Retreat in Hinche
Disclaimer: This is long, and I sincerely hope it doesn't read like Great Aunt Agnes' family trip report where she includes every fast food and bathroom stop and what Great Uncle Frankie said when they had a flat tire.
I want to share with you a yearly event for Mennonites in Haiti - retreat. It's a 3 day conference held during Carnaval, or Mardi Gras week, originally meant to keep the youth from getting into trouble during that time. Last year it was called off due to insecurity. This year only 250 people attended, from about 10 of the 30 or so congregations in Haiti. Really only 5 of the central congregations were able to participate as normal - Blanchard, Cazeau, Fonds Michelle, Hinche, and Tomasique.
I really wanted to write this in a detailed way - thinking of the huge North American conference coming up in November and how that will be broadcasted worldwide. And this little retreat with 250 people was just as important! I was the only white person in attendance, but there were a few international listeners. They set up WhatsApp conference calls, and a few of my friends in Brazil that listened said it was really neat. They kept the call going after the service and videoed the crowd and went and talked to random people. Of course, lots of songs were passed around too. So in Haiti, we try to be a part of the bigger picture, even when it's hard right now. And we missed all of you who have been at past retreats and couldn't make it this time. So if you have a bit of time to read, here's what it was like. If you have a lot of time, I also have links to posts about the other 2 retreats I've attended at the bottom of this post.
Preparation for retreat starts with a lot of choir practices. Zèzè and I attended two together - the National Choir of Haiti and just our Blanchard congregational choir. Of course he went to Group D'homme practice also, and I skipped out on the Blanchard ladies group practice. These "repetitions" or practices are a lot of fun - you pick the fanciest songs with lots of repeats and you sing the notes, then the words, over and over until the leader deems satisfactory. He also adds creative touches like solos and you for sure will be singing the chorus twice on the last verse - sometimes with a long, drawn out ending, other times getting faster and faster and stopping with a jerk.
The day before you have to leave, you get out all your best clothes and scrub them and then send them off to the press - an ironing/dry cleaning service that gets them all pressed and you go pick them up or the delivery boy brings them in a wheelbarrow - good to go, on flimsy metal hangers and covered in plastic. There will be no way to iron once you arrive at conference, so suitcases must be packed with utmost care. My husband is a shirt folding pro, and I think he should try getting a job at Express someday.
Then the big morning arrives and you try to think of all the random things you'll need - snacks, battery packs to charge phones, blankets, toilet paper - going to retreat is almost like camping because you don't know how many hours it will take to get there or where you'll stay when you arrive.
We loaded up Saturday about noon and headed to folks-in-laws. My mom-in-law has been to many retreats and has learned that by far the best policy is to just take EVERYTHING. So Zeze and Etzer had a big job loading "everything" onto the luggage rack on top of the Prado and getting it all strapped down. She even gave them a tarp for in case it rained or the road was too dusty. All the while, she was busy poking smaller stuff under seats including many containers of water and a big tin bowl of chicken legs and rice for the road. Then we had to figure out how to stuff all the people in. If I counted right we were 12 in a vehicle designed for 8.
Friends Stick Together
After the hours of packing, we finally got on the road - the narrow but paved road that goes straight north, over Goat Mountain to Hinche. It was quite dusty and dry, not as beautiful as I remember from our trip to O'Cap last June. We hit a traffic jam because a big truck fell apart while going up the mountain, and we spent lots of phone time trying to get in touch with all our other retreat-going-people. It's better to travel together in Haiti, because of safety and breakdowns. Finally our convoy of three got together, and we were making good time.
We were getting pretty close to Hinche I thought - past Fond Michelle and down the other side of Mon Kabrit already - when we pulled into a little town. The car in front of us did not see the gigantic speed bump, and I watched in horror as he careened over it and half lost control for a bit. But he got it together and we went on our way. Until we were really almost to Hinche. Maybe 30 minutes away. Again I watched in horror as one of his back tires - literally the whole wheel actually - suddenly flew off and went rolling down the road by itself, passing up his car and rolling into the ditch as he tried to get the whole thing lurched to a stop.
We all stopped immediately. All the doors opened and soon probably at least 30 retreat-goers were milling about - ages 1 to 58. The lug nuts were all broken, and the only thing for the driver to do was flag a moto taxi and head into town to see if he could get parts.
We were not surprised at this 2 hour delay. Seldom does a long trip in Haiti go off without a breakdown. The moms tried to keep their children off the highway and my husband shared food with about 8 guys in the back of the pickup in front of us and complimented the young bride on her cooking. I sat and ate PBJ and cornflakes in the Prado and watched. Everyone was relaxed. It was like retreat had already started with an impromptu highway party for 30.
