January 19, 2011
Christian charity in Haiti is the Jewish thing to do
Dona is a 14-year-old boy in Port-au-Prince. When his mother was pregnant with him, she hid in fear from his father. In time, he found her and insisted she have an abortion. She refused. They fought, and she ran.
After Dona was born, his father eventually found them both and beat the boy daily, until he finally threw him onto the street. Dona ended up in a forsaken section of Port-au-Prince at the Have Faith Haiti orphanage — a place for lost and abandoned children in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
The plight of Dona, an exceptionally sweet soul who now speaks beautiful English and goes to one of Haiti’s top schools, is hardly unique. Most of the children at Have Faith Haiti are orphans, but, like Dona, some have parents who, out of despair perhaps, or indifference, left them outside the orphanage when they were very young. Spending time with these children is different from working with disadvantaged youth in the United States. For the orphans at Have Faith are, in a very real sense, the lucky ones.
Driving through Haiti is a bumpy, sweltering tour of hell. The tent cities hastily constructed after the earthquake one year ago began as decrepit and have deteriorated. Stagnant pools where pigs root and dogs defecate are also where children bathe and cholera spreads. Piles of fetid garbage are the second-most-common sight, next to rubble. It was into the midst of this almost unimaginable devastation that I flew last week to witness something extraordinary.
Thirty years ago, this mission (the workers and children prefer “mission” to “orphanage” but use both) was created by Detroit pastor John Hearn. After the earthquake, Pastor Hearn was a guest on Mitch Albom’s radio show. Hearn was heartbroken. The orphanage buildings, cracked and aging, had somehow survived the quake, but the mission had no money and nowhere to turn in a country where the needs were so overwhelming. Mitch, a nationally known talk-show host, sports reporter and internationally best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and other works, thought he might be able to help.
Shortly after the quake, Mitch traveled together with childhood friend Marc Rosenthal and college roommate Mark Mendelssohn to see the orphanage. These three Jewish friends saw a place that, never in good shape from its first day, had deteriorated tremendously. They saw the wreckage — and met the children.
And they began to build. Funded by donations in Detroit and Mitch’s own A Hole in the Roof Foundation, plans were laid for a new school building. Old, moldy floors were ripped up and foundations reinforced. With each new step, more possibilities presented themselves. There was an enormous amount to do if these children were to be given a chance.
I was there for three days, and the day I left, slats were being delivered for the children’s new beds. The new beds (as opposed to the rotting old mattresses and rusted bedsprings they had been sleeping on) were to be put inside. Since the quake, the children had been afraid to sleep inside — instead, they huddled together on a small porch. So Mitch proposed a trade: “If we get new beds, you have to sleep inside — deal?” Mitch said in one of his nightly inspirational and instructional talks. “Is that good?” “Yes!” they said in chorus, despite their persistent fear that the roof would fall on top of them.
That same talk introduced something else unprecedented in their lives: lunch. Mitch explained the idea as the children listened, rapt and curious. “You should be eating three times a day, not twice a day,” he said. This was a new concept to almost all the 40 to 50 children. (The numbers vary as children go and come from the orphanage; they will soon reach capacity at 100.) These kids are quick, vital, bright, lively and affectionate; most of their lives, they also have been hungry.
Junior grew up at the orphanage. He approached me and put his arm around my shoulder. “Hello, I’m Junior.” We got to talking. He had just reached 21, and I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I want to be a doctor.” “Why?” I asked. “So I can be a blessing to my country.”
Mitch and I first met when we entered Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia. We’ve been friends most of our lives, and I knew he had been involved in a variety of charitable projects, including building a clinic in inner-city Detroit. Not long after Mitch’s first visit to Haiti, he and I got to talking about this project, its ambition, its scale, the many years it will take. I knew it was different from anything he had undertaken before. And there was something else, too: “You know,” he told me a little warily, “it’s a Christian orphanage.” I told him I’d love to see it. “I mean, really Christian. Started by a pastor, and they pray each night.” I told him I could not think of a more fitting mitzvah for these Jews or a better place for a rabbi to go.
Part of the lesson Mitch wants to teach is that it doesn’t matter that he is white and they are black, that he is Jewish and they are Christian, that he is American and they are Haitian. “You know I love you,” he told the children. He does. And he is not alone.
Mitch brought his “muscle crew” last week, as he had several times since the quake. I came from Los Angeles the same day 22 others arrived from Detroit. Along with Mitch, Marc and Mark, there were a doctor, two nurses, a nutritionist and some remarkably skilled builders. In short order, these men and women — all of them volunteers, many of them losing money neglecting their own businesses — began mixing cement, laying tile, cutting stone and building something new from the rotting conditions in which the children lived. They worked though the heat, the mosquitoes and the children constantly climbing over them asking to see their tools and take their picture. I spent one hot afternoon grouting a new floor with Mitch, and by the time we met in the middle of the room, I was drenched in sweat and ready to keep to the rabbinate. Forever.
