Hidden Holiness by Gerard Thomas Straub, S.F.O. Sept 2010

Hidden Holiness


Gerard Thomas Straub, S.F.O.


I have just returned from my fourth trip to Haiti. The first trip came just weeks before the earthquake; the second, just days after the earthquake; and the third was during Holy Week. But this trip was different, as I decided to live with and among the poor in order to experience being truly one with them.


After five full days, I was ready to give up. Life in the slum was just too hard, too harsh. I didn’t think I could survive another day. I’ve filmed in slums like this all over the world, but to live in one is another story…a horror story laced with rodents, roaches, ants and mosquitoes. Life without running water and electricity is exhausting and brutally difficult. The stench of human waste and rotting garbage is inescapable. Violence and corruption are common place. The slum that had been my home for five full days is in the earthquake-devastated city of Port-au-Prince. This profoundly impoverished area is known as Girardo-ville. Access to the heart of the slum is limited to one unpaved road that is almost impassable. The difficult physical journey out of the slum is symbolic of the even more difficult journey out of the hopelessness of the place and a city where death and disease still lingers in the toxic air.


During the night of my sixth day in the slum, I became very sick. I awoke in the middle of the night and was shivering from the cold even though the night air was still very warm. Despite my shivering, I was running a fever and was wet from perspiration. Worse, I could not stop coughing. I became anxious when I realized there was no way out of the slum at night, that I had no access to help. When people get sick here, especially at night, they die. It is that simple. Residents of this slum have nowhere to go for help; even if they did, they have no money to pay for medical treatment. Curable illnesses, such as malaria and pneumonia, quickly turn into death sentences.


In this place of overwhelming need, I faced my own emptiness and limitations. In a sea of black faces, I faced my own dark side, my own deep poverty and loneliness, my own weaknesses and doubts. In this deeply dysfunctional city where extreme chaos and suffering are the foundation of every day, I found beauty, grace and a new way to look at life. I saw the futility of my own self-centeredness. In this broken place, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the wholeness where the unity of being resides, where there is no division between body and soul, faith and actions. In the harshness of daily life in the slum I came to see how hauling water could become an act of love that bound me to myself, to another and to God. In this slum, my understanding of myself, my life and God were stretched way beyond the boundaries I had previously experienced. This slum became a place of personal Transfiguration. Haiti can change a person.


Nearly twenty years ago, a man walked into a lawless nightmare under the sun, a gentle, humble, funny man from Philadelphia. A former chaplain at Princeton University, he seemed ill-suited by temperament and training to be a beacon of hope in such a hopeless and violent place. His name is Fr. Tom Hagan. He is a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Fr. Tom is the embodiment of the luminous force of intentional kindness and compassion.


Fr. Tom lives, not for himself, but for the forgotten and anguished people of Cité Soleil, a massive slum located on the margins of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And he does so at great risk to his own life. Fr. Tom, with his dog Julia at his side, is a sign of Christ’s love as he humbly confronts the countless trials and tribulations of slum life and tries to comfort, encourage, educate, feed and care for the victims of oppression living in the shadow of death known as Cité Soleil. The first time we walked together through Cité Soleil, just weeks before the devastating earthquake, Fr. Tom turned to me and said, “In this neighborhood just because you are with doesn’t make it safe. Someone put a gun to my head here just a few weeks ago.” Daily life in Cité Soleil is dominated by duplicity, fear, ambition, jealousy, rivalry, rumor, false perceptions, slander, and, to make things even more dangerous, a current of violence that flows just beneath the surface of it all. Some of the details of the violence are too gruesome to repeat. The fact that Fr. Tom’s previous dog was set on fire and killed gives a hint of the brutality. He has paid a huge price for trying to bring relief to desperate people of Cité Soleil. In his sixteen years in the slum, more than twenty of his staff and volunteers were murdered.


Half the newborn children in the slum will die before they reach the age of five. At night, some kids are forced to stay up all night and beat the rats away with sticks. In Haiti, corruption and violence abound. The government is dysfunctional and out of money. Garbage is piled up in the streets and alleys. There is virtually no electrical power; people without a generator spend the night in the dark. Hunger and starvation are rampant. People live in unimaginable squalor and eat mud cakes made from clay, dirt, spices and sugar…and contaminated sewage water. And all of these shocking conditions existed before the earthquake. The grim, deadly and dangerous environment was made monstrously worse after the earthquake.


