On June 10, St. Mary Parish in Johnson City sent 33 youth, parents, parishioners, and their pastor, Father Peter Iorio, on the church’s first mission trip to Haiti.
Of the travelers, only Father Iorio, St. Mary pastor, had ever been to Petite Riviere de Nippes, a small fishing village in Haiti. After a year of planning for this journey into the poorest country on the Western Hemisphere, the missionaries were ready to “Find God in the Moment,” their chosen theme for the week.
Preparations for the trip included asking for donations and fundraising.
A favorite fundraiser for St. Mary’s youth group is the annual Homelessathon. This fundraiser occurs with the parish’s event “24 Hours with the Lord.” While the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the sanctuary, the youth are camped outside of the church. The students experience what it is like to live as a homeless person and live without many conveniences.
“We experienced being uncomfortable,” said Gavin Mann, one of the missionaries. When recalling how the Homelessathon prepared him for Haiti, he added, “It helped me experience sleeping on the ground and experiencing something I wasn’t used to.”
Both the Homelessathon and the Haiti mission trip challenged the travelers to meet Christ in the face of the poor.
“Haiti was nothing like we were expecting,” recalled Stephanie Mann, St. Mary’s youth minister.
“We exited the airport without problems. This was amazing considering we had 33 extra bags filled with items to leave behind. These items were simple things that were provided by parishioners and included school supplies, hygiene products, handmade rosaries, and first-aid supplies. ”
A team of youth from St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain led by Jack Davidson, a parishioner and the founder of the American Haitian Foundation, joined St. Mary travelers in Port-au-Prince. From there, they began the three-hour bus drive to Petite Riviere de Nippes.
“I would be lying if I said we were confident and had no worries,” Stephanie Mann said. “The reality was that each person was apprehensive about the trip. There is no end of media telling a reader that Haiti is a dangerous country with murders, illnesses, kidnappings, and a great many other obstacles. Port-au-Prince was one of our biggest concerns. This was the first glance many of our youth would have of real third world poverty.”
Villagers stopped to see the white people driving down their road upon their arrival in Petite Riviere de Nippes. “They called ‘Ils Blancs!,’ which means ‘The whites!’
Another missionary, John Rauch, a student from St. Mary, commented: “I didn’t expect the Haitians to be so loving. Everywhere you travel you will find God in something. In Haiti it was the smiles.”
Upon arriving at the school, the missionaries were greeted by a familiar tune. “They had two large speakers set up, and they were playing on repeat our national anthem,” Catherine Raible said.
After disembarking the bus, the tired travelers were greeted by Monsignor Granjan. “They were so happy we were here. The entire village knew we were coming and were joyfully anticipating our arrival,” said Stephanie Mann.
Unlike many mission trips where the missionaries are to aid and assist by building or providing medical assistance, this mission trip was about encountering and building relationships with the Haitian people. On the first full day in Haiti the youth from both parishes were matched up with a Haitian student of around the same age. The youth began to build relationships with their new friends.
“Many of the Haitian students spoke very little English, and the American youth spoke very little Creole or French. At first this made communication very frustrating,” Catherine Raible noted. “However, it did not take long for the youth to begin bonding over card games and basketball.”
One morning before breakfast, the youth decided to teach the Haitian students some American line dances. After breakfast, the students colored, sang to each other, and played soccer and basketball.
“We speak of being brothers and sisters in Christ. Haiti helped me to understand what that truly means. To look beyond who we believe we are, what we are capable of doing and pushing onward toward the image of Christ,” said Kim Dahlgren, a parent chaperone on the trip. “The mission of establishing relationships began first by overcoming the obstacle of language and concluded by seeing Christ in every person’s face.”
Playing games with the students was only the first encounter the missionaries had. Stephanie Mann recalled their first trip to the beach: “We were never alone. We always had escorts to help us and keep us safe. The walk to the beach was a delight, as we greeted all the homes and were gifted with big smiles from the people. Children would follow us and simply grab our hands and walk. It was such a reward. When we went swimming these young people who followed us along with others on the beach stripped to shorts and jumped in to play water ball.”
The missionaries overcame the obstacle of language, but this was not the only obstacle they had to overcome.
“Haiti has a different mentality than America, and it took a few days for all of us to get it.” Stephanie Mann adds. “Dinner was supposed to be at 8, but it was 9 before we sat. There were no watches, and the children did not have cell phones to see the time. The adults were frustrated at these details; however, we quickly realized that in Haiti you cannot really plan for the future because the future is not a guarantee.”
According to World Bank 2003, the average life expectancy for Haiti is 63 years, with an infant mortality rate of 55 out of 1000 births.
“In America we are always planning for the next step like ‘what college am I going to,’ ‘what career do I want to have,’ ‘what kind of life do I want for myself,’ but what struck me most about Haiti was one could not plan for the future. Instead one was grateful for the present and the blessings that you received every moment of every day,” Catherine Raible said. “It was nice to not worry and to not be anxious.”
