by Bob Corbett
[Added in November 2001] I've been to Pandiassou many times since this note below was written. It has grown tremendously. There are guest rooms at both the grounds of the brothers and the sisters. They are quite inexpensive and it is a lovely place to visit. To get there from Hinche, just walk out the main road west from the town center -- where the park and cathedral are -- it is less than an hour's walk for most people. I do understand that there is even some sort of taptap that goes out that way now. I've never seen this myself.]
This past August I went to Haiti primarily to learn Creole. I had just finished three weeks of language study in a Haitian neighborhood of Boston, Mass. I discovered that I know too many people in Port-au-Prince who speak English. So, I moved to the rural area. I had the name of a Haitian spiritual leader, given to me by a friend in Boston. This Haitian man was the head of a religious order. I journeyed, unannounced, to this community, not knowing what to expect.
There are nearly forty brothers in this all-Haitian order. Down the road a bit is a small but growing community of nuns following the same spiritual rule. The community's founder, Francklin Almond, welcomed me, telling me I could stay as long as I wished. My language purposes would certainly be fulfilled--no one there speaks a single word of English.
The life of these brothers and sisters is very beautiful. They rise long before dawn and assemble in their little chapels. There they chant morning prayers in Gregorian chant. Later, Haitian drums and rhythms fill the quiet with exciting music. In between the leader gives a reflection which sets the mood for about 30 minutes of silent meditation.
I was an outsider. An American in an all-Haitian enclave. A speaker of English in a Creole world. A non-Christian in a Catholic religious community. But they made me feel at home, welcomed, comfortable. The morning reflections of Francklin Almond were the most exciting and rewarding (and challenging) moments of each day. In the early days I only understood a word here and there, never a full sentence. By the end of my stay I got all the sentences, missing only a word here or there. His theology is a theology of the unity of humans and nature through God. "Te-a," THE EARTH. It figured in nearly each day's reflection. Francklin, a man in his mid-thirties, would sketch the importance of respect for nature. The brothers and sisters live off the land. Their primary crops are peanuts, corn, several sorts of beans, green vegetables, sugar cane and a variety of fruits.
He spoke movingly of the precarious balance in the farming cycle. A central tenet of his theology is the need for the brothers and sisters to nurture the gifts of God, not squander them. Much of their prayer was thanksgiving for rain, sun, wind and earth. Seeds, crops, the work animals, butterflies, bees, birds, even the pests and insects were celebrated for their place in God's plan. Our response, he urged in many different ways, was one of nurture, respect and care.
(Note 10/87: A testimony to Francklin's ability to respond to the times is that today his theology centers on the prophetic role he and his community must play in Haiti's critical struggle for democracy and freedom. The pastoral themes must await calmer times.)
My days were filled with work and peacefulness. I attended all the services throughout the day. (The group was curious about this non-participating spectator. My non-believing status led to many rich conversations!) I worked the fields with them and especially hung out around the cook house. Partially because I wanted to learn to cook Haitian food, partially because Balde, the young brother assigned to cook at that time, was especially patient with my halting Creole. I spent a lot of time studying vocabulary, reading the few Creole books I could find, and I talked a lot. But mainly I watched, listened and was deeply moved and enriched by their challenging lifestyle.
The Medieval monasteries of Europe were places of refuge, one might even call them places of hiding. The world was viewed as a rather hopeless, sinful place. A dangerous place for one seeking the morally good life. The monks and nuns of Medieval Europe retreated behind walls and sought a more perfect existence.
This Haitian community has a totally different approach to the world. They live their lives FOR the local community. They live in the same material conditions as the local people. They are among them daily. Never in my stay were all the brothers at home. Some were always out working with the peasants. They model lives of holiness and serious moral purpose, of awareness of the unity and gift of nature. They teach too. Their community is a model farm. They experiment with how to get most out of Haitian farming techniques. When changes must come, they are cautious about the psychological factors of change. They tread carefully on and show profound respect for the traditional ways.
