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Too afraid to enter a church

A Haitian boy wearing a scapular stands amid the ruins created by January’s earthquake (Photo: Chris Leslie)

On a little patch of concrete that has been cleared of rubble, between ruined houses, Fr Tom Hagan is celebrating Mass with a little group of young seminarians. They sit on plastic garden chairs in a semi-circle under a small tree. An old bus in which they sleep every night is parked nearby and beside it is Fr Tom’s one-man tent.

They are not the only people in Port-au-Prince still living in makeshift accommodation six months after the earthquake in which around 15 per cent of the city’s population died. Tents fill nearly every available space. On the pavements and central reservations of busy roads, under the canopies of abandoned filling stations and beside the remains of their homes, hundreds of thousands are living under canvas.

In the centre of the city life goes on as normal among the broken buildings. The teeming markets function as normal among the debris. Men pull wooden carts bearing impossibly heavy loads of twisted scrap metal or squashed cars down streets strewn with rubble. Above them cracked buildings look like they might topple over at any minute. The President’s Palace, looking like a smashed wedding cake, and the broken cathedral the roof of which lies mangled where the congregation used to sit, remain exactly as they were when I saw them in the days after the earthquake. During this visit I see no large-scale clear-up or building work going on in the centre of the city.

Three miles away, down by the old wharf area is the sprawling slum of Cité Soleil. Built on a rubbish dump and home to 500,000 people, Cité Soleil is known around the world for its poverty, gangs and violence. Before the brick buildings here were damaged by the earthquake they were pockmarked by bullets. There was much less loss of life here compared to other parts of the city because most homes were flimsy tin shacks. It is here that we work with Fr Tom and his organisation Hands Together to provide daily meals (Mary’s Meals) to 6,000 children in the schools he has built. When we inspected these schools immediately after the earthquake we were devastated to find that each had been badly damaged. Huge cracks ran through playgrounds and up classroom walls and some parts of the buildings and perimeter walls had collapsed.

When I arrive I see that temporary wooden classrooms have been erected in the playgrounds. Thousands of children are once again coming to school and receiving the vital daily meal we provide. While the rain bounces off the tin roof I watch a class being taught English by a volunteer in far- away New York using Skype and a laptop powered by a generator.

Meanwhile, a hive of activity is taking place to repair and rebuild the school. Women line up with buckets of sand on their heads to fill the hungry cement mixer. Men wheel barrows of mixed cement to another group who spread a new smooth concrete playground and fill the cracks in walls. This time engineers have advised them to rebuild to more earthquake-resistant specifications and the team constructing a new perimeter wall are creating one that is double the width of the one that collapsed.

All of this work is overseen by a former gang leader. He cuts an unlikely figure for a foreman, wearing a white hard hat, gold chain round his neck, shades, red T-shirt and white training shoes. But he obviously commands the respect of the other workers and the task is getting done.

The building of the schools, the provision of Mary’s Meals and the emergency work now being carried out by local people is only possible because of the relationship that Fr Tom has built up with the community leaders here. This allows the work to be done here under local leadership and it is perhaps why progress is being made here in the rebuilding effort. It is still a very dangerous and volatile place to work, especially since 4,000 prisoners, many of them from Cité Soleil, walked out of the prison when the earthquake struck. Their presence here means renewed power struggles, violence and murders. So even with Fr Tom we move cautiously through Cité Soleil and when numbers of young men gather around our meetings we move on to avoid trouble.

I chat for a while to Jimmy, one of the older pupils who is now the president of the school pupils. He speaks in perfect English and tells us how he grew up in the worst part of Cité Soleil with his five brothers and sisters.

“I thank God for the food and education that I have received in school,” he says with a broad smile. “I know this food is given to us because of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and I am thankful.”

He tells me that he wants to go to university and study agriculture.

“I want to help Haitians become better farmers,” says the boy who grew up in urban slum squalor and who is now finding his escape through free schooling and daily meals.

We speak for some time and he doesn’t complain once. It is only when I ask him how he and his family were affected by the earthquake that he tells me that most of their little house fell down and that ever since they have all been living in a tent. “As long as I have school and food that is OK,” he says.

Since the earthquake we have also been providing daily meals for around 2,000 local elderly people in the school canteens. Many of them are suffering because their younger family members fled the city at the time of the earthquake and have not yet returned. They stand clapping and dancing and singing songs of praise when the meals are served.

Later we visit another school in nearby Carrefour in order to talk to the teachers about the possibility of beginning Mary’s Meals here. The hungry children, who currently receive no school meals, are learning outside under a tarpaulin, despite the fact that the classrooms are intact. They explain that teachers and pupils are still too fearful and traumatised to be inside the classrooms.

I peek inside and see that the lesson on the blackboard is still dated the January 12 – the day the disaster happened. No one has even dared to venture in to wipe the board. For the same reason Fr Tom celebrates his main Sunday Mass outside his undamaged church in Cité Soleil – the people are not willing to come inside the church. It is not just the buildings here that need mending.

Back at their “home” amid the ruins Fr Tom speaks of how the Church here is suffering. A local artist is painting the face of the late Archbishop Miot on wall of their newly built little office. Fr Tom had been due to visit the Archbishop shortly after the time the earthquake struck and threw him to his death from his balcony. Many other priests and religious have also died and numerous churches having been destroyed. Today, Fr Tom is the only priest celebrating Mass in Cité Soleil with it’s population of half a million people. “The labourers are few,” he says.

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. This was Fr Tom’s family crucifix which hung in his house in Philadelphia as he grew up. After he became a priest he always had it in his home and so he was delighted when it was salvaged from the rubble of his fallen house here.

“I won’t ever repair it. I will keep it just like this,” he says. “It reminds us that Jesus is broken too, with us.”

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the chief executive of Mary’s Meals (