In the evenings, the youth from St. Augustine and St. Mary would gather and reflect on the experiences of each day. The students were led by Stephanie Mann in Lectio Divina. During this prayer, all meditate on a passage of Scripture and then share and journal what was heard in the passage.
The week the missionaries were visiting was a holiday for the students of Petite Riviere de Nippes. June 13 is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of the parish. On the vigil of the feast, the celebration began with a procession from Visitation Clinic, a clinic sponsored by St. Mary in Johnson City, and ended at St. Antonie de Padou Church, which is the sister parish of St. Augustine in Signal Mountain.
The missionaries joined the procession of dancing, singing, and praying while journeying to the church. Catherine Raible recalled, “The procession was one of my favorite memories. I remember they would sing ‘We sway for Jesus’ and then sway, ‘We walk for Jesus’ and then walk, and ‘We run for Jesus’ and we would all just run. This worship felt so free, and it was just beautiful. That night we reflected on the Beatitudes. The one verse that stood out to me was ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of God.’ These beautiful people have nothing material, but they have such an energetic faith, and it’s the same Catholic faith I have.”
The next morning the missionaries woke and dressed for the feast day Mass. Mass was concelebrated by the bishop and all the priests in the diocese. The parish invited the missionaries, the politicians, and the LifeTeen Haiti Mission Base to celebrate Mass with them. Toward the end of Mass, the missionaries passed out rosaries that were made by parishioners of St. Mary.
“When we began passing out the beads, Jack told me that the poor people sat toward the back and outside of the church,” Stephanie Mann remembered. “He told us to start passing them out there. People were so happy as they reached for them. We only brought 120 rosaries, but if we had a thousand, it would not have been enough.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote: “Our Lord does not so much look at the greatness of our actions, or even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” The missionaries learned to make each small action a prayer and to trust that God would bring joy into their lives.
On Wednesday, June 14, the temperature broke 100 degrees. On this day, the missionaries were to hike up to the small village of St. Eve’s. They began hiking around 1:30 in the afternoon. Traveling across rivers and through small mountain villages, the missionaries made a pilgrimage to a waterfall that was believed by the Haitian people to have healing powers. The pool of water was a meeting place between the voodoo culture and Christianity.
“Just before the final ascent to the waterfall we stopped by a Catholic church in the mountain village of St. Eve’s. The church had a perpetual devotion as women dressed in white would come in and loudly pray for 24 hours a day. It reminded me of what Pope St. John Paul II said about adoration. ‘If every church had perpetual adoration for 24 hours a day, it would be the end of wars.’ The women’s devotion was a great inspiration of worship. We made it to the waterfall, and all of us appreciated the clear ice water from the top of the mountain. The water healed our weary bodies, but it was Haiti that was healing our souls,” Stephanie Mann said.
After the mountain hike, the missionaries began to conclude their mission. The hosts at the school prepared a huge feast in honor of the relationships that had been built through this experience. At the end of the feast, the missionaries presented gifts of donations they had collected. These donations included toy cars from a company called Happy Cars; sanitary gloves and first aid materials for the Visitation Clinic; school supplies for St. Antonie de Padou school; and clothing, toiletries, towels, bedding, air mattresses, and other items left behind by the missionaries.
St. Paul writes that “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20). The mission trip was more than the American youth serving the Haitians. In the end, the Knoxville Diocese’s youth learned the value of creating intentional, personal relationships with those around them.
“Our mission was not to save a country,” Stephanie Mann said. “It wasn’t to build homes, or to end hunger, fix a corrupt government, provide clean water, etc. We were called to Haiti to build relationships with the people. Haitians believe relationships are the greatest treasure you can have. However, our mission did not end as we traveled back. We are still called to take pride in the blessing we are given, to bring hope to one person, to bring a smile to one face; this is a mission we can all appreciate. This is a mission we can do anywhere at any time even in America to those lonely people who might just need a hug. Haiti taught us how to become saints.”
St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s youth traveled to Haiti in order to give. However, the mission did not end in Haiti. “Haitians had little to nothing and had so much joy,” Bailey Poor, a student from St. Mary, said. “It opened my eyes to find joy in non-earthly things.”
Upon leaving Haiti, the youth felt challenged to continue to serve this mission: the mission to find God in the little things including an introduction to someone new. “Being with the people opened my eyes to what matters in life,” said Riley Layton, a student from St. Mary.
“In our world, we panic when our phone is at 50 percent, but the Haitians got to know us and regarded us as family. This mission showed me that relationships are more important than things.”
Haiti Mission Trip 2017 was a memorable experience for all who participated.
“I would definitely go back and encourage others to go!” Kara Lucchesi adds. She advises other young people interested in mission trips to “just go into it with a really open mind and be willing to try new things. Remember to ‘be not afraid.’”