talks by Haitian Human Rights Activists
July 2, 2007 Immaculate
Conception Cathedral 7pm
July 3, 2007 Church of the Holy Spirit
Against a chaotic backdrop of unabated violence, desperate poverty, political corruption and horrendous hunger, hope in the island nation of Haiti is a precious commodity. But Jr. St. Vil and Daniel Tillias of Pax Christi Haiti set out this summer to explain to audiences in the United States how they are “Seeding Hope in Haiti” through their prayers and a determined effort to bring an end to the rampant violence that has held a grip on their country for so long.
In a pair of Memphis appearances last week – the
first at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Monday followed
by their talk at Church of the Holy Spirit on Tuesday, St. Vil and
Tillias laid out a brief history of their native land, and explained, as
best they could, how “… violence becomes the way” in a country where
political upheaval brings to power a new regime every few years.
Spanish explorers forced change upon the native culture when Europeans “discovered” the Caribbean Islands hundreds of years ago, followed by the enslavement of the people and exploitation of their land, explained Tillias, Pax Christi Haiti’s Program Director. Although slavery was officially abolished when independence was gained in 1804, modern dictators and puppet leaders have offered little opportunity to escape the cruel poverty there.
From 1957 through 1986, the Duvalier regime ruled over a Haiti that had become isolated and turbulent. Elections were rigged, votes were challenged, members of the clergy were harassed and the constitution amended to satisfy the whims of the leadership. “Lots of people were murdered,” Tillias pointed out.
Even after Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled the country in 1986; the people of Haiti remained unemployed and impoverished.
“Different coups leave people with no job,” Tillias continued. Political instability leads to violence. People are killed for their political beliefs. 5000 people died in the street in September of 1991. Imagine children seeing decapitated bodies in the streets on their way to school in the morning. This spreads to their families, their schoolmates, and eventually the violence spreads to their husbands and wives. Violence becomes the way.”
Jr. St. Vil related his own terrifying tale of the kidnapping of his wife last March. Mrs. St. Vil was abducted while riding public transportation and held captive for two days while her kidnappers demanded 60 thousand dollars ransom. St. Vil could raise only ten thousand, but was able to negotiate her release.
“Thankfully she was released unharmed,” St. Vil said with obvious relief. “That is very rare. Normally kidnapping victims are physically abused or killed. We were very lucky,”
In a televised interview on WREG’s Live at 9 program
last Tuesday, St. Vil told hosts Alex Coleman and Mary Beth Conley that
he called the police and filed a report about his wife’s kidnapping.
“They responded eight days later,” he said. The kidnappers, he explained
were teenage boys with powerful weapons. “One of the boys was 16,” he
explained, “and kidnapping was the only job he had ever had.”
St. Vil, who is Pax Christi Haiti’s president, stated that despite the frightening experience, his wife “… is becoming more involved in work for peace and economic justice.”
In such bleak circumstances, that work would seem insurmountable to most people, but St. Vil and Tillias have devised ways to “seed hope” in Haiti. “Tap- taps”, elaborately decorated trucks, buses and vans that operate as taxis, carry messages that are seen by thousands of Haitians each day. Their name is derived from passengers who must “tap” on the window to signal a stop.
“Young people know who Michael Jordan is,” explained Tillias, “and they know all about Britney Spears because of the pictures they see on the tap-taps. But they do not know about Martin Luther King or Gandhi. St. Vil and Tillias said they communicate messages of peace and non-violence through the use of bumper stickers and signs on the “tap-taps”.
The duo also related success with youth soccer programs. The sport, which is very popular in Haiti, can sometimes have violent overtones, especially when competition becomes fierce. Pax Christi Haiti will clothe players in uniforms with peaceful and non-violent messages, and reward players when they demonstrate good sportsmanship and kindness toward their competitors.
St. Vil and Tillias also encouraged everyone they spoke with to contact their legislators to support debt relief for Haiti. A bill is currently pending in congress calling upon the World Bank and other financial institutions to cancel the massive burden of 1.4 billion dollars, most of which was contracted under 30 years of the Duvalier regimes. Haiti is considered to be the most impoverished country in the Western hemisphere. Both speakers expressed the belief that it is unfair for the people of Haiti to shoulder such debt when they received so little benefit of the funds because of the greed of their leaders.
“Haiti is in need of investment, education, healthcare and food,” Tillias pleaded. “Haitian debt relief will help us fight gangs, drugs and violence in our country.”
July 25th is Call-In Day for Haiti, and Americans are asked to contact their legislators on that day to urge them to vote for debt relief.
Pax Christi Haiti was established in Haiti 10 years ago. One of its founders, Claudette Antoine Werleigh, has been designated new Secretary General of Pax Christi International and will take office in November 2007. She was Haiti’s Prime Minister in 1995-96.
Jr. St. Vil reinvigorated Pax Christi seven years ago and continues the struggle to spread the message of non-violence there.
“It’s different there,” he explained. “We can’t send out invitations that read ‘please attend a meeting and make a donation’. To get people to our meetings we must say food will be served. And we can’t put the food out at the beginning of the meeting as you have done tonight. We must offer it at the end.”
Although his remarks brought chuckles, they also served as a painful reminder of the hunger and desperation of the Haitian people.
Tillias reiterated the difficulty in teaching non-violent ways to people in such difficult circumstances.
“It is very challenging to talk peace with people making $300 a year. Only 40 percent have access to water, and in the countryside 85% have no access to clean water.”
To offer support for the efforts of Pax Christi Haiti, interested parties may contact Marvin Alexander with Pax Christi USA at 814-453-4955 ext. 228 or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pax Christi Memphis, Emmanuel House and The Memphis School of Servant Leadership sponsored the Memphis stop on the Seeding Hope in Haiti speaking tour.
News release prepared by Paul Crum, Pax Christi Memphis