I have other connections as well. My home church in Fishersville, Va., has enjoyed a connection with St. Matthias for more than 30 years. Members of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church have visited Cherident, also known by its region, Grand Colline, and helped support both the church and the community’s schools. This would be the first celebration known as Fete St. Matthias, or Party of the Church, I would attend here, though.
In the Episcopal and Catholic traditions, the birthday of the saint for whom a church is named is celebrated with a gigantic party. People attend from all over Haiti. The hosting priest invites other priests, deacons and seminarians to lead the Mass. And the offering is not only a procession of worshipers to the plate in the front of the altar, but also a long line of parishioners offering agricultural products and flowers.
I not only brought something for the plate. I also brought my camera. And I was having a blast framing the colorful images in the lens and capturing the beauty and wonder of a celebratory worship.
That was how I missed the offering plate.
There must have been 700 people smooshed together under the wooden framed church. The permanent church still is under construction. It was destroyed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.
The priests and deacons and seminarians, all in their bright white and red vestments, stood crowded at the altar. When the music turned playful, as it often does in a Haitian worship, they danced and sang and connected.
There were too many people crowded in the small space for me to navigate with ease. In order to get photos of the women bringing their fruits of harvest to the altar, I would need to go around the church.
When I entered the street outside, I saw my sister Foun. She has a small booth making marinad, a fried dough, and serving it for sale. It’s how she makes a living. She rushed over to greet me again. People milled around the village. Some of them I recognized, most I did not. They all are beautiful.
The faces of Haiti never cease to amaze me. The children shine like bright gourdes – a light that reflects the sun. And when they smile? Be still my heart.
And the older people, of generations that have witnessed so much cruel history, always stop me in my tracks. Their memories must include those of horrible dictatorships, frightening changes in government and, of course, the impact of waves of mostly well-intentioned international organizations sending strangers into their lives.
Everyone I saw on Sunday made me think – of them, of their past, of how they live today. I wondered how they would live tomorrow. In this country, drastic poverty sometimes means Haitians will take the chances of boarding a small boat to any place. They will struggle to be anywhere but here where they no longer can afford to feed themselves.
This truth is everywhere I go — to the North where a drought has gone on for so long there are no seeds farmers can afford to plant this season, to the south where spring rains and storms will send torrents of water down the deforested hillsides and ripping out new crops, even to this southern mountain town where we celebrated the Party of the Church.
Haiti is at once beauty and pain and hardship and generosity.
But there never seems to be enough. And that’s where the offering plate comes in.
I made my around the side of the church, down the crowded main street through town and through the gate leading to the front of the church. The women already were lined up.
Each woman wore a white blouse and had tied bright scarves around her heads. They each carried a woven or plastic basket on their heads, and each basket they’d filled with fruits and vegetables and flowers.
It was a beautiful and solemn parade.
It was an offering for our God.
I pointed my camera at the line and the lens focused.
Another image, another focus, another click.
This was joyous work.
Then a woman who had been helping line up the others pulled me aside. She perched on a bench made from logs and pointed to herself, posing as she did.
I obliged. I took several photos of her. Then several other women asked me to take their photos. Then a jolly woman named Junia pulled a man into the frame and pointed to him and grinning. He posed as well. Soon we all were laughing.
Then a small boy not far away. Then an even smaller boy. Then the two of them together. Their grins got bigger. I was having fun.
When I turned to look again at the gate, I saw the older gentlemen. One man pointed at himself. Behind them, stood a most beautiful older woman. She ducked her head when she saw me.
The creases on her faces looked like art. Her eyes were bright, shining. She was shy, at first. I wanted to take take her photo, but I couldn’t if that wasn’t what she wanted.
I told her her face was beautiful. I told her I saw the beauty of Haiti in her face. She agreed to let me take her picture.
It was only later when I realized the image on her scarf was a butterfly.
Then a young boy approached. He looked me in the eye and pointed to himself — Fè mwen, he said. Take my photo.
When I asked him his name, he said something softly. I leaned forward and heard him say, “M grangou.” I’m hungry.
I hear this often. Many people are hungry in Haiti.
I work for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, but I struggle with this. I cannot help each one who tells me they are hungry. I cannot afford to feed them all.
Or can I?
Maybe on this day, maybe this Sunday, on this celebration of St. Matthias, the one who was chosen to take the place of the disgraced disciple Judas. Maybe on this day of all days, maybe I could find away to feed someone else.
As I walked away, the boy followed me. And together, we caught up with the beautiful older woman who stood waiting for us. She gave me a sad look. She was hungry, she said.
I asked them both to wait. I walked across the street where my sister Foun was standing at her food booth. I handed her the 500 gourdes I’d brought for the offering plate. Several people will be coming asking for food, I said. Can you feed them? She began grinning and pulled out the plastic bags for marinade and piklis.
I told the woman and boy where they could find a meal.
Mèsi, they said. Thank you.
Bondye beni ou, the woman added. God bless you!
And He has. God has blessed me in so many ways.
I cannot feed everyone. No one can alone.
But we can together. We can do this! We can share in this joy, this blessing of our beautiful world — together.
Let’s give it a try.