On That Day Everybody Ate

S.O.S. to the World

“Two hours after the service began, it concluded with a prayer to Saint Jude, the patron saint of desperate situations. When things are at their worst, it is St. Jude you pray to, hoping that together with Jesus, he will make the impossible possible,” writes Margaret Trost in Part I of her book On That Day, Everybody Ate: One Woman’s Story of Hope and Possibility in Haiti.

“The smiles on the faces of the children in anticipation of the prayer showed that this was a favorite part of the service,” she continues, describing the Catholic priest’s “deep, powerful voice” announcing the lines of the prayer, to which the congregation repeat “with equal intensity… their eyes closed and arms outstretched, praying with all their might.”

St. Jude!/Pwoblèm nou grav! (We have a serious problem!)/ St. Jude!/Pa bliye peyi nou, St. Jude (Don’t forget our country, St. Jude)/Pa bliye pèp Ayisien, St. Jude (Don’t’ forget the Haitian people, St. Jude)/St. Jude, osekou!

Trost inquires of an elderly woman as to “the meaning of the prayer’s final word, oseku. The passion with which it was said made me wonder. She looked into my eyes, lifted her finger, and drew three letters in the air: S … O … S.”

The first invitation Trost received to participate in a “reverse mission” (where the transformation of the missionary surpasses that of the people they help) came via a friend of her father’s, Bryan Sirchio, in the spring of 1999. In her early 30s, rearing her young son Luke while reeling from the grief of losing her husband to a sudden heart attack, she writes, “my response took less than a second. It was one of those times when my heart spoke before my mind had time to catch up.”

Shocked by what she found in Haiti upon her arrival—later contrasted against the return to consumer-crazy American life, and to the formation of the What If? Foundation, dedicated to providing food and education to Haitian children—she describes poverty so entrenched, the scene is not far removed from the post-earthquake devastation of today.

“I was afraid, overwhelmed by the mass of people that surrounded me, the smell of burning garbage, the heat,” she writes. “The roads were treacherous. Giant potholes, open sewers, boulders, no traffic lights or sidewalks—I’d never seen anything like it… Four and a half million people—more than half the population—live on less than $1 per day. Safe drinking water is not regularly accessible to over a third of the population. The countryside is 97 percent deforested. Haiti has a 70 percent unemployment rate, a 50 percent literacy rate and the worst health statistics in the Western world.”

The heart-wrenching facts are undeniable, but it’s in Trost’s person-to-person accounts—beginning with volunteering at the Port-au-Prince Home for the Destitute and Dying—where her gift for writing, and the power of the story she has to tell, blooms.

And yet Trost’s work is free of flowery excess. Her well-written accounts are simple and compelling. The reader can’t help but be deeply moved by the story of the woman with a skin disease, wrapped in the butterfly-printed sheet, writhing with wet eyes as her skin peels raw. Or the naked child, hair in pigtails, traipsing outside with a bowl of urine to dispose of. Or, especially, of Father Gèrard Jean-Juste (lovingly referred to as “Fr. Gerry”), who leads the St. Clare congregation’s hopeful, powerful mission.

It is with pride that Mauians can say this timely must-read was published locally, by Koa Books of Kihei (in the acknowledgements, Trost thanks founder and publisher Arnie Kotler “for his belief in the book and giving it flight”). And readers anywhere can it can take inspiration in the book’s closing lines—a message that even in the most desperate times and situations “there is always the opportunity to act and make a difference. There is always hope. Little by little!” Trost’s story of the people of Haiti is hers, theirs and ours, and it resonates genuinely—now, more than ever. – MauiTime, Anu Yagi

For more information about the What If? Foundation or to make a donation, please visit whatiffoundation.org or write to What If? Foundation, 1563 Solano avenue #192, Berkeley, CA, 94707