Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pastoral Visiting

One of the goals in my learning agreement involves learning about pastoral care in a rural setting. To that end and in order to introduce myself to the parish, I have spent four mornings doing housecalls. The first time, I went with Père Samuel, the parish priest and regional archdeacon, and a group of Lecteurs Laïques (lay leaders with responsibilities not unlike those of vocational deacons) as they brought communion to a number of sick or housebound parishioners following the regular 6AM Wednesday Eucharist. There was much singing of hymns during the visits. And can those lecteurs laïques pray! Wow. And everyone seems to have Psalm 23 memorized - but not the translation in the French BCP, of course! I will have to get moving on that myself now that I have the correct translation copied down. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to have been made to memorize the Lord’s Prayer in French by Mme Simmons, the French teacher at Bishop Dwenger High School many moons ago.

At one point, Père Samuel stayed behind with one lady who had some spiritual concerns she wanted to discuss privately, while the rest of us called on others in the neighborhood. It was deemed incorrect to visit only the two members of primary concern when there were others nearby. As the houses are quite close together and doors are left open when anyone is home, everyone could see and hear us as we moved from house to house; no secrets here! We were joined at one point by several turkeys, who seemed not at all worried about being stepped on; the goats, pigs, and cows were on long tethers from which they could graze or dig, so they didn’t follow us, nor did the few dogs we saw.

The second day of visits, I went with a young woman home from her university studies for the summer and a second older woman, both parishioners; a teenaged boy followed along, but I was never quite certain if he was coming along for fun or was somehow officially attached to the group, though I had not been introduced to him as such. Though I didn’t always understand him, he was delightful. He was thrilled to have his picture taken, as was his friend when we ran into him later on; a group of children on the following day, who ran to get their friends and encircled the porch where we were visiting, had the same reaction, along with more children last week – I may have to do a “take a picture of me!” post later on. They pointed out a few places around town as we passed them, such as the plant for processing sugar cane, which is grown locally along with corn, peas, and quite a variety of fruit.

This time I was on my own linguistically, unlike the first time when Père Samuel had done some explaining as we trekked between neighborhoods. I did a lot of smiling and nodding, although I am getting to the point where I understand much more of what is going on. We had a long visit seated on the porch of one parishioner, the wife of one of the lecteurs laïques who is on my parish lay committee (those who will be giving me feedback and evaluating me). We also visited a number of other parishioners and had some time for them to ask me questions and for some conversation. I’ve learned how to say in good Haitian Creole, “If you speak very slowly, I can understand a lot.” That’s a generous estimate of my linguistic ability, but other than the woman who took “dousman” in the sense of “softly” rather than “slowly” (I think it can mean both), it worked pretty well. I played it by ear in terms of praying or not praying at the end of the visits, which Père Samuel later said was the thing to do.

The last two days of pastoral visiting I did with a young lecteur laïque who has completed an undergraduate theology degree and may or may not look towards ordination. The visits with him had a different sensibility. He was much more directive about introducing me, about moving right along, and about my need to pray for blessing on each family and house and situation. The first day we did thirteen homes in four hours on foot, plus a lift back by jeep on the far end of the trek. I was so grateful to have a new wide-brimmed straw hat and the heavy duty hiking Mary Janes with the air holes sent by my friend Kim – the black flats I wear at home with my habit would last a week here. The second morning we agreed to do fewer visits, and we took the jeep because of the heavy rains the night before. Mud and mud puddles everywhere, given the lack of drainage and pavement, so it was a bit more of a challenge to move about. Also, we went much further afield. I was astonished that people go to church on foot from such distances. Obviously, sometimes they can’t get there, but often enough they do. I wonder how many Americans would go to such lengths to make it to church.

During this last visit, we stopped by a preschool (maybe early primary grades, too?) run by a very devoted parishioner, a choir member. The children, all in little yellow uniforms, were stepping in time to music in the yard. I’d heard there were dance classes at this school, but I was not sure if this were part of it or if they were practicing for their end-of-the-year ceremony. They were wide-eyed at seeing me, but all stayed in place. Very disciplined for such small children, I must say! I was impressed. And the lady we were visiting was very welcoming as well. I prayed for all the children and for the school as well as for her, needless to say.

What I would like to do on future visits is get back to the longer discussions from earlier visits. I did have one good, long visit with the woman who heads up the ECW equivalent here, a younger woman with much energy and enthusiasm who seems to be a great planner, but by then I was a bit wiped out, as it was the second to last visit before lunch. I need to learn when it is a good time to stay, and what the signal is that it is time to go. As social signals vary from place to place so significantly (even within the US, for that matter), I am having to rely almost entirely on my guides. I wonder if I will learn to discern the situation more clearly myself by the end of my time here.

In any case, I am learning a lot through these visits. I have not begun to process some of the poverty I have seen in the course of them, but I have also seen a spirit of resilience and a can-do attitude. I wonder how Americans would do if they needed to live without indoor plumbing or electricity, as some of the parishioners do, though certainly not all. And it is interesting what is possible and what is not: cell phones are everywhere, but not electricity or potable water. Even the rectory seems to have electricity quite irregularly, and it is one of the nicer homes around. I saw a child scooping water from a ditch into a bucket and hoped it was for the field nearby, but I have seen quite a number of people doing laundry in creeks. I also remember being particularly struck by one house, a tiny wooden structure which had the most carefully swept dirt yard I have ever seen. In some homes, on the other hand, I saw televisions and yard lights, small gated courtyards (ubiquitous here around sturdier houses for the sake of security), tiled floors, and interesting iron grillework. At some point I will have to write about the varieties of architecture. Meanwhile, I intend to spend more time praying and reflecting on what it means to live simply versus what absolutely should not be.

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