And Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
The reason is simple: I serve at Hospital Saint Damien in Haiti, where most people are desperately poor. The living conditions in this country are appalling. It seems impossible that in this century human beings should have to live and die amid such abject conditions. After each day’s work, I come home exhausted physically and emotionally but also with a sense that I have been blessed and privileged to minister in such a place. Although poverty and illness meet the eye, a great drama of hope and redemption plays itself out daily in these small lives.
I used to think that malnutrition meant you didn’t have enough to eat, and so you died rather quickly. Not so! The children here suffer from the ravages of this condition. Their bodies swell, especially their extremities, often causing the skin to burst. The psychological effects of prolonged malnutrition are also marked. On arrival, the children do not respond to stimuli. They don’t react to anyone or anything. It seems as if they are unable to cope with anything but their hunger. They don’t smile or look at you, nor do they react to touch. They simply lie in their cribs, immobile, staring out of huge, dark eyes. They look as if they are carrying the entire world on their tiny shoulders.
|Children are often abandoned at Hospital Saint Damien. Anaika, Patricia, and Roodline were left by their mothers at the hospital.|
In my ministry with hospitalized children, I pay special attention to the critical ones, those who are abandoned, and those whose parents are unable to visit frequently. It is with the dying children that I spend the most time—talking, playing, and, if it seems right, praying with them. I find the majority of children far more comfortable with the thought of death than are most adults.
Courage for a new day
For many months we had a little boy who was suffering from a very rare form of skin cancer that started at the top of his head and slowly moved down his face. It was terribly disfiguring. His sight was gone, and he had only the barest outline of a nose. His lips were sore and swollen, so that even eating was painful and gave him little pleasure.
Yet, despite all his suffering, Mackenson was one of our happiest little boys. He loved to sing and listen to music, and he was happiest when he could play a trick on you. Bright and curious, he would ask endless questions about everything. He knew all the staff by voice, greeted us each morning by name, and, unknowingly, gave us the courage to begin another day. He never lost hope. On the contrary, he lived each day as fully as he could, all the while eagerly awaiting that great day when Jesus himself would come and bring him to that place where he would be able to see again, have lots of friends to play with, a bike, good food, toys galore, and, best of all, no pain.
Mackenson had no fear of death—only a deep conviction that he would be welcomed with much love. One day, out of the blue, he asked me if there would be flowers in heaven. I was surprised at the question and wondered where this was leading. When I responded that there were millions of flowers up there, he said that it was a pity he wouldn’t be able to smell them because he no longer had a nose. I was glad he couldn’t see my tears. I assured him he would have a nose in heaven, that he would be whole and complete and beautiful and that he would be able to see and do anything he liked up there. Mackenson blessed my life in untold ways, and I will never forget him. A few days ago he left us for “that place,” and I can imagine him racing around heaven on his bike, shrieking gleefully. I also hope he is smelling the flowers.
A chance to play and learn
Fairly frequently, medical teams and various interest groups come to Hospital Saint Damien to visit or to help out for a week or two. I am responsible for showing them through the hospital and giving them a short history of the organization. I’m inspired by the generosity of these people who are usually using their vacation time to come and work for a bit in Haiti.
Because of the extreme poverty here, we always have unmet needs. Earlier this year, I saw a need among the older children for an area in which to learn and play. Most of our children have never had the chance to go to school because their parents are unable to pay the costs of fees, uniforms, books, and so on. Haitian children don’t have a chance to play very often either. I saw our 6- to 10-year-olds bored and apathetic. They had nothing to do all day.
On the fifth floor of the hospital was an unused bedroom that I soon turned into a special classroom and playroom for the kids. We painted it a bright color, decorated the walls, got a blackboard, a long, low table, and presto—a classroom was born. Donations of books, puzzles, educational toys, games, crayons, paints, and balloons poured in from all directions.
Each day, I take small groups upstairs, and for an hour or so the kids forget they’re sick, have a whale of a time, and experience normal conditions for a change, playing and learning like children all over the world. For most of them it’s the closest they will ever get to school. This is the best thing I’ve done since coming to Haiti, and I like to think it was an inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
Signs of hope
Amidst the poverty and suffering I see each day, I am aware of many signs of hope, small signs that lift my spirits and fill me with gratitude that I am able to live and work here: A baby gives me a shy smile; a young mother strives, against terrible odds, to feed and care for her family; a little boy squeals with delight when he finishes a simple puzzle; a dying child falls asleep in my arms; young faces shine with delight because I make popcorn for them.
These are small things, but they fill me with hope and sustain me on difficult days. The Haitian people have an incredible inner strength that enables them to face their lives with a tenacity I find amazing. I am a humble and reverent witness to their determination and joy.
On the wall of my bedroom I have a small poster that reads: “Our commitment to action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is an absolutely essential part of our commitment to Jesus.” I’m not sure where this quote comes from, but I truly believe the words. If I am committed to Jesus as I profess to be, then working for justice and peace ceases to be an option. I cannot ignore the misery that is the daily lot of three quarters of the world’s population.
Thanks to the support and prayers of many friends, to the insistent call of the Beatitudes, to the urgings of the Spirit, and to the astounding fidelity of God, I am able to continue here with other men and women who have felt that same imperative. It is a privilege of which I am surely not worthy and for which I am enormously grateful.
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