Driven to help Haiti, engineer returns home, rebuilds churches

PETIONVILLE, Haiti — The beaming smile on Stephan Destin’s face said it all.

Destin was standing on the foundation of the new St. Theresa Church in this suburb of Port-au-Prince, watching dozens of construction workers on the job under a blazing midday sun.

“This is what it’s all about for you,” I said.

“It is,” Destin told me, his smile widening. “It is.”

In reality, working to better his country is what he’s always wanted to do.

Destin

Stephan Destin, director-general of the operations and construction unit of the Partnership for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Destin, 38, is director-general of the operations and construction unit of the Partnership for Church Reconstruction in Haiti, known by its Creole acronym as PROCHE. He said working for PROCHE is his way of giving back to his homeland.

Since joining PROCHE in November 2011, Destin has helped guide the reconstruction of churches, schools and convents. Eight projects have been completed and another 40 are in various stages of construction and planning.

“I must admit ever since I got here, it doesn’t feel like I’m working because this is what I enjoy doing, this is what I wanted to do. It fits in where I wanted to be,” he said during an interview in his office earlier in the day.

“Some days it’s just amazing the stuff that we accomplish,” he added. “It’s a privilege for me to play that role, to get the opportunity to build churches, the house of God, and to make a difference in society. This is one of the things that I wanted.”

Getting to this point took a while.

Inspired by his father, also an engineer, Destin enrolled in the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 1995. When he left for the U.S., his intention was to “come back to Haiti straight after that.”

But his engineering career unfolded and thoughts of returning to Haiti were put aside.

He eventually married his longtime girlfriend, Mathilde, after five years of long-distance dating, first when she lived in Los Angeles and in southern Florida. The couple settled in New York and later relocated to Florida. They now have two sons and a daughter.

The draw of Haiti welled up again in the Florida sun.

Then came Jan. 12, 2010, and Haiti’s massive earthquake. Destin returned home, leaving his family in Florida. He envisioned building a new community in the town of San Michel de L’Atalaye in central Haiti. It would welcome 5,000 displaced people from Port-au-Prince as well some of the poorest residents of the town. He said political “obstacles” caused him to abandon the project.

That’s when he heard about PROCHE. Clergy urged him to consider the position.

At first he hesitated. He was unsure he could work with bishops professionally because of his Catholic upbringing.

“Then I spoke with another bishop and he urged me to think of them as clients,” he said. “Fine, I could picture when they’re blessing me as a bishop, and when I’m not in church at Mass, they are a client.”

The rebuilding of Sacred Heart Church, which collapsed in the earthquake, is one in which Destin has taken particular pride. The landmark church in Port-au-Prince was where Destin made his first Communion and was confirmed.

Extreme charity: How beleaguered Syrian Christians are helping those who are ‘worse off’

The president of Caritas in Syria, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, is in Rome this week. Michelle Hough of Caritas Internationalis spoke with the bishop and she asked Catholic News Service to share with its readers his reflections that she wrote down and compiled about what the Syrian people are going through. 

By Bishop Antoine Audo 

ROME, Italy — Last year – 2014 – really was the hardest of all for those of all us who live in Aleppo. The level of destruction in the city reached its peak. Rockets were raining down on us, we often didn’t have electricity or water and the nights chilled us to the bone.

But we must avoid complaining. When I gave my homily at the beginning of Lent, I told people, “I really can’t talk to you about fasting as we’re always fasting. But you have to remember that there’s always someone worse off than you.”

We must focus on visiting the sick, elderly and lonely. As Caritas, we work on projects, but I’ve told the staff that we must personalize as much as possible what we’re doing and visit specific people every single day. It’s just like what Pope Francis says – we need to come out of ourselves and go to the existential peripheries.

syria camp turkey

Syrian refugees warm themselves around a fire Dec. 3, 2014 in Ankara, Turkey. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)

Caritas Syria is there to help all Syrians of all faiths across the country. We work in six regions: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Littoral, Horan and Jasiré. We help people through programs which provide food, medical assistance, educational support, help with paying rent, help of the elderly and counselling.

