Gesu group finds ‘hope and joy’ in Haiti

Sometimes, only a small distance separates two extremes. It became apparent to a group of seven parishioners from Gesu Church who ventured to the predominantly Catholic Caribbean nation of Haiti earlier this month.

The flight from Miami, the group's last American stop, to the Haitian capitol of Port-au-Prince took less than an hour and a half but transported the parishioners from a world of plenty to a society of little.

The group spent four days in Port-au-Prince. There, the parishoners toured many of the city's orphanages and experienced firsthand the effects of Haiti's poverty on its children. One such orphanage was the all-girls City of God Orphanage in a decrepit part of the city.

Run by Brother St. Vistal, a cleric who founded his organization after seeing the young homeless girls sleeping on his monastery steps, the orphanage is home to 45 girls and educates almost 600 more children, boys and girls alike, through an outreach program, according to Gesu group member Dianne Henke.

"He runs this orphanage in the most destitute part of the city," Henke said. "The squalor outside the walls is just unimaginable."

Another orphanage the group visited was run by the Missionaries of Charity Children's Hospital, Mother Teresa's organization. At the orphanage, almost all the children have tuberculosis and many have AIDS, according to group leader and retired Marquette professor Pat Coffey.

"We went there the first day to love the children," said Henke. "Love them, rock them, let them know someone cares."

"They don't have parents, and they long for it," Coffey said

After Port-au-Prince, the group traveled 15 miles up into the mountains outside the city — a trip that took an hour because of the bad road conditions — to reach St. Jude Parish, which Gesu groups have been visiting for five years as part of a religious immersion program.

There, the group was greeted with great enthusiasm.

"They were very happy to see us, and we were made to feel very welcome," said group member Pat DeFrain.

"They put on sumptuous feasts," Coffey said. "It was almost embarrassing, but it's what they wanted. They want to treat their guests with great hospitality."

At St. Jude, the group visited with parishioners, met with schoolteachers and nuns and was able to assist Wauwatosa natives Ron and Ronni Pruhs, who met the group at St. Jude, in a dental clinic.

The group also collected names of St. Jude parish members for a prayer partnership. The names will be distributed to parishioners at Gesu, Coffey said, so Gesu members can pray for the person whose name they received. The next mission trip will bring pictures of the prayer partners to Haiti and will return with pictures of the Haiti prayer partner members.

The overall poverty of Haiti was apparent to the group members, but all those interviewed said it paled in comparison to the strength and hope of Haiti's people.

"I assumed that I'd be appalled by the poverty and think that I shouldn't waste anything and think that we should work harder for social justice," DeFrain said. "All that is true, but I wasn't prepared for all the hope and joy."

"They have nothing," Henke said. "They have no way to make money. I've been to Guatemala and El Salvador and Peru, but my God. In this part of the world, they are the poorest.

"Their spirit and their beauty, it's phenomenal," she said. "Their faith in God, celebration at Mass and knowing that this is not the end is amazing."

Likewise, all group members interviewed said this trip had profoundly affected their faith.

"I saw the face of God," Henke said. "When you meet these people you know you are being drawn into the presence of God because these people can't live without the presence of God."

"The gospel is so much about hearing the cry of the poor, and this is an opportunity to hear that cry of the poor," Coffey said.