Unification News For March 1996


Religious Youth Service - Above and Beyond Voodoo - RYS Lands in Haiti

by Bruce Clarke-Bridgeport, CT

The Religious Youth Service (RYS), a project initiated by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in collaboration with over six hundred other religious leaders at the Assembly of World's Religions in 1985, performed its forty-ninth project in Haiti, January 6"14 this year.

This was its first project in the Caribbean. To make it happen, RYS had the blessing of connecting with Mrs. Renee, an American-trained Haitian woman with a doctorate in education and experience in administering schools in New York City.

The Religious Youth Service attracted ten students from the University of Bridgeport to participate in its Haiti Project. Two of these, Hisayo Hara (Human Services) and Bruce Clarke, myself, (MS Education), were enrolled as staff and arrived one day earlier than the other participants. The other U.B. students who participated were: Hirokatsu Sato - Marketing; Yasuko Uchihori - Mass Comm.; Inmay Keily - Art; Shunitsu Nakanowatari -Int. Design; Soon Young Kim - MS Education; Susumu Kotegawa - Mass Comm.; Yasuyo Kato - undeclared; and Takaaki Funakoshi - MBA.

RYS attracted to its Haitian Project about 45 people in total. They hailed from many nations, and they would focus upon vital construction of the facilities. Religious traditions represented at this project were Catholic, Seventh-Day Adventist, Buddhist, North American Sufi, Methodist and Unificationist. The site couple given the task for day- to-day planning was George and Marti Ambrose of Georgia. George is an airline mechanic for a major carrier, Marti a school librarian. Rev. John Gehring, executive director of RYS, was also there from start to finish administering the project.

The Haitian Academy

Mrs. Renee founded the non-profit Haitian Academy in New York in 1979 with her husband and his parents in order to provide the children of Haitian immigrants a private multi-lingual, multi-cultural education with strong moral and religious underpinnings. The Board of Trustees of that school decided to open another school in Haiti in 1986, as a result of parental pressure for a school apart from the pressures of American inner city life. By 1991, the Board decided to close the New York school and concentrate on developing the Haitian school.

Dr. Renee and her husband and family have made many obvious sacrifices to realize the Haitian Academy. They sold their homes in the United States and poured their own money into the school. They also take no regular salary from the school (Mr. Renee still works part-time as a tax consultant; his doctoral degree is in Economics). It is an extremely simple school; amenities are few. For example, there is no TV available. The first commitment is clearly to their students and to making them first moral and loving people. The academic success of their students is also apparent. Students who go through the entire program from first grade can easily graduate at the age of fifteen with a high school diploma recognized by the State of New York. Dr. Renee claims that academy graduates have entered top universities back in the U.S. at that age with more maturity than many of their American classmates. The irony of all this is that inner-city parents in the United States find it better morally and educationally for their children to attend school in a poverty stricken developing nation.

Arrival and First Impressions

On January 4th and 5th the staff arrived at the airport in Port-au- Prince, Haiti. The biggest surprise was the number of young people who followed us out to the parking lot, asking either to help us with our few bags or for a direct handout. We quickly piled into the Toyota four-wheel drive, which the host school sent for our pick-up, and the crowd of mostly teenage boys pressed against the vehicle asking plaintively for "one dollar." We were advised to lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up. There was no violence and we were never in any danger of being accosted (we were told later), but the impact of real poverty in Haiti visibly shook the arriving staff members.

Passing through the outskirts of the capital, we saw with our own eyes the people's situation. It is truly miserable. Prior to the reinstatement of President Aristide in 1994 by the Clinton administration's diplomatic and military intervention, Haiti was faced with an economic embargo to force down its military dictator. With no oil or coal of its own to fuel the country's energy needs, Haiti resorted to deforestation to supply wood for burning. Today, there are relatively few trees and soil erosion is a major problem.

On the heels of erosion problems came the top soil depletion and agricultural decline. This has lead to population shifts. Many peasants migrated from the rural interior to the more populated coastlines, and then made their way to Cite Soleil, the poorest section of Port-au-Prince. The result has been many miles of recently created slums, where people live in extreme misery and, in the words of one distraught staff member, "no better than pigs." Electricity and clean running water are virtually nonexistent in these areas.

We had been assured that our own accommodations, however, would include electricity and running water. We arrived at the Haitian Academy at dusk, pulling through the gates and past an armed guard. In the fading light we were a little disoriented and could barely make out the features of students and school employees who welcomed the bus. Mr. Renee, co-founder and husband of the school's president greeted us and introduced us to many of the welcomers. We soon found our sleeping quarters in two classrooms, one for the men and another for the women. As the lights in these rooms had not been wired yet, extension cords were run to the rooms for lighting. A multiple seat, camp-style toilet facility was worked on by local craftsmen that night and the next day so that the 35 or so incoming RYS participants could use it. All the water was provided by an underground source on the property, and it was good tasting and cleaner than most US. city waters. Since temperatures ran into the 80s in the day and the 60s at night, the lack of hot water to shower in was not a big problem for most participants.

