Ordinary Time

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by Gerard Straub

John Dear is in Haiti this week working with Gerard Straub and the charity Santa Chiara Children's Center,  http://www.santachiaracc.org/

January 15, 2019

When I woke Naïve up at 5:00 am yesterday, I helped her climb down the ladder from the top bunk. She does not like the top bunk. I put out my arms and said, “I’ll catch you.” I thought she said she had to pee. But when I embraced her, she was all wet. She tried to tell me she had peed in the bed. My nice, clean t-shirt was wet with pee. And so the day began.

When I left Santa Chiara, backing up slowly through the gate, I paused briefly to look at all the kids waving goodbye. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the sensation that I lived with angels. So many of the staff, regrettably, are quick to classify a child as bad. But in truth, God dwells within each child and so they are angels, who sometimes behave badly for a variety of reasons. It is easy to harshly judge a child. There are a few of our kids that can get under my skin. It is those kids that I have to embrace more firmly and find the good within them. Santa Chiara is a school of life for me.

Yesterday, the Church calendar returned to Ordinary Time. But there was nothing ordinary about yesterday because it saw the arrival of Fr. John Dear. Hours before his plan landed there were signs things were far from ordinary. When I arrived at the gate of the Missionaries of Charity, a sister opened the gate. She smiled broadly and said welcome as I drove into the compound. It was a sister I had never seen before. When I entered the chapel, there was only one sister knelling in prayer. Finally a sister entered the chapel and walked up to me and softly said, “Sr. Francesca fell this morning. We rushed her to Fr. Rick’s hospital.” She touched her shoulder to indicate that they needed to check to see of Sr. Francesca damaged her shoulder in the fall. Not seeing Sr. Francesca’s wheelchair near the front entrance to the chapel filled me with sadness. In her absence, I could feel her presence.


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No Shoes, No School

When I got back to Santa Chiara after mass, I was surprised to find Naïve playing with Peter Francis. I said, “Why are you not in school?” She said she had no shoes. This made me crazy. I asked why she had not checked this the night before. I told her to put on sandals and go to school. She seemed to have more to tell me, but was searching for the English words. When I stopped to try to listen to her, what I heard really made me crazy. She actually went to school wearing sandals and they sent her home. I could not believe we could not find her shoes or find any shoes for her to wear. Naïve looked under the beds in the master bedroom and spotted a pair of shoes. When she pulled them out, she saw they were shoes that belonged to Carla. They were a bit too big, but not so big that she couldn’t wear them. She put them on and we hurried to the front gate. It was 7:45 am. John Dear’s flight would be landing in 75 minutes and I had lots to do before heading to the airport. When we arrived at the gate, Naïve said, “Who is going to walk me to school?” I looked around and everyone was busy. I said, “I guess I will.” And off we went. I held her hand as we walked up the hill, past the goats, chickens, and wild dogs. We knocked on the gate of the school. I kissed Naïve. She said, “Thank you, Dad.” I walked back to SCCC and felt good.

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Abbott and Costello Go to Haiti

Fr. John Dear’s flight landed on time. After spending an hour playing with the kids, we went up to my office and chatted for over two hours as we each shared endless stories about our missions. At 1:00 pm we went downstairs to wait for the 23 kids to come home from school. They surrounded him and he asked them many questions. Then John came with Billy and me to get diesel fuel. The first gas station had no gas or diesel fuel. We drove a rough back road to another place and managed to fill up five big jugs with diesel fuel and filled up the gas tank. We had lots of laughs on the trips. John said he was calling the trip “Abbott and Costello Go to Haiti.” We bring out the goofiness in each other. It was good to laugh, and to talk about deep issues. When we got home, Elena cooked fish for our lunch. We had lots of wonderful conversations.

John and I stayed up until nearly 11:00pm, talking nonstop on a wide range of issues. The kids love him. He washed the dishes while I got the upstairs kids ready for bed. He talked about forming a trust for Santa Chiara that would kick in when I am no longer around—as in dead. He would be willing to serve on the board of the trust along with my nephew in Atlanta who works in the financial management field. He also strongly advocated that I have my writing, published and unpublished, archived at a university, perhaps at St. Bonaventure University.

I set my alarm for 4:00 am. The plan was for me to use the bathroom in my office and be finished by 4:30 am. I would wake John, and he would use my office bathroom to shower. Once we were both dressed, I would wake the girls. Because of the heavy rains on Monday night, I felt we needed to leave for the sisters by 5:45 am in case mud slowed us down.