In a letter to Tom Roberts and published in NCR on xxxxxx, Fr. Tom Hagan wrote: “This past week has been terrifying. I have lived through all the violence in Cité Soleil over the past years: being shot at and having guns held to my head, seeing people close to me down here shot, but none can compare to the horror of the earthquake.” After describing the horrifying first night after the earthquake, he wrote: “When I go through Cité Soleil now I see the eight schools that we built (schools that were totally free and the only free schools like that in the country with more than 9,000 kids). I walk past what was once our clinic that took care of 20,000 -- again the only totally free clinic in the area. I see what once were the houses that we built for 150 people and the elderly projects for over 800. I look at the large kitchen area where people prepared hot meals each day for over 10,000 -- and all of it is gone.”


The day after his letter was posted on the NCR web site, Fr. Tom called me. It was late in the afternoon; I had been trying to reach him all day. The soft, gentle way he said, “Hi Ger,” was out of harmony with the tremendous turmoil of his day. I asked him how he was, and he said, “I’m a bit down.” He told me he had been delivering food in Cité Soleil when a riot erupted during which machetes were flashed. The people were desperate to get the food. He said the bedlam was his fault because he should have covered the bags of rice in his van so no one could see them before he reached a safe place for distribution. He said that many of the convicts who fled the collapsed prison had taken up residence in Cité Soleil and had already killed three people. He said he was afraid to send his staff into the slum because they were so readily identified with him. He said he was sleeping in a tent near the rubble of his home.


A few days later, in an e-mail to friends and supporters, Fr. Tom wrote: “I am fine and doing well. I really miss my little chapel and my prayer life has suffered a bit. There is so much to do. I take each day one at a time. I took a few days away from it all which helped. Thanks so much for your friendship and support. It is so difficult to say what we need when I know that some of the material may take such a long time to get to us. There is still no organization. There is also, unfortunately, a lot of corruption and stealing. People are desperate. For the time being pray for us. God bless you!”


The only reason Fr. Tom survived emotionally, physically and spiritually his years in Haiti is because he was vigilant in protecting his morning time of solitude with God. Before the earthquake Fr. Tom used to get up every morning at 4:15am, and he headed straight for the kitchen to make some coffee in a small percolator. As soon as the coffee was ready, he took the percolator and a cup to the little chapel on the second floor in order to spend time alone. The chapel was small and simple. The walls were decorated with folk-art type paintings of saints who loved the poor and people who had been murdered in Cité Soleil while serving the poor with Fr. Tom. This was the most important part of his day, and he jealously guarded his early morning time of stillness and silence. He placed the coffee pot and cup on a small table next to his large, whicker rocking chair. A candle burned next to the coffee. He read his Jerusalem bible by the light of flame in a lantern, as electricity was an occasional visitor, dropping in and out without notice. He would read a passage and then meditate on the words.


He spoke to the Lord. He often said to God, “Lord, why am I here?” He told me there were days when he couldn’t stand Haiti. Actually, a lot of days. He admitted that working with the poor is hard. “They are always pulling at me, always needing something. Some days it’s hard to get out, because so many are waiting outside the gate to ask me for something.” He candidly told me that he could not survive without his early morning prayer time. Alone in the privacy of the humble chapel, he looked to God and honestly expressed his anger and shared his fears. He said, “Some days I tell God I can’t get through another day.” At night, he returned to the chapel before going to bed…and thanked God for getting him through another day, despite his failures and shortcomings.


The stillness of the chapel helped Fr. Tom go through the desert of his doubts. Despite his truly heroic work, he came across as someone truly perplexed by his role. He told me he had genuine conversations with God during the early morning hours in the chapel. In his chapel Fr. Tom, it seemed to me, grappled with God. Being in Haiti has helped him grow in awareness on his dependence upon God. Being in Haiti has taken him deeper into prayer and deepened his experience of God. And that was before the earthquake


He still says Mass every morning at 6:30am in the nearby convent of the sisters of Mother Teresa. He said, “It’s like having a strong cup of coffee,” which helps him get through the day and keeps him from falling apart.


