Haiti Dispatch #3 (October 6, 2017)
The Reverend Sandy Webb
“Mon pere! Mon pere!” Pere Fan Fan, director of St. Vincent’s Episcopal School, greeted me with these words at the Port-au-Prince airport on Wednesday afternoon: “My father! My father!”
The Church has described her male priests as “father” for centuries, but this time it felt somewhat undeserved. I am a priest, but my purpose in Haiti is to observe the good work that St. Vincent’s is doing. I felt as though I should be the one calling out to him, “Mon pere! Mon pere!” So, I did. I extended to Fan Fan the same honor that he had extended to me. We continued calling each other “mon pere” all day on Thursday, and he upped the ante by inviting me to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the school’s chapel service on Friday morning.
The chapel pavilion at St. Vincent’s is open-air, nothing more than a concrete slab, a wooden frame, and a corrugated metal roof. The altar table is worn with age, bearing witness to a rich history of its own. The chapel overflowed with children: Different ages, different abilities, different needs to lay before the throne of grace.
Some of my inabilities and insecurities were also on full display: Members of the St. Vincent’s community speak with each other in either French or Kreyol; I speak neither. Others communicate through American Sign Language – no help there. I found myself standing in front of 150 people or more with no plan for how the service would unfold, and no common language with which to lead.
A hymn pierced the awkwardness. I could not understand the words that the children were singing and signing, but the tune was entirely familiar. I sang the words that I knew from my childhood: “I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus, no turnin’ back, no turnin’ back.”
The best hymns are the ones that you can just reach down into your soul and sing, the hymns for which no hymnal is required, the hymns that are as much the songs of your heart as they are words of your lips. This hymn was just what I needed to hear: You have come all this way, Pere Sandy. No turnin’ back. No turnin’ back.
This morning’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist was not the most elegant celebration I have ever offered to the glory of God, but it was among the most meaningful. A tear rolled down my cheek as I prayed these familiar words: “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” The whole world: Haiti and the United States, those with privilege and those who lack privilege, those who have four limbs and those who have fewer, those who can hear and those who are deaf, those who can see and those who are blind, those who think that they have life all figured out and those who know they don’t. The whole world, a world that knows no boundaries. A world in which there are no outcasts, as the late Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning used to say.
The whole world – a phrase that I have prayed a thousand times, but that I am only just beginning to understand.
After chapel, I accompanied Pere Fan Fan to two of his religion classes: “Tell the students about God, Pere Sandy,” he said. “Tell them about God.” I did not need to do anything more than point them back to the God who had shown up for me only minutes before. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus made good on his promise of presence today. I saw a little bit of Christ in just about everyone that I met, and felt his presence deep in my heart.
I am grateful to our God for calling me to “stand in [his] house, and to serve at [his] altar,” even though I do not have everything figured out, even though I sometimes underestimate the true vastness of his love. Merci, mon dieu.
I am also grateful to a kind and selfless priest who offered me an opportunity today that I will not forget. Merci, mon pere.
(NB: One of Holy Communion’s associate rectors, the Reverend Hester Mathes, recently reflected on the custom of addressing male priests as “father” in a very worthy essay published online by The Living Church. Read it here.)