Peter Sloan (at right) and Father Caudy Augustin of Fort San Michel, Haiti.
Peter Sloan (at right) and Father Caudy Augustin of Fort San Michel, Haiti.
What a comfort a simple ritual like a blessing can be. Before taking off from the little airport in College Park, our pastor, Father William Byrne, blessed the airplane and packages I was taking to Haiti. He did so together with students, teachers, family and friends who gathered around the airplane in a little ceremony I will never forget.

How grateful I was for that. It calmed the nerves I was feeling before a long solo flight to Haiti. With it, the twinning ministry at St. Peter's on Capitol Hill would break new ground. My wife Christine - pregnant and minding our 19-month-old daughter - must have been feeling the same way. We both know that true comfort comes from the deeper reality a ritual calls to heart and mind, not just the ritual itself.

Nevertheless, without a ritual like our pastor blessing the airplane with holy water, I am less apt to dwell upon that source of comfort. That's just human nature, at least, that is this human's nature.

Twenty hours is a long time to dwell upon anything. That's how long it took to fly our little airplane from College Park to Cap Haitien, Haiti, and back. The trip was a tremendous gift, and not just for the parishioners of our "twin" parish in Haiti, Notre Dame D'Altagrace. They received $18,000 worth of medicines and medical supplies, care packages, and a sum of money for scholarships for orphans and children unable to pay the nominal tuition. But it was a gift to me, also.

For lovers of flight like me, time aloft has something of the sacred about it.

It's where we are free to think and pray and admire the Creator's work up close. It is, in the words of a famous poem, where we reach out and touch His face.

This ministry was about a lot more than just flying though. To have been a crucial part of St. Peter's initial outreach was a privilege. When I arrived in Haiti I became an ambassador for our parish.

I relished joining in the enthusiastic Haitian liturgy. I basked in Haitian hospitality. My hosts concerned themselves with me the way one sees to the needs of a head of state.

I slept in a queen-size bed surrounded by mosquito netting (the pastor's). And yet just outside the parish door I witnessed a level of poverty unimaginable to most of us in this country, just 1,600 miles away.
To walk the slums of Fort San Michel with Father Caudy Augustin is to encounter a scene of continual dilapidation, interrupted just once: by the parish itself.

Still unfinished, Notre Dame's church is now 10 years old. It alone rises from the rubble with any aspirations or structural integrity. In Fort San Michel, standing water along muddy streets bodes ominously. It was early March and the mosquitoes already had bred. The rainy season was still a month or more away. Underfoot the ooze of saturated riverbank soil is held at bay by layers and layers of crushed plastic bottles, a landfill essentially.

I took many pictures, aware that for many of my fellow parishioners it would be their only authentic glimpse of life in this severest of places. Yet there were times when I could not bring myself to raise the camera to my eye. Some scenes were so poignant for the suffering they expressed, to photograph them seemed indecent and disrespectful.

This is just one of the many paradoxes of Haiti, but perhaps its greatest: joyful people, meticulously groomed, participating in vibrant liturgy with edifying bearing and dignity while just feet outside the church door, the hodgepodge of domiciles betray squalor, decay, and the ravages of natural disasters that whisper of disease. Malaria, HIV, TB, and lately, cholera, have all found fertile conditions upon which to spread in Haiti.

The Catholic Medical Missions Board has been fighting this good fight for some time. Through the selfless assistance of Devyn Birx-Raybuck and Kathy Tebbett, CMMB insured that St. Peter's had as much antibiotics, medications and sanitizer as our little plane could carry.

Space for the first few boxes had been reserved for the schoolchildren of St. Peter's. Principal Jennifer Ketchum and her teachers insured that all ages pitched in. They put together "care" packages of seeds, gardening tools, disposable cameras, sports equipment, you name it. One parishioner sent two dozen pairs of running shoes. Second- and third-grade students created a symbolic banner with the word "Hope" (Lespwa in Creole) in big letters.

I felt instant relief upon delivering my cargo to Notre Dame D'Altagrace. Although I was confident about the undertaking, I also experienced doubts.

Looking back now I realize how often on the journey I felt deeper emotions. From the time we assembled for the blessing at College Park on March 4 until I safely returned, I often felt sustained. Sustained by the prayers of others, by the unconditional support of my wife, and by the inspiring response of the schoolchildren and fellow parishioners to the Gospel call.

I also believe the Lord puts little "helps" in our way to sustain the often tenuous grasp we have on our own mission. A trivial example, perhaps, but of the six different fuel concessions I might have used in South Florida to fuel up, I happened to choose the one owned by a committed Christian who extends a discount to humanitarian missions like ours. This little reflection does not provide ample space to enumerate all the occasions of grace, but they surely occurred. Some, like the moments of intimacy and solitude that visited me on long stretches offshore, are hard to put into words. There is a word for even that: ineffable.

Attempting to live principles like subsidiarity and solidarity is never easy. When we attempt it though, we often discover the reason it is always worth it. St. Peter's reached out to Notre Dame D'Altagrace on a very personal level. We forged ties that are now free to grow. Like the puffy white fair weather clouds that stretched along my route of flight, they may take what shape their Creator ordains. There is comfort in that, too.