And when the driver arrived with the parts, he had plenty of buddies to hold flashlights, give advice, and help change the tire. It was good to pull into the little church yard - full of soft lights in a dark neighborhood, the generator humming, and our plates of rice and chicken waiting for us along with handshakes, backslaps, and other loud Haitian greetings. We sat on the church benches and ate our supper with all the other weary travelers. Now the party had really began.
Hinche is a fairly small congregation, and everyone was on the fence for a long time about whether this retreat would even happen. So they ended up getting ready for it in only a few weeks time. When we arrived, they told us we could stay in a small house that was still under construction. There were two rooms - one single bed and one double, and no bathroom or any water. The crowd of people gathered at the house grew in size, and we realized that probably it wouldn't actually work for us to stay there, especially since they wanted to give us the only double bed and folks-in-law needed a place to sleep yet. So at 10:30, when I was already half sleeping, we headed to town.
We got instructions from a moto driver and found a motel that we booked for $15 USD per night. Like many small motels in Haiti, it was a place that makes most of its money by renting out rooms in 2 hour blocks of time. Some things you try not to overthink a lot. This place had electricity and a working shower and fans, but Zèzè got terribly bad allergies in the night and there were people all around celebrating Karnaval, so it wasn't a very restful night.
The next morning, some of the committee called and said they had paid for a couple rooms in another motel close to the church and we could stay there. So we got our money back. This other one was only $10 USD per night because it didn't have electricity. But they gave us two buckets of water to shower and flush the toilet every day and it had a nice balcony where we could sit in the evenings and drink Coke after church. It was lots quieter and nicer also because we were very close to church and I was exhausted by the end of each service and would just go and undress and pass out on the bed. Which is why I came home with my back covered in mosquito bites.
The real team behind a successful retreat is the people in the back churning out three meals a day. This year the cooks were mainly Hinche ladies with a few from the neighboring congregation of Tomasique. They start only a few days before the event. Each congregation is supposed to send money, which they do, but the amount is not adjusted for inflation and not everyone ends up paying for all their children, so even getting the groceries bought is the first big hurdle. They set up a makeshift kitchen in the back of the church, alarmingly close to the rather smelly outhouses, with a few light bulbs strung up, and some rechon - simple grates that hold a bed of charcoal coals. The large cooking pots balance on top. Their water supply is scant because it has to be carried. Our church has a well/hand pump in front, but I'm not sure where these ladies were carrying water from.
We all ate on tin plates and drank our juice from plastic cups, so there were so many kivets, or washtubs, full of dirty dishes. Every time I went back there a few ladies were sitting on low wooden chairs with woven seats chairs washing dishes and gabbing. In the evenings the dirty dishes were replaced with kivets full of meat - pieces of pork or chicken legs for the next day's lunch. They were removing the veins with huge, dull butcher knives and cleaning them with sour oranges and then rubbing in rock salt and pulpy green epis made from onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs.
Breakfast was plain cooked spaghetti served with a boiled egg and a banana, or one morning we had hot chocolate and ginger tea with fresh bread from the minister's new bakery. I had hot chocolate and I love Haitian style chocolate - balls of fresh roasted cacao grated and boiled with cinnamon sticks and star anise. Sugar and evaporated milk and a little salt are added at the end. It's thick and the fresh cocoa leaves a little film on the top of your cup and it feels so tropical and real.
Lunch was a bit hard for me as I was usually nauseated from the heat and sitting in one place for three hours and then the smell of frying onions and garlic coming thru the windows for the last 45 minutes made my stomach just want to say, "No." But I'm sure the food was good and my normal self would have loved it. Rice with sauce fried chicken or legume and a bit of tomato and lettuce or a single fried plantain slice to garnish each plate. One day we had sos pwa, or bean sauce with white rice.
After closing prayer, when the food was ready, they called us out, congregation by congregation, to get our food. We sat in the sanctuary and ate together and there was always a big Gott jug of fresh squeezed citrus or tamarind juice right by the pulpit with a tub of plastic cups beside it. Zeze and I always ended up in the front corner surrounded by his crowd of noisy guys - a few couples mixed in but definitely man conversation. Which I am used to by now and don't mind - he has a great group of friends.
