Haiti Dispatch #2 (October 5, 2017)
The Reverend Sandy Webb
My favorite biblical characters are the ones who get the least amount of publicity, the fewest references in the biblical text. For me, they are the patron saints of everyone who simply goes about her daily life doing the nitty-gritty work that must be done if God’s kingdom is going to advance.
In St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, we meet one such character: Onesimus. In Greek, Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and St. Paul plays with this word when he describes Onesimus as having once been useless, but now being useful because he came to faith. Onesimus lives into the fullness of his name when he finds his way to God, when he begins doing the things that God needs him to do. He gets no praise, little recognition, and a lot of work.
Today was our first of two days at St. Vincent’s Episcopal School, which principally serves children with physical disabilities. We were greeted by Fr. Fan Fan (or, en français, Pere Fan Fan), who directs the school. We were also reunited with a St. Mary’s alumna from last year’s class who is undertaking a gap semester in residence at St. Vincent’s. Pere Fan Fan described our friend as being “very useful,” which put me in mind of Onesimus. I met a lot of Onesimuses today.
Poverty in the “developing world” is deep and abundant. These are people who are forgotten all too easily and all too often. The least among the least of these are those with physical and cognitive disabilities. They are the lepers of modern day, the untouchables of the Western Hemisphere. And, following in Christ’s own footsteps, it is just these people that St. Vincent’s seeks to serve.
Outside St. Vincent’s administrative office were a number of chairs filled with weary parents seeking admission for their children. Another sat on the pavement. I am told that the line was longer yesterday and the wailing more intense. The stakes are high for these parents: If St. Vincent’s is not able to accommodate their children, they will simply not go to school and will likely become the victims of crime. St. Vincent’s serves those whom no one else will serve. This is their last hope.
Matthew 8: “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”
We stood at the end of the line today. But, more importantly, we stood next to people who have chosen to stretch out their hands. They are all Onesimuses to me.
There were some down times today, a few points at which we had nothing to do. We ate from our snack bags and told stories about home. These moments were awkward at first, but they gave way to some of the richest experiences of the day.
One such moment came at the very end of the day. Our group gathered under the chapel pavilion to get some shade. A single St. Vincent’s resident sat nearby in his wheelchair, appearing to be 14 or 15 years old. He kept to himself, said barely a word, but was grateful when we shared our snacks. As we sat, we decided to make ourselves useful by pumping up the soccer balls we brought for the school. As we began passing the balls around, our friend rose from his chair and played with us for at least another hour. More children followed his lead, flocking over to join the fun.
One of two things happened: Either our Lord pulled off another healing miracle. Or, a generally able-bodied young man had chosen to avail himself of an unused wheelchair. (I’ll hope for the former, even though I suspect that the latter is more likely.)
Regardless, we made ourselves useful today in the midst of a community of very useful people. We thought that we would be useful as classroom helpers, or as English tutors, or as Jacks- and Janes-of-all-Trades. But, instead, we were made ourselves useful by drawing out a quiet kid who just needed some new friends.
I do not know our new friend’s name, but I’ll call him Lazarus. (I’m still hoping it was a miracle!) For me, Lazarus’ experience in the chapel pavilion today is the perfect metaphor for the useful work of St. Vincent’s Episcopal School. By extending the healing hand of friendship to people who would otherwise sit alone in wheelchairs, St. Vincent’s invites the least of these to live into the fullness of joy for which God intends all – all! – of his people. God willing, Lazarus will go on his way rejoicing today, just as Jesus’ leper friends did, sharing his joy and friendship with someone else.