Ken Firling admits he had never thought much about Haiti before his pastor approached him one day with the idea of visiting the country as part of a parish outreach effort. Firling agreed to make the trip, and when he saw the tremendous need among the Haitian people it sparked a strong desire to get involved and to help people improve their lives.
“It has been a roller-coaster ride ever since,” said Firling, who has now been involved in parish-based ministry to Haiti for 26 years. Although he has since left the parish where he began the ministry, Firling founded the robust Haiti Outreach Ministry in his current parish, St. Margaret Mary in Winter Park, Fla. He and others from the parish still visit Haiti three to four times each year.
St. Margaret Mary is just one of many Catholic parishes across the United States to become involved in partnerships with the people of Haiti, many of which date back to long before the 2010 earthquake. Through parish twinning programs, American parishes can develop close bonds with fellow faith communities throughout Haiti.
St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in Zionsville, Ind., had been involved in parish twinning for a number of years and has been connected with its current twin, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Croix Fer, Haiti, since 2010. St. Alphonsus got involved in parish twinning with the aid of the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, a Nashville-based nonprofit that has twinned 300 North American parishes with Haitian counterparts.
For St. Alphonsus Liguori, the primary focus has been on medical mission trips. The parish sends a team of 12 people for a six-day period, during which time they can see as many as 1,300 patients. They’ve also helped build a school, pay the salaries of teachers and hired a technician to distribute medications. Eventually, they hope to hire a nurse to work on site.
“One of the things we are careful about is not to go in and do what people in the area are able to do,” explained Roberta Martin, coordinator of the Haiti parish ministry at St. Alphonsus Liguori. “We don’t want to take anything away from what they are able to accomplish on their own. It is about helping them to help themselves.”
Having a direct relationship between two parishes helps each one understand the other’s needs, Martin said. It also makes people feel more invested in the partnership because they can see exactly how their contributions are making a difference.
“It is a grassroots project,” she said. “Around the world, these can sometimes do so much more good than a large government program can do. You are helping one person at a time, but if you help one person, then they can help other people.”
St. Margaret Mary has taken a slightly different approach, broadening their work beyond just a single parish relationship. The guiding principles of the parish’s program are focused on empowering the local community, only taking on projects that can be sustained by the people who live there and developing a clear exit timeline so that they never remain in one place for too long.
“The trick is to have a sound plan in place,” said Firling. “It is important to have people with a clear understanding of a mission relationship.”
The parish has also divided the ministry into five working groups: economic empowerment, education, faith sharing, health and peace. That way, parishioners will have a variety of options for how they can get involved with the ministry.
“By having an array of activities, it appeals to a broad scope of people,” Firling said. “So, in our parish, hundreds and hundreds of people get involved in all the different phases of activities. … Our pastor often says we are doing more for our own parish than we are for the parishes [in Haiti] because it involves so many people.”
Martin said that a key to the twinning program is to keep the relationship visible to parishioners. She makes an effort to keep people updated on the parish’s mission trips, and St. Alphonsus Liguori has hosted visitors from their Haitian parish so that the people have an opportunity to get to know each other.
“We have so much we can learn from them,” she said. “We can provide money and help, but they are such a spiritual people, and that’s something we can really [benefit from].”
Those shared relationships have also had a very positive impact on St. Mary Parish in Richmond, Va., which has been twinned with Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Los Palis, Haiti, for more than 25 years.
“What we try to work on is the relational pieces,” said Rebecca Oxenreider, St. Mary’s minister of human concerns, social justice and community life. “It is not just sending things or sending money — which we do — but getting to know each other and standing in solidarity with the people who are there.”
When the earthquake hit, the people of St. Mary Parish were able to keep up with what was happening in Haiti through their sister parish, which was far enough from the epicenter that it did not suffer any physical damage. Over the years, Oxenreider said, they have come to develop a better sense of what life is like in Haiti, what the needs of the people are and how they can support one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“I think that it has helped our parish grow, moving from a sense of charity to a sense of justice and solidarity,” she said. “It has helped us see that, really, we are all one throughout the world, that we are all one body.”
Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.