On the Road to Peace
A Monthly Newsletter from Fr. John
Just back from an intense week in Haiti, helping out the Santa Chiara Children’s Center, an orphanage for 65 children run by my friend Gerry Straub. In the midst of Haiti’s suffering, there I saw unconditional love and joy. What a blessing.
Gerry moved to Haiti five years ago with his wife, but had no intention of starting an orphanage. As he has written on the Santa Chiara website (www.santachiaracc.org), one day five kids showed up at their little apartment asking for a place to stay. Over time, more and more homeless children showed up. Soon they moved to a bigger house, and finally to the big house where they are now on the outskirts of Port au Prince in a desperately poor area. With over 30 staff, Santa Chiara serves little children who surely would have died by now. It is not just a special place; it’s a holy place.
Getting there is half the experience. One flies past Miami and over the gorgeous Bahamas to Hispanola and notice all at once that the trees on Haiti’s side are gone, while the trees remain in the Dominican Republic. The airport seems more like an auto repair shop and customs more like a toll booth.
Gerry waits for me in the large crowd outside and guides me to his broken down car and off we go into the wild dirt roads of Port au Prince. Driving in Haiti is a life-threatening experience because there are no rules, no lights, no regulations, and basically no police. It’s mainly dirt paths with rocks like my old mesa in New Mexico.
Arriving for the first time at the center, some fifty kids greeted me by singing songs. I don’t know what came over me, but I started acting like Frankenstein and all the kids took off running and screaming, and then all at once, turned around, eyes wide open, and charged me. They hung on to me screaming and laughing with delight until I left.
The kids have suffered so much—physically and emotionally—that it’s hard to take it all in. They only want to be loved, and they are full of love. In these critical childhood years, they are learning to love and respect one another after suffering the worst abuse imaginable. Santa Chiara offers them perhaps the first love they have ever received, and that love comes first of all, through food, medicine, shelter, education and attentive kindness.
The one rule that Gerry imposes is that everyone has to be nonviolent. The kids can’t yell or hurt one another or be mean to one another. They have to show respect for one another. I think it’s because of this boundary of nonviolence, and Gerry’s ever-present unconditional love and support, that there is a sense of joy at Santa Chiara–pure unadulterated joy, great love, and the fullness of life.
But I don’t want to romanticize Santa Chiara. It is a non-stop life and death roller-coaster. Each day brings new trouble—a sick child, a crying child, a problem at school, lack of funds, medicine to be bought, the car to be fixed, and food to be shopped for.
I didn’t do anything during the whole week, just hung out and accompanied Gerry on his rounds. That meant, going shopping with Gerry, and the great Billy, who officially runs the center, as well as going to the pharmacy, the hardware store, the hospital and the Missionaries of Charity for morning Mass.
I met all the kids and the staff, and was charmed by little ones like Naïve, Bency, Walencia, and the one year old baby, Peter Francis, who was found alone in a pile of garbage one day after his birth. He is alive and well now thanks to Gerry and Santa Chiara.
I spend my days doing national movement organizing through Campaign Nonviolence and teaching nonviolence. Gerry spends his days in what Gandhi called “the constructive program,” or as Peter Maurin put it, “building a new society out of the shell of the old.” If Pope Francis said the church is a field hospital on the front lines of the global war, Santa Chiara IS the church. It is the front line. It is the Kingdom of God breaking through into the world of greed and violence.
In this midst of all this, Gerry writes a daily journal with photos he takes every day which you can follow on his website, or sign up and receive automatically. I encourage you to sign up and get it.
I know well the financial struggle which Gerry lives through trying to keep Santa Chiara and these kids alive. He has little money; Pace e Bene has little money too. I wish we could raise a million dollars so that Gerry could build proper buildings, get serious healthcare for the kids, and get them all food, clothing, education and a decent future. What he has done so far is a complete miracle. But there is much more he would like to do.
If you want to help, please visit his website, www.santachiaracc.org, go to the DONATE page, and send a check payable to “Pax et Bonum Communications,” to the address in Florida. I promise your contribution will help sustain the lives of these children, the poorest of the poor. And let’s keep Gerry, Santa Chiara, Haiti and the world’s children in our constant prayers.
More later, blessings of peace,