Haiti changed our parish…and my life
Operation Starfish/Food For The Poor
By Julie Rattey
As told by Jim McDaniel
A man with desperation in his voice is calling out to me: “Jim, Jim, Jim!”
The man is a stranger in a Haitian prison cell. His prisonmates have stuck their hands through the openings in their cells, reaching out to me and my fellow visitors. But this man has somehow managed to force his head through, and, seeing my nametag, he begs me to come closer.
I am afraid. But his eyes draw me to him.
“My name is Jean Rubens!” he cries. “I want you know I’m here. Remember me.”
When we are leaving, he pushes a slip of paper into my hand: “I-M Jean Rubens So, What CAN you do FOR me Don’t Forget-me I HAVen’t no Family PRAY JESUS FOR Me. I-am In the Room 3.”
I have been traveling to Haiti with my parish for 10 years. I have seen disabled teenagers, impoverished mothers, starving children. But this encounter has shaken me. This man didn’t directly ask me for money, a lawyer, food. He asked nothing more than the knowledge that someone from “outside” knows he exists. He asked that I pray for him. It is not hard to do: I can’t get his face and his plea out of my mind.
I remember my first night in Haiti, back in 1999. From my hotel I could hear both roosters crowing and gunshots going off all night long. I was scared to death. All the reading I’d done on Haiti — the poverty, the loss of exports, the violent overthrows of government — couldn’t prepare me for the sight of naked, malnourished children scavenging through trash, for the sound of gunshots in the night, for the terrible smells of burning trash, sewage, human sweat. The nation’s potholed streets are packed with townspeople and street sellers, donkeys and dirt, U.N. troops and barefoot children. Haiti is an assault on the senses.
My reason for coming began with Father Dick Martin of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia. The previous year, in 1998, he had launched a Lenten effort for the poor. Our parish raised nearly $67,000, with which we built 27 simple houses in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, through the Christian charity Food For The Poor. About a dozen parishioners had come to meet the families who were no longer living in the slum, but in one-room wooden houses our parish had built. They were beaming with happiness. Our pastor helped us realize: No one person can solve the problem of poverty in Haiti. But that’s no reason not to act at all. You focus on one person at a time.
It took time to process what I had seen. On the car ride home from the airport, I passed by a McDonald’s. Watching people eating hamburgers and fries unexpectedly brought me to tears. “I just left a country where millions of people will never have a meal like that,” I said to my wife, Michele. I’m not a guy who cries much, but in Haiti my heart had been unzipped. My family became involved with Operation Starfish after that, and I eventually retired from the National Park Service to devote more time to it.
Our most recent trip was in early November 2009. We saw much suffering: deformed children whose arms don’t function to keep flies out of their eyes and mouths. Women making “biscuits” of dirt, bouillon, and salt to feed their starving children. A man cooking a whole pig, entrails intact, over a tiny fire. But there was also joy: We held orphaned children in our arms, distributed hot meals, and celebrated Mass with schoolchildren at Nativity Village at Merger, our first “Nativity Village” project. Where once there was abject poverty and dilapidated shacks, there are now some 250 houses, water wells, sanitation, a community center, a school, a vocational training program, and a chicken farm.
It was on the second day that I met Jean Rubens. Our group, accompanied by a local priest, Father Duken Augustin, arrived at a prison: We were going to release several inmates and start them on a new life. This is something Father Duken does every Easter and Christmas, by paying whatever fine the prisoners have accrued.
The inmates were packed up to 30 to a cell, sharing one exposed toilet, sleeping two to a bunk bed, eating two small meals a day. Most heart-wrenching were the young teens who stole food because they were hungry, the pregnant women, and those who were jailed because they couldn’t pay their debts. One man had been in jail for eight months: His crime was stealing a chicken to feed his family.
We spent about three hot, grueling hours visiting prisoners, feeding all 563 of them meals, and distributing new shoes and toiletries. Then, the guards told four prisoners, aged about 18 to 40: “Gather your things. You’re going to be let out.” Jean Rubens was not among them, but one was a man who had helped us with the meals, carrying them from cell to cell. When they met us in the open-air courtyard, we could see the disbelief in their faces. Father Duken then explained that we wanted to wash their feet. Once the process started you could see their amazement, especially since some of our group were beautiful women. One prisoner marveled, “I would not have dared to dream of seeing a pretty girl wash my feet.”
It was a humbling experience washing those feet, with their toe fungus and calloused soles hard like steel. I thought of where those feet had been and hoped they were going someplace better.
After we gave the men new shoes, toiletries, and a little money, Father Martin asked one man what he was going to do first. “I’m going to my village,” he said, “and give my mom a big hug and kiss.” We accompanied the men to the gate and watched them walk away into freedom.
Our parish has transformed since Operation Starfish began. Our commitment to the poor continues to grow, spreading to other projects around the world. And we have a parish that is alive: Masses filled to overflowing, active volunteers and leaders, five different choirs, more than 40 parish organizations. And in 10 years our parish has doubled in size, from 2,500 families to 5,000. Many come because we are a parish that reaches out to the poor.
Matthew 25:35-36 says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Father Martin always says that that’s our final exam. If we do these things, we are going to be welcomed into heaven. Our parish tries to put the Bible into action. Our motto is: “We reach out to those in need across the street and around the world.”
Here in my home, I have Jean Rubens’ note on my desk. I look at it several times a day and I see his face. Much has been done in Haiti; much to do remains. To the best of my knowledge, Jean Rubens is still in a cell in a Haitian prison. I will do as he asked: I will not forget him. He wanted me to connect with him as a brother in Christ; he wanted me to pray for him. That’s what we’re asked by our faith: to find Christ in each other, to connect soul to soul. Every day, I’m trying to do what Jean asked. CD
Help from Operation Starfish and Food For The Poor
Food For The Poor is an international relief and development charity that feeds 2 million poor every day. It provides food, housing, health care, education, water projects, emergency relief, and micro-enterprise assistance in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Through Food For The Poor, you can start an Operation Starfish program at your parish, school, or organization. The program encourages families to put 50 cents or more each day into their Operation Starfish collection box to help the poor. For information and resources, including a free workbook for children, visit foodforthepoor.org or call 877-654-2960 ext. 6988. To read more about the Church of the Nativity’s Operation Starfish, and the story behind the program’s name, visit starfishmission.org.
Photo courtesy of Jim McDaniel