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6248: Corbett replies to Manigat on Les petits freres de l'Incarnation
Max, I posted a note on the list back in 1995. It is an article
I wrote on the Ti Frere back in 1985 with a couple of updates
I made later on.
The community is now much larger and more prosperous than it was
in 1985 and, for me, one of the greatest changes is that they
added WATER! They now have a running water system piped in
from the mountains.
but, here's the 1985 story with some updates:
Date: Tue, 3 Oct 1995 18:36:30 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Pandiassou, Haiti
A HAITIAN ODYSSEY
by Bob Corbett
This past August I went to Haiti primarily to learn Creole. I had just
finished three weeks of language study in a Haitian neighborhood of
Boston, Mass. I discovered that I know too many people in Port-au-Prince
who speak English. So, I moved to the rural area. I had the name of a
Haitian spiritual leader, given to me by a friend in Boston. This
Haitian man was the head of a religious order. I journeyed, unannounced,
to this community, not knowing what to expect.
There are nearly forty brothers in this all-Haitian order. Down the road
a bit is a small but growing community of nuns following the same
spiritual rule. The community's founder, Francklin Almond, welcomed me,
telling me I could stay as long as I wished. My language purposes would
certainly be fulfilled--no one there speaks a single word of English.
The life of these brothers and sisters is very beautiful. They rise long
before dawn and assemble in their little chapels. There they chant
morning prayers in Gregorian chant. Later, Haitian drums and rhythms
fill the quiet with exciting music. In between the leader gives a
reflection which sets the mood for about 30 minutes of silent meditation.
I was an outsider. An American in an all-Haitian enclave. A speaker of
English in a Creole world. A non-Christian in a Catholic religious
community. But they made me feel at home, welcomed, comfortable. The
morning reflections of Francklin Almond were the most exciting and
rewarding (and challenging) moments of each day. In the early days I
only understood a word here and there, never a full sentence. By the end
of my stay I got all the sentences, missing only a
word here or there. His theology is a theology of the unity of humans
and nature through God. "Te-a," THE EARTH. It figured in nearly each
day's reflection. Francklin, a man in his mid-thirties, would sketch the
importance of respect for nature. The brothers and sisters live off the
land. Their primary crops are peanuts, corn, several sorts of beans,
green vegetables, sugar cane and a variety of fruits.
He spoke movingly of the precarious balance in the farming cycle. A
central tenet of his theology is the need for the brothers and sisters to
nurture the gifts of God, not squander them. Much of their prayer was
thanksgiving for rain, sun, wind and earth. Seeds, crops, the work
animals, butterflies, bees, birds, even the pests and insects were
celebrated for their place in God's plan. Our response, he urged in many
different ways, was one of nurture, respect and care.
(Note 10/87: A testimony to Francklin's ability to respond to the times
is that today his theology centers on the prophetic role he and his
community must play in Haiti's critical struggle for democracy and
freedom. The pastoral themes must await calmer times.)
My days were filled with work and peacefulness. I attended all the
services throughout the day. (The group was curious about this
non-participating spectator. My non-believing status led to many rich
conversations!) I worked the fields with them and especially hung out
around the cook house. Partially because I wanted to learn to cook
Haitian food, partially because Balde, the young brother assigned to cook
at that time, was especially patient with my halting Creole. I spent a
lot of time studying vocabulary, reading the few Creole books I could
find, and I talked a lot. But mainly I watched, listened and was deeply
moved and enriched by their challenging lifestyle.
HAITIAN VS. MEDIEVAL MONASTERIES
The Medieval monasteries of Europe were places of refuge, one might even
call them places of hiding. The world was viewed as a rather hopeless,
sinful place. A dangerous place for one seeking the morally good life.
The monks and nuns of Medieval Europe retreated behind walls and sought a
more perfect existence.
[Corbett notes 12/17/2000] A number of my Austrian friends has
attacked the above as unfair to medieval monasteries. I think it
is not true of earlier monasteries, but quite true of medieval
monasteries, particular in the middle and later periods, but that's
not a topic of discussion for this list.]
This Haitian community has a totally different approach to the world.
They live their lives FOR the local community. They live in the same
material conditions as the local people. They are among them daily.
Never in my stay were all the brothers at home. Some were always out
working with the peasants. They model lives of holiness and serious
moral purpose, of awareness of the unity and gift of nature. They teach
too. Their community is a model farm. They experiment with how to get
most out of Haitian farming techniques. When changes must come, they are
cautious about the psychological factors of change. They tread carefully
on and show profound respect for the traditional ways.
An impressive and important contribution are the communal farms. Once a
village farm group forms, the brothers purchase a plot of land. This is
turned over to the farm commune. The farmers work the land together.
