Mary Ryan-Hotchkiss – Portland Chapter
By coincidence, Affiliates Renate Schneider, from Haiti and Chicago, and Mary Gill and Patrick Denevan, from Oaxaca and Portland, were all in Portland, Oregon, on family visits at the same time recently. When we gathered and enjoyed a stimulating conversation about the challenges of life in our various communities, I was reminded of the quote, “Wherever two or three are gathered...”
Renate has worked many years in Haiti, both at the University she founded and through Haitian Connection (HatianConnection.org) building houses and working with women in Jeremie. Mary and Pat had both been Maryknollers, then raised a family that includes an adopted mixed-race daughter. They were founders of the Portland Maryknoll Affiliates, becoming Maryknoll Lay Missioners in their retirement, then finally staying in Oaxaca in their second “retirement.” They live in an ecological adobe home and demonstration farmlet and work with the local indigenous people.
Renate said that in Haiti every meeting, even government gatherings, begins with a prayer, so we did, too. We prayed for our leaders and all ethnic groups, to remember we are brothers and sisters, all children of God. Renate told us Haitians are fervently Christian but also accept voodoo as an overlay to their faith. They believe in the power of voodoo and the people frequently see spirits. Mary Gill commented that she and the Oaxacans also sense spirits. She told of a neighbor who hiked to a cave in a nearby mountain where he saw a woman all dressed in white: the Madonna?
Haitians are proud of their history as early adopters of democracy. It seems they all know their history. They are well aware that they are a beautiful people and cannot be made to feel inferior. If an outsider makes an unknowing negative remark, they try not to take it personally. They stand tall and straight even when they’re not carrying heavy loads on their heads. We shared that all our communities experience racism based on skin color. Pat said that at AA meetings in Oaxaca, many men had commented that their dark skin color made them feel inferior. Since most people in Haiti have fairly dark skin, this form of racism may not be as common there as in the US and Mexico.
Daily life in Haiti has its challenges. Intermittent electricity may make it difficult to keep cell phones and computers charged. Renate may stock the refrigerator with food only to find that the electricity will be off and then have to share the food with her neighbors rather than let it spoil. The University has an electrical generator, but then someone had to remember to have gasoline to run it on hand. In order to have water in her house, she needs to be sure the water tank on the roof gets filled.
Working with therapists and mental health professionals, Renate related how many of the Haitian’s emotional ills express themselves in pains in their bodies. The Denevans see the same phenomenon in the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Renate was shocked by the obvious homelessness in the US.
In Haiti, people’s families take them in even if they have to sleep 20 to a room.
Political unrest in Haiti which has been in the news has caused a decrease in tourism and disrupted daily life. One hotel which had employed over 200 people was down to 20 local employees. The effects of unemployment cascade through the society because each working person might support 10 others. Airlines canceling flights at the last minute because of the unrest also created problems for travelers, workers, or volunteers coming to the island. Corruption in political and government offices is widespread and occurs at all levels.
We agreed that it is difficult to change a culture that seems to accept corruption, or bullying, or discrimination, but, each in our own way, we must live out our Christian values.