An impressive and important contribution are the communal farms. Once a village farm group forms, the brothers purchase a plot of land. This is turned over to the farm commune. The farmers work the land together. Much is learned and gained, not all of it material. They experience group cooperation, trust, sharing, submerging personal ends for group aims. Their fields produce too. More food is available, some surpluses exist and are sold on the local market. The brothers expect, and regularly receive, $20.00 yearly from each group to help pay back the land. (A plot can easily be purchased for under $1000.) These payments go toward the purchase of new lands for new groups. Ultimately, though very long-term, the cooperative farm project will be self-supporting.
The community is the center of a "ti legliz" movement the little churches--peoples' churches. The brothers and sisters train "animators" how to lead the village communities in church and community meetings. I visited these meetings and was extremely impressed by the openness, the seriousness of the purpose and the love among members.
The "little churches" urge the formation of children's schools. Virtually no one in this remote rural area goes to school. Illiteracy is well over 90%. People are suspicious of schools. The people wonder: Why bother? There are no jobs to be had through schooling. What can literacy bring but trouble, unfulfilled expectations, new dangers. But the brothers and sisters know that without education life cannot progress beyond the miserable, beyond bare survival. Knowledge must challenge harmful traditional practices, and there are many in farming, health care, the spiritual life and social relations.
I spent many hours of my afternoons and evenings wandering the dusty dirt trails to nearby villages. I visited with people, read stories to whole communities and learned a lot. I learned Creole. But more importantly, I experienced the beauties of Haitian village life--the simplicity, patience, generousness and love. I watched these incredibly hard working people wrest meager subsistence from an unwilling and hostile environment. I fell deeply in love with rural Haiti.
In Boston I had heard that this community accepts no outside help. But clearly they need help. Their work is impeded by the lack of hard cash. They must move much more slowly than they wish because of the lack of resources. Francklin and I had become close friends. I told him that we in PEOPLE TO PEOPLE would like to be a part of their work. He said no. Outside help was risky. It compromised one's independence. More importantly, it called attention to the work in ways not always healthy.
(Note 11/89: This was during the Duvalier times and the sorts of work being done by the community were considered dangerous. Today, under General Avril, nothing has changed. Actually the dangers have increased since the community and especially, Francklin, have become more well known.) When I first published this story back in 1985 I didn't use any names and was careful to disguise the area so that no one could identify the community. That sort of anonymity is no longer possible since the community and Francklin are now well known.)
But, I persisted. Our help would not be conditional and it would be discrete. Besides, I was no longer an outsider. They'd been telling me each day that I was part of the family. (Hoist on their own petard!) Francklin returned to my request the next day with a startling proposal. He would LET us help them if they could help us in return. The idea sounded fine, but how could they help us?
He offered to provide a place for us to bring Americans for retreats, a time of quiet, prayer and reflection. RETREAT in several fundamental senses--a pulling back from the 20th century; a self-enforced isolation for speakers of English; a RE-TREAT, to treat yourself anew.
I readily accepted. Our own help for them could only be meager at first. We pledged money toward land purchases and the purchase of oxen and plows. Farming in this region is strictly by the hoe and stick. Some local farming areas and methods will accommodate the plow and not change traditional crops. The brothers hope to introduce this innovation without much disruption of traditional patterns. But, they need the oxen and plows first.
By now I had begun to recognize the fantastic and unique opportunity that came with their side of the bargain, but also the problems flooded in on me. How difficult would such a retreat be for a typical American? CONSIDERABLY! Some of the notable difficulties were clear:
So, for the hardy, the daring, we could offer an extremely unique experience. The community cannot handle too many at once, so we prefer to take small groups. We would spend 6 days there or en route.
The possibilities were endless, and the concept of this poor community reciprocating for our meager aid was intriguing.
(Note: 11/1989). The retreat idea never really worked. We offered it several times, but got no takers. We've been back to Pandiassou many many times, and with groups. Our groups with visit there this Christmas and our Webster U. study group again in April. But, we've never gone on the retreat experience. I've always thought it was a lost opportunity, but it was not something which I controlled!)
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