The Educational Program

By Sunday afternoon most of the participants had arrived and were involved in the educational part of the program. The first gathering was devoted to addressing participants' fears and expectations. The second to helping everyone to verbalize and visualize their goals for coming to Haiti and putting forth their idealistic visions in the form of posters. After lunch we had the pleasure of hearing from two professors who gave short talks on "Culture and Religiosity in Haiti" (by Dr. Romain), and "Haitian Social and Economic Development" (by Dr. Douyon, a former Education Minister). A number of questions about voodou came up in the Q&A session afterwards. Voodou (Haitian spelling) is still widely practiced among the poorer segments of the population, although Christian ministers and the educated class widely condemn its practice. Voodou's staying power in Haiti seems due to its use in support of the overthrow of France's Haitian colonial government in 1804. Apocryphal accounts contend that voodou was instrumental in Haiti's remarkable victory over Napoleon's superior forces.

In the evening, participants got to know themselves better through completing a written inventory tool that revealed personality types. This was fun and interesting, and especially so because it was preceded by participants' guessing which type they were. This humorous activity was actually very helpful for understanding one another over the course of the week. As a staff member, I was aided by discovering what basic kinds of people I had on my work team. Of course, we had to recognize that people are not as simple as one type in all situations, but this session supported the RYS ideal of diverse peoples developing mutual understanding and compassion.

Every morning a different faith tradition was represented at the meditation time. For most participants this was a safe opportunity to try expressing their spirituality in different forms, but those who felt uncomfortable with a certain form could merely observe, and gain appreciation in vicarious learning. Forms included Zen meditation, Sufi contemplation, Unificationist unison prayer, Bible readings and Catholic prayer, and even karate moves preceded by quiet reflection.

As part of getting to know what lay beyond the fences of the academy's compound, we were taken on a walking tour of a village up the road. The walk there proved how far driving laws in Haiti have to go before achieving safety. A dead horse, apparently struck by a car or truck some weeks before was still rotting in our path. The village itself was full of people staring, goats bleating, and vendors selling. Some of the Japanese participants made friends with their cameras and soon had a large group of children working the lens. The children mostly wore no shoes. A momma pig wallowed in the mud with her two surviving offspring in the middle of the village. A third unlucky one rotted nearby.

We were invited to visit a church school in the village run by a Methodist missionary and a volunteer Haitian teacher. The teacher told us that he was moved by Christ to offer his services for nothing but a little food. Together with the minister he taught four classes in the main hall with each class made up of two grades. The curriculum focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. Evening classes in basic literacy skills for adults were also taught.

The Work

The work service component proceeded from Monday until Friday of the week. The work time was generally from 8:30 until 2 PM, with a twenty minute break at 11 am. There were three work projects at the school: reconfiguring the health clinic; landscaping near the entrance; and installing a metal roof on a new school building. The four teams were divided into these three projects with two teams working together on the health clinic. It is truly remarkable how much we could accomplish in those five days, given our limitations. The roof team worked with two local craftsmen who spoke no English and had their own way of doing things that didn't always seem to make sense to the Americans or Japanese on the team. Even the Haitian team member who acted as translator had his own differences of opinion with the local craftsmen. Before two days were over, however, the roof team realized that some of our difficulties with the local craftsmen had more to do with their trusting our motivation. After all, in their eyes, were not these mostly educated young foreigners departing in a weeks' time, leaving them to continue with the construction? The foreman had a stubborn craftsmen's pride, too, which was apparently a chief personality trait, according to the academy's director. After some discussion, the team members resorted to raising concerns through our Haitian team member and working it out with great patience. Often it meant continuing with a shrug of the shoulders when the foreman said one of our concerns (i.e. extra holes, potential rain leakage) was "no problem."

On the clinic building project and the landscaping project, the work required less technical discussion and more elbow grease. These teams operated more smoothly, and probably more happily, it seemed, for they required less detailed coordination of handwork. In the clinic, one wall had to be removed so that the clinic could be expanded. This required recycling the used cinder blocks into the new wall, by a process of chipping at mortar with chisels and hammers and, in general, sorting out the blocks. Some blocks, of course, broke in the attempt to salvage them, but the participants were eager to save as many as possible. Their labor would save the academy a good deal of money. Additionally, the clinic team dug and poured a new foundation for the enlarged part of the medical facility. Reinforcement of the cement meant large embedded rocks, rather than steel.

