Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30 A Priest's story

May 30 A Priest's story

Sitting around the dinner table sipping beer after a long, hot day, the evening breeze can often waft in a good story, some poignant, tragic.

Paola Trevino is the national director for a Catholic youth NGO, Mission Youth International, that offers teens and young adults all over the world the opportunity to do good works in Haiti, as well as other developing countries. A week or two of soul and faith building experience with the flavour of summer camp at the guesthouse in the evenings. Paola has been in Haiti for three years and has seen a lot. Somethings she is lucky to have not seen, but came to know about, and shares.

Father Tom Hagan68, is a Catholic Priest, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who operates alone in Cité Soleil, the city centre slum with a hellish reputation of for gang control and violence. He spent seven years as Princeton University's chaplain, and started coming to Haiti in 1986.  For more than twenty five years Father Tom has been feeding up to 5000 people a day and running school programs for the slum's families and children. This is a priest, excuse me, with balls.

Cité Soleil (see the documentary, 'The Ghosts of Cité Soleil') was originally developed as a model inner city community by Duvalier. It eventually fell into disrepair, despair, disrepute -  closed off from the rest of the city by competing gangs holding both the authorities and often the residents hostage to their crimes and lifestyle. Part of their self-acclaimed mandate, inherited from generations and centuries of oppression from all sides, is to keep foreigners and authorities out of their lives.

In effect they are kind of nationalist bandits, an alternative to the corrupt authorities and foreigners they detest, who take and control everything by every means at their disposal - shooting, murder, beatings, theft, hate. I might be oversimplifying or not; this slum is a complex cultural phenomenon penetrated by very few organizations, first among them Médicines sans Frontier who play anyway they have to, to do their acute and preventative medicine and life saving programs.

It's a tough game with no favourites allowed and a delicate balance of street diplomacy. Two years ago the country made a huge effort to clean the place out. The UN and Police Nationale d'Haïti stormed in and took back the slum street by street until every gang member they could find was captured or killed or fled. For a while you could go in and bring water trucks and aid workers. No, it's all back to normal.

Against this backdrop works Father Thomas and Hands Together, his own foundation, very

independent of the Church. He refuses to leave, because no one else would replace him. 

He deals with the gangs head on, as they deal with him. They tolerate him because he has the courage that they do not and his work is effective and he is well known and accepted. But tolerance is all on their terms.

To assert their authority sometime ago, Paola tells me, they killed his right hand man in front of him while holding a gun to his head so that there was nothing he could do, but stay. This man was his best friend and had saved his life in the earthquake of January 11, 2010 when Father Tom was buried under rubble along with some 300,000 other victims who died in the 30 second calamity.

No authority or justice here to deal with rage and terror confined in a city slum with no moral sunlight from above to shine on it - only the harsh Haitian one, relentlessly blasting tin roofs, cooking anyone inside, burning the souls of their young ones, testing the resilience of every cell in every body.

Father Tom stopped bringing in Haitian assistants, he now employees large numbers of only Haitians from Cité Soleil to run and learn how to run the programs. This, all second hand from a woman who knows and meets with him. Her deep convictions and beliefs in his holiness stem the sadness and pain of the human condition existing just on the other side of the street from the regular, broken, struggling Port-au-  Prince.

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