In his book Hidden Holiness, Michael Plekon, an Orthodox priest, writes: “Felling close to God, even believing to hear his voice with a mission, does not spare one from the loss of such strong communion. It does not immunize a person to doubt, discouragement, perhaps even failure.” Being with Fr. Tom helped me see more clearly that it is possible to love, even without any hint of inner confidence and consolation.


My third trip to Haiti came during Holy Week, and I was graced with the opportunity to spend Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday with Fr. Tom. Fr. Tom looked and sounded physically and emotionally exhausted. We sat in the garden chapel and talked for awhile, as he shared with me the horror of the moment of the earthquake and his narrow escape from death. He had been living in a tent. He missed his early morning prayer time in the old chapel, his time of “having a cup of coffee with the Lord.” Now it’s harder to make the coffee, and worse he is surrounded by rats in his new outdoor chapel. And he misses the simple pleasure of his old bathroom; he is not too thrilled with his new primitive “bathroom.” Everything now is a struggle. He has virtually no material possessions. He misses the photos of his mother. Yet he does not complain…even though he was struggling with painful kidney stones. It seemed clear he was just trying to get through Holy Week so he could return to the States for treatment.


Everything he had, his chapel, his way of life, abruptly ended. But he said he was not really sad, he was just trying to adjust to a new chapter in his life, and anticipating what had to be done to rebuild the schools and reestablish all the medical and social services he offered. He thinks of all he did over the years…and now he must let it all go. Still he said, “I crave a little normalcy.” But he accepts that he must be satisfied with his daily bread, as he searches to discover what the Lord is teaching him.


He knows now how easy it is to reach the point, that arid place in the spiritual desert, where you must turn to God and say, “God, I really need You now.” There is no individual survival in Cité Soleil. “We need God…and we need each other,” he said, adding, “But the culture says we should know what we are doing all the time, you should be in control, that you should have everything in control, that you should be totally self-sufficient. Well, that’s the advice of a fool.” He went on to say that we are taught to take care of ourselves first, which is exactly what we want to hear. “But the problem is,” he opined, “if you take care of yourself first you will die spiritually and humanly. We are three dimensional…we need to love ourselves, others and God all at the same time, which creates a synergism of love. Without any of those three dimensions, we become less human, less alive. All the evils of the world, I think, have been cause by one-dimensional people, people just focused on themselves. The culture is forcing us to be one dimensional people.” He paused for a moment, looking off into the trees. Then he said, “If we are in a certain place and the other is suffering, we have to suffer with them. And that is what is happening here. So, I don’t know where we are going, but I would say that I am more confident that the people here in Haiti will survive. They in many ways are much more human and alive than many of the people in the States, some of whom are on the verge of losing their humanity and also their own authenticity, who they were born to be. People are trying to fill expectations they can’t fulfill. The price they pay is they are becoming less alive, less human. Down here people still smile, still enjoy a sunset and little jokes. But I can’t indict anyone or any culture. I can’t speak with authority about anything.” That last sentence was pure Fr. Tom. After being prompted to speak with sparkling insight, he immediately retreats into a position of sincere humility. He hates being interviewed.


At one point I asked him about Salesian spirituality. He said St. Francis de Sales was very human, and he believed everyone was called to be holy. According to the saint, everyone needed to have confidence in God. But if you don’t have confidence, tell God you don’t have confidence, because it is really His problem. The priest added, almost with a chuckle, “Sometimes I am ready to say to the Lord I’m losing confidence in You too…where the heck have You been?” But his point was more profound. He said, “You just know that the same loving God who took care of you yesterday, will take care of you today and will take care of you tomorrow. So what you really have is what I call a positive arrogance. You wake up and know nothing will bother you. The spirituality of St. Francis de Sales is really about taking every moment as they come. But you can’t do that without prayer, without the discipline of being still and beginning the day alone with the Lord.” Like the founder of his religious order, Fr. Tom is also very human and a man of deep faith who truly does take every moment as it comes.


After our talk, we drove to Cité Soleil. Fr. Tom wanted to check in with a team of volunteer structural engineers from Southern California who were evaluating each of his schools. The engineer’s trip was arranged through Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, which I am proud to say is my parish. Temporary class rooms were being constructed in the open spaces on the campuses of some of the schools…and classes had already partially resumed. The dedication and drive of Fr. Tom and the Hands Together staff is truly remarkable. They are distributing food and water, rebuilding the schools…and simply being a beautiful presence of Christ’s love and mercy.


