I’m reading these first days of Lent a book by Fr. Rick Frechette: Haiti: The God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men. He’s a priest, a doctor, a member of my community, the Passionists, who has been serving the poor in Haiti for over 20 years.
When the recent catastrophic earthquake struck on January 12, 2010 he was the director of a 150 bed pediatric hospital for poor children near Port-au-Prince and was responsible for setting up some street schools for poor kids in the slums of the city and a program for bringing clean water into the slums by truck.
All of those projects came to a halt or suffered severe damage in the earthquake that killed over 230,000 people. Fr. Rick is rebuilding now. Not only is he rebuilding, he hopes to do more.
His book, a compilation of reflections about his work in Haiti over the years, is more than a picture of what he’s doing. It’s more a story of God’s grace shining through human misery. Haiti is a tough burnt land, but God wisdom and beauty are there in a place its people call “Calvary’s Hill.” God’s grace is always there where a cross is set up.
Frechette’s book, instead of making you ask “What can we do for Haiti?” makes you ask rather “What can Haiti do for us?”.
What can we learn from the place that most of us don’t want to look at?
When Fr. Rick built his pediatric hospital for the poor, he made it the best children’s hospital in Haiti, because he said the poor deserve the best. That’s not the way we think in our part of the world, is it? With us, the poor more likely get the worst.
We believe in success and think we have a right to it. We can be successful if we try hard. We can be winners and we like winners; we don’t like losers. We like the stars, the celebrities, not the failed and the broken. We grow impatient with intractable problems. We turn away from them. “You’re fired,” we say to them.
The wisdom Jesus teaches is different, however. “Whatever you do to the least, you do to me.” And he told us to bear our cross and to share the cross that others bear.
Fr. Rick’s stories are about beauty and grace in the least and God who reveals himself in the mystery of the Cross.
The ultimate human failure, of course, is death. And here again, Fr. Rick has some of Haiti’s wisdom to pass on to us. As a doctor, he heals, but as a priest he buries dead as well. The grace of God pursues us even to death.
A few weeks after the earthquake, Fr. Rick’s mother died. He was able to get to her bedside and celebrate her funeral in Wethersfield, Ct and this is what he said.
“My mother was diagnosed with cancer about 8 months ago. Over these months she had time to think about her life and death, about all those she loved, and about her God. With the care of the best physicians and nurses, with the full devotion of her husband and children, she met the end of her life in a beautiful way. Slowly dying during mass at her bedside, dying shortly after my sermon on the merciful presence of the Blessed Mother who is with us “now and at the hour of our death”, she died during the consecration of the sacred bread and wine. I later asked my father, since mom died so soon after my talk, if he thought my words were lethal, and did mom in! He replied quickly, “your sermon darn near killed us all.”
Imagine, the earthquake caused the death of 100,000 to the present count. The death of these people was so different from the death of my mother. Instead of 8 months to prepare, they had 34 seconds. Instead of constant attention and affection from loving families and skilled doctors, buildings fell on them, trapped them, crushed them and isolated them. Instead of being honored with a beautiful coffin, the precious white pall, the wonderful incense, they bloat and rot and make you turn your head and vomit. Instead of being laid tenderly in the grave as we will do to my mother today, they are lifted from the street by backhoes and front end loaders and dumped into huge trucks.. It is so different, so tragic, sad beyond words. Life has to end for everyone. But the way that life ended for Gerri Frechette is a cause of thanksgiving and joy, and our gratitude should make our hearts burst with zeal, to want to right the wrong for those whose death is a humiliation and a disgrace.
On January 6th as I came home from Haiti to stay with mom to the end, the Archbishop of Port au Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, asked me to let him know when mom died. He wanted to come and officiate at her funeral. On January 12th , just 6 days later, he was dead. Within 34 seconds the earthquake threw him from his 3rd floor balcony to the patio below, and the chancery fell on top of him, and the cathedral fell on top of the chancery. I tell you this for two reasons. First, to remember and pray for this kind pastor and bishop during this mass. And second, as an example of a simple reality. Did he ever expect to be dead before my dying mother? What are your expectations of your death? How secure are you sitting here at the funeral? Will you still be here in 6 days? Or maybe will you also be gone, with 34 seconds to prepare?
The point is a simple one. We cannot escape death. We should learn everything we can about it. This mass, this earthquake, should be a profound school of learning for us. To die the right way we have to know the right way to live. Right living is the preparation for right dying – even a death that comes in 34 seconds.”
For more on him, see www.thepassionists.org