Greetings, Friends –
Last week at Exploring Your Spiritual Journey (EYSJ), one of our participants led us in our morning worship by asking us to share all the things we wanted to leave behind in 2017 and then offer our ideas of what attitudes and qualities we wanted to see grow in 2018. Once we had our two lists, she led us in prayer asking God to give us strength to let the negative things go and the courage and grace to grow in all the positive wishes we have for 2018. One of the qualities I’d love to see again is civility. In my mind this means treating others with respect and honor, speaking with grace and kindness, and behaving in such a way as to show that being Christ-like is the life of a Christian. This week we were given a perfect example of what civility is not. I’ve been disappointed and troubled before by the careless words of our President but this time I am also heartbroken for the hurt and misunderstanding that followed his outburst. You see, I have a good friend who’s dedicated her professional career to working with the people of Haiti.
Before coming to Michigan, I lived in Massachusetts. One of my dearest friends was the wife of my pastor, Janet O’Flynn. Janet and I shared time in weekly spiritual discernment with a group of like-minded friends, we sang in the community chorus together, we shared conversation and family life. It was tough moving to Michigan and leaving my friend. Janet’s profession as an occupational therapist took her to Haiti every year for a week to work with children whose hands needed the expertise of an OT. There just were not enough health care professionals in Haiti to serve the many needs of the people. After I moved to Michigan, Janet finished degree work on her doctorate in occupational therapy.
As life would have it, sometimes we lose contact with those we love when we get too busy and distracted. I knew that Janet and Donnel had moved to New York State after I came to Michigan but two years ago when I was writing Christmas cards, I couldn’t seem to find them at all. There were signs on Facebook that, perhaps, they had moved to Haiti but I couldn’t find any contact info. Then, last Christmas, I realized that priests are never really anonymous and I found that Donnel was pastoring a congregation in his hometown of Kalispell, MT. Contact was re-established!!
I learned that during that missing year, the O’Flynn’s had taken a sabbatical in Haiti to begin the work of setting up an academic program educating Haitian students in occupational and physical therapy. The Haiti Rehabilitation Foundation shares this history of Faculté des Sciences de Réhabilitation de Léogâne (FSRL) on their brochure:
FSRL is a department of the Episcopal University of Haiti, and is currently located on the lovely campus in Léogâne. Planning for the program began in 2011, when volunteers at St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children realized how helpful it would be to have Haitian therapists. The dream became a reality in October 2015, when the first five students enrolled. In 2019, our first class will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Occupational or Physical Therapy.
The brochure describes the Haitians’ need to this training:
1.1 million Haitians are estimated to have disabling physical and/or mental conditions requiring the help of qualified Occupational and Physical therapists. Yet, there are only about 50 Haitian PTs and 1 Haitian OT – all of whom received their degrees from the Dominican Republic because there was no such opportunity in Haiti. Haiti needed its own OT and PT 4-year degree program! This credential allows graduates to operate independently as therapists.
Janet is serving as acting Dean of FSRL, splitting her time between Haiti and Montana as she is able.
When I heard our President’s alleged remarks, I could only begin to imagine how tough that would be for Janet and her students to hear. I sent Janet a note sharing my sorrow for these disparaging remarks. Janet replied that the news hit them hard. In her blog for FSRL, she shared the experience:
Reflection on the Day of Reflection
The Day of Reflection in Haiti is a day to remember those who died in the earthquake, the 12th of January, 2010. At least 300,000 Haitians died instantly. It’s a national holiday. At FSRL, each year that we’ve been here, the students and faculty have gathered in the auditorium for prayers, songs, and telling the stories of their experiences.
This year, after two hours or so of the normal program, the agenda was derailed by the vulgar comment of our President, dismissing the whole nation of Haiti as a “s**t-hole”. Here’s how it happened: The Dean of Nursing (who has both a Haitian and an American passport) interrupted the program. She came up onto the stage in great anger and gave a long, loud and angry talk of resistance to this insult to all the school and to an American nursing team that was visiting. She was so insulted that she couldn’t help retelling the many ways in which the Americans have taken resources out of Haiti. She talked about racism that she had experienced in the US. And she talked about the Haitian-born medical doctors, nurses, lawyers, military, and professors who live and work and contribute at a high level to the US society. She was eloquent. She finished up the talk by reassuring the visiting Americans that they were not the problem; that she knew that they, as nurses, were good people and she was grateful for their visit.
Even so, as she talked, and the US insult and rejection of Haitian contributions sank in, I watched the body language of the students. They looked down; their shoulders drooped; some put their hands over their eyes. How, I wondered, would they feel about working with Americans after this day? It matters because if any of them thought that I, their American Dean of Rehab, secretly disrespected them, how could we go on?
After the Dean of Nursing left, a young woman nursing student led them in a strong song about relying on God’s help. And I thought of an approach I could take to make sure we would still have a bridge for working together. I went up the steps and asked for the microphone, just for two minutes. Here is (more or less) my little speech:
You may find many emotions as you think about this vulgarity from President Trump. You might be sad, or angry, or something else. But one thing you may NOT feel is shame. You may not. And here is why I’m saying that. There is a story in the Bible where the Pharisees come to Jesus’ disciples and ask why they eat food without first washing their hands. Jesus says, “Not washing your hands does not make you a bad person. Nothing coming from outside, like any certain kind of food, can change the quality of a person. What CAN change you is what comes out from your heart into your words. What you say, that comes from your heart, can make you bad.” So, think about what Trump has said. He has made words that are shameful. As far as I am concerned, the BEST emotion I can have for Trump is pity. That he would have a mind so small, a heart so hard, and an experience of the world so limited, that he would say that. So, you yourselves, you realize that relationships between Americans and Haitians are complicated. You may have all kinds of feelings. But you must not feel any shame. No. You may not. “
After that the program was over. Some students went out quietly, some talking, and some came over to give me big hugs. Quite a few. And today again some students came to me and said, “Thank you. I feel better.”
The words of our President do not reflect the hearts of most Americans and should not reflect the wishes of any who call themselves followers of Jesus. We are called to love all our neighbors, to work for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. Every. Human. Being.
This is why I am passionate about the work of The Episcopal Church. This is why I can get excited about resolutions designed to bring justice and wholeness to a hurting world. We take seriously our call to live as the Beloved Community.
Thank you for reading my story of Janet and FSRL. You can find more information about FSRL, videos telling their story, and a link to their printable brochure here. Donations are very welcome and can be made here. And, thank you for joining me in speaking out for those whose voices are not heard well among some of the people in power in our country.
Let us pray –
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council