of children in my family who would not have access to clean water, regular meals, or an education without the work of our diocese. Although the scope of human suffering in Haiti is immense and overwhelming, I was blessed to bear witness to the very real progress made by our relationship with the people in Mithon.

On our last full day in Haiti, we worshiped with the parishioners in Dabòn. On this trip I was in constant sensory overload. What I heard, smelled, tasted, felt, and saw overwhelmed me. Everything was new and the trip was brief. But on the tail end of our trip, in worship, I allowed myself to feel what I had not yet been able to process. I let go of the bustle that kept us busy and the wall the kept me from feeling too hard and losing composure and control. And when I did that, I knew the Holy Spirit was present.

The choir moved me to tears, not only because of the sound they produced, but because I knew what a sacrifice they made to get to practices, the distance many had to walk or to ride on the chaotic roads I’d become familiar with. I had met Moderson, the music director who had traveled with us up the treacherous mountainside to Mithon, and who I had witnessed physically lifting his brave mother out of the back of a truck on that same mountain to ensure her safe landing. That choir was more than the sum of their voices—it was the sum of their trials, and pain, and resilience.

I danced and sang with them in celebration of this resilient spirit. The passing of the peace gave me opportunity to look into the eyes of the individuals we are blessed to be in community with. I held hands with strangers with whom I was sharing a unique and spirit-filled experience. There’s something special about the Episcopal Church and its liturgy. I knew when we were saying the creed. I knew when we were saying the Lord’s Prayer. And although the service wasn’t in a language I could understand, the service itself was familiar to me. This was a holy communion of two very different communities, drawn together by liturgy and belief in the same gracious God. That same God that calls us to the same table although miles apart. I left that service feeling full with the Spirit and with love and a grateful heart.

-Madeline Webster, member of St. David’s