De La Mennais Brothers: Weaving A Tapestry Of Relationships Like Jesus

De La Mennais Brothers: Weaving A Tapestry Of Relationships Like Jesus

Saturday, August 15, 2015

This is my life

It's summer and I'm feeling philosophical...

I'm in a train crossing through France, watching (on my fruit-flavoured tablet gadget) the lovely "Before Sunrise" with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (dir. Richard Linklater - "Boyhood") whose characters first meet on a train crossing through Central Europe... Hawke's character comes out with a statement that summarises so well how I feel much of the time: 

"I always think that I'm still this 13 year old boy [i would say 17, myself] who doesn't really know how to be an adult, pretending to live my life, taking notes for when I'll really have to do it... kinda like I'm in a dress rehearsal for a Junior High play..."

... Except that the dress rehearsal IS the play, and it's for one night only!! 

Thoughts like this make me think back on my life and on all that has happened in the years since I was 17 and that simultaneously terrifying and reassuring moment of realisation in my heart that God wanted me to be a De La Mennais Brother... all the people I have come to know, the things I've done and not done, the places I've been to... 

And I feel so blessed!!

"Yesterday is a kid in the corner. Yesterday is dead and over. This is your life, are you who you want to be?... Don't close your eyes!" (Switchfoot, "This Is Your Life")

I'll keep on doing my best to keep my eyes open, to be the person God wants me to be because that is who I want to be. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Haiti 2015 - Day 9 (part 2)

As we were only staying one night in Jacmel our hosts, the Brothers at Jacmel (and ourselves) wanted to make the most of our time there. So once we’d had a quick tour of the property and the chance to get our sleeping arrangements sorted (youngsters on mattresses with their portable mosquito nets in a balcony area and the Brothers in the bedrooms that came off the balcony) we grabbed our swimming togs and the picnic lunch we’d brought with us and we headed for a beach about 20 mins. drive away in Lamy’s vehicle that he had the use of for the duration of our trip (a kind of imitation Jeep, Toyota-style, borrowed from the Juniorate community at Pétionville, just outside Port-au-Prince). This beach had a zoned off safe bathing area where the slope away from the shore was more shallow. The waves were still reasonably big though and you had to be careful of the current. In the end, I was the only one who went in for a proper swim (Max had a lengthy paddle), the rampant algae (seaweed) that was seemingly covering much of Haiti’s southern coastline closer in to shore putting off the rest of the group.

Bro. Jacques getting a little shut eye on the way to the beach.

A refreshing end to our picnic lunch on the beach: drinking fresh coconut water straight from the coconut. Once we then got them cut into pieces Aaron gladly polished off the insides of the coconuts of most of the group. I would have loved to help but I was starting to suffer from the nausea (heat and humidity-induced, I think) that would stay with me for the rest of the trip and drastically reduce my appetite.

Once we got back to Jacmel it was time for a siesta for some, a further stroll around the grounds of the Jacmel property for others, and then the beginning of what become thereafter the nightly whole-team card games. The four teens had already been entertaining themselves with this pastime in Delmas, but on this day Bro. Jacques and myself joined in, with Bro. Francis initially an observer and then a full participant from the next evening onwards. We tried a variety of games, but it soon became clear that the most fun could be had from playing either Bluff or Cheat (which are basically variations of the same game).

Much hilarity ensued once they realised the michievous willingness of Bro. Jacques to bluff and the unbridled joy he expressed when he got away with it!


Supper was had outdoors with the sea a beautiful backdrop. Like everywhere else we went the Brothers prepared a wonderful spread with plenty of cold drinks to wash it all down. Up until now we’d not had much of the homemade beer (only 1 or 2% of alcohol in strength) that our communitites in Haiti are renowned for, but here it was available in plenty. Bro. Jacques in particular took to drinking it at any available opportunity. It made a change from the filtered/bottled water of which we drunk many litres a day, though it was certainly an acquired taste. The beer from the Jacmel community was I think the best we tasted throughout the whole trip.

A chance to relax and chat just before supper.

After supper we were taken for a walk along Jacmel promenade which had seen much investment in the past few years. Jacmel is a popular tourist destination for those in Port-au-Prince who can afford to get away to the south coast beaches. At about 4 hrs. drive people would sometimes come down for a weekend Friday to Sunday. It is one of the locations that could eventually become popular with foreign tourists too.