Much is learned and gained, not all of it material. They experience
group cooperation, trust, sharing, submerging personal ends
for group aims. Their fields produce too. More food is available, some
surpluses exist and are sold on the local market. The brothers expect,
and regularly receive, $20.00 yearly from each group to help pay back the
land. (A plot can easily be purchased for under $1000.) These payments
go toward the purchase of new lands for new groups. Ultimately, though
very long-term, the cooperative farm project will be self-supporting.
THE "LITTLE CHURCHES"
The community is the center of a "ti legliz" movement the little
churches--peoples' churches. The brothers and sisters train "animators"
how to lead the village communities in church and community meetings. I
visited these meetings and was extremely impressed by the openness, the
seriousness of the purpose and the love among members.
The "little churches" urge the formation of children's schools.
Virtually no one in this remote rural area goes to school. Illiteracy is
well over 90%. People are suspicious of schools. The people wonder:
Why bother? There are no jobs to be had through schooling. What can
literacy bring but trouble, unfulfilled expectations, new dangers. But
the brothers and sisters know that without education life cannot progress
beyond the miserable, beyond bare survival. Knowledge must challenge
harmful traditional practices, and there are many in farming, health
care, the spiritual life and social relations.
I spent many hours of my afternoons and evenings wandering the dusty dirt
trails to nearby villages. I visited with people, read stories to whole
communities and learned a lot. I learned Creole. But more importantly,
I experienced the beauties of Haitian village life--the simplicity,
patience, generousness and love. I watched these incredibly hard working
people wrest meager subsistence from an unwilling and hostile
environment. I fell deeply in love with rural Haiti.
A STRANGE DEAL IS STRUCK
In Boston I had heard that this community accepts no outside help. But
clearly they need help. Their work is impeded by the lack of hard cash.
They must move much more slowly than they wish because of the lack of
resources. Francklin and I had become close friends. I told him that we
in PEOPLE TO PEOPLE would like to be a part of their work. He said no.
Outside help was risky. It compromised one's independence. More
importantly, it called attention to the work in ways not always healthy.
(Note 11/89: This was during the Duvalier times and the sorts of work
being done by the community were considered dangerous. Today, under
General Avril, nothing has changed. Actually the dangers have increased
since the community and especially, Francklin, have become more well
known.) When I first published this story back in 1985 I didn't use any
names and was careful to disguise the area so that no one could identify
the community. That sort of anonymity is no longer possible since the
community and Francklin are now well known.)
But, I persisted. Our help would not be conditional and it would be
discrete. Besides, I was no longer an outsider. They'd been telling me
each day that I was part of the family. (Hoist on their own petard!)
Francklin returned to my request the next day with a startling proposal.
He would LET us help them if they could help us in return. The idea
sounded fine, but how could they help us?
He offered to provide a place for us to bring Americans
for retreats, a time of quiet, prayer and reflection. RETREAT in several
fundamental senses--a pulling back from the 20th century; a self-enforced
isolation for speakers of English; a RE-TREAT, to treat yourself anew.
I readily accepted. Our own help for them could only be meagre at
first. We pledged money toward land purchases and the purchase of oxen
and plows. Farming in this region is strictly by the hoe and stick.
Some local farming areas and methods will accommodate the plow and not
change traditional crops. The brothers hope to introduce this innovation
without much disruption of traditional patterns. But, they need the oxen
and plows first.
A RETREAT FOR THE SUPER HARDY
By now I had begun to recognize the fantastic and unique opportunity that
came with their side of the bargain, but also the problems flooded in on
me. How difficult would such a retreat be for a typical American?
CONSIDERABLY! Some of the notable difficulties were clear:
1. The trip from Port-au-Prince to the community is EXTRAORDINARILY
hard. One must travel by open-backed truck jammed to several times safe
capacity with people, animals and a varied cargo.
2. It's expensive to get from St. Louis to Port-au-Prince.
3. WATER. There is very little of it around in this area. The brothers
and sisters provide adequate safely boiled drinking water. One bathes
and washes clothes from a pail. The water is scarce and not the cleanest
to begin with.
4. Linguistic isolation.
So, for the hardy, the daring, we could offer an extremely unique
experience. The community cannot handle too many at once, so we prefer
to take small groups. We would spend 6 days there or en route.
The possibilities were endless, and the concept of this poor community
reciprocating for our meager aid was intriguing.
(Note: 11/1989). The retreat idea never really worked. We offered it
several times, but got no takers. We've been back to Pandiassou many
many times, and with groups. Our groups will visit there this Christmas
and our Webster U. study group again in April. But, we've never gone on
the retreat experience. I've always thought it was a lost opportunity,
but it was not something which I controlled!)