It was good to have a friend be with me here in Haiti. John really cares about what I am doing, and what I did before coming to Haiti.

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January 16, 2019

Mother Teresa Stories

Yesterday, at 4:30 am, before we took turns using the one bathroom with an actual working shower, I explained to John Dear how the shower works. I turned it on and a trickle of cold water came out. “Thanks for the cold water,” he said. Afterwards, we retreated to the wicker chair room for coffee before heading out to the Missionaries of Charity.

We left a little early for the Sisters because I was concerned that the rain storm on Monday night might have made some sections of the dirt road impassable. But we made it. When we entered the little chapel at 6:10 am, there was only one sister, who did not live there. We walked to the altar so John could check out the missal. I was about to take him to the sacristy, when a sister came to tell us that we needed to go to the big chapel up the hill.

There Sr. Immacula, the regional superior, greeted us. She wanted Fr. John to say Mass for a group of about 50 Missionary of Charity Sisters, half of whom had just completed a retreat and the other half were just starting their retreat. Because John and I can’t help ourselves when we are together, we began joking with Sr. Immacula, and got her laughing too. He said he called 6:30 am Mass back home “Midnight Mass.”

After reading the Gospel, John asked the sisters if he could share a story about his on-going encounters with Mother Teresa and then offer a few words about the Gospel passage. Even though he was energetic, charming, and engaging, I felt he might have been a bit nervous about standing in front of all those sisters, as his hands were shaking a bit. Later he told me in fact he was nervous. But the sisters were charmed.  

The story began when he was 25 years old and a Jesuit scholastic teaching at a Jesuit high school in Pennsylvania. One day the Catholic governor announced he would resume the death penalty and soon execute a prisoner. John was passionately opposed to the death penalty. At dinner that night the Jesuit community lamented that there was nothing anyone could do. John said there was probably only one person in the world who could change the governor’s mind: Mother Teresa. At the dinner table was a visiting monsignor who then told the group that he directed Mother Teresa’s private annual retreat. “Would you like her phone number?” he asked John.

John took the number, and the next day called the governor’s office and asked if he would be willing to speak with Mother Teresa; John also called the local newspaper. The headline of the morning paper that next day read: “Jesuit plans to appeal to Mother Teresa to stop upcoming execution.” With that, the governor backed down and no one was executed.

Five years later, while studying in theology school in California, John heard that the California governor was going to executed someone the following week. This time, John called Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and asked for her help and she readily agreed to speak to the Governor and then later give a statement to John.

When John called her back, he asked, “Did you talk to the governor?” Yes, Mother said. “What did you say?” John asked. “I told him to do what Jesus would do,” Mother answered. “Is that it?” John said to Mother Teresa. All the Missionaries of Charity laughed at John’s response to Mother Teresa.

“Did you tell him not to kill the man on death row?” John asked Mother Teresa again. “No, I told him to do what Jesus would do.” John was utterly astonished, and at a press conference, told the media what Mother Teresa said, and explained that Jesus would not execute or kill anyone, that in fact, he was a victim of the death penalty.

The next day, in the LA Times, the cartoonist on the editorial page had a drawing of Mother Teresa on the phone on one side saying, “Do what Jesus would do,” and on the other side, the governor asked, “Yeah, but what would Pilate do?”

The Governor’s office called John with a message that the governor was furious with him. But around the same time, out of the blue, a judge granted a stay of execution.

Over the years, John organized eight interventions by Mother Teresa on behalf of men on death row, and spoke with her many times on the phone.

A few years later, when a new governor came to California, he too announced he would execute that man on death row, and despite speaking on the phone directly with Mother Teresa that night before, he went ahead and executed him. When John called Mother Teresa to tell her the news, she said to John, “Well, John, just remember, God only sees love.”

After we got back to Santa Chiara, we took a short 15-minute break and then got back into the car with Billy and headed through the winding crowded roads up the mountain to the Caribbean Market for a latte and some shopping.

John sat in the front and offered a running, funny commentary on my driving, telling Billy not to drive like me, but to drive peacefully and nonviolently. He was amazed by all the turns we had to make, by the traffic, and the variety of neighborhoods we passed through.

We told him that because we could only fold down one seat in the back so we were limited in space and could only fill up five shopping carts. We spent $1,212. The trip took 2½ hours.