The landscaping team had a difficult and dusty job. New saplings and plants did not arrive in time for our planting, but we prepared a harsh soil. As with all of these jobs so far discussed, tools were at a premium. Hammers were repaired over and over when the head seemed about to fall off. Rakes and shovels were shared between participants and even teams. The preciousness of a pickax to break the hard rocky earth for a future garden, or a 10 millimeter drill bit to install the tin roof significantly touched the consciousness of the participants from the wealthier nations. More than one person ached for that cheap K-Mart supplied tool sitting in the closet at home.

The work could've been easier, but probably no more rewarding.

Three Side Trips

One afternoon later in the week the RYS staff decided to rent a bus when it seemed that the academy bus would not be repaired in time to take us on an afternoon outing. We all climbed aboard the rented yellow school bus for the ride to the Dominican border. Hispaniola, as the island was called by the Spanish, is today divided into French- speaking Haiti in the west and Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic in the east. At the border we knew we wouldn't be able to cross, but as it turned out they did let us cross into the half mile wide zone between the borders, a kind of no man's land. We learned from some Dominican participants that there have been border disputes in past years, but fortunately now the two nations have a peaceful coexistence. However, entry into the Dominican Republic is difficult here for Haitians because in the past few years many Haitians have tried to flee their own country by boat and foot. On foot the only place for them to go is into Dominican territory, which now has its share of illegal Haitian immigrants and concomitant problems. Therefore security is tight.

Another afternoon trip that some of us took was into the foothills along a major dirt road that was mostly walked or traveled over by pack animal. Rural Haitians come down from the mountains via this road in order to trade with the people of this coastal area just north of Port-au-Prince. Our mouths quickly became dry in the hot dusty environment and the lack of vegetation resulted in obvious erosive runoff patterns. We drank our precious water, bottled back at the academy. At the top of one promontory point, several travelers shared their story of a lack of water on the farms back in the interior. The government needed to come quickly to drill new wells, they pleaded, or else many more farmers would end up emigrating to the large coastal slums. This would be miserable for the nation, they argued. One man tried to sell us his property, and he walked quite a way with us after we began our return, talking in Creole all the way, hoping for some deal. Our translator, Didiere, a Frenchman who taught science at the academy, could not always translate his heavily accented Creole.

On the way to the airport most of us had the chance to travel into the heart of Port-au-Prince and see the two largest churches, the Methodist and the Catholic. The Catholic was by far the largest of the two and filled with parishioners on that Sunday morning. The intense religious fervor of Haiti could be seen in the grandeur, albeit somewhat worn, of this huge cathedral with its stained glass near the heights of the city. Nonetheless, it was surrounded by a wrought iron fence, outside of which lingered many people selling food and asking for handouts.

The Closing

On the last Friday we made an offering of our physical labors. Each team leader arranged a small ceremony of readings and/or prayer to commemorate the work and the spiritual lessons of cooperation that no classroom can really teach. The reading that the roofing team leader read was 1 Kings 8:22-26, the offering of Solomon's temple. The landscape team asked everyone to make two circles, with their team standing on the inner circle, and a tearful prayer was offered. The medical clinic team read 1 Corinthians 13 that asks if we have not love, then what have we?

Friday evening was a time of dancing and song and even ice cream. Each team had somehow found some time in the latter part of the week to create intercultural presentations of songs from the different cultures represented in each team. Soon after, there was a video presentation of the week's activities recorded by George on his video camera. Graduation certificates were handed out. Addresses began to be seriously shared when participants began to realize how soon things would be breaking up. After dinner, a campfire was built and the strong spontaneous voices of different cultures continued late into the night singing songs in Creole, Spanish, French, English, and Japanese.

John Gehring, the RYS director, arranged for Saturday to be spent at a tourist resort, complete with its own history museum, miniature golf course, outdoor restaurant, pool and beach. With the academy bus repaired, we traveled 90 minutes to the resort. How unlike the rest of Haiti this was! In an air-conditioned meeting room we had our final morning meditation, led by a Zen Buddhist priest in training from Japan. The white enameled tiles gleamed under our folded legs and outstretched palms as we tried to make our minds blank. It was ironic that this most ascetic of faiths represented at this RYS project would be shared on our morning of most regal surroundings. The lounge chairs, the swimming pool, the hot water from the tap were suddenly incredible luxuries.

But before we would frolic in the waves and enjoy the museum and, later, hot showers in our rooms, we had the opportunity to write a letter to ourselves and share it with a partner, someone hopefully we hadn't yet gotten to know so well. We all exchanged those letters and promised to send them in six weeks time. In this way we will once again connect to our feelings penned on that last day; our own letter will come sailing home to us out of the blue to remind us that we saw the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. This place is neither the resort, nor Haiti, nor any physical place, but the space where hearts from every land can meet and respect and love one another. It happened in our lifetimes and it can, nay, it will happen again, when we walk our talk.

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