For the past few months something has been going on inside of me (spiritually, not physically). I’ve been struggling to discern if God is calling me to a new form of ministry in Haiti…or if I am just growing weary of the tedious administrative and technical work associated with the filmmaking part of Pax et Bonum Communications. This year as we worked on the completion of the epic film on the life and spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi we have been besieged by an endless stream of technical problems which, besides costing a month’s worth of unproductive days, forced me to dip deeply into our operating budget to correct the problems, to the point where we do not have the funds in the bank to make it to the end of the year. Computers and software needed for editing become obsolete so quickly a humble, underfunded operation like mine can’t keep up with it. Thankfully, a large unexpected gift from someone I did not even know covered the cost of completing the film, which will be released in mid-September. The film is titled The Loneliness and Longing of St. Francis of Assisi.
Starting an outreach to the poor in Haiti was, in hindsight, a pretty bold, daring idea. Back in January when I had the inspiration to do more than merely put the power of film at service of the poor but to actually begin to serve the poor in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, I really had no inkling of the complexity of launching a project aimed at simply providing poor kids in Haiti a safe and creative place to spend the day. It was nonetheless easy to talk about it in the abstract. It sounded like a good idea, and I received lots of positive feedback about it when I began to tentatively voice the concept to friends and supporters. I was really surprised by the instant and enthusiastic support for the creation of the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. Suddenly I was confronted with the job of converting the dream into reality. I really wasn’t sure if I could actually give up the comfort of my modest rented home in Burbank and live in Haiti amongst all its chronic poverty and widespread violence. Could actually do it…that is, could I essentially turn my back on my nice, settled life in Burbank, California and eventually move to the unsettled chaos of Haiti? I wasn’t sure. In order to be sure, I knew I needed to go spend a little time in Haiti…and see how I felt about it.
So our first trip in May was simply to put our toes in the water and see if we could really make such a drastic change in our lives. I needed to know if I could, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, actually end my days on earth in this most inhospitable of places amidst the widespread suffering and destitution. I admit I was a bit overwhelmed at being back in Haiti and seeing close up the heartbreaking levels of poverty endured by so many people…especially the children. Nothing is easy in Haiti. For the poor, every day is a struggle for survival. I saw how starting a day care center from scratch would be a herculean task that would require a lot of money, a lot of patience, and a lot of hard work. While the dream of establishing the Santa Chiara Children’s Center seemed a bit daunting, we nonetheless felt we should keep moving forward, a step at a time, and see where it led, to see if the inevitable obstacles could be overcome. To be honest, as the trip drew to a close, I really wasn’t sure. But one thing was clear: we would need to make many trips to Haiti, which in turn meant we could not afford to stay in a hotel during all the subsequent trips that would be required to do the research and find a building.
So, during our June trip, we set out to find a cheap place to live. And we did. Actually Ecarlatte found a modest place in a very poor neighborhood. When I saw it, I initially had a great resistance to it. It was literally in a slum. St. Francis would have been right at home there, but I was very nervous just walking down the long, twisting, narrow alley to the building. It seemed like a dangerous place, especially for a white guy, the only white guy living there. I felt very vulnerable. I didn’t think I could live there. But Ecarlatte was so certain about the apartment, we went ahead and signed a one-year lease, even though I had some reservations about it. The rent came to $233 a month…and a dozen friends each covered one-month’s rent, which we had to pay in advance, a total of $2,800 for the entire year. We suddenly had a home in Haiti. The building itself was a step above all the other dwellings in the slum, and the owner actually lived in the building on the first floor, which made it feel a bit safer.
Day by day during the July trip, my anxiety and fears began to subside and I was beginning to feel as if I might be able to someday live fulltime in Haiti. People living near us where actually nice to me…and more than a bit curious why I would elect to live in such a poor place. I adjusted rather quickly to living in the slum. I confess it was harder to get used to the noise, the smell of the garbage and open sewers, the daily invasion of flies, ants, and other creepy insects, not having hot water, and the fact that the electricity went out at least once a day for about an hour or so. But even those petty annoyances were greatly overshadowed by the sheer joy of living a really simple, basic life, as we began to care for Baby. This little girl made me really smile for the first time in a long time.
