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Martin Luther King Day

1 Cor 12:4-13: There are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit

As Lionel Delatour drove us from his home to our hotel last Sunday night, taking care to avoid places in the city where crowds gathered to express their discontent, UN and armed officers at many intersections, he asked, where were you when Martin Luther King Jr was killed? I was an army wife living in Anniston Alabama when Martin Luther King Jr was shot in Memphis Tennessee. My friend and colleague Dr Stanford said she was in 9th grade living in her hometown of Memphis. Her father was a pediatrician still going out late in the evening to make house calls for patients. Since there was a curfew she worried about his safety…it was a frightening time for her. Lionel is a peace maker, a student of the nonviolent way, a fan of W.E.B. DuBois, shaped by events in the US where he was a student at Georgetown University, and his home country, Haiti. I thought about how different and how similar our lives have been, the impact of Martin Luther King Jr, the prophetic voice silenced too early, and the struggle for justice that confronts us still.  

Lionel told us that when he goes into a shop he intentionally speaks Creole rather than French. All Haitians speak Creole he said and those in the upper economic strata prefer to speak French. This one act of solidarity says a lot about his character. As we discussed the current political unrest, Lionel’s phone continued to ring, demanding his time and attention in negotiating a transition phase that will quell the unrest and support government stability.

In 1804, the Haitian people declared independence. Haiti was the first country in the Western hemisphere to free the slaves. Then the US Marines invaded and occupied Haiti for 19 years in the 20th C. They left behind a 30 year dictatorship of Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier, the later expelled in 1986. The effect of the Duvalier regime was a loss of professional and business class as those individuals who could relocate to other regions did so. The aftermath of years of neglect in agriculture, health care and education was a weak and fragile central government and a shift in population density from the rural areas to the cities. Today almost 1/3 people live in or around the capital, Port – au –Prince and nearly all of them were affected by the earthquake.

The earthquake Jan 12, 2010 in Haiti was the most destructive natural disaster this hemisphere as seen in a century.  It killed hundreds of thousands of people. Our guide, Jean, talked to us about his experience, near escape and loss of 13 family members.  Leonel’s parents were living above the art gallery and died in the quake. Patrick Delatour is Lionel’s brother. He is an architect and designed the school and church being rebuilt at Saint Etienne’s.

Building again requires several things: removing the rubble, treating the injured, and finding the financing to rebuild.  This time the buildings would use higher quality material and rebar stabilization.  The Haitian workers doing the construction are not only earning a wage, but they are learning about international seismic standards, about the importance of a firm foundation, careful planning, reliable leadership and they can teach other Haitian workers these skills.

When we visited the school last week, we found there are classes for K-12 with 210 students in school and 27 teachers with 2 administrators working. Your funding of scholarships has made it possible for 60 more students to be in school this year compared to last year.

The community has finished the water project and now provides clean water to everyone who needs it. When there is not enough rain, the rector Pere Fritz orders a tanker truck to bring in water. The solar panels on the roof ensure the pumps can run without electricity which is not always reliable up in the hills where Saint Etienne’s is located. 

Last Sunday we arrived as the community gathered. We vested and began the service. I preached and Dr Fran Stanford of Trinity Long Green baptized 15 children. Pere Fritz celebrated and we gave communion to over 250 people. St Etienne’s individual members are poor in material things but rich in spirit. They received us warmly, with hospitality, and they recognized that we are their sisters in Christ. When the tour of their progress in the projects of education, water, and rebuilding the church were done, I stood on the site and reflected on the four years I have come to this place, that on the first visit we shoveled debris into wheelbarrows, the walk down the mountain to the small stream at the base, their only source of water, the organization of multiple parishes in the US to help them rebuild the school and now the church. I reflected on how constant is the struggle with poverty and how long it takes to recover.

It takes us a long time to recover too from injuries to our confidence when we are hurt, frightened, injured, sick, offended by a person or group. We are still recovering from 9/11. Some of us are recovering from the trauma of an abusive spouse, the death of a loved one, fear generated by the Ebola outbreak. It takes time to recover our sense of personhood, to find our place in a warm and affirming community. It takes time to rebuild confidence after a person or institution disappoints us. It takes time heal in mind, body and soul from a great variety of harming experiences.

Martin Luther King Jr stepped up to the task of his day in this country, not being afraid of the power of opposition, not resisting the violent reaction of resistance, but staying focused on hope born of faith. In his essay, A testament of Hope, which was published posthumously, his last paragraph is the following:

“A voice out of Bethlehem two thousand years ago said that all men are equal. It said right would triumph. Jesus of Nazareth wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with influence. He had no friends in the courts of the powerful. But he changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised. Naïve and unsophisticated though we may be, the poor and despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this era. ….we will fight for human justice, brotherhood, secure peace and abundance for all. When we have won these – in a spirit of unshakable nonviolence – then, in luminous splendor, the Christian era will truly begin.” (From A Testament of Hope, essay by Martin Luther King Jr published posthumously, reprinted in The Essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, edited by James Washington 1986).

Lionel said, you are making a difference here, please keep up the good work. Such encouragement is what we all need to hear when we take the risk of stepping up to a need, be it here in our own neighborhood, or in Haiti.

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, varieties of services but the same Lord. Amen.

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