Fr. Tom graciously invited me to attend and photograph the Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services in Cité Soleil. When I arrived at Fr. Tom’s compound on Holy Thursday, he seemed a bit down. He told me that some gang members from Cité Soleil had threatened to kill two of his top staff people, both Haitians and reformed gang members, as well as the security guard at the compound. It is all impossible to fathom. Living with the destruction and profound need is hard enough, but adding the element of vengeful violence intensifies the situation to the breaking point. No wonder Fr. Tom is so fed up with everything. Yet, he still has this gentle calmness about him…softly walking through an endless valley of death, fearing nothing, his eyes fixed on God. It took Fr. Tom two days to defuse the threat of violence.


Hundreds of people attended the Holy Thursday liturgy. For me the most impactful moment was when Fr. Tom washed the feet of the poor. I had anticipated that a few people would come up near the altar and he would wash their feet as representatives of the gathered community. But no, that is not what happened. The liturgy was held in an outdoor space that was extremely narrow and rectangular in shape. There was room for only four rows of seats, extremely long rows. The altar was placed in front of the outer wall of the school. When it came time for the foot washing, Fr. Tom got down on his knees and crawled along the concrete floor from person to person seated in the long, front row, removing their shoes and lovingly washing and drying their feet. Most of the people in the front row were old. It was inspiring to watch Fr. Tom struggling to move from person to person, clearly in some degree of discomfort from the heat, the hard ground and the sheer physical exertion. He washed at least fifty pairs of feet.


After the liturgy, Fr. Tom led a procession the streets of Cité Soleil with the Blessed Sacrament. As we passed the shacks that lined the road many of the people offered a sign of reverence. When we returned to the compound, Hands Together distributed a large bag of rice to all in attendance.


Saint Francis of Assisi understood we all are the human face of Jesus; he knew that all of humanity comprises the divine face. God assumed flesh and was born into a world of oppression and persecution. Can we ever grasp the reality of the divine presence dwelling in a depraved humanity and that subsequently every man, woman and child is uniquely precious, equal and blessed, all brothers and sisters? Every day, God comes to us in a distressing disguise, clothed in the rags of a tormented and neglected poor person, in hopes that the encounter will provide a place for healing and hurt to meet, for grace to embrace sin, for beauty to be restored.


One of the more poignant moments of my time with Fr. Tom came when he invited me in to his little shoe-box of a temporary office, just barely large enough to fit a desk for his computer, a chair, and a few cabinets. On one wall hung a crucifix that instantly caught my attention, because, even at first glance, it seemed to contain the story of the earthquake in all its agony and spiritual depth. The crucifix once hung in the bedroom of Fr. Tom’s parents. It was fairly large, perhaps about two feet tall. The cross was made wood that had been painted black. The corpus of Christ was white, made, I think, of plaster. After the death of his parents, Fr. Tom has always had the crucifix with him, no matter his assignment. In Haiti, the crucifix hung in the chapel inside his home.


The Cross and Body of Christ was also hidden in the rubble. And when it was pulled out, Christ was missing his arms and legs. All that remained where thin strands of metal to which once clung the figure’s extremities. In a country where so many people lost arms and legs, so did the figure of Christ. It was as if Christ had once again given himself fully, suffered right along side his flock. Christ was one with the Haitians also hidden in the rubble. He had allowed himself to once again be wounded and disfigured. Christ without arms and legs is still hanging from the wooden cross, still with us, still feeling our pain and agony, still pointing to the love and mercy of God. I took many photographs of the wounded crucifix, because for me, that one graphic image perfectly symbolized the tragedy that had befallen the nation of Haiti. And Christ was there, hidden in the suffering, hidden in the death.


From my perspective, the situation in Haiti seems to be getting worse. There are still a million homeless people in Port-au-Prince. Tents are everywhere. They line the streets, they fill the fields and are jammed into every open space. After six months, many tents are becoming frayed from the intensity of the sun and the nightly rain storms. Infectious diseases are spreading like wildfire. Violence against women is rising steadily. People are bathing in the streets. At night, kids beat away the rats with sticks. And the rubble from the collapsed buildings is everywhere.