In the end, I think our teens got the best night’s sleep on the balcony. They had the best of the light breeze coming in off the sea. In terms of sleeping arrangements during our trip, in Delmas it was a bit hit-and-miss for our teens, as we’d arranged for them to sleep in an air conditioned computer room: a double bonus in that they had computer internet access (+ eventually smartphone wifi) for sending messages home (I got these blog articles started during the evenings I spent with them in that room) and they had cool air… the only problem was that most evenings there were power cuts of varying lengths during which it would go back to being near unbearably humid. But I think it was worth it for the time they did have the air con and for the chance to send reassuring messages home.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Haiti 2015 - Day 9 (29th - part 1)

So, it was Day 9, and time to say goodbye (for now) to Delmas…

We headed south, with Bro. Lamy as our driver, through mountain passes at over 1,000 metres altitude to the south coast and the Brothers’ community and school at Jacmel, a community that had once been described to me by a French Brother friend of mine as the most beautifully situated of any of our communities anywhere in the world.

Driving in Haiti could, at times, be a little traumatic when passing through crowded villages or towns (especially for Bro. Francis and whoever else was squeezed in with him in the front seats), with traffic flying around in all directions and no quarter asked or given. It is truly a “who dares wins” environment where if you want to pull out into a main road at a busy junction you simply pull out and everyone else has to stop for you. Priority to the one who sticks his nose out… except when faced with the rather intimidating Mack lorries that populate the country. Then it was simply “priority to the Mack!” No messing with those beasts. But, Lamy knows his way around such roads and knows how to drive in such an environment. Despite many hours spent on the Haitian roads during the trip as a whole, we learned to trust him and to trust the other road users.

A pit stop for refreshments.

Having arrived at Jacmel we could appreciate for ourselves what the French Brother had told me, the community house perched on a cliff looking out over crystal clear blue water (but not safe for swimming, due to the strong currents and steep coastal shelf).

The Brothers’ school at Jacmel.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Haiti 2015 - end of trip round up (with Day 9 + onwards to come later…)

We got home from our 17 day adventure 3 days ago, absoultely knackered after losing 5 hours on the way back and therefore basically missing a night’s sleep, but very, very happy with the overall experience.

Haiti is a wonderful country with warm, friendly, dynamic people. Our Brothers there welcomed us with open arms and couldn’t have been more accommodating and generous in their time, effort and energy that they put into our trip being such a success, none more so than my fellow former Novice (of 25 years ago) and good friend Bro. Lamy.

Haitians are very proud of their homeland. This is borne out by the number of emigrés who, once they’ve made a career for themselves abroad, mainly in the US and Canada, invest money back into their country of origin through various projects (including many of the 9 schools our congregation run there) and also have homes built in the home areas for them to retire back to and to which they return for holidays before retirement.

One consequence of this is that we saw a greater disparity between the rich and the poor in Haiti than perhaps on any of our four African Educational Project trips since 2007. The political situation there has seemingly improved under the current regime of President Martely. One area that has shown marked improvement since the earthquake is the road network. But there is so much more that needs to be done to try and improve the standard of living for the majority of the population. The creation of jobs has to be a priority. Continued political stability will surely encourage foreign countries to establish a foothold in the country. Perhaps then the brain drain abroad might start to lessen and more graduates might begin to look for and find jobs in their home country. We must keep the country in our prayers during this period of elections (the election for the national Senate was today and the Presidential elections follow in a couple of months), that they pass off peacefully and that their new leader (Martely is stepping down) will have a good heart and will be able to build on what progress, however slow, has been made in recent years.

Myself, Bro. Francis and Bro. Jacques were delighted with how well our four SFX pupils embraced the various challenges and experiences of the trip. The seven of us worked very well as a team, maintaining the Team Win! tradition of supporting each other when things get tough, sharing responsibility, good humoured banter and no whinging. I think we’ve even managed to add to the Team Win! traditions and mythology by establishing an evening routine of playing 2 hands of the card game Cheat before hitting the hay. Generous laughter was shared in this activity, especially as the 3 Brothers seemed to take much childlike delight in cheating and much as possible, serving to create a tightly bonded group.

I would hope to get another such trip off the ground in two years time and would not hesitate to invite again our four participants this time around: Michael, Max, Aaron and Alex.

Now, back to the trip journal...

It was Day 9, and time to say goodbye (for now) to Delmas…

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Haiti 2015 - Day 8 (28th)

This was to be our last day with the youngsters in Delmas. We'd grown very fond of them and had come to recognise and appreciate their different personalities. Our teens had become more and more confident as the week went on in terms of their interactions with the children and their willingness to not let the language barrier become a problem. It was clear that we had made a connection with these youngsters, as was shown by the warmth of the thanks that they and their parents expressed to us at the end of our time together.
After one last YMCA, we began our final day by demonstrating to them how to play Dodgeball and then getting them to join in with us. Turns out that they already knew a variation of the game. Bro. Jacques in particular took a malicious pleasure in repeatedly finding his targets with unerring accuracy.

