I spread out the rolled-up map of the world and placed it on the carpet in the family room. Then I knelt down and looked for Hispaniola, and focused on the western part of the island…a tiny pink shaped surrounded by blue. For most of my life that is how I viewed Haiti, nestled with other islands in the Caribbean.
A new image birthed when A.J., our youngest son, spent some fun days, doing boy things like setting off stink bombs, with his Haitian cousin while we holidayed on Grand Manan Island. My cousin, Doug Tatton and Rosemary, his wife adopted Jordon years before, while serving as missionaries in City de Soliel, a rough neighbourhood of Port au Prince.
My husband, Bob, started his travels to help in building projects there and his stories further piqued my interest. In February, 2009, Bob and I left Fergus with a team of fourteen and flew to the poorest location in the western hemisphere. Finally, I could see for myself this beautiful land, ravished by poverty, challenge and intrigue.
More faces replaced the coloured spot on the map.
Since 1996, Louise and Michel Charbonneau, missionaries from Quebec, Canada, coordinate a feeding program for children, hungry both physically and spiritually. Their love, concern and training of the youth of that nation sends rivers of warm admiration flowing through me. While there, I stayed with two others in an upstairs bedroom of their mission home. Each night we turned on a fan to cool down and also to drown out the endless noise…pigs squealing, roosters crowing, music and voices all clamoured for attention. Most nights, the hydro failed for a few hours and came back on pre-dawn. Just down the hall from us, before sunrise, Michel and Louise spent the first hours in prayer to seek God’s wisdom before attempting the day. This daily habit helped them face the many challenges and opportunities of teaching, building and encouraging.
Two Haitian women arrive and begin the meal preparation in the well-organized kitchen. With continual activity from early morning until evening, I noted the minimal personal privacy afforded the Charbonneau’s. Outside two more locals begin the immense task of preparing rice and beans for two thousand or more. Their kitchen occupied space in a corner of the yard. Large black boiling kettles and shovels to stir the rice, their day began as the rooster crowed.
A 12 foot wall, topped with barbed wire surrounded the house, large irons gates providing the entrance to the street. A hired armed security, along with a dog, kept watch over the facility.
Several times a week, the front and side yard of their rented home changes into a meeting place for hundreds. Twice each week, after singing and teaching, long tables are lifted high over the children’s heads, the wooden benches turned in, and the table placed perfectly between the benches facing each other. I stood by and watched in amazement at the ease with which the youth accomplished this dining room feat. I tried to help but just got in the way.
For many, this meal of rice and beans on Sunday and spaghetti on Friday provides their only meals for the week. I looked into beautiful brown eyes, all anxiously awaiting to have their tummies filled. A sea of starving faces all devoured every morsel. A little girl stuffed the remaining noodles into her pants pocket, possibly to share with someone at home.
One of our first assignments took us to the slums outside the property. A regular visit from one of the trained youth served as a link to the families, a caring beyond the feeding program.
Bob introduced me to Gandy, our guide for the scheduled drop-in. He led us down a narrow street, then another. I stretched out out my arms and at the same time, touched the houses on both sides of the alley. Families lived inside each simple one or two roomed dwelling, made of metal, wood and mud.
A little girl came running and threw her arms around Gandy and looked into his face, eyes dancing. Giggles, smiles and laughter alerted me to the special bond between the two.
Never rushing, but aware of the many awaiting his coming, Gandy gave words of encouragement and we moved on.
I gave thanks for the comfortable, supportive walking shoes on the uneven, broken path. We turned a sharp corner to see that the path continued three feet below. Bob and Gandy jumped down first. I took Bob’s hand to make an ungraceful descent. After gaining my footing, I looked up to see another face…dirty and sad. This eight year old boy sat on the threshold of the family shelter, wearing only grimy undershorts.
A closer look revealed physical and mental disabilities. Twisted limbs and bare ribs bespoke poor nutrition. He had never walked or talked, but I watched him as Gandy approached the steps and walked up to him. Instantly his countenance changed, the blank stare replaced with a smile the extended across his entire face.
The closer Gandy got to him, the more excited he became until he giggled, his whole body shaking. Gandy reached down and carefully but firmly held him while carrying him down the stairs. With both strong arms around his back, Gandy lowered him to the ground. Still holding the lad, Gandy spun around to face him, grasping each hand tightly. With gentle coaxing, he took small steps backwards, encouraging the young boy to put one foot in front of the other along with him. For several minutes, Gandy continued this tedious process. He returned him to his regular sitting spot and turned to the mother, who stood nearby watching the whole scene. “It would really help your son to do this exercise every day.”
She smiled, nodded and in Creole replied, “Okay, I will.”
As we left and walked out of earshot Gandy’s face saddened. “I tell this mom the same thing every week I come, but she never responds. I know he can do better. with daily exercise.” He went on to share the neglect that special needs children endure.
Our tour continued. Commotion as we arrived at the next home. Mother and two children all ran to get plastic chairs. We sat and enjoyed the interaction between Gandy and his little flock. “Father, bless this home.”
“How wonderful that your children come to our feeding program.”
“I miss Robert. Please tell him, I’d love to see him again.”
“Can you come to church this week?”
Prayer, encouraging words, invitations and hugs freely given were all comfortably part of Gandy’s visit.
Not only did he have a passion to improve the plight of his people, but he determined to upgrade his own education.
“How is my English? I want to speak perfectly.”
Bob and he helped each other with pronunciation of the other’s language. Some letters are difficult in anothers’ tongue. Gandy looked at us, and accepted each suggestion eagerly.
“I pwactice and pwactice in fwont of the miwow.”
For over five years, Gandy St.Hilaire has served as assistant pastor, been a pillar of the church, the sponsoring program and taken charge of the dining hall. Louise and Michel, who have trained him often said, “If only we had a few more like Gandy for the work here.”
On January 12, 2010, Gandy walked to his regular class at the Church of the Rock Bible school where he studied theology. The earthquake hit. All twenty students were trapped under the collapsed building. Bob Thornly, along with others, worked three days and nights to rescue the crushed victims. Shouts of joy arose as four came out alive. The short-lived happiness turned to sorrow. The other eighteen lost their lives, including the very last one pulled from the rubble…Gandy.
How you will be missed Gandy! I only knew you for a week but you impacted my life forever. It is difficult to comprehend that your work here is complete but we rejoice in a Higher power who views all things from His perspective.
Act13:36 For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep.
You may check out this this wonderful ministry to Haitian youth