In a world of shadows and despair, Fr. Tom is a gentle ray of light and hope.


On this last trip to Haiti, I was delighted to see that Fr. Tom was in much better spirits and seemed to have made great progress in his personal recovery from the nightmare of the earthquake. He smiled, joked and laughed the way he did prior to the earthquake. But he also spoke in a serious vein from the depths of his soul.


He said, “Coming out of a collapsing building…hearing the cries and screams of those still trapped…has changed the way I look at things. Life has become more simplified. I can’t think of all the things I’ve lost or I’d be sad about it. The earthquake has made me become more detached from things I thought were important. I don’t care what people think of me…whether they think I’m a saint or not…I don’t care if they ever hear from me again. I don’t know where I’m going. But I trust in God’s love. God does not want to hear about my aches and pains.” He lamented that so much of the relief effort has excluded the Haitian people in the planning. “We are not going to make anyone’s life any better. We impose so much without asking actual Haitians what they need. But the longer I am here, the less I know. I really could not speak with much authority about what will happen with the government or even what would be the best way to help the people. I also struggle a great deal even being here. I feel strongly that we can do a great deal of harm with the best intentions when we begin to be the benefactor. Even with all this aid coming in, we must go slowly, and every step of the way we must include the Haitians in the decision-making.” Ever humble, he said, “I am in no position to judge anyone. Yet it seems to me the Church is losing its relevancy because our lives are not rooted in a deep relationship with Christ.”


Fr. Tom lives out of some truly deeper level of kindness than most of us ever reach. And in these slums I saw the wounded body of Christ crying out for help. In these slums I saw the light and dark sides of myself. In these slums I gained a clearer sense of perspective…about myself and life. In these slums I saw how defenseless and vulnerable we all are, how precarious the human situation is. Every day people die from the icy cold of indifference and loneliness.


In Cité Soleil the beauty of human warmth and genuine presence, as embodied by a servant of God like Fr. Tom, are put in sharper contrast to the impersonal values of profit and efficiency that dominate the world beyond the slums. Contemporary society, with its ever-accelerating pace of life, is becoming increasingly fragmented and superficial. We’re in such a hurry we don’t take time for simple acts of kindness. For the most part, sadly, people worship on the altar of self interest. Today, more than one billion people are undernourished, and one child dies every six seconds because of malnutrition. In light of such an overwhelming (and under-reported) disaster, compassion compels us to put the common good ahead of greed and profits.


Extending compassion to all people, even our enemies, is the very heart of the Christian faith. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that compassion is to be our central spiritual practice. And through compassion, we are better able to control greed and work together for the equitable distribution of the resources of God’s creation through the fullest utilization of humanity’s creative ingenuity, so that one day soon there will be no hunger on planet Earth.


I have filled up many frames and minutes of my films, many chapters and pages of my books, with words about poverty. So much of what I have written is merely empty rhetoric because I really was far removed from the brutal reality of chronic poverty, experiencing it from behind the safety of a camera and the shelter of a hotel. Even living for two weeks fully immersed in the life of the poor was not a true experience of poverty because I had a plane ticket out and a credit card in my wallet. But it did give me a much clearer idea of just how terrible the lives of the poor are. Life in the slums and tent cities of Haiti is saturated with violence and boredom. Basic human dignity is snuffed out by the constant struggle to survive each day. Many people are forced to bathe in the streets without the benefit of any privacy. It is hard to imagine living a life without hope, and to face on a daily basis absolute insecurity and complete vulnerability. How can we truly know and understand what it is like to live with constant degradation, desperation, uncertainty and hopelessness? After being home for only three days, I have already begun to slip back into my comfortable and orderly world where I do not have to give a thought to food and water.


But poverty is more than a lack of food and work. Poverty is a destructive force that destroys the unity of the human family by dividing us into camps of those who have and those who don’t have. And between the rich and the poor, there is an impenetrable wall that separates us. That scandalous wall must come down. Fr. Tom Hagan is knocking down a section of that wall in Cité Soleil and in the process he is building up the body of Christ.


Gerry Straub is a documentary filmmaker and the award-winning author of The Sun and Moon Over Assisi (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and Thoughts of a Blind Beggar (Orbis Books). His latest book, Hidden in the Rubble, is based on his experience in Haiti this year and will be published by Orbis Books in October.