Still the challenges we faced in opening the children’s center seemed rather daunting, and there was no clear way forward. We just had to keep taking baby steps forward in the direction that seemed most plausible. After my third trip to Haiti (May, June, & July), something was beginning to happen to me. Suddenly, I was losing interest in making films, and even writing books…all I could think about was the children of Haiti. The question evolved from “could I live in Haiti” to “how soon could I live in Haiti.” Still, there were lots of practical things to take into account. It seemed prudent to spend more time in Haiti, but still keep our presence in California, where I have all the infra-structure we still needed. We found a building that would make the perfect permanent home for the center, and it would be available in next Spring. I felt I had until then to not only raise the $10,000 rent for the year (which had to be paid in full before we could occupy the building), but we also had to continue to make trips to Haiti to mingle with the people we hoped to serve, and to explore all the options and possibilities for the kinds of services we would offer. While I was concerned about all the money we would need to raise (the 10K just got us the building, but equipment, supplies, and Haitian staff would also require funding), I was more concerned about truly discerning if this was God’s will for me. This was a huge step into the unknown. A few days ago I received an unexpected large donation for a Franciscan sister who heard me speak at an event last year. Before this generous donation arrived, seemingly from out of the blue, our Santa Chiara account had less than $1,000 in it, barely enough to cover the cost of one flight from Los Angeles to Port-au-Prince. Suddenly, I had the funding to keep going. I really felt it was a sign from God that this was the right thing for me to be doing and that I needed to keeping moving forward and trusting fully that God’s grace would take care of everything.
During our first three trips, I clearly saw Ecarlatte’s true concern for the children and her passion to help them find a pathway to a better life. Ecarlatte has escaped the misery that blankets Haiti. She has made it to the Promised Land. Life in Burbank has everything. She is going to school to learn English, selling her art, making new friends, singing in the church choir, and can actually drive to a supermarket. Yet she is willing to walk away from it and return to the troubled island of agony. These past two weeks while she has been in Haiti caring for Baby during and after the surgery, I was stuck here in Burbank because I had to work on the Francis film, prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement in Delaware before 500 Catholic school teachers and administrators, and complete the revised manuscript for the new, updated edition of The Sun & Moon Over Assisi which will be published in September…and I did not want to do any of it. All I wanted was to be in Haiti with Ecarlatte and Baby. Suddenly the Francis film and the Francis book really were not that important to me…or at least not nearly as important as Ecarlatte and Baby and our mission in Haiti. Last week a publisher wrote to me and invited me to submit a manuscript for their consideration. Normally this would have been a very exciting message to receive. But I instantly knew that my focus was now on Haiti and I really didn’t have the time to submit something to them. I knew in that moment, that something real was happening inside me…that I was about to make a radical break from the past.
While the Santa Chiara Children’s Center is a long way from becoming operational, it is already informally functioning out of our apartment. While Ecarlatte is in Haiti caring for Baby after her kidney surgery, she is feeding and clothing kids in the slum where we live. Ecarlatte has also rescued a three-year-old homeless girl named Christella who is living in the apartment. The dream is already, by God’s boundless grace, coming to life…and it is very exciting. Your support is greatly appreciated.
One final thought about the filmmaking dimension of Pax et Bonum Communications. It seems clear that in the not too distant future, I’m going to suspend the filmmaking portion of the ministry. It is not clear when this will happen. Meanwhile, once the new documentary on the life and spiritually of the saint who inspires and guides my life and ministry is completed, we will begin work on a new film that will utilize footage and photographs from my 22 films, including lots of material that has never been seen before. The film will require no new production work. It will be titled One Family. The film will be a visual meditation on global poverty. It will be an invitation to put aside the normal things of your life and spend some quiet time observing the life of some of the poorest members of your family…and contemplate how you personally might respond to their dreadful plight. It is an invitation to be still…and allow God to touch your heart so you can hold the hands of the chronically poor you will encounter if you look. After this film has been manufactured, I will more than likely cease all filming, except for short, promotional videos featuring the mission of the Santa Chiara Children’s Center and perhaps for other ministries working in Haiti. The other essential component of Pax et Bonum Communications, namely my giving free “poverty and prayer” presentations at high schools, colleges, and churches will go on unabated and even with renewed energy for being a prophetic voice speaking out on behalf of the chronically poor and marginalized, shining the light of the gospel into what Pope Francis has called “the existential peripheries” of our time.
I urge you to order the revised, updated edition of The Sun & Moon Over Assisi from Tau Publishing (www.TauPublishing.com), and to also order from us the new film on St. Francis, The Loneliness and Longing of St. Francis of Assisi, which I think is the crown jewel of my working life (www.PaxEtBonumComm.org).