When we got back, I began work on this Journal while John took a short nap. We had lunch at 2:15 pm. Afterward we headed to a building supply store for some piping, which Mackinson will use to create a drainage system to eliminate the flooding that happens with each rain storm. John said the first day felt like seven months, adding, “Every day feels like a lifetime.” So, far on his trip John has gotten diesel fuel, shopped for groceries, and bought plumbing supplies—fun, fun, fun. He also walked Giles a number of times. I’ll end with photos of John in the grocery store and building supply store.  

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John discovered an alternate use for the pipe connector.

John discovered an alternate use for the pipe connector.

Mother Teresa said to Fr. John, “God only sees love.” Which means, God sees our children and what is being done for them.

Yesterday was Widline’s 10th birthday.

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January 18, 2019

Fr. John teaching kids before they head for school.

Fr. John teaching kids before they head for school.

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A tidal wave of toddlers surrounds John.

A tidal wave of toddlers surrounds John.

Kids on the way to school get last minute help from John

Kids on the way to school get last minute help from John

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An old goat and two young goats.

An old goat and two young goats.

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John tried to get the kids to teach me French. (Photo by John Dear)

John tried to get the kids to teach me French. (Photo by John Dear)

John bought a soccer ball for the kids, and they loved playing with him.

John bought a soccer ball for the kids, and they loved playing with him.

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It has been a great four day with John. We talked and laughed nonstop. He was great with the kids. They hate to see him leave. He gave Billy and me some valuable advice on running Santa Chiara and dealing with difficult kids. John and I talked for hours about writing. John went with Billy and I on all our mundane tasks—buying diesel fuel, grocery shopping, a getting building supplies—he brought humor and laughter to all the outings. Yesterday we had to get medicine for one kid. We stopped in the Giant Supermarket on the drive home. John asked Billy what we were getting. Billy said, “Diapers, toilet paper, laundry detergent.” John said, “Don’t forget the rat trap . . . all the basics.”

If you would like to read about John go to www.johndear.org. If you want support John’s work on peace and nonviolence, go to www.paceebene.org. If you would like to read John’s most recent book—They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace and Nonviolence in a Time of Climate Change—go here.

January 18, 2019

Goofball

Before Fr. John Dear arrived last Monday morning, I expressed to a friend that I was concerned that he might not fit in here. I knew he had spent a great deal of time in El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other places being torn apart by poverty or war, so the roughness and chaos of life in Haiti would not faze him in the least. But I wondered if he would be OK surrounded by 70 kids tugging at him for attention all day.

When John got out of the car at Santa Chiara last week and was immediately encircled by an army of toddlers, I saw my concern was baseless. John immediately engaged the kids. For at least 15 minutes he energetically played with the kids. He tickled them and pretended he was a growling monster trying to catch them. The kids screamed and laughed and fully entered into the game.

At one point, he paused and I said, “John, I was a bit concerned how you would be around so many kids, but I had forgotten you were a big goofball. You’ll do fine here.”

He repeated that line many times during his stay, acknowledging the truth of it. He was totally at home with the kids, yet eager to enter into deep conversation about writing, faith, social justice, personal transformation, and many other topics. He shared his own struggles and doubts as he leaves behind his hermitage in New Mexico and settles into life on the coast of central California as a priest of the Diocese of Monterey.

John once ran an orphanage in El Salvador during the height of the civil were bombs were dropping all around his compound. So he knows and understands how kids respond to traumatic events in their young lives. He made some insightful suggestions on how we need to help Bency deal with the trauma she has experienced, the beatings, the abandonment, the abuse, the hunger, and the death of her half-sister.

As a skilled, seasoned spiritual director, he spoke with me about some of my personal issues that trouble me.

Beyond all that, John made me laugh. He remembers great comedy moments from old TV shows such as Seinfeld and great comedic films, and classic standup routines of the top comics of the last few decades, such as Robin Williams, Richard Prior, and George Carlin. We poked fun at each other. He had the kids in hysterics when he tried to get Naïve to teach me French. After the first lesson, Professor Naïve gave me a failing grade.

Ecarlatte asked to stay an extra day at the beach resort. When she got back to Santa Chiara Thursday afternoon, she had with her two live lobsters, one for John, one for me. While she was cooking the lobster, John played soccer with the kids. Unfortunately, at the end, he took a nasty fall. He cut one hand, badly bruised the other, and hurt both knees, one of which was bleeding.

I helped John up the stairs and into the bed. Carla, who wants to be a nurse, got alcohol to clean the bleeding knee and bandage it. We sent someone out to get ice to apply to the rapidly swelling knees. I held the ice on the knees as we continued to talk about stuff. He bemoaned his situation in which he was being treated by a bumbling knucklehead. Within an hour he was able to get up and make it to the dining room table for the lobster.