Supper, except for the first day, was labouyi, a very sweet and cinnamony pudding, with bread. I ate cornflakes and PB&J at the motel. Again I'm sure it was good food and I have nothing against Haitian pudding! Other years there is usually a couple vendors set up outside selling fried chicken and plantains in the evenings, but not here. The last night, we walked with the orphanage director, the only one from Ganthier to brave the blocked off road, and got some fried chicken, Coke, and boiled yuca at a little restaurant. He's a person I still love to talk to and hardly ever see, so that was fun.
And Tuesday night, as part of the grand finale, they called all the cooks on stage and we cheered them on for all their hard work. The little girl in front of me was truly just squealing with excitement to see her mommy on the stage. I too was very impressed at this hard-working crew of women in aprons with a few faithful husbands mixed in. They made a big sacrifice to keep us all fed.
This is what many think of as the best part of retreat. This year there weren't many congregations participating, so each choir was given a chance to sing at least once a day. There are a few sweet children's choirs led by grim madanms who shuffle everyone into place before they can start. There are the mountain choirs with their unique style - full of spirit, rhythm, and drama. There are the more modern choirs from close to Port au Prince who take pride in learning songs by the notes and sing more English songs that have been translated to Kreyol. They're all spectacular and deserve very loud "Amens."
The youth were made to sing at every service. They came up dutifully and were given a number to sing from the Chan Kretyen. They were sometimes praised, sometimes criticized roundly for various shortcomings, and on the last day they were all made to introduce themselves - name, congregation, and preferably age. Because everyone knows retreat is really about marrying the youth off.
But which one is the best? I'm still partial to Group D'homme, the men's choir with members from all the central congregations. This year I loved when they sang The Church in the Wildwood. They were giving the grand finale too - and they delivered. They sang He Will Lead His Children Home. By the last verse they were going so fast and almost shout-singing the words, some of them frantically doing little dance steps or head bobs so as not to lose the rhythm. They finished the last chorus with a jerk and the crowd erupted into cheering and laughter.
Obviously the preaching was a very important part of each service too. I'd say the sermons usually lasted 45 minutes and then there was a fairly lengthy addition after each, followed by a song service which lasted until the next meal was ready. I kept a list on my phone of what we heard for those of you who know all these people and are interested. I'm going to break my rule and use names just this once!
Sunday Morning: Minister Cenel from Tomasique - Making Use of your Time:
He preached on Ephesians 5:16 that says we should "redeem the time because the days are evil." It was a very important message about keeping your spiritual life a priority, especially in this land where there is so much danger and uncertainty. He also said that "God didn't put you here for nothing" which is a good reminder to me especially because I'm going thru a season where my life can seem very small and unimportant.
Sunday Evening: Minister Elder from Ganthier - Compromise:
This was a very inspiring message taken from Exodus. I think one of the references was Exodus 8:27-28. Pharaoh was always trying to compromise with Moses, and here he is telling them, you can leave and go sacrifice, but don't go very far. He wants them to stay close to Egypt - close to the land of their captivity. The devil too, wants us to compromise - do a few things that God asks, but stay very close to this world and all the parts of it that want to hold us captive. He talked a lot about families too, and how your compromises affect your children.
Monday Morning: Minister Gildonny from Blanchard - The Family:
It was obvious Pastor Gildonny put a lot of energy and preparation into this talk, and it's very important in Haiti right now. The older generation tended to be quite harsh with their children. And now the younger, more educated generation is having children and they can hardly find a balance between what their parents did and just letting their children grow up with no boundaries. Also, because there aren't many good activities available, it seems like many children are getting addicted to smartphones at a very young age.
The talk started off with a dialogue between another couple he had asked to help. Joseph and Esther stood at the back of the church with a bag of rocks, and he asked them to bring him the bag. Joseph picked it up, straining, while his wife walked ahead, looking back encouragingly. He said, "I can't lift it. You have to help me!" Then she tried, alone, while he watched, and couldn't carry it either. Finally they decided to work together, and then of course they could easily carry the bag up the aisle.
The bag represents the responsibilities we face in life as couples. For many, the biggest burden is raising children. In marriage, we need to work together with good communication, not leaving the other one to tackle things alone or blaming them for not being strong enough.
The second half of the sermon was about child training, and he gave out papers with 20 Important Points for Educating Children. He talked a lot about teaching children to work and appreciate work, and how they should be rewarded for their efforts and be given age appropriate jobs. Here the focus can quickly go to education and avoiding physical work. He also talked about teaching children to speak to all adults in a respectful way, even if they have questions or sometimes correct something you got wrong. As a teacher, I believe that is a huge lesson.
