My third day in Haiti was a Sunday. COTP is a Christian organization, so they consider Sunday a day of rest and all non-essential staff have the day off. In practical terms for me, this meant that I had to fix all my own meals, and I was not expected to spend time with the children. They have their own English-language worship service on site, which most of the long-term staff and their families attend, but there was a Haitian Christian church next door to the COTP compound that we could attend if we chose. I really wanted to attend the Haitian service but probably wouldn’t have had the guts to go by myself; fortunately, one of the other short-term volunteers had been to COTP many times and was planning to go to the Haitian service, so her friend (a first-time volunteer) and I joined her.
The side of the COTP compound that faces the road has a tall cement wall, with a large steel door that slides opens to let people or vehicles pass through. I had stepped mere feet from the exit to see the souvenir vendor’s wares the day before, but otherwise had not left the compound since I arrived. I had been a little worried that I would spend my whole time in Haiti within the walls of COTP’s property, but Sunday shattered that concern. It was exhilarating to walk through the gate onto the dirt road; I felt both the excitement of going on an adventure and the risk of being in a foreign environment. I was glad to have the company of the other two volunteers.
We entered the church at about 10 am; the service had already been going on since 8 (the experienced volunteer had assured us it would be fine to walk in during the service). A couple women in the back, seeing us enter, hopped up and insisted on giving us their chairs. I felt awkward, knowing we were being treated this way because we were white, but felt the most gracious thing to do was accept, especially since the service was going on and I didn’t want to cause a disturbance. I sat on the chair and took in the scene. The church building had cement walls, bars on the windows, and a smooth concrete floor. There were two rows of wooden school benches on the left side and three on the right, mostly occupied by children, and assorted chairs behind the benches. There was a cross on the wall with silk flowers for decoration, a table against the front wall with a cloth over it (covering the communion plates), and a cabinet with a speaker on top and a microphone plugged in with an extension cord running out the window. There was a tall wooden lectern in the center with white lace on it. When the pastor was preaching, he was too short for it and I couldn’t see his whole face. The pastor wore a dress shirt, tie, sport coat, dress pants, and white shoes. He looked sharp but I couldn’t help but think how hot he must be. His assistant wore a dress shirt and pants and had a belt buckle that read “LOVE”.
The service alternated between preaching and singing. The pastor’s assistant led the singing. He would call out first line of each verse; there were no hymn books. The singing was loud and the congregation seemed to know all of the words and tunes. With the introductory lines called out and the repetition of the choruses, I was able to join in some of the singing; it felt good to be able to participate. When they had Bible readings, the pastor’s assistant announced them in English also, clearly for the benefit of us visitors. Some people had Bibles and would look up the readings and follow or sing along. The experienced volunteer had brought her iPad with a bilingual Creole/English Bible so she was able to follow along with the readings; I tried to read over her shoulder. If I’d known, I could have brought my Creole Bible, but I’d left it in the volunteer house. The other thing I hadn’t brought was any money for the offering. I felt embarrassed when they collected it and I had nothing to contribute, especially since a small offering from my perspective would have been a relatively valuable sum of money for that congregation. I wished that I would be there for another Sunday so I could go to church again and get it right the second time.
Before Communion, a woman walked around and squirted hand sanitizer on everyone’s hands. We stood in our places while the pastor’s assistant carried around a paper plate containing morsels of bread that were little more than crumbs. I tried to choose a small piece, not wanting to take more than my share. We drank wine from little glasses that were also brought to us; they were in a metal tray with a hole cut out for each little glass, like the ones used in many American churches. I wondered how they had acquired it, as it was probably the finest item in the room. Having Communion at the Haitian church was another of the most emotional moments of my trip. These financially poor but spiritually rich Haitian Christians welcomed us to share what they had. At home, I had been taking a course on the Lutheran Confessions (documents written during the Reformation that define Lutheran beliefs). We had discussed the different perspectives of Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations on Communion. Lutherans do not share the Catholic belief that the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood, but they believe that Christ is present in Communion “in, with, and under” the bread and wine; whereas, there are other Protestant groups who believe that the bread and wine are merely symbolic. While this was obviously a Protestant church, I didn’t know what their particular beliefs were about Communion. Still, I had the feeling that if Christ was ever present in Communion, He was present there in that meal.
The pastor’s wife led a group of about eight girls, ages maybe 6 to 14, in singing. There was more preaching. It was Reformation Sunday (I was sad that I had to miss it at my home church) and I did hear that topic touched upon. I heard a mention of indulgences, repetition of the concept of “faith alone”, and that we don’t say, “St. Someone, pray for us. St. Whoever, pray for us,” but that we pray only to God. Overall, I probably understood about 60% of the service, enough so that I had some idea what was going on, but I still missed a lot.
