This past fall, I was blessed to be able to have an immersion experience in Haiti to pick up the basics of Haitian Creole and thus be better equipped to minister to the large number of Haitian immigrants living and working here in the Dominican Republic, in the border parish of San José in Pedro Santana, where I serve as pastor. I learned to read in Creole (and write, with plenty of corrections!) and even to speak it haltingly. This will enable me to say Mass in Creole, particularly in a couple of small villages in the parish where all or almost all are immigrants who do not speak or understand much Spanish. I even learned to chant some parts of the Mass in Creole! I will also be able to administer other Sacraments such as Baptism, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick. As for learning to understand spoken Creole, however, I advanced very little, just picking up a few words or phrases by the end—my ears simply would not cooperate. But as St. John Henry Newman says, the accomplishment of some substantial good is a compensation for much incidental imperfection—or as Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly!
While the time in Haiti was greatly worthwhile just from the standpoint of learning the language, it was also a wonderful chance to build up in a small way what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter.” I stayed with a religious community, the Little Brothers of the Incarnation, founded over forty years ago in Haiti, a predominantly Catholic country like the Dominican Republic. They received me like a brother in Jesus’ name, or rather like a little child, given I was practically unable to speak or understand! Particularly memorable for me was our gathering early each morning for Eucharistic adoration. At the conclusion, the Brothers would chant the hymn Adorote Devote in Creole and also a beautiful prayer about working together—and above all asking for Jesus—to save Haiti. A couple of weekends I was also able to accompany one of them who is a priest to a poor (even for Haiti), rural parish where he serves as pastor. My Creole “final exam” as he called it, which I thankfully passed, was to celebrate the parish Mass on my last Sunday in Haiti, including preaching the homily I had written.
Back in my own parish on the Dominican side of the border, I have been able to put my new-found knowledge to work at least a bit, mostly in limited exchanges here and there with Haitians residing or working in the community. I also hosted a meeting with the pastor of the Haitian parish on the other side of the river, in which we were joined by several lay people from each of our parishes. The focus was on an ordered way to help the occasional patient from his parish in need of access to medical assistance on the Dominican side.
But over and above such practical use of my meager language acquisition, I see the symbolic importance—for the Haitians themselves and also for the Dominicans, who with me are summoned to solidarity with our poorer neighbors. This solidarity is much in evidence among the common people of the Dominican Republic, particularly here on the frontier. But where one sees a great lack of solidarity is—as in the United States—in the policing and politics of immigration. A government minister came to town a couple months ago and proclaimed the supposed fairness of requiring undocumented Haitians to go back to their country, saying that Germans without proper papers would be treated the same. The truth is that Haitians driven by dire need to live and work here do not have a “fair” shot at doing so legally, even though they would be willing to work and pay a good deal to comply if there was an avenue open to them. Witness an American priest working in the region who, with all the resources the Haitians lack, had to remain here undocumented after two years of spending time and money in an unsuccessful effort to regularize his status—and no one would think of asking Americans such as him, or their German counterparts, to go back to their country.
On the other hand, with the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Wisdom enabling us, as Vatican II says, to “savor” the contemplation of the “divine plan” (Gaudium et Spes 15), we might glimpse and even come to savor a vision of God’s plan for reciprocal enrichment of both peoples through a culture of encounter. This is the path forward that Pope Francis set forth in his recent Encyclical “On Fraternity and Social Friendship”. As priest and pastor, called to be a “man of communion” for those whom I serve, I hope that my experience in Haiti will help me to lend effective efforts to blazing this path forward together, here on the island of Hispaniola.