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Something New at Somewhere ‘Old’

April 30, 2013

On Sunday I was invited to attend the 40th anniversary celebrations of the church in Vielle (old in French), in the mountains east of Pierre Payen.  Their pastor, Job Mervil, is one of the students in my English class.  Several others from Vielle also attend.

Pastor Job is an affable young man, always cheerful and enthusiastic.  He always makes me feel he is truly delighted to see me.  He is one of my favourite students, although almost all are a pleasure.  He is always early and always sits at the front.  He, however, is the one for whom English pronunciation comes hardest, and even his best attempts are thickly accented.  The ‘R’ sound, rare in Creole—most often being replaced with a ‘W’ in words borrowed from the French, or if present, hardly pronounced at all—is almost beyond him.  Occasionally he can get it after several tries, but no sooner does he achieve it than it again eludes him.  ‘TH’ also gives him difficulty, although I can far more easily demonstrate the tongue-between-the-teeth necessary to produce that sound, and although it does not come naturally, through much hard work he is mastering it.

I knew virtually nothing about the village of Vielle except that it was some distance away.  Mention of going there got me responses from many as if I were suggesting venturing to the dark side of the moon.  My moto headed out through the market, just beginning to come to life, and a couple of kilometers further through the dappled morning light of the corridor, across the river and past Corps du Christ church where I hold my classes.  A few kilometers further we turned off the road and onto a trail that drops down to the Pierre Payen River.  Bumping along the stony riverbed for some distance, we crossed through the river several times.  Reaching the foot of the mountains, we began to climb.

From that point there is nothing one would call a road, only a narrow track that accommodates foot traffic, donkeys and the occasional motorcycle.  The trail was so steep at times I had to dismount and scramble up on foot, as the bike couldn’t handle the ascent with a passenger.  After several of these climbs in the already intense morning sun, I was breathing heavily and damp with perspiration.  Further up, the trail narrowed at times to a ledge less than two feet wide, in places its edge precipitously dropping off several hundred feet.  But despite this, my driver being very cautious, it was a comfortable and thoroughly enjoyable trip with the incredible views the mountains afford.

After about an hour, the church came into view against a backdrop of denuded mountains, the vivid blue of the tarp extending from its near side standing out in the distance.  A short time later my driver let me know he had come as far as he could.  Between the church and me was the river gorge, at that point hundreds of feet deep. Gingerly edging my way down the bank, I reached the fast-flowing crystal clear water and located a place where I could jump from stone to stone to reach the other side.  A fall would not have been disastrous as the river is only a couple of feet deep, and the water here is bathtub warm.  But I had no desire to show up at the church wringing wet.

Looking across the gorge to the church.

Looking across the gorge to the church.

Pastor Job had seen my approach and had come down to the river to meet me.  He led me up the steep path, and I finally arrived at the church.  Had I made my own way, I might have chosen the wrong path, as the church was invisible until we reached the top.  It is a small concrete block and stone building with a tin roof, with the tarp that stood out in the distance as protection from the sun on one side.  Several people were already sitting in its shade and greeted me as I arrived. A number of benches were set out under it.  At the back of the church was a porch of woven palm fronds over a frame of poles, where several closely spaced low benches were arrayed.

Church at Vielle

Church at Vielle

After a few introductions the pastor invited me to his home.  The house is tiny and crudely built of soil cement, the walls crumbling in places to open large gaps.  The roof of rusted corrugated metal is riddled with holes.  The doors and door frames are constructed of pit-sawn lumber.  The earth floor is rough and rocky.  I was invited into the crowded back room where I was offered a bit of food and a drink.  We talked a while and Pastor Job showed me the documentation for the nutritional health program he operates, caring for 20 orphans in the village.  The children are housed by village families or sleep in the church.

With Pastor Job.

With Pastor Job.

As the service was about to begin, we headed for the church. An attendant removed the crossed poles that barred the door to allow us to enter.  (I have wondered at the practice of many Haitian churches to guard the doors.)  Accorded the status of honoured guest, I was seated on the platform at the front along with the elders.   Immediately one of the women in the choir, evident in their monochromic attire of blue skirts, blouses and headdresses, brought her baby for me to hold.  The little girl, dressed in a frothy white dress with pink and yellow eyelet embroidery and a vivid pink headband with a flower on her forehead, was a sweetheart.  She was very bright and content, sitting happily on my lap until she fell asleep.  I tried to keep her cool in the heat by fanning her with a notebook, the only thing handy.

Congregational singing

Congregational singing

A little fuzzy as photographer had never used a camera before.

A little fuzzy as photographer had never used a camera before.