The chair I had been given was one of those chairs with an arm that was supposed to hold a writing surface (often used in university classrooms); the writing surface was gone, but the metal arm was still there. The seat was made of molded plastic and the back was broken, so it was uncomfortable to sit back. After a while, the hard seat, the heat, and the feeling of hunger all combined to make me wish the service would be over soon. I marvelled that the singing had started at 8 am (we could hear it at the volunteer house) and we had entered at 10, so there were probably others who had been sitting there longer. (We did stand up once in awhile, but there was a lot of sitting.) People did go quietly in and out of the building, especially the girls. I looked out the window and saw a goat and a chicken. Near the end, the assistant pastor lifted his arm and started waving. I wondered if he was waving good-bye, but others put their arms up too; it appeared to be a blessing. The service finally ended around 11:40. There was much shaking of hands; the pastor and his assistant both came over to shake hands with us visiting volunteers. I complimented the pastor’s wife and two of the older girls on their singing. Many people produced punch cards which were being marked by someone from the church. I never got a complete explanation but it seems that they got credit for attending the service, and they would get some kind of reward after accumulating enough credits. It made me wonder how many of them were motivated to come because of the punch cards rather than for the worship experience.
We went back to the volunteer house and ate lunch. I tried several times to call home, but kept getting an error message (they use VoIP). I was sad because I hadn’t talked to Simon since I was at the airport in Miami. I took a nap from 1:10 to 2:30, then sat down with my tablet computer to review Creole phrases useful with children. The phone rang and one of the nurses asked me to get a bowl of cold water from her house and bring it to the house where most of the kids were; a boy was having a seizure and they wanted to get his temperature down. I brought the water and offered to help in any other way I could, but they didn’t need me, so I returned to the volunteer house.
I sat down again with a half-liter bottle of Sprite and my tablet computer with the Creole phrases. Then one of the long-term volunteers came in. She chatted with me and the other first-time volunteer until about 5 pm; it was interesting to learn about her family’s experiences and her thoughts about living in Haiti. She came back later on and invited us (along with the experienced volunteer) to join her family on their day trip to the beach the next day. We were grateful for the invitation, as we were aware that this was their family’s vacation and they didn’t have to share it with us short-term volunteers.
The three of us short-term volunteers (there were others when I arrived and still others who came before I left, but it was mostly the three of us for the week I was there) went out for walk, pushing the sick baby who was staying with us in a stroller. We left the gates and walked down the road in the direction that I had come from Cap Haïtien. I was again glad for their company; I didn’t (and still wouldn’t) feel comfortable walking alone. The other first-time volunteer brought her cell phone to take pictures. To save space/weight, I hadn’t brought a camera, just my little tablet computer that could take photos. I didn’t want to carry it with me, so I asked the other volunteer to e-mail me the pictures she took after she got home. There were beautiful tropical views of cows grazing on the plains with mountains in the background. (Side note: if you’re wondering why I described having such heavy bags at the airport when I keep mentioning that I packed light, it’s because I brought a lot of items to donate. I flew down with a suitcase and a large duffel bag and returned with just the suitcase, with the empty duffel bag folded up inside of it.)
We came across an older woman (who was missing many teeth) who had a goat and a kid (baby goat). When she saw my interest in the cute kid, she caught it and held it up for me, offering to sell it to me. An older man came up to the experienced volunteer and me, pointing at his belly, telling us he was hungry, saying he was sick, pointing at his ankle and complaining about some ailment. Another (younger) man came up and lifted his shirt and went through the same spiel, telling us he was hungry. Several boys and a girl came. The boys and the younger man were asking for money, my necklace, my watch, and my glasses, along with items from the other volunteer. One boy persistently asked for a phone, saying he needed to be able to tell time to go to school. The other volunteer and I were trying to politely tell them no. We had been told not to give anyone anything as it encourages the begging and can create more difficult situations for other volunteers. I felt quite uncomfortable and was glad that I wasn’t alone. The other first-time volunteer was across the street taking pictures with some people who had come up to her there, and the experienced volunteer and I both kept trying to get her attention so we could move on. Eventually we did get away and continued our walk.
It was dusk when we got back. I made dinner, cleaned up, prepped for the next day’s trip, wrote in my journal, sent an e-mail to Don, and got to bed at 10:10. I had clipped a small fan that I found in the common area of the volunteer house onto the foot of my bed–it made a real difference in my comfort level. I fell asleep quickly and got the best night’s sleep yet. I woke up during the night when the power went out but was able to get back to sleep fairly quickly. I had taken the flat sheet off my bed because I hadn’t used it in the heat of the previous nights; I got up and found it to cover myself with because I actually felt cool with the breeze of the fan on me!