More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Standing Where the Roots are Rising

Sr. Chris Koellhoffer, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
March 22, 2006

The following reflection was offered at an evening of prayer commemorating Haiti Solidarity Week and inviting deeper communion with the struggle of our Haitian brothers and sisters.

The IHM Congregation has a strong connection with the people of Haiti since our foundress, Theresa Maxis Duchemin, was of Haitian descent. We also maintain a twinning relationship with the Haitian Little Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus.

Good evening! And welcome to you all, friends of Ayiti/friends of Haiti!

I don't presume to speak for the Haitian people tonight. But I do honor the Haitian proverb, "We see from where we stand," and this week we stand in special solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the poorest country of the Americas. So I call on the people of Haiti to be with us here.

This is Haiti Solidarity Week, and we've just heard how the Gospel defines solidarity: Bringing "good news to the poor; liberty to those held captive; recovery of sight to the blind; release to those in prison."

Mary Oliver suggests another way of being in solidarity. In her poem, "Rice," she says:

"I don't want you just to sit down at the table. I don't want you just to eat, and be content. I want you to walk out into the fields where the water is shining, and the rice has risen. I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth. I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing."

This is solidarity: when we walk out into the fields and we stand there, open to the story of another's struggle. And when we do this day in and day out, with faithfulness, then the deep, hidden sigh of our neighbor becomes our own.

One of the shining graces of my life was representing our IHM congregation on two delegations to Haiti. Sister Anne has shared how we Sisters of IHM are forever linked to the people of Haiti through our foundress, Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin. We continue to deepen that connection through prayer, advocacy, and twinning with the Haitian Little Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus.

I first went to Haiti in 1993 as part of a Pax Christi human rights observer delegation. At that time, a coup had ousted President Aristide; the military regime and the Ton Ton Macoutes were using torture, extortion, imprisonment, and killing to silence any resistance.

I thought I was fully prepared to go to Haiti. I had crammed my backpack so full of every kind of supply that when I finally put it on, I fell over backwards! That was a pretty good indication that my worldview was about to be turned around also.

All of us know how that happens. When we stand with people who are poor and marginalized, whether that's in Haiti, in Peru, in downtown Scranton, in New York City, in our neighborhoods, we run a risk: the risk that, when we stand with the poor, they may shake us into a new way of seeing; they may challenge us to move from learning their names to standing beside them in the struggle for justice. This is what solidarity does to us: we begin to claim the deep, hidden sigh of our neighbor as our own.

And that's what happened to our delegation in Haiti:

We stood with children marked by orange hair and distended bellies, dying of malnutrition; and with children so generous that, when they were given a lollipop, they kept it wrapped to take home, so that everyone in their family could have a taste.

We stood under banana trees, which bear fruit just once in their lifetime, and then are cut down; but it's from this cutting that new life, young banana trees, rise up. What a metaphor for Haiti's people, half of whom are not yet 20 years old!

We stood in huts where peasants, catechists, doctors, clergy, leaders of the Ti Legliz shared the last of their food and the abundance of their courage; and we witnessed the broken bones and gaping wounds of teenagers, young women and men of the resistance, who told of being beaten or raped or imprisoned by the military--and who spoke with utterly nonviolent hearts.

During that first delegation to Haiti, I stood on the balcony of the Hospice St. Joseph one night, looked out over the city of Port-au-Prince, and wept. At that time, the words of tonight's reading from Isaiah seemed an impossible dream:

"Babies will no longer die in infancy. People will build houses and get to live in them. They will plant vineyards and enjoy the wine. Like trees, my people will live long lives..."

How could people who suffered such oppression find comfort in those words? How could they celebrate Eucharist with such vibrant color, spirited song, profound faith? Somehow, by the power of their faith, the Haitian people sent us home convinced that resurrection is possible.

