Images of God as Seen through the Eyes of Children of La Gonave, Haiti

Preacher: Leann Canty
Date: September 2, 2018

Scripture: Matthew 18:1-5


Good morning everyone. For those of you who haven’t met me before, my name is Leann Canty. I want you to know right up front, that I’m not a minister, nor have I studied theology in school. I am a physician, a wife and a mother, and I’ve been coming to United Parish for many years. I am grateful to our pastors for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. I have to admit last spring when Kent contacted me to schedule my summer homily, he suggested today, the Sunday before labor Day. My first thought was “hmmm that’s really far away, sounds great!” and my second thought was “I bet there will be pretty low attendance that day, so if things go south, there won’t be that many folks there to remember.” So, what an unexpected, happy surprise to see you all today! Welcome, and thanks for being here.


This morning, I’m going to talk a little bit about my experience on a medical mission trip to Haiti in January of this year. In the past, I have done medical volunteer work in India, and I felt that it fulfilled a call that I’ve felt to do what I can to serve others, particularly those who are in great need. So, when a colleague of mine asked me to accompany her on a trip to Haiti, I jumped at it. I went for ten days with an organization called ‘Agape Global Health for Haiti,' which is a Boston-based organization that works to provide healthcare to the people of La Gonave, Haiti. ‘Agape’ is a Greek word that describes a type of love - not romantic or fraternal love, but the love of mankind. I think that “Agape” is the kind of love that Paul is referring to when in Philippians, he exhorts us to “have the same love as Christ” when he speaks about caring for other people.


Although I went with a group that has ‘Agape’ in the name, ‘seeing God’ was not one of the goals that I had when I left. But, surprisingly, I did indeed end up ‘seeing GOD’ while I was there.


La Gonave, is an island of approximately 90,000 people, about the size of Martha’s Vineyard, and a two-hour boat ride from Port au Prince. There is only one, minimally staffed hospital on the island, and therefore most people go without health care. The island also lacks clean water, sanitation and regular electricity. The aim of our team was to provide medical care to children and adults, to do some educational programs with local medical professionals, and to work on two public health projects. I primarily worked providing direct care to adults on my trip, and had originally thought that I would speak about that. My homily would have touched on many of the themes that Emily Gill discussed so eloquently on August 5th when she talked about her work with Doctors Without Borders. She spoke of the vast and jarring difference in resource allocation between volunteers and the patients that they cared for. Those disparities were immediately apparent in Haiti and would I’m sure be familiar to anyone who has worked or lived in the developing world. I know that while I was in Haiti, and since my return home, I’ve questioned the morality and justice of my lifestyle here in Boston, and have worked to make changes in this. But, since we’ve already been there… I am going to talk instead about where I felt God speaking to me in Haiti; in the eyes of children that I met there.


One of the first things that I noted in La Gonave was an absence of elderly people, and in fact, a paucity of adults in general. There are a number of factors which contribute to this, including significantly decreased life expectancy in Haiti, and large numbers of adults migrating abroad to find work to support their families. What I did see, instead were lots and lots of children - of all ages, early in the morning, dressed in a wide variety of colorful school uniforms, later in the day, playing soccer on a makeshift field, or on Sunday, in their Sunday finest at church. And, day after day, at our clinic. Some had been brought their by a parent for care, but many others were just ‘hanging around,’ I guess because in a town where very few had electricity to power TV, video game consoles or smart phones, the volunteers from Boston were the most interesting show in town. After a couple of days, I started to chat with the kids, and spend time with them after clinic. They took me on tours of the town, and to visit their homes. They brought me to watch them play soccer. They tried to teach me some Creole. They listened to stories that I read them. They told me about why they might not be in school on a particular day:

“I didn’t have a French book, so the teacher sent me home.”

“My Grandma couldn’t find my pants for my uniform, so I couldn’t go.”

“I didn’t have the supplies I needed, so they sent me home”


And, in that amazing, so direct way that children have and many adults lose, they weren’t afraid to ask for what they needed…


When they made their requests they looked right at me and I felt that I could see God in their eyes. When they threw their arms around me, or laughed at my poor attempts at speaking Haitian, I just felt so strongly that God was there - in them, with us. I so wanted to help them, but there was really just a bottomless ocean of need. I did think that I could probably buy the books that some kids needed that would allow them to stay in school. After tracking down some books and school supplies for a few of the children, they then wanted sneakers! And bicycles! And candy! (imagine that!) Regrettably, in La Gonave’s all-cash economy, I was unable to finance sneakers and bicycles. After buying the school supplies, I was seriously down to my last few dollars. I was, however, able to spring for some cookies and candy. And, when we all sat down and shared our treats, the pleasure that my young friends took in them was so clear on their faces. And then, later on, we all took a walk together, and they all broke into one big happy dance -


Wow! That was really striking. In that moment, I could again really feel God’s presence. These children are so lacking in what we could consider ‘life’s essentials’: clean water, sanitation, health care, shelter, and often even food. Yet, somehow they are able to push all that aside and tap into the the joy of the moment. The joy of life. Although these kids were so lacking in resources, that did not mean that they could not experience great love and happiness. Surely I, so blessed with resources, but oftentimes caught up in my ‘first world problems’ can take a step back and revel in those blessings as well.


You know, I chose the passage we read from Matthew for two reasons. The first, more obvious to me at least, is its exhortation ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’. I interpret 'welcome' broadly in this case, to mean ‘to help and to care for’, for we know that the welcome of the gospel was an extravagant one. I am honored that when I was in La Gonave, I was able to ‘welcome’ some children in a small but tangible way. But you know, I think that all of us here really ‘get’ Jesus’ call to welcome children. I believe that we are kind, loving and giving people who already take this to heart. For example, here at United Parish we have an awesome Mission Giving team, which often uses our church and parishioners' resources to help kids. In addition, I know that many of us are also deeply involved with work, volunteering or making donations that make the lives of children better; that ‘welcomes’ them, if you will.


The second directive of the passage from Matthew, however is what I feel comes less naturally and is more of a challenge for us. That is the call to ‘become more like children’. What does that really mean? My interpretation of this is that very often, children model for us how God is calling us to interact with the world around us. I believe that as much as God wants us to love and serve others, she also really wants us to experience joy and happiness. I think that part of what Jesus is asking us to do here is to live more in the moment. Like the children of La Gonave, let the pure joy of life flow through your body. Delight in a cookie. Relax into the touch of someone who cares about you. Do a happy dance.


I know that the children I met in La Gonave changed my life forever. I looked in their eyes and saw God. I am trying to heed the call I heard in the words of Jesus and of Paul, and that I saw and felt in the children of La Gonave. I want to welcome and care for those children, and for children everywhere. And, I am trying to remember to be more like them - un-self-conscious, living in the moment, enjoying what I have.


The next time that you spend some time with a child, either one that you've known and loved, or one that you’re just meeting, perhaps you will look into their eyes and you too will ‘see God’. I hope that you have an opportunity to do something for that child, or that seeing that child will call to you do something for another child who is in need somewhere. And then, I hope that you are able to put yourself in the place of that child and become just a little bit more like them. I pray that you too will be filled with joy, and that you do your very own ‘‘happy dance’.