The service was quite different from others I have attended in Haitian churches.  Rather than continuous congregational singing, various groups took turns singing, at times joined by the entire church, and at others alone, all accompanied by a keyboard, a small bass drum, and an instrument that I can only describe as a very oversized cheese grater played by rubbing it with a small stick.  The music was spirited and upbeat.  As with almost every Haitian church, despite the small size of the building, this church had a sound system with the volume turned up to near ear-bleeding levels.  The choir consisted entirely of women, but other groups were exclusively male, others mixed, and others made up of children of varying ages.  Some of the children sang a special number they had learned in honour of my visit, a version of Happy Birthday in English, with the words changed to “Happy Welcome”.  Their pronunciation was very clear.

Young people singing.

Young people singing.

A couple of perhaps thirty, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary, were called up to the front where they were offered gifts of food.  Then the ladies choir gathered round them and sang songs in praise of love and the commitment of the couple in staying together through hard times.  A men’s group then sang in their honour, encouraging the couple to kiss, which was very enthusiastically received by the entire congregation.  The couple then danced down the aisle and out the back door, followed by the singers.

I managed to find someone to take the baby, now awake, and with Pastor Job’s encouragement, proceeded to take some pictures.  Under the tarp outside the benches were now full.  Going around to the back of the church I found more than thirty children seated there, watching the service through the back door.  All were dressed in their Sunday best, most of the girls in white embroidered dresses, the boys in white shirts, slacks and highly polished shoes.  Although the church could seat only about sixty, over one hundred people were in attendance.

Children seated behind church

Children seated behind church

Unfortunately I had ignored the lesson of a previous time, thinking my camera batteries had sufficient charge to last the day.  They did not, so I did not get all the pictures I would have liked.  From now on extra batteries will go with me everywhere.

Pastor Job invited me to the podium to introduce me to the congregation and to have me say a few words to the people.  The pastor then went on to explain how he knew me and tell his flock what I was doing in Haiti.

One of the pastors entreating the flock.

One of the pastors entreating the flock.

As an older pastor launched into his sermon in the loud and aggressive style that is common here, I was informed that my driver was not prepared to wait any longer, although he had agreed to stay throughout the service.  I was very disappointed at having to cut my visit short, but the prospect of several hours of walking in the midday sun on difficult terrain was not a prospect I welcomed.  However, Pastor Job would not let me leave until I first came to his house for a light lunch.  My heart is always touched at the offer of food, as I know how little these people have, and yet they are always anxious to share.

A young woman who is one of my students served my lunch.  She is usually quite quiet in class, and I have never heard much from her.  But as she brought me my food she spoke to me at length in very good English, and we had a fairly protracted conversation.  Both her pronunciation and grammar were excellent.  When I asked her where she had learned to speak English so well, she told me, “In your class.”  This is the second time that this has happened, and I was again taken aback, amazed that some of my students have learned so much in such a short time.

Saying my goodbyes, I made my way down into the gorge and across the river.  Pastor Job accompanied me to show me where he wants to relocate the church on a spreading plateau a couple of kilometers closer to Pierre Payen.  His reasoning is twofold:  first, the church has outgrown their building, and some who would choose to join them are a bit reluctant to come where there is nowhere for them to sit inside; secondly, crossing the gorge is intimidating to some and impossible for those who are older or who have mobility issues.  He told me how much would be needed to purchase the land and construct a new building.  To me it is a very modest amount, but in Haitian terms it would be impossible for these poor people to raise the money in any reasonable timeframe.  Pastor Job asked me to pray to determine if there was any way the Lord could use me to assist.

The trip down the mountain was a bit easier, although I still had to walk the steeper sections as the bike skidded uncontrollably with me aboard.

It had been a long morning, and I had only a couple of hours before my Sunday afternoon class at Corps du Christ.  My students from Vielle would not be coming I knew, as the service was far from over when I left.  But I am of the conviction that numbers are unimportant, and even if only one student were to show up, I would teach the class.  Four arrived, and Pastor Frito sat in.  It was an excellent opportunity for informal interaction and a chance to get to know them a bit better.

On Monday Pastor Job phoned me to thank me for coming and to tell me the church wanted me to come again.  I know I will.

I am convinced that this visit, as was my coming to teach English at Corps du Christ, has been the Spirit’s leading.  I had absolutely nothing to do with initiating either; I only followed His lead.  The results have been beyond anything I would have imagined.   I am not a trained teacher.  My Creole, although adequate for day-to-day living, falls far short of fluency; I know my grammar at times is atrocious.  Yet somehow I am seeing results beyond all reason.  I know it is because the Spirit is with me.  With the encouragement of my students, we pray before and after each class.  They are enthusiastic about discussing spiritual matters and learning the English to frame their discussions.  They assist me at every turn, working collectively to fill in when I do not have the words, and to correct my errors.  Above all, one thing is clear:  they know I love them, and know that is why I come twice each weekend to help them learn.  And they return that love abundantly.

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