I really enjoyed the heartfelt addition to this message by Minister Rossaine from Hinche. He has raised his family already and seemed to have a lot of wisdom and also was not afraid to talk about some of his regrets about what he had done.
Monday Evening: Minister Elder from Ganthier - Consecration & Dedication
This was a very good sermon based on the story of Samuel. His mother dedicated him to God before he was born. She followed through on her promise, and we never read that she regretted or tried to take control of his life. She didn't even wait until he was an adult to fulfill her promise. Also the Bible doesn't say that she had another child after him. So God realized her dream, and she gave everything back to him. It's very inspiring to think about this. And it's a bit scary to take inventory of your life and see what you have promised to God and how you are doing with following through with your promises.
Tuesday Morning: Minister Salet from Fonds Michelle - Heaven & Hell
I don't remember much of this sermon because I was feeling sick and I waited too long to write this report!
Tuesday Evening: Minister Gildonny from Blanchard - Modesty
This was a very short message before all the closing ceremonies on Tuesday evening. He was talking to the younger people especially about the picture we present to the world by how we dress, where we go, and how we act.
I'm going to make a very broad generalization about Haitian culture which I know is an improper thing to do. But I feel like Haitians love to talk about rules and principles but on average they really hate to follow them. Which is most services start at least a half an hour late but we also sit through many half hour long talks about "respecting time."
We were also given badges and many times the group was reprimanded and even threatened to be refused food if we did not wear them. I was always very smitten because Zeze and I usually forgot them pinned to our old clothes when we got ready in the evenings.
There are several elected "Prefects of Discipline" whose job is to walk around, eagle eyes open for people littering, sleeping during a service, or using a smartphone. We were told that the prefects would confiscate any phones that were not on silent mode and out of sight during services. I'm not sure how so many people recorded all the singing and even some of the prefects themselves were blowing up WhatsApp with recorded songs every evening. Hmm.
This prefect idea is not a bad one. They also watch for people who are having a problem or are sitting in too much sun, etc. Think American usher, times 100, with no fear of confrontation.
With any large Haitian gathering, there is sure to be drama. It's really exciting.
There were prizes - dozens of little Christian books from CAM. Each afternoon they had a Bible trivia contest. A brave volunteer stands up and is given a microphone. Then he is asked a question. If he answers correctly he gets applause and a prize. If not, there is chaos and many others raising their hands for a mike so they can try answering - after which they are cheered or booed.
There was money drama, as in there wasn't enough money - even after they had taken a very dramatic collection - a contest to see whether the men or women could raise more. The men won, and then were promptly scolded because they were taking control of the money too much and not giving their wives enough. Lots of cheering from the women's side on that comment. And then they gave prizes to
who could come the closest to guessing the amount in each basket.
The last evening was the most dramatic of all for various reasons. And I sat there totally in the moment and then I had this flashback moment of what Mennonite North America services are like and just laughed because here I was sitting in church basically shouting to my husband in English with no fear of possibly being overheard or understood by the crowd.
Best Matched Couple Award...
Probably goes to a newly married couple from Blanchard. She is actually from Hinche. Their clothes were amazing every day but one set that I remember was when she had a bright yellow dress with red shoes and red bobby pins in her hair and he had a shirt the exact same color - red cuffs on the shirt AND in the evening he wore bright red pants. Then there was the couple from Cazeau that managed to all dress up in cream/taupe one day - husband, wife, and 3 year-old boy/girl twins. And the first day I saw a couple from Blanchard that is probably getting close to 50 were sitting together all alone eating lunch in their matching peach shirt/dress. Seemed like a sign the romance was still alive!
Zèzè and I seriously didn't do all that bad at matching ourselves. I sewed a larger wardrobe when I was in the USA and my mom made sure he had shirts to match some of my new dresses. And Zèzè doesn't have bright red pants but he does have a maroon suit from being a best man and he wore those pants one night with a black shirt that matched a navy blue dress I had with dark red flowers.
Everyone puts a lot into their clothes for retreat. It's kind of the yearly event where you go through your closet and take inventory and then buy what you need and wear it the rest of the year. Except if there's weddings or funerals or other programs then more new clothes are always encouraged if possible!
Some people wonder why Haitian culture puts so much importance on clothes. What they aren't thinking of is how being poor can really damage your sense of self-respect. So looking clean and nice - and yes, fancy - for an event like this is a way that you can make it special. It's a way you can prove to yourself and others that you have dignity and class. Also, it shows that you value the event and you put effort into looking your best.
Cutest Kid Award...
How do I choose? I want to say both of our cousins little boys - one's a toddler and the other is almost one. Sometimes they dress them up in vests and of course shiny black shoes and the babies here have soft ringlets when they're born. Their hair is so beautiful.