After Dodgeball, our teens began to prepare our final set of arts and crafts activities: bracelets, cut-out hearts to decorate for their parents (which rather touchingly some chose to give to us) and after lunch 2 large hand print banners, one to leave for the school as a memento of our stay, and one for us to take with us.

Bro. Francis managed to get more ink on his fingers than on the paper.

While Team Win teens were starting the bracelet activity Bro. Jacques and myself took the most fervent footballers for one last game of football, the 2 of us joining in once it had got a bit one-sided... no stamina these teens!

Once the banners had been completed and the footballers had had a chance to make bracelets and hearts we packed up and headed for the school chapel where we had attended Sunday Mass. The School Chaplain celebrated Mass for our group and some of their parents. Aaron + I once again provided musical accompaniment, this time for My Lighthouse, Happy Song, the echo Lamb of God (Matt Maher) and Lord I Lift Your Name On High, the latter complete with actions.

Both My Lighthouse and Happy Song had been on our Team Win playlist of songs that we had playing in the background during many of our activities, so the youngsters were famliar with both and were able to join in on at least the choruses (especially the Happy Song "Yee ha!" which became one of the refrains of the trip thereafter.

Aaron and his delightful groupies who sat with him during the whole Mass, occasionally plonking a note or two, quite often in the right key!

After Mass it was time for one last tea-time snack together, distrubution of football tops donated by pupils in Liverpool and farewell speeches, including a most touching speech written and delivered by one of the 5 girls that ended up participating in the camp (it was initially just for boys as the Brothers' school where we were based is all boys, but word got around the families and friends of those boys and by the second day a few girls had appeared)...
... followed by one final singsong. Once again, young Gabriel/"Messi"/"Staff" was at the heart of things, proudly wearing his Liverpool FC shirt, asking for the guitar and taking centre stage, strumming away random combinations of strings that bore absolutely no relation to the key we were singing in, but it didn't matter. He was having fun and we were having fun with him and that's what our week at Delmas was about: smiles, laughter, joy, energy, fun and friendship. As they say in French, "Que de souvenirs!" ("What happy memories!").

(photo by young Olivier)

One last shout of "Cheerleader!" for the photo call and it was time to say goodbye and for us to move on to Jacmel on Haiti's south coast the following day, beginning the second part of our Haitian adventure which would involve visiting Brothers' communities and schools in Jacmel, La Vallée and Les Cayes.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Haiti 2015 - update

Last full day of what's been a wonderful, at times breathtaking educational project trip to Haiti, a country rich in potential, where there is a starker contrast between rich and poor than I have seen anywhere else I the world. 

Wait till you see the photos (will post then at an airport tomorrow sometime) of the "Bassin Bleu" that we were taken to up in the mountains around La Vallée = a blue lagoon of crystal clear mountain water, complete with waterfall, rocks to dive + jump off... As good a potential "paradise island" tourist spot as anywhere in the world. Some of our group said it was the best place they've ever been to/best thing they've ever done. A fitting reward for all the effort they put into our week with the youngsters. Bro. Francis was actually interviewed there by American news reporters doing a feature on Haiti's potential as a US tourist destination.

Today we've a visit to a market for souvenirs and then an afternoon providing entertainment to children in an orphanage up in the mountains around Port-au-Prince.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Haiti 2015 - Day 7 (27th)

Monday saw us again working with the group of 10-11 yrs. old primary school pupils. By now they had been introduced to our variety of introductory song and dance routines: YMCA, I Am The Music Man, Macarena, Cha Cha Slide and Papa Mola, all of which they joined in with wholeheartedly, as much if not more so than on any other Team Win trip... this case the Macarena.

We decided to swap around our activities again... team games (football, obviously! They are the most football mad of any youngsters we've come across on any Team Win trip) on the pitch in the morning followed by card games and smaller group games, then arts and crafts in the afternoon and more bat and ball games for those who could brave the heat.

The view across the playing fields at St. Louis de Gonzague primary school, Delmas.

Bookmarks that became head dresses.

Haiti 2015 - Day 6 (26th)

On Sunday morning we attended a packed Mass in the chapel of St. Louis de Gonzague school. Many of our children from the camp joined us, a few as altar servers. Aaron and myself got involved in the music liturgy, leading 2 worship songs (I Will Worship + Lord I Lift Your Name On High) for the Offertory and after Communion respectively and the Lamb of God.

Sunday lunch saw us profiting from the purchases made at the beach the day before: fresh crab + fish.

In the afternoon Frère Charles took us up into the mountains that overlook Port-au-Prince...

... including a visit to the ruins of Fort Jacques, a 200 year-old fort that was built just after Haiti one its independence from France to guard against any possible further colonial invasion.