The Missionary

By Chad Galts / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007
Jesus La has been waiting on a wooden bench for three hours to see a doctor. The heat under the corrugated tin roof of the outdoor chapel is growing steadily worse. La lifts a tattered San Francisco 49ers baseball cap from her head and wipes the beads of sweat glistening on her dark skin. Even in March, the sun's midday brilliance is severe in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Cherly, La's six-year-old daughter, stands between her mother's legs. On her buttocks are two large, bleeding sores. Cherly tries to tuck her head under her mother's arm as a swirl of gray dust blows over them, so that La has to shift the weight of her eighteen-month-old son, Johnny, who lies limp in her lap with his head in the crook of her elbow. The boy has a hard, scabbed rash on his ears; his eyes gaze absently ahead.

Nearby, a team of civilian and U.S. military doctors unloads medical supplies from the back of a camouflage-painted truck. Among them, one civilian pushes crates and directs traffic with particular relish. Tall, brown-haired, and fair-skinned, Patrick Moynihan '87 displays the indefatigable zeal of a man who is happy only when he has too much to do. A native of Marietta, Ohio, Moynihan arrived in Haiti two and a half years ago as a Catholic missionary hired to run a small boarding school and orphanage fifteen miles northeast of Port-au-Prince. Although he moved back to the United States last year, Moynihan returns often to oversee the school, whose purpose is to educate Haitians on the condition they remain in Haiti to apply what they've learned. Yet, even on a brief visit such as this

one, Moynihan finds time for projects that have little to do with the school. His job does not include working with these doctors, but Moynihan doesn't think in terms of jobs. He is on a mission to heal and to save. Today he leads a team from Memphis, Tennessee - a team that he himself recruited - into one of the most miserable places in the Western hemisphere.

Medical care is a rare luxury for Haiti's poor, so La and her family got up at dawn to stand in line at the gates to the Missionary Brothers of Charity compound at the center of Cité Soleil, one of Port-au-Prince's worst slums. Here 200,000 people live in crushing poverty within five square miles; several hundred of them have shown up today for the free clinic hosted by the Catholic brothers. Physicians question patients through translators, while armed U.S. marines from nearby Camp Kinsey stand guard at the gate and on the rooftops, trying to control the crowd. By early afternoon, all but about 200 people have been allowed inside the compound. The doctors can handle no more today, but the 200 wait, hoping to get in anyway.

The doctors work on the wounds of poverty and violence - rashes, bullet holes, burns, head lice, tumors, broken bones, flesh-eating bacteria, parasites, shattered teeth, and infected knife wounds. Meanwhile, Moynihan and a Memphis priest, Father Albert Kirk, attend to the spiritual needs of the patients in the compound's tuberculosis and AIDS ward. Kirk administers the Anointing of the Sick, the Catholic sacrament of the last rites, while Moynihan translates. As Kirk murmurs the prayer over two men with AIDS and a twenty-two-year-old with tuberculosis, the patients turn glassy stares to Moynihan's voice.

Normally garrulous and upbeat, Moynihan has to take a break after this religious ritual. He wanders toward the front gate of the compound to collect his thoughts and is

interrupted by James Petitfrère, a fifteen-year-old from Cité Soleil who works part-time as a translator for the U.S. military. Begging is common in Cité Soleil, so Moynihan is not surprised when Petitfrère asks him for money. But Moynihan knows that Haitians working for the military must agree not to beg; if he reports the boy to one of his supervisors, Petitfrère will be fired on the spot. Instead Moynihan hands him a garbage bag, and while they pick up trash around the compound, he recruits Petitfrère for his school. Late in the afternoon, Moynihan walks over to check on the Memphis team. Jesus La is being examined by Gordon Kraus, a robust-looking, forty-six-year-old internist who speaks with a mild Southern accent. Kraus tells La through a translator that Cherly's sores are from worms that leave the girl's body when she defecates. Medication will offer some short-term relief for the problem, but La must try to boil her drinking water. The rash on Johnny's ears, Kraus says, is from insect bites. La must keep him off the floor at night.

