Maryknoll Lay Missioner Jillian Foster in Haiti reflects on the power of faith to give meaning to suffering.
It was quite a humid walk on the way up to the village of Danti. Still early in the morning, the sun had yet to show its full face on us. In front of me was Father Janin and trailing along behind me were a couple of other people carrying packs. My own pack was soaking up all of the sweat on my back. The trek started in the riverbed below and continued straight up the mountain for nearly two hours. I had extra clothes and shoes in my bag, because who wants to go to Mass with a giant sweat blob on their back and red dirt caked on their soles?
Danti’s chapel, like all chapels and churches in Haiti, has a special feast day they celebrate. Danti’s is during the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. When a chapel or church has a feast day, or fèt, there is special music, several priests, pretty decorations, and, of course, everyone attends. Even with Danti situated on top of a mountain, the turnout was impressive. Everyone came: the band with their instruments walked up, people on neighboring mountains walked down and up, and folks followed the river from town and went up, just like me. This particular day saw us celebrating the Mass for 3 hours.
So why would people climb a mountain and hang out for 3 hours with no promise of food or anything beneficial to them? Especially with Danti basically being in the middle of nowhere. Especially since these people may barely be able to feed their kids every day, let alone send them to school. Especially when many look to the future with a hazy dream and silent hope that things might be better.
Faith is the answer, of course. And faith is not simply just belief. It is trust in something without evidence of its existence or fulfillment. In this case, their faith is in God, who asks us to be faithful.
God asks for faithfulness through the good and the bad. However, sometimes in the good times we do not think we need God’s help, and in the bad times we can blame God for all that is wrong in our lives.
Haiti is a country where the current government makes little to no strides to ensure the welfare of its constituents, where there is no basic health care system or social security and your family and neighbors are in the same boat. Here, God is the only one the people can trust. In good times and bad, God is watching over Haiti.
Haitians are a people of great and profound faith. People hike up a mountain for several hours to celebrate Mass for several more hours, only to have to go back down again because they do not put God on a timer. They pray fervently and they give thanks for the littlest of things, from the simple act of waking up in the morning to having a garden to work in.
Thanksgiving to God engrains itself into Haitian greetings, so much so that I myself feel a lack when I don’t tag on gras Bondye, or “thanks be to God,” in my own salutations.
I don’t want to mistake Haitians’ strong faith as an escape from the reality of the immense hardship they face, however. It is rather an expression of comfort and solidarity that gives meaning to their suffering. Together, the people here form a community and, with faith as a guide, work towards a better future. In today’s reading, Abraham’s faith is in a promise that went beyond his lifetime. And much like our father in faith, Haitians may not know when that better future will come, but they trust it will.
Jillian Foster is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Haiti since 2019.
Image: Mother and child in Haiti, Oct. 31, 2012. Photo credit: Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons