MICAH INSTITUTE FIRST ADVOCACY TRIP TO HAITI: PETER HELTZEL BLOG
Thursday July 22, 2010
Searching for Sean Penn
Today we went to the Petio-Ville Club Camp. This 9 hole golf course was hub of Haitian’s elite in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. After the earthquake on January 12th, the golf course became a landing pad for U.S. Blackhawk Helicopters who brought in supplies after the earthquake. It was quickly transformed into tent city, but this one was different as it was led by an American, not any American, but Sean Penn.
Sean Penn is one of my favorite actors. From Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Harvey Milk in Milk, Penn always acts with immediacy, irony and a twinkle in his eyes. While I enjoy his acting, I am even more inspired by his activism. In September of 2005 Penn went to New Orleans to participate in the rescue and rebuilding of New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina. Then less than a week after the earthquake in Haiti hit, Penn co-founded J/P Haitian Relief Organization “to save lives and bring relief to the Haitian people quickly and effectively” J/P Haitian Relief Organization now manages the Petio-Ville Club Camp, the largest tent city in the country housing 50,500 Haitians.
Preaching in the Tent Cities
To approach the camp we drove up a stone road through an affluent neighborhood that included the Ambassador from America’s villa . We came to a gate and were let in by a security guard who was carrying a rifle. As we drove up to the old club house surrounded by palm trees and banana trees, we met our host for the day Pastor Jean St. Cyr. Pastor St. Cyr was a big Haitian man, with an even bigger Haitian smile. Around his neck he proudly wore medals that JP HRO has been awarded for their humanitarian efforts, like the Commander’s Award for Service by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Foster of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Penn gets along well with with US military who like his pragmatic, no-nonsense style of development work.
Pastor St. Cyr grew up in Port-au-Prince, but moved to New Jersey in the 1980s. He returned to Haiti in 2003 and was in the country after the earthquake. His church was just a few minutes away from the country club. After the quake he wanted to minister to earthquake victims, and started a church in this country club camp just down the road from his home and church building.
We turned on the four-wheel drive on our truck and the pastor jumped in the truck with us and drove down into the camp through muddy roads under an overcast sky. We rolled down the windows and saw an endless rows of tents in blue, red and gray from US AID, Oxfam, and even Walmart. With over two million Haitians living in tents, I wonder how long will these temporary towns exist?
Compared to other camps that we have driven by each day, this camp appeared to be well cordinated and running smoothly. It had a playground for the children, an amphitheater that screened films, a chapel, a health center and was well secured with barbed wire around the golf course and a large security staff.
With the sweltering Haitian heat, being cooped up in a tent is often unbearable, covering your entire body in sweat. While there are latrines, there are often no bathing facilities so in this camp and others you often see folks bathing outside in the open air. It is hard to maintain your dignity in such rough circumstances, yet the Haitian people forge ahead amidst this daily struggle for survival.
Pastor St. Cyr led us up a hill to see the church he pastors, holding services every night. His congregation meets underneath a tent with a massive sound system that can projected throughout the camp. He has seen many people’s lives transformed, but he said that it comes with a great cost. He is separated from his family who is in New Jersey, and has had his life threatened several times. Yet, amidst these challenges, he has a clear sense of calling. He said he feels like God is using all of the challenges in his life up till this point to equip him to lead courageously at this moment.
Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things
While we talked to St. Cyr, a young Haitian man named Jean who was part of the worship team, quietly played his guitar. Subtle and sonorous, his song was a small glimpse of hope amidst the great struggles of life in a tent city.
In the end we didn’t meet Sean Penn. Pastor St. Cyr said he was meeting with “the General” today, after recently meeting with his friends Spike Lee and Shakura. Yet, we were able to meet with several ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That night Jean would lead the church in worship, while Pastor St. Cyr would preach, both exercising their gifts of ministry to bring healing and hope to the people of Haiti. How are we using the gifts of ministry that God has given us? Do we have the courage to step up and lead in the struggle against injustice? By sowing small seeds of justice, with time we will reap a harvest of shalom.