La explains that Johnny often has to be propped up. "She says her daughter was already walking when she was his age," explains the translator, a student from Moynihan's school. "She wants to know why the boy is so lazy."

Kraus gets out from behind his desk to examine Johnny more carefully. The boy's eyes are widely set and his ears are low on his skull - typical cranial features of someone with Down's syndrome. Kraus doesn't have the time or the language to explain the diagnosis to Johnny's mother; even if he could explain it, he wouldn't be able to offer any meaningful help. Kraus tells her to be patient. Johnny will learn in time. "Ask her how she is feeling," he adds.

"She says her stomach hurts."

Kraus passes the baby to the young translator, who holds him awkwardly while the doctor examines La's abdomen.

"You're pregnant," Kraus says, mustering a smile.

A tired grin creeps over La's face.

Every Sunday afternoon at five, the 110 students at Moynihan's school, Louverture-Cleary, line up on the outdoor basketball court to be divided into cleaning squads. Moynihan, in a T-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, stands atop a concrete picnic table at one end of the court and peppers students with questions in Creole. He teases one tenth-grade student about his new hairdo, drawing laughs from the rest of the crowd; he asks others if they're keeping up with their homework. When Moynihan confuses the words santé (health) and senti (smell) in his announcement of a free medical clinic that will be held at the school on Tuesday, it is the students' turn to laugh. He joins them, and quickly adds that maybe a few of the boys at the school should have their smell checked, too. The students, who range in age from thirteen to twenty-two, dissolve into giggles.

Moynihan sets the teams about their work. Every square foot of the school's 1.5-acre compound must be swept, scrubbed, and made ready for next week's classes. On this Sunday, the scene is especially chaotic: the school is handing out report cards. Across the compound from the basketball court, seventy-five parents sit at their children's desks. After the student assembly, Moynihan and Garry Delice, the principal of Louverture-Cleary, take turns answering parents' questions about grades, discipline, and tuition. Delice, who grew up on the south coast of Haiti, has very dark skin, a round face, and a serious, penetrating voice. Moynihan is the school's executive director, whose duties include everything from raising money to cajoling the students into working hard there. Moynihan is ultimately in charge at Louverture-Cleary, but the day-to-day operations of the school rest with Delice, and Moynihan wants the parents to turn to him with their questions and concerns.

"This is your school," Moynihan says to the parents in Creole. "And you need to respect Garry's judgment as much as I do."

Moynihan's admonition is a measure of what he has accomplished at Louverture-Cleary. He arrived in Haiti in 1996 with his wife, two children, and the ambition to be a missionary. The job at Louverture-Cleary had been mentioned to him by his brother Brian '81, who was serving on the board of

the Providence Haitian Project, a Rhode Island-based and mostly Catholic group organized to help improve conditions in Haiti. When Patrick Moynihan arrived, he found a school without a clear purpose or approach, and an orphanage, Le Foyer St. Michel, in which thirteen boys languished. The school originated in 1987 as a place for educating the orphans and other Haitian children whose prospects had been severely curtailed as a result of the country's political violence.

Undeterred by Haiti's perennial status as the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western hemisphere - a country where unemployment runs as high as 80 percent - Moynihan began searching for jobs on behalf of St. Michel's orphans. This was no easy task. St. Michel was hardly a model social institution; its founding priest had been dismissed from the project in 1989 for financial and managerial incompetence. Seven years later, some of St. Michel's residents were in their mid-twenties and in no hurry to leave a place where food was plentiful and little was expected in return. Moynihan promised the thirteen orphans they would not be abandoned, and within a year and a half, he reduced their number to four. Some ended up with good jobs; Moynihan hired a few as teachers, drivers, or translators at the school.

It soon became apparent at Louverture-Cleary that Moynihan represented a new generation of missionary, one that offered a better life only if it could be sustained without him. He offered potential students a deal: if they worked hard and promised to stay in Haiti after graduation, he would take them in. The school's tuition has remained very low, but Moynihan insisted that students and parents contribute more than money to the school. A paint job for the girl's dormitory, maintenance on the septic system, a new retaining wall along the driveway, and a host of other small labor projects are the fruits of his approach. Moynihan was preaching self-reliance, not dependence. If a better life was to be had for the students of Louverture-Cleary, they would have to sacrifice and work for it. Teachers who did not share this philosophy were asked to leave, and students with sagging grades received ultimatums. To monitor spending, Moynihan - who learned to speak Creole in his first six weeks on the job - locked up all the supplies, including toilet paper, and forced students to ask him directly for the things they needed. He organized the school's schedule down to the last minute. A graduate of Culver Military Academy, in Culver, Indiana, Moynihan instituted a strict code of student conduct.

"Our central idea is sacrifice," he says, "the sacrifices by and for the students, by teachers who could be earning more money somewhere else, by parents who have to pay attention to what we tell them about their kids." But would such an idea work in Haiti, with its history of brutal dictators forcing hardship and sacrifice on the many for the benefit of the few? Moynihan believes there is a crucial difference between the past and what he is asking now: "If you choose to make a sacrifice," he says, "it's different. You get a sense of being able to make choices."

What drives a man with a great job, two young children, a house in the suburbs, a minivan, and a new Volkswagen Jetta to give it all up and move to Haiti? For Moynihan and his wife, Christina, the answer is simple: they learned to trust God.

Christina remembers a day when she looked around their large suburban Memphis home and thought of the lyrics to "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads:

You may ask yourself,
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself,
Where does that highway lead to?
And you may tell yourself,
My God! What have I done?

"I felt like the person in that song," she says, "and I thought I was going crazy."

Patrick, meanwhile, was reaching the same conclusion. After he graduated from Brown, where he studied Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, Moynihan taught at a Catholic high school in Middletown, Connecticut. Three years later, after having met and married Christina, he made what he calls an impetuous decision to leave teaching. He took a job at Louis-Dreyfus Inc., one of the world's largest commodity trading houses, and became a moneymaking machine. After a short stint in Illinois, he was promoted and sent to Memphis, where he moved from trading such hard commodities as cotton and soybeans into trading futures. But during his first year in Memphis, Moynihan sensed something was wrong. He was a very good trader, but he wasn't, as he says, "doing anything real."

He became increasingly preoccupied with the moral consequences of his actions - or inactions. He studied the Bible. "In Matthew," he explains, "God says 'Behold the birds of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap; yet your Heavenly Father provides for them.' I remember reading that passage and thinking, it's time for me to change this b.s. lifestyle. God takes care of us. Once you believe that, there isn't any risk." He views the next step as a kind of joyful surrender. "Grace is a gift from God. I didn't decide it was time for me to change my life - God did. I was lucky enough to be paying attention."

Christina's search for meaning became entwined with Patrick's. Together they took a leap of faith. They sold their house in the suburbs for a smaller one in midtown Memphis. "You can't be a missionary and be in debt," Moynihan says. While he and Christina mulled over the direction of their lives, Patrick took a ten-dollar-an-hour job printing reports and delivering them in the middle of the night to the desks of his former colleagues. Then they resolved to go where the need was greatest. When Patrick was offered the job at Louverture-Cleary, he and Christina rented out their house, sold their cars, and, with two-year-old Robbie and one-year-old Mikhaila, moved

to a country where electricity is erratic, 70 percent of the population is illiterate, and the amount of human suffering is beyond measure. They went to work.

The power is out in the neighborhood again, so the diesel generator has been fired up for the evening study session at Louverture-Cleary. Its clattering drifts over the ten-foot wall that surrounds the small campus - an island of industry in a dark, silent pocket of congested, quasi-developed farmland. Across the gravel road from the school, a cinder-block house that's been under construction for several years has become the home of a dozen roosters with defective body clocks. They begin crowing as evening falls.

Ford Marin, a tall, gaunt twenty-two-year-old with a small scruff of goatee and piercing dark eyes, is playing cards at one of the concrete picnic tables under the harsh glare of a floodlight. The game, Casino, is fast and furious. Cards are laid out one at a time and certain combinations are snatched up by players with quick hands and sharp math skills.