Also it was cool to see the bench full of older girls around 12 making friends with each other. They don't get to see people from other places that much and they were always bustling around arm in arm during breaks - so fun for them and I remember those days - going home and writing letters to your new best friend for months. In Haiti you can't do the pen pal thing but maybe they'll keep in touch on their mama's phones.
Courageous Mama Award...
Goes to a lady from our congregation with a 5-month-old. The picture that comes to my mind is her sitting on the second bench in a beautiful sky blue dress - nursing the baby. Her two oldest girls (maybe 6 and 8?) were eating on either side of her and her 2-year-old was crying as she was trying to shovel rice into her mouth. Thankfully the dad came and rescued her from the 2-year-old after awhile.
The couple that broke down in the road has a handicapped daughter who is maybe 3 or 4. She is just learning to walk and toddles around and giggles but doesn't really understand life at her age level. I saw them sitting together a lot and the two of them switched off taking care of the little girl. I know from a testimony he shared in church that older family members (because of lack of education in this country) have shamed them because of their daughter, but they love her exactly how she is and I think she has a very sweet smile and temperament.
Then there are the three (probably more that I don't know) ladies whose husbands are in Brazil and Martinique (I think) trying to make a new start and hoping to get their families together again as soon as they can get the paperwork finished and the plane tickets bought. The oldest lady has been in that situation for years and she has two girls - maybe 8 and 11. She cries sometimes in church when she talks about raising them alone. It must be so hard. But she came and the girls had matching dresses and it was beautiful to see. One of them is our cousin and she has a toddler. I know she slept on the floor with her boy in a room with another couple the whole time. And the last is newly married and largely pregnant. I saw her video calling him during the service more than once and wow - I was very glad my belly isn't that big yet because she looked very uncomfortable. They think the baby will probably be born here in Haiti because she's getting almost too close to her due date too fly. The two younger ladies both moved back in with their parents after their husbands left. You can pray for them all. This country is not easy.
On Tueday evening, the crowd was getting a bit sparse. We were sitting on a bench without a very good backrest, and I got more and more uncomfortable as the service wore on. They were having an open discussion about what all could be improved next year, and I felt like the vibes were getting pretty hot - blunt criticisms hidden within long flowering speeches, and subjects ranging from timeliness and participation to where the youth boys slept. Lots of discussion about where the youth boys slept and whether the planning committee was being respected.
Then there was the discussion where they revealed how much this had all cost and how much money was still owed. My husband was all ears. He loves drama - and actually I was probably the only one in the church feeling uncomfortable. It's just one of those things about not quite being comfortable in a culture - you can't read all the cues and know for sure that no one is mad. And because these people tend to be more animated and blunt than what I'm used to, I assume the worst.
Then it was time to vote where the next conference should be held. Next year will be conference instead of retreat, so there will be issues to vote on and it's a bit more formal so they want good participation. The choice was not hard because only one of the three options is in a central location. So after voting and loud cheering, it was decided. Next March we go to Fonds Michelle.
For the very last song we all stood up and sang, "We'll Be Friends Forever." Everyone did the motions on the chorus - from the ministers up front to the row of twelve-year-old girls in front of me. And on the last verse, we all held hands. The church was filled with joy. I thought it was the best ending ever.
And the next morning at 5:30, Zèzè and his brothers were packing all the bags on top of the Prado again. The mood was different - sleepy and contented. The excitement was over. And in only 3 1/2 hours this time, we arrived in Port au Prince, where our toilets flush, our beds are soft, and the fans keep away the mosquitos. And we dumped our suitcases full of fancy clothes by the door and fell into a deep sleep for half the day.
Looking for more things to read instead of doing your real work?
The links below are about the other retreats I've attended. I hesitate to share because I feel like many things I said were inaccurate. I'm sure 5 years from now I'll say the same about this one tho. It's a journey and foreigners will never totally "get it." I also don't share names anymore since this audience has gotten bigger. Hope these posts aren't grossly inaccurate, wierd, or offensive to anyone.
2019 Retreat: In which Quiara runs away from Missouri on spring break to try and decide if she really wants to become Eliezer's wife. He was leading lots of songs and doing things like showing off his jumping rope skills in the evenings.
2015 Retreat: In which Quiara mostly hangs out with other whites and random children that follow her around because she has been in Haiti for 4 months and loves it but doesn't really have a clue what's going on. I'm sure Zeze was at that soccer game tho. Apparently I had no eyes.