John came to Haiti simply to encourage me. He knew from the tone of phone calls and e-mails that I have been struggling for the last year on a number of levels. He came to live the life I live, to accompany me on the journey of the day, driving from store to store, navigating the dreadful roads, enduring the insane traffic, losing power, running out of water, shuttling kids to the hospital, and the constant worry about money.

When he got out of the car at the airport, John embraced me and said, “I really love you.”

As I got back into the car, he walked toward the terminal entrance. He waited for me to pass before he entered. When he saw my car, he raised his arm and gave me the peace sign. I gave him the peace sign.

And that was that. He was gone. I was sad.

Not long after I got back to Santa Chiara, Billy and I headed up the hillside to the Caribbean Market. We spent $1,512. After we got home and unpacked the car and put everything away, I intended to check my email and take a short nap. Did not happen. Billy burst into the office and said we had to go to Grace Hospital because Jodely could not breath. I dropped what I was doing and walked as fast as I could to the car. Billy got the boy. He looked dreadful. His mother rarely visits Jodely, but she happened to come that day. She came with us to the hospital.

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When the breathing problem began, Billy called Nurse Rose and Dr. Noel. Rose said to bring him right away and she would make sure he was seen as quickly as possible. The doctor said he would meet us at the hospital. On his way to the hospital, the doctor’s car overheated in the traffic. He called the attending physician, who was about to leave for the day, and asked her if she would wait for Jodely. She did. Jodely and his mom waited outside the clinic for Nurse Rose to arrive.

When Nurse Rose arrived, she took them into the exam area, which is inside a converted shipping container. It is a very cramped space.

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Within minutes the doctor entered. I told her that Jodely had recently spent nearly a month in the hospital for pneumonia. (The hospitalization cost us $1,200.) The doctor (and Rose) felt that the twitching in his face was an indication could have epilepsy. They ordered a test which sounded like a CT scan. We would have to find a lab who had that equipment. Nurse Rose took Jodely o the children’s ward to give him a shower and some medication. She said it was OK to take him home.

As we drove, I told Billy that we needed to talk with the social worker about Jodely. He seems to be chronically ill and perhaps he needs to be living elsewhere, as he is a huge drain on our resources. Billy said the social worker and the doctor said the other orphanages always have new kids tested before they are admitted. If the test reveals a serious medical condition that would be outside the constricts of their budget, they don’t accept the kids.

I always wanted us to be open to the most vulnerable kids. We have a number of kids with serious medical conditions. They are tremendous drain on our resources, energy, and time. My concern is that went you subtract our credit card debt from what we have in the bank, we have only $6,500 of actual resources.

On one of our drives, I made a rather crazy move. Billy said that if John were in the car he would have screamed “Gerry!” and then say: “Billy, don’t drive like him.”

When we were in the children’s ward with Jodely, I could not help but stare at the crib that Tamysha occupied for a month. It made me sad.

Tamysha, November 2016

Tamysha, November 2016

When we got back to Santa Chiara, there was another mini-crisis brewing. I learned that Walencia did not go to school yesterday. Once again, she could not find her shoes. She initially told a staff member that her clothes were upstairs. That was not true, as they all were sent downstairs. It was later discovered the she had hidden the shoes. It seems that was also the case earlier in the week when she was sent home from school for wearing sandals.

Late in the afternoon, we had a long talk with Jodely’s mother. She expressed a desire to take him and his sister (who also lives with us) to Jacmel. Billy brought her to speak with the social worker.

While it is hard to let go of kids we have been caring for, the social worker felt it was best to release the children back into the custody of the mother. The social worker also spoke at length with the mother, explaining her responsibilities. It seems there is better heath care available in Jacmel. The mother left Santa Chiara to get her children’s clothes and to go to the public market.

We required her to spend the night in inside Santa Chiara with her son. Today, we will give her money to cover the transportation to Jacmel, which is a two-hour trip. We will also give her the medication the Grace Hospital prescribed, as well as the information about the required lab tests. Jodely had been with us since June 2018.

So our population has dropped from 70 kids to 68 kids. This is a good trend. It is our intention not to take in any new children.

John sent me an e-mail saying he arrived safely in Ft. Lauderdale. He will travel back to California tomorrow. Here is the moment John was about to hit the ground instead of the ball.

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Final word: as I was writing this journal, Peter Francis walked into my office. Life as I’ve known it is over if he can walk in any time he wants and pull things off my bookcase.