Marin, a senior at Louverture-Cleary, has been at the school for one year. He calls it the best year of his life. It's not hard to see why. In 1984 his older brother, who had recently returned to Haiti from school in Paris and Montreal, was hacked to death by the paramilitary group known as the Tonton Macoutes "because," Marin says, "he looked like an intellectual." Then Marin's father became ill and lost his job. The family descended into poverty, and within a single year, 1993, Marin's father died, one of his younger brothers was diagnosed with a rare and painful form of anemia, and Marin developed a bleeding ulcer. Next, five men broke into Marin's sister's home at five in the morning and shot her husband fifteen times as he lay sleeping.

Before arriving at Louverture-Cleary, Marin was one of two students in a class of eighty to pass their final exams at a public school in nearby Croix-des-Bouquets. But conditions there "were ridiculous," he says, with crowded classrooms, a shortage of books, and teachers who were often late for class. When Marin heard that Louverture-Cleary was one of the only schools in the country where every member of the senior class had passed the state-administered final exams the year before, he decided to transfer.

Marin couldn't afford to pay tuition, so Moynihan put him to work teaching one of the school's free evening literacy classes for members of the surrounding community. "I'm happy to teach these classes," Marin says, "because these people can't read or write. I love my country, and it is my responsibility to make Haiti better. I want everybody to be able to read."

For his part, Moynihan believes that if Haiti is to have a future better than its past, it will be built by individuals such as Marin. Moynihan knows he will have succeeded at Louverture-Cleary when Marin and the others no longer need him. That time, he believes, is approaching. In July 1997, six months after Christina returned to Memphis to give birth to Timmy, their third child, the Moynihans moved to Providence, where Patrick took a job with Travelers Aid, a non-sectarian social welfare program. Despite his geographic distance from Haiti, Moynihan's missionary zeal persists. He often leaves their small, three-bedroom apartment in the Fox Point neighborhood to return to Louverture-Cleary, but he hopes such trips will become less necessary over time. "I came to Haiti to get things going in the right direction," he says. "I'm not Haitian, and no matter how much time I spend here, that isn't going to change. Until I've had a friend who authorized the death of fifty people, until I've seen a sister starve to death, until I've not been able to find a doctor and have slept in someone else's excrement, I will never understand what it's like."

Moynihan has many supporters in Haiti. One is Andrélon Duclès, who left the school's orphanage last year for a sales job with a local spaghetti-manufacturing company. "Before Patrick," he says, "there was no way to find work unless you did it on your own, and that's very hard. I was ready to start my own life, but as we say in Haiti,'Chak koukouy klere pou je'w' - 'Every firefly must give light for himself.' "

Another Moynihan backer is Peter Ostrom, who runs a concrete-manufacturing company in Port-au-Prince. Among Ostrom's employees today is a warehouse worker who graduated from Louverture-Cleary. "This country's single biggest resource is people," he says, "but most of them are not worth hiring." Ostrom, a realist, cautions that Moynihan's accomplishments at Louverture-Cleary, while important, should not be overestimated. "It's fine and dandy to read and write," he says after pausing to light a Marlboro, "but Haiti needs professionals - professional mechanics, carpenters, masons, and the like."

Moynihan, a self-described "huckster for God," is too busy raising money and recruiting volunteers to entertain any such doubts for long. He has made nine return trips over the last year, and he spent the month of August at the school with his family. He continues to dream up new plans for Louverture-Cleary: to find a way to pay Delice well enough so he can give up the part-time teaching job he has taken at another school to supplement his income; to establish a scholarship program that will enable every graduate to go on to college; to buy more land on which to expand the school. "If you stop for one second to think about how terrible these people's lives really are," Moynihan says, "you will cry for the rest of your life. I have been shown that the kingdom of God exists, that it's here, that all we have to do is work hard and we can make it real. I just want to get down to it."

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September / October 1998