Two years later I returned to Haiti with members of the Haiti Solidarity Network of the NorthEast, some of whom are here tonight. By then, President Aristide had been restored to power, the army was disbanded, and we could feel in the streets that it was a wonderfully freer, headier, hopeful time.

People asked me then, and ask me now, if I've seen any signs of progress. The answer is an emphatic, "YES!" but not the kind of hope Western eyes measure by. In Haiti, where water is precious, progress is measured in small drops, by the power of one, a slow, steady trickle. But this trickle has the power to become Lavalas, a surging flood which ushers in new life.

This hope continues to live in the towering palm trees, a symbol of Haiti's people. They can be cut down over and over, but they live on and flourish because of their deep, deep roots. Yes, Haiti will rise!

We see these roots rising in the religious communities teaching people to read, to sew, to plant. We see these roots rising in the peasants' and women's cooperatives struggling to rebuild after the coup and the recent hurricanes. We see these roots rising--literally--in the small groves of mango, coconut, and banana trees reforesting the hills. We especially see these roots rising in the growing communion between the people of Haiti and all who stand in solidarity.

And we know these roots are rising because they're watered by the blood of Haiti's martyrs. One of them, Father Jean-Marie Vincent, had met with our delegation in 1993. Shortly after he spoke with us, Pere Vincent was gunned down by the military. At the site where he was murdered there's a simple plaque that reads: "Fr. Jean-Marie Vincent: He fell here so that we might stand up." "When you go home," the Haitian people said, "please tell your friends to continue to stand up."

So how do we do that? Father Jack Martin, a good friend and the founder of the Haiti Solidarity Network of the NorthEast, suggests how we might stand with Haiti. He says:

"When a man on crutches, a woman holding a sick infant, and a barefoot ten-year-old boy come begging in the Port-au-Prince airport, it's hard to look them in the eye--and give them nothing. My only hope to salve my conscience is to determine to work hard at another level to foster change in Haiti."

So I'm asking you, friends of Haiti, to continue to stand up, to believe that Haiti's rising, as well as the resurrection of all of us, is tied into our faithfulness to the struggle.

During this week, the people of Haiti call us to move our faith into action in several ways that are outlined on the paper you'll receive as you leave tonight. I want to highlight two of these:

Contact President Clinton and Treasury Secretary Rubin to cancel Haiti's debt to the U.S., the World Bank and the IMF. This debt is $1 BILLION dollars! One billion dollars must be repaid before the government of Haiti can begin to feed its children, repair its roads, buy pencils and books for schools, build a hospital.

Sign and circulate the petition to return the FRAPH documents to Haiti. You may remember when, in 1994, U.S. troops went to Haiti to end the brutal coup. While they were there, U.S. troops seized documents from the paramilitary FRAPH offices. These documents include reports, registers, audio and videocassettes, and photographs of torture sessions. These are critical evidence of human rights violations done to the people of Haiti by the brutal coup regime.

The U.S. had no legal right to take these documents and has no legal right to keep them. These documents are needed by victims of the coup to prove their suffering, to find justice and receive compensation. We invite you to sign the petition as you leave this evening, and to take additional copies home to your family, your co-workers, your school or parish communities. By signing this petition, you're taking a step to restore to the Haitian people the justice they've been denied.

As we observe Haiti Solidarity Week, let's close with a reverse reading of the passage of Luke's gospel proclaimed here tonight. Let's imagine that, just as we heard God's Word here, so also our sisters and brothers in Haiti, Peru, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Scranton, and every city and village are praying these same words of good news.

And let's remember that this Gospel tells them to proclaim liberty to us in whatever way we are held captive; recovery of sight to us when we fail to see; release to us in whatever ways we are imprisoned.

Today, may this Scripture be fulfilled in our hearing!

May the deep hidden sigh of our neighbor become our own.
May we continue to walk out into the fields where the water is shining and the rice has risen.
May we stand there and fill our hands with the mud, like a blessing.

As our sisters and brothers in Haiti say:


May it be so!