Chris Steinle is a big, smiling, capable man. He worked all day building the school that Mitch is creating on the mission grounds. Right before dinner, he and I were talking, when suddenly, out of nowhere, he began to cry. Tears rolling down his cheeks, he said he couldn’t save a country, but he could build a school for the children here; it was a sacred mission to him and what God wanted him to do. He and another man were preachers in addition to their other business. We even talked a little Bible.
That night at the prayer service, the pastor introduced me and asked me to speak to the kids through a translator. Some speak English, others only speak creole (the school, when completed, will teach them all English, which is crucial for advancement in Haiti). As they sat together holding hands, younger children with their heads in the laps of the older children, I explained God’s first question in the Bible — “Where are you?” — and how moved I was by seeing them take care of one another. Julia, a teenager, came up to me and asked me about my kippah. She said she wanted one, and I promised to send some. “I’ll be Jewish then, too!” she said, beaming.
While we were talking, Nahum, a boy of 4 or 5, kept saying “camera.” I knew what he meant. He then walked around the compound with my BlackBerry for almost an hour, seeing the world through the screen. Each time he saw me after that, he said, “Camera?” Apparently, addiction to the BlackBerry is cross-cultural.
The goodness in that small corner of Haiti was astonishing. The second night, a woman walked in using a cane. Everyone surrounded her with kisses and hugs. Her name is Florence. A year ago, during the quake, her husband, John, pulled nine people out of the rubble, and a neighbor pulled her out as well. But her leg was shattered. The people at the orphanage arranged for her and her husband to come to Detroit, and she stayed with one of the volunteers, the painter and muralist Tom Montie, for three months while she got surgery that didn’t exist in Haiti. Now she was coming home, able to walk. It was another miracle in a magic spot.
The children of Have Faith Haiti mission greet each new visitor with a handshake or a hug. They are not afraid, even though the mission is behind a wall and always has a security guard at the entry. This is Haiti, after all; social and political stability is still a dream.
At the market, I met a Mennonite aid worker who was helping the families in the villages repair their shattered lives. On the flight home from Haiti, I sat beside a man, David Campbell, a retired Internet entrepreneur whose All Hands Volunteers organizes volunteer relief groups for disasters all over the world, from the Indonesian tsunami to the Mississippi hurricane. After Katrina, he took his operation to Haiti, where he now spends 10 days a month. “Haiti is the worst we’ve seen,” he told me.
It struck me, sitting on the plane next to this stranger: The world is full of goodness, people sacrificing and offering expertise to those who are bereft.
Saving Haiti is a stunningly daunting task. The nation was broken before the earthquake, and now it sometimes appears to be nothing but wreckage and ruin. But the glimmers amaze and hearten. Sitting with the kids, I suddenly heard one call out to the other, “Hey, Lewinsky!”
I couldn’t imagine many Haitian boys were named Lewinsky. When this handsome and charismatic young man was a boy, he was saved by a doctor named Lownsky (pronounced “Lewinsky”). The doctor, in obscure circumstances, was killed by rebel troops. The boy’s mother, who has since died, named her child Lownsky so that the man’s name would be remembered.
For Lewinsky Leflour and other children, the mission is their chance to build a life.
Writing about the experience on Facebook while I was in Port-au-Prince, I quoted Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who said that religious people too often worry about their own bodies and other people’s souls, but we should really worry about our own souls and other people’s bodies. Here, step by step, it was happening. The on-site director, Herbert Studstill, told me he spends donations as soon as he gets them on improvements. “I learned in Haiti that only running water is clean. Rivers are clean. Keeping water in one place, it gains impurities. We aren’t about a pool of money, but a river of improvements.”
Six months ago, the “kitchen” was a single, old pot. Rice and beans were mixed in there every single night. Now they have a real kitchen: a new floor, a counter, a stove and utensils. Lorraine had been cooking for the children for 20 years. She wept when she saw her new kitchen.
It is hard not to weep when you see the video of the children seeing a shower for the first time, running in with their clothes on and spontaneously breaking into song. It is hard to contain yourself when you hear the kids singing at night, praising God, promising to make something of their lives. I felt my eyes well when I watched my old school friend — whose life at home is so celebrated and successful, who has taken six trips to Haiti since the earthquake — talk to the children who consider “Mr. Mitch” like a father and a savior. To realize what he has done and what he still hopes to do.
Really, the lesson is what the Mishnah teaches us: One who saves a life is thought of as if he saved an entire world. Down at Have Faith Haiti, worlds are being saved. How Jewish to contribute to this Christian mission. For Dona, for Lewinsky, for Julia; for all the parentless children who are still scared of the roof falling on their heads but with full bellies are getting into new beds on which to dream.
To learn how you can help, visit sinait Temple Haiti Fund or HaveFaithHaiti.org.
Rabbi David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on facebook.com/RabbiWolpe. Contribute through Sinai Temple Haiti Fund or at HaveFaithHaiti.org.