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Square Dance With God

By Fr. Rick Frechette

The author is a physician and priest who has been working in Haiti for more than a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port au Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (NPH) orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. Fr. Frechette is the author of The God of Rough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men and First has often posted his stories from Haiti. His works and days have long anticipated Pope Francis's Call for solidarity with the poor. The Pope is on all our minds this week, but I'm reminded just now that Fr. Frechette's witness is also in the tradition of Simone Weil who wrote: "Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius." Weil went on...

Love for our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: 'What are you going through?' It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled 'unfortunate,' but as a man, exactly like we are, who was one day stamped with a special mark of affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable to know how to look at him in a certain way.

I came across Weil's words in John Berger's forthcoming Verso volume, Portraits, John Berger on Artists. (See the piece from that volume here.) Berger has incarnated Weil's way of seeing for fifty years. And Fr. Frechette's got a Weil eye too...

Dear Friends,

I have come to call it “the square dance.”

It’s what I do from the early hours of the morning to the late hours of the night.

Like in a square dance, when you are going in one direction and someone grabs your arm and turns you in another, I am often headed to do something important, and get spun in a different direction to do something more important.

It just happened again now. I was heading to our school for blind and deaf children, to put up some shading since the heat is tremendous and there is summer school in session. A woman, wailing and holding a pillow, was frantic on the road.

I knew from her nearness to our two hospitals that someone dear to her had just died, so I stopped to talk to her and ask her if I could take her home.

In the street, to crying and wailing, I heard the whole story of how she met her husband, how many children they had, their names, and what they are all doing now. The pillow was used to prop her husband Alexander’s head higher on the bed, because his heart failure was drowning him. It was too late. They came from so far away, in a broken down truck.

A pickup truck was coming for the body. Would I take her to our morgue? Would I say a prayer? Would I help put Alexandre in the truck?

Yes. I am so sorry. Of course I will.

It is a long dance. I will tell you a few parts of the dance from just the last 10 days.

About to have a coffee. Forget it. Jacques is here to see me. Jacques starts to cry, to tell me how his daughter Marie died last night giving birth. She and the child are dead. I know Marie, I helped Jacques put her through school. In fact, she is a week away from graduating high school, and she dies having a baby. I am shocked and pained, which is nothing compared to Jacques's torment.

Many priests have mercifully listened to such heartaches and offered the feeble consolation and strength of prayer that can be offered. But it doesn’t happen to most priests that the bodies are given to him to bury.

Right there in front of the hospital, was an old heap of a truck hired to bring Marie and her baby to me. Sitting in a plastic chair, arms dropped to her side, all the signs of recent childbirth (if you picture what I mean) including the lifeless baby. Fr. Enzo and I lifted the bodies of Marie and her baby from the chair to see to their funeral and burial.

I like to take off my army boots when I am finished the day, usually about 10 p.m., and do internet work with my bare feet on the cool tile.

Not so fast. Not one, but two battered Haitian women are brought to us. One 7 months pregnant and one with a newborn.

They are victims of the roundup of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, who were beaten and thrown over the border. The pregnant mom’s baby is thankfully fine, but she has a fractured leg from her beating. For the other woman, she is in fair enough physical condition after her beating, but her child needs immediate admission.

Back upstairs. But then the security come to timidly tell me there is a dead woman in a wheelchair in front of the hospital gate. On with the army boots again.

I know I heard right. I didn’t doubt it. It might sound strange to you, but it is not strange here. I jump on a motorcycle to go to St Luke Hospital gate. The blue moon is nearly full. I see the silhouette of a man standing behind a wheel chair, holding up the head of a women so she does not slump forward.

A moonlit Pieta.

They had come from very far, and she had died at the gate. We had to scale the activities at St Luke hospital way back this past June, because of financial constraints, and as a result the small staff was busy with 15 emergencies and did not yet have time to come outside for someone who already died.

Amaral and I wheeled her in. Her head was against my chest as I tilted the chair against me on the rough road. I felt how warm she still was. She had just recently died. As young priests thirty some years ago, we were taught to give the last anointing even if the person had recently died, because there is no way to say at what moment the soul leaves the body. After we lifted her into the body bag, I offered the prayers of parting and deliverance. Her name was Mireille. Her husband dropped to the ground and sobbed. Another long and holy story of their love, their children, of everything he had tried to save her in her illness.

Off to help Mother Theresa’s Sisters in the clinic in the main market of Port au Prince.

So many shocking cases, as always. The usual chronic wounds to wash and bind, the few gunshot market women whose bullets cannot be dislodged, the terrible abscesses to be drained (some I need to send to specialists or they will lose a limb).

But the saddest: a man with eyes infected to the point of destruction, showing me not his eyes but his ten year old daughter, explaining they live on the streets of the market, that he cannot work or care for her, that even at night on the streets he cannot protect her or keep watch over her because he cannot see.

He was not at the clinic to ask me to help him with his terrible and painful illness, but to beg me to care for his daughter in our orphanage.

As we start August, whoever called these the dog days of summer sure knew what they were talking about. But they are sultry not just because of the heat, but also because of the dire situations of poor people around the world. Pope Francis is trying to have all of us see the poor, understand how real they are, how much their suffering hurts. He wants us to be concerned about them, in a very practical way.

Count me in.

What about you?


“...a bruised reed he will not break,
a dimly lit flame he will not quench,
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or discouraged,
until he establishes his justice on the earth,
the coastlands await his mercy.”
(Isaiah 42:3,4)

Editor's Note: Fr. Frechette's institutions are solid—not N.G.O.-and-go operations, but they always need more support. You can donate to his projects through St. Luke Foundation or NPH.

From September, 2015

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