My favorite spiritual teacher, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that synchronicities, or apparent coincidences, are a sure sign that God is breaking in…
Sometime in 2006, Mark Lindberg held a meeting at his house for anyone interested in exploring the idea of St John’s establishing an international ministry. I attended because I was interested, but I didn’t have any ideas. Some ideas were floated, but nothing concrete.
Shortly after that meeting was Diocesan Convention, and I was a a delegate. As I walked through the gallery where people displayed their ministries, I saw an old friend, Barb Buehl, from my previous church, St Alban’s in Edina. Her display was about St Alban’s parish partnership in Haiti, which had begun a couple of years after I had left. I learned that the Diocese of Haiti Partnership Program had been established in the 1990’s and that Messiah Church in St Paul had established one of the first partnerships. Ten years later they had taken folks from St Alban’s to Haiti, and St Alban’s had established its own partnership. I was intrigued, and invited my friend to the next meeting at Mark’s house. The first synchronicity.
At the meeting, Barb showed us a slideshow and told us more about the Partnership program. The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in Episcopal Church USA. Currently there are over 100,000 members. It was established in 1863 by James Theodore Holly, an African American Episcopal priest who became the first Bishop of Haiti. Holly said that the Haitian Episcopal Church would build schools and hospitals, and that mission continues to this day. Because of the overwhelming poverty in Haiti, parishes in the US began to financially support parishes in Haiti, until finally the Partnership Program was officially established. Under the Partnership Program, one parish in the US is partnered with one parish in Haiti. Sometimes a whole US Diocese is partnered with several parishes. Barb told us that the priest in charge of their Haitian partner was responsible for seven parishes, and several of them did not have US partners. She suggested that a couple of us “come and see.” I quickly volunteered, and invited Cheryl Williams to join me, because Cheryl had just written an article in the newsletter about her trip to Benin, the country in West Africa where most of the Haitian slaves had originated. Another synchronicity.
Our trip to Haiti in November, 2006 was life-changing for both Cheryl and me. The poverty was devastating, the beauty of the landscape was amazing, and the warmth and generosity of the people were overwhelming. We fell in love with Haiti! We were taken to a small parish which ran a small school, but the teachers had not been paid for four months, because parents could not afford to pay tuition. Many schools sent children home if tuition was not paid, but this priest would not do that. They could really use a partner. The sign on the school said St Philippe et St Jacques (St Philip and St James), Gressier/Collin. Cheryl had a son named Philip; I had a son named Colin. The third synchronicity.
Cheryl and I came home full of enthusiasm. We put out a call for people to join a Haiti partnership committee and ended up with twelve members. We made a presentation to the parish. We talked with the vestry. We received donations. In the summer of 2007, the vestry voted to officially approve a partnership between St John’s and St Philippe et St Jacques. At the request of our partner priest, we agreed that the main focus of our partnership would be paying teacher salaries. Later we agreed to provide medical clinics as well, and for a time after the earthquake, we were also able to provide a lunch program, with help from the World Food Program.
Over the years, our partnership has flourished. More than 20 parishioners have traveled to Haiti. Two partner priests have visited us. Immediately after the devastating earthquake in 2010, the wife and child of our partner priest came to stay for eight months at the home of St John’s parishioners John and Elizabeth Mc Clure. Sadly, a trip for middle school students and their mothers was canceled in 2018, because of instability in the country, and we have not been able to travel to Haiti since. But we know that in the future visits will happen again.
Between 2008 and 2014, Elizabeth McClure and I partnered with Christchurch in Duluth, Georgia to organize two mobile medical clinics a year for each of our partners. Volunteers from St John’s and Christchurch, and other friends staffed the clinics. Since 2014, monthly clinics have been provided by a separate organization, Haiti Companions, which employs all Haitian providers.
In 2006, the school at St Philippe et St Jacques had 130 students from preschool through 6th grade. In the 2021/22 school year, there were 360 students through 10th grade. Our budget for teacher salaries grew to $22,000 per year, all provided by St John’s parishioner donations. This year, Haiti has been devastated by severe political instability and gang violence. School could not open until December 5, and so far there are not many parents willing to send their children to school. But, despite all the difficulties, our partner priest, Rev Markendy Jean, and school principal, Michel Elissaint, are optimistic that there will be more students in January, and they were determined to add an eleventh grade class. Because of a generous donation of $3000 from one couple, we were able to add enough to our budget to fund eleventh grade.
Parents in Haiti believe strongly that education is the key to a stable future for their children and for the country. We at St John’s are blessed to be able to contribute to that future. We pray that the current conditions will improve, and that in the future we will visit our partners again. In the meantime, we know that God blesses our partnership with St Philippe et St Jacques.
Dianne Pizey, Haiti Committee Chair