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French teacher says language important in establishing ties in Haiti

Because of Jennifer Brown’s fluency in French, Spokane’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John’s Partnership Committee with Casale, Haiti, asked her to visit there from March 12 to 19 with the Very Rev. Bill Ellis, dean of the cathedral.

Jennifer Brown, Whitworth French teacher
Jennifer Brown's language facility helps Spokane Episcopal churches understand the mission needs.

The goal of the visit during her spring break at Whitworth University, where she has taught French for seven years, was to talk with the new priest and with new parishioners on their partnership committee about their visions and desires for next steps in their five-year relationship.

“Language is important in establishing relationships,” Jennifer said. 

Since 2010, the cathedral has sent funds to help feed children and to pay teachers at a school, which has grown from three to nine teachers, teaching 240 preschoolers to teens in the church, a big, open cinder-block building with a tin roof.

Jennifer, the daughter of an Episcopal priest, did her undergraduate studies at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., and her doctoral degree in 2000 at the University of Virginia, and taught in other schools before coming to Whitworth. 

Even though she lived abroad for a year with her family in England, did a semester of study in France and has taken Whitworth students for a semester study in France, she had never experienced the poverty she met when visiting the partner parish and school in Casale.

French is the second language of many Haitians. Creole, a combination of indigenous languages and French, is the first language for most.  The third language is English. French is the language for trade, education, government and business. 

Five years ago, Bill and Trish Newton, then chair of the outreach committee, went to Casale to establish the relationship.  Since then, the cathedral, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and other parishes in Spokane have both sent support for the school to feed children and pay teachers.

“We give the same amount, but they stretch what we give to provide a quality education.  They are eager to do more,” Jennifer said.

While many churches in other areas often have multiple partners, Casale just has St. John’s and St. Andrew’s.

“We thought that maybe they needed a more modern kitchen, rather than cooking over fires, but they want a school building with classrooms, because it’s hard for students of different ages to focus with no dividers between classes.

“We would like to provide a school, but it will take time and money.  It would need to be built with rebar reinforcement to be earthquake- and hurricane-proof, and would need to have a proper sanitation system.

“It was a joyful time relating with individuals and understanding another place better.  Worship was unifying, being aware we worship the same Lord,” said Jennifer, who found it hard to be in a place with so much need, poverty and corruption.

“It felt overwhelming.  We can’t fix Haiti.  Not even a well-intentioned, non-corrupt president could do that,” she said.  “We simply met people where they are and asked what is the next way we can help, encourage and support them,” she said.

“There is no source of clean water. Babies die of malnutrition because they have no food,” Jennifer said.  “That affects families in the congregation, so we can make a difference by feeding children one hot meal a day.”

She and Bill stayed in the teachers’ house with running water and a flush toilet, which few homes have, but Jennifer wondered where the wastewater went—perhaps into the river where people bathe and get drinking water even though it is polluted with human and animal waste.

The church, which has a solar-powered water treatment system, gives away clean water for free.

At the Good Samaritan Clinic in Casale, groups of doctors come and go.  Women bring malnourished babies, some of whom are so sick they can’t cry.  In one room, some babies are fed and become well in two weeks.  They want the babies by 18 months to be healthy enough that they can forage for food at home for themselves, such as finding mangoes that fall off a tree.

The 2010 earthquake happened after Bill and Trish visited.  Casale, further inland, was less affected, but Bill and Jennifer saw places that were affected.

“Haitians talk about before and after the quake.  Port au Prince looks like it happened yesterday,” she said.

One day, Jennifer and Bill went to the Feast of the Annunciation at the Church of the Annunciation in Leogane, an hour drive.  The roads are normally bad in the dry season and are worse in the rainy season.

Haiti is one Episcopal diocese with 50 priests serving 80,000 people.  Most are responsible for several parishes, schools and clinics.  The priests went to seminary together and experience similar challenges, Jennifer said.

The priest at Casale, Fr. Kesner Gracia, took them to Leogane, Port au Prince and around Casale.  He is in charge of four churches with 1,500 people.  He rented a car to transport them, because he does not own one.  He uses a motorcycle.

When Jennifer returned to Spokane, the Rev. Martin Elfert preached on Palm Sunday about Jesus coming to Jerusalem in a big celebration and ending the week with his passion.

“He said that wound and gift are always close.  For me, it was a gift to go to Haiti where the people shared their time and resources generously,” said Jennifer, who felt awkward using resources in a country with limited resources.

“We were able to share our common love for Christ in a context of people living out Christ’s love.  It was hard and beautiful,” said Jennifer.

She has been presenting these concerns to St. John’s members so more people will help the committee and raise more money.

“Haiti is our global mission,” she said.  “We are also involved with global mission through the Episcopal Relief and Development.”

Jennifer supports eventually building the school, but said,”our primary priority is doing what we can with the resources we have and continuing to feed and educate the children.

In fall 2014, Jennifer had taught a class at St. John’s on French-speaking countries in the Caribbean and Quebec.  She read some Haitian literature before she had any idea she would go there. 

“It helped prepare me, giving me insights into colonialism and its effects in the Caribbean,” she said. 

“Colonialism enslaved the people, and damaged Haiti linguistically, economically, emotionally and governmentally.  In addition, racism blocks people from being what they could be.”

These are some of the reasons Jennifer is overwhelmed by the poverty and injustice in Haiti.

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Copyright © October 2015 - The Fig Tree