Lord, when did we see you hungry?

by Kristine Greenaway last modified 30 October 2018 02:42 pm
Lord, when did we see you hungry?

Kristine Greenaway with ICKL staff during her visit to the Cayes region of Haiti, 2017.

30 October 2018

This reflection was originally presented during morning prayers in the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, on 27 August 2018, at the beginning of the week when Canada and the United States are being remembered in the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle.

Gospel lesson: Matthew 25:31-40

I am a story teller rather than a preacher and so this morning I will tell you some stories – stories that I hope will inspire us throughout the week.

There is a special relationship between Canada and Haiti. Over the years, many Haitians have emigrated to Canada, particularly to Montreal where French is the dominant language. Recently, a stream of Haitian refugees has crossed the border from the USA into Canada, chased out of the United States by threats of deportation back to Haiti. It is particularly poignant therefore that Zoughbi read the Matthew passage this morning. Your region, Zhoughbi, is home to so many refugees and displaced people in comparison to the numbers Canada has received.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us what is expected of us as children of God. The list of actions by which we will be judged deepens my understanding and my appreciation of the actions of people I met during a visit to Haiti in January 2017.

At the time, I was responsible for ministries in French in the United Church of Canada. My church is seeking to create connections with Haitian newcomers and so I made the trip to learn more about the context from which they come. While there I traveled with field staff of the Institut Culturel Karl Lévesque (ICKL) a popular education and community development organisation founded by a Haitian Jesuit priest that is supported by the United Church of Canada.

The three stories I will tell you this morning are about women I met in Haiti and their relationship to their children and to their communities. I invite you to listen to them with the words of Matthew 25 in your hearts and minds; to listen to them with the images of people you have met in other parts of the world whose stories are tragically similar; and to listen as Christians seeking to live faithfully in response to Jesus’ message to us.

Story One

I get to know Joanna and her son Jacob soon after my arrival at the Methodist Guest House in Port-au-Prince. Joanna is a diaconal minister in a large and prosperous United Methodist congregation in a community south of Washington, DC. Her job focuses on the needs of the city’s marginalized people. Jacob is a university student who is questioning the church. He wants to know what good it does. He’s not convinced that being a person of faith makes a positive difference in the world. In short he is having a crisis of faith. So his mother has come with him for a week of volunteer work on a project with the Haitian Methodist Church. She wants her son to see Christians in action. She wants him to see how Christians make a difference.

The day after we meet, I leave for a field trip to the Cayes region that was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. I leave promising to bring stories back from the field.

Three days later I am back after a series of remarkable encounters with peasants in remote villages. I am eager to share those stories and to hear what Joanna and Jacob have experienced and learned. Things have not gone well for them: the project had really involved only two days’ work and they have been mainly stuck in the guest house apart from attending an evening of speeches and choral performances in Créole and French (languages that neither of them speak) and a three-hour church service (also in Créole and French) held in a packed and stifling sanctuary.

My heart aches for Joanna, a mother seeking to accompany her son into adult engagement with the church and renewed faith in Christianity. The stories of two Haitian women I met on this pilgrimage of encounter are for Joanna and for Jacob, if he still has the patience to listen.

Story Two

I am with a group of peasants in a small village that was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. We are gathered in a cement house next to a destroyed church. Guy, an ICKL field staff member is guiding the discussion.

The room is dim. Group members sit on benches on three sides of the building. I ask people to tell me what they experienced on the night of the hurricane. The idea is that people can choose whether to speak or to remain silent so I am surprised when Guy urges a woman to speak. She is thin and may be 40 though she looks 60. She looks anxious and is twisted in knots like a pretzel. Yet she finally agrees to speak. The group goes silent. All around the walls there is palpable discomfort and concern at this choice of speaker.

Her name is Seïde Ismène. At first her voice is nearly inaudible but as her story spills out, she speaks more and more quickly and more loudly as if in a trance of remembering.

Seïde tells us how her 17-year old son died on the night of the hurricane when a wall collapsed on him as he slept at a friend’s house. She weeps as she relives her wild flight through the torrential rain in the pitch black to tear the wall off him with her bare hands and hold his broken body in her arms. I think of Michelangelo’s Pietà – Mary holding her adult son’s body, overwhelmed by the grief only a mother can feel for a son whose life has ended tragically.  And I hear the words of the psalmist in Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

Lord, hear my voice!

my soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

The people in the room have heard this story many times and they don’t know what to do. Her pain is far deeper than the pain of poverty and debt. She comes to group meetings and shares her story time and again. And the peasants listen. It is a compassionate though helpless solidarity. Over time her trauma will likely subside. Perhaps she will even find some healing and rest. What is certain is that the group will be listening. The peasants are acting on Matthew 25. They are visiting her in the prison of her grief.

Story Three

In that same cement room with its dim lighting, with people lining the walls, faces shining with perspiration in the heat, yet determined to tell us their stories, I ask my second question. This is a group of community leaders, part of a national movement of peasants. I ask them: What are your plans for rebuilding the community?

One man says that at this time of the year he would usually be getting ready to be part of a community work team to clear and plant fields. But he is weary.  He can’t sleep. Hunger and worry keep him awake. He admits he may not have the courage and strength to be part of the collective teamwork this year.

Then Marthe Lindor speaks up. She is a robust woman, strong, assured, with opinions, projects and plans. She has no illusions. The Haitian government will not come forward to support to farmers struggling to feed their families until they can once again get crops off their fields. She knows too that climate change means seasonal patterns have been disrupted. Rains no longer come at a predictable time. An irrigation system is needed to run water from hills across the valley and up to this small village. Nothing will happen though unless peasants with the support of ICKL organize to bring pressure to bear on the government. Meanwhile, Marthe is not going to let her community slump into the lethargy of despair. She is a rallying voice, a prophet calling her people to action.

She is today’s equivalent of the persistent widow harassing the judge until he finally gives in because she just won’t go away. She is saying we must find food for the hungry and water for the thirsty as it is written in the bible.

It is possible for Christians in Canada to reach out to people like Seïde and Marthe by supporting partner organizations like ICKL and through our church’s active involvement in the World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance. In this way Haitian Christians and Canadian Christians are able to respond to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, prisoners and strangers. This is what I want Jacob to see: God present in the world and proof of how God works through us, the church, in all its many forms.

May our faith move us into action, may hope emerge from our prayers, may the bible be a constant source of teaching and direction for us in our work and in our personal lives as people of faith.

Amen.

Disclaimer

The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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