Thursday, September 26, 2013

From a distance… one baby step at a time.

Over the past three years I have questioned what I could effectively do for my friends in Haiti when I am not with them. Yes, I could fund raise but was that enough? The question has been haunting me, and would keep me awake at night. My level of frustration at feeling that what I do from a distance is meaningless, has been somewhat alleviated by an article from Fr David Hollenbach, S.J. in the Conversations magazine issue of fall 2013. 

The article is about what the Jesuit Refugee Services do, about “Accompaniment, Service and Advocacy” and it struck me…. I can do that from a distance …and I have been doing it, not quite the same way but nevertheless. He writes: “accompaniment means being with the refugees and the poor on the ground, listening to their stories, showing them in action that they are not forgotten. Many refugees say this is the most important help they receive from JRS. It also has a deep impact on those who are listening, stimulating commitment to take action. The analogy in the university is volunteer programs that enable participants to accompany those in need. Such accompaniment leads to service……Such service, in turn, leads to seeing the need for advocacy to change.”
But I am not on the ground all the time...  I come and go to Haiti maybe four or five times a year……so how can I “accompany”? From the US, it is easier to reach out to potential donors and supporters that have funded construction and helped build a structure for the future.  But also, somehow, my talks, my blogs and posting on Facebook have enabled me to bring volunteers down with me and they too participate in the lives of the Foyer Notre Dame de Lourdes; they talk to the children, laugh with them, soothe their cries and play with them, watch them sing, draw, write, paint, create bracelets and they hold them when they seek to be held. So I might just be the link between our two worlds, and is that "accompanying"?

In his book, “To repair the world”, Paul Farmer also writes about “accompaniment as an elastic term. It has a basic, everyday meaning. To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end…There is an element of mystery, of openness, of trust in accompaniment. The companion, the accompagnateur, says “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll share your fate for a while” and by a while, I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is about sticking with a task until it’s deemed completed – not by the accompagnateur, but by the person being accompanied. Accompaniment is different from aid. “Aid” connotes a short term, one way encounter: one person helps and another is helped. Accompaniment seeks to abandon the temporal and directional nature of aid; it implies an open ended commitment to another, a partnership in the deepest sense of the word. Not easy….. This dogged commitment to doing whatever it takes to give the poor a fair shake is the essence of accompaniment.”
Over the past three years as I write, call, and endlessly tell the stories of the people in Haiti that have caught my heart, I have sought to be an “ accompagnateur”.  ([Interesting that it is a French word that is used to define what I strive to do)
Thanks to technology, gmail and skype,  I can  listen to Maud, her stories of struggle, her remedies to new crisis whether it is a sick child or the electrical failure yet again and her quest for more solutions to the lack of resources in  her attempt to care for the 96 now 97 children and I encourage, suggest and brainstorm about solutions or the next step.
When I go, I follow up with long talks on bumpy roads and evenings when all finally quiets down or early morning “ mise au point”. Some of the older children now also are starting to share their concerns and cares with me because they see me come back again and again and I can see whether the little ones are indeed growing healthily at a glimpse, from one visit to another, changes occur.

Thankfully I have been getting help; from my own personal “accompagnateurs”, my three daughters and my husband John who lovingly and tirelessly listen to me and support my efforts in ways too numerous to list, subtly or boldly but always always steadfast.
Every new group of volunteers that comes with me, is “treated” to what I have discovered, what I have learned and how we might in fact accompany our friends. From the campus of Loyola University Maryland, some administrators, faculty and students are listening and joining the “accompaniment”. Campus Ministry, the Office of Mission Integration but also Technology services that are unwavering in providing material that “accompany” on the journey to knowledge. In the French department, the students have a letter writing exchange with the older children at the Foyer in Haiti sharing of themselves, increasing awareness of another reality that might lead to advocacy. Fund raiser events organized by the students have successfully provided tangible goods, such as funds for the chicken coop and mattresses as well as craft supplies that stimulate creativity in an educational system based on rote memorization.
And so I hope… I hope that my “accompaniment” is meaningful and that as Paul Farmer writes: “Each of us can strive in some way, however small, to be an accompagnateur to those who have not been blessed by good health or good fortune. And in so doing, we are, one baby step at a time, helping to repair the world.”