Haiti After 6 Months: One Priest, A Half-Million Hungry Souls

Six months after an earthquake devastated Haiti and the world rushed to help, it would seem that much of the world has forgotten Haiti.  Prior to the earthquake on January 12, 2010, Haiti was struggling with political unrest, environmental disasters and shantytowns.  The worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years made matters seemingly hopeless.  The death toll is thought now to be more than 300,000 and many of the bodies are still buried under the rubble of buildings not yet cleared.  An international bank has estimated it could take $13 billion and many years before there is any semblance of what Haiti had before the quake; which was a culture teetering on the verge of collapse.

International relief agencies continue to be the main source of aid to the people who live in tent cities and shantytowns.  It is a scary time for these agencies because hurricane season is underway.  If one bears down on the Port-au-Prince area, which is already in ruins, a terrible situation will only get worse.

In the midst of this backdrop there are amazing stories of grace. Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary’s Meals, just returned from Haiti to see how the agency was responding six months after the earthquake. Mary’s Meals is an international movement to set up school feeding projects in communities where poverty and hunger prevent children from attaining an education. It was named for Our Blessed Mother and originally started in 1993 in Croatia. Today, it provides daily meals in school for over 375,000 children in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Mary’s Meals partners with other organizations on the ground in hosts countries.  In Haiti, Mary’s Meals began a remarkable partnership several years before the earthquake with a middle-age priest Father Tom Hagen and his group, “Hands Together.”

Father Tom Hagen and his school

Up until 1989, Father Tom Hagan lived a comfortable life as the campus chaplain for Princeton University.  That all changed after taking a group of affluent students to Haiti and seeing the abject poverty there.  That led to Father Hagan to form an organization called “Hands Together” that worked to feed and educate children in the poorest, slums of Port au Prince.  In 1997, Father Tom moved to Haiti to personally direct the efforts there and in 2006 began a partnership with Mary’s Meals.

When the earthquake struck, friends of Father Hagan had no way of knowing if he had survived or not.  Finally a call came through the next day letting people back in the USA know that Father Hagan was being flown back to Miami for treatment of a head wound. Two days later Father Tom flew from Miami back to Port-au-Prince to assist his organization and Mary’s Meals re-establish operations to help feed and educate those that have survived the devastation.

MacFarlane-Barrow said that since the quake, Father Tom is the only priest to tend to the spiritual needs of the 500,000 people that live ineither the rubble from their homes or tents that are strewn everywhere.  Home is Cite Soleil slum, 3 miles from downtown Port-au-Prince built atop a former landfill.

“We work with ‘Hands Together’, which is the organization that Father Tom set up before the earthquake,” said MacFarlane-Barlow.

“Each day we provide 6,000 meals to school children. The original buildings were destroyed in the quake and so temporary wooden classrooms were set up on the playgrounds. It is amazing to watch as a teacher in New York, using ‘Skype’ webcams into one of the classrooms from New York to teach an English class, with a donated laptop powered by a donated generator.  It is surreal.”

Meantime MacFarlane-Barrow says the parents of the students are working around the clock to repair the cement walls of the schools that were destroyed in the quake.  They are also ensuring, through new building techniques, that the rebuilt school buildings, will withstand another earthquake or hurricane.

More Prayers and Donations Needed

In addition to feeding 6,000 school kids and providing jobs and food for those relatives involved in the reconstruction of the schools, Mary’s Meals is providing daily meals for around 2,000 senior citizens.  MacFarlane-Barrow said he is amazed at the happiness displayed by people in spite of having lost family members or had their livelihoods destroyed by the quake.

“I was struck by their happiness in the midst of all of this,” said MacFarlane-Barrow. “Everywhere we went, they greeted us with singing and dancing — and smiles — always their smiles.  They are incredible people.”

Still it is a daunting task when an organization like Mary’s Meals can help just a few thousand and Father Tom is the only priest for a half-million people.

“We always concentrate on the people that God puts in front of us.  We always think about that and take great inspiration from people like Father Tom who says ‘what we do here is humility in action and we need to be realistic about what we can do,’” said MacFarlane-Barrow.

Father Tom doesn’t even have the luxury of living in one of the temporary wooden schools he helped to build.  Instead, he lives in a tent while 12 seminarian students live in a nearby broken bus.

There is still great sorrow in the Church in Haiti.  Scores of priests and religious, including Archbishop Joseph Miot, perished in the quake. A local artist is painting the face of the late Archbishop on a wall of a small office that Father Tom uses. Father Tom was due to visit the Archbishop shortly after the time the earthquake struck and threw him to his death from his balcony.  The great Cathedral in Port-au-Prince and many churches were destroyed and none of them have been rebuilt.

MacFarlane-Barrow said when Father Tom celebrates Mass, it is outside now.

“On the little tree, under which he celebrates Mass, hangs a very broken crucifix. The plaster figure of Jesus has been smashed and has lost its legs. Wires protrude from limbs where the plaster has fallen away,” said MacFarlane-Barrow.

“This was Father Tom’s family crucifix that hung in his house in Philadelphia as he grew up. After he became a priest, he always had it in his home. So, he was delighted when it was salvaged from the rubble of his fallen house here.”

Father Tom told MacFarlane-Barrow that he never intends to fix the cross.  “No,” said MacFarlane-Barrow.

“Father Tom told me,‘I won’t ever repair it. I will keep it just like this. It reminds us that Jesus is broken too, with us,’” said MacFarlane-Barrow.

Anyone wishing to help with donations to Mary’s Meals and also assist Father Tom, please contact their organization through http://marysmealsusa.org

To follow them on Twitter go to: www.twitter/marysmeals


Co-author of "Amazing Grace for Fathers", website at RaisingCatholicKids.com

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