Not so long ago I came out of my house and there was a Muslim man sitting on the ground outside who had been helped by Caritas. He got to his feet and said, “We know who the Christians are, they are worth their weight in gold!”

Everyone keeps saying that the situation in Syria is like the ones in Lebanon and Iraq, that we need to wait a few years before the war stops. They say that there can be no military solution to the conflict and yet they continue to send arms and to train armed groups. There needs to be a political solution.

People believe because of Daesh and others that this is a Muslim-Christian war, but this isn’t true. Christians are respected by Muslims.

Young people in Syria need to be educated in peace so that they can build and defend it in an Arab and Muslim context. This means by not provoking or humiliating the Muslims and Arabs and by respecting others.

syria rubble

A boy carries belongings Nov. 17, 2014 as he walks on the rubble of damaged buildings in Aleppo, Syria. (CNS photo/Hosam Katan, Reuters)

This war has destroyed whole neighborhoods, without forgetting the booming industries that were in Syria and the farming. Half of Syria’s inhabitants are either internally displaced or are refugees. Eighty percent of the workforce doesn’t work. The rich have left, the middle class has become poor and the poor have become destitute. Many people have become poor and ill because of the insecurity and the near-destruction of the economy.

We are tired and enough really is enough. There is great sadness in Syria at what has happened. It’s difficult for me to think about the hopes for the future of the next generation of Syrians.

syria hug

Anaadi Ahmad, 24, from Babr Amr in Homs, Syria, holds one of her children in 2012 in a tent at an informal refugee camp in Al Four on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. (CNS photo/Sam Tarling, Catholic Relief Services)

However, we hope to one day build a real sense of citizenship based on the respect of human rights. When this happens, there must be a healthy distinction between politics and religion with religion not being used to the ends of political power.

Syria is a beautiful country with deep roots in history and humanity. It is a place where people of many religions and cultures can live together as a model of human rights and of civilization. It is a country I love.

audo

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, poses for a photo in Dublin Nov. 25, 2014. (CNS photo/Sarah MacDonald)

Bishop Audo was born in Aleppo in 1946 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1969. He was ordained a priest in 1979 and received his doctorate in contemporary Muslim political thought at the Sorbonne University, Paris. He also studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and was a professor at the University of St. Joseph, Kaslik, Lebanon. He was ordained Bishop of Aleppo in 1992. He is president of Caritas Syria and serves as a member of the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue, and Migrants and Travelers. 

 

Why rain in Spain is to blame for student’s new odyssey to Rome

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis released his annual message for World Youth Day last week, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience as a pilgrim four years ago. The trip was surreal. I had barely traveled anywhere in the United States on my own, and certainly had never been abroad. Yet, I refused to be held back by the fear of the unknown, so in the summer of 2011, I went along with Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald of my local Philadelphia Archdiocese to Madrid for World Youth Day. As a leader in an archdiocesan youth group, I was blessed enough to be chosen as one of five students to embark on the pilgrimage.

sanctuary of loyola spain

Villanova student and CNS intern, Elliot Williams, in front of the Sanctuary of Loyola in Azpeitia, Spain, in 2011, during World Youth Day celebrations. (CNS photo/Elliot Williams).

I kept a journal, took pictures, and reveled in the bliss of Europe as we traveled through Lourdes, France; Lisbon, Portugal and Burgos, Spain, visiting sites where the Blessed Mother appeared to those suffering from poverty and war. Throughout the 10-day excursion, we spent many hours listening to motivational speakers who spread messages of love, self-control, and the value of young lives — much like the message Pope Francis shared with the youth in preparation for WYD 2016, to be held in Krakow, Poland next summer.

Our trip culminated with a message from Pope Benedict XVI, which focused primarily on building faith. Four years later, the message from Pope Francis suggests a resemblance to the former, but centers mostly on the Beatitudes, and seeking happiness through the Lord. For those attending WYD in Krakow, this spiritual journey will be life changing, unprecedented for most young people, especially for those who have never seen the Holy Father speak in public before.

1storm wyd

An aide holds an umbrella for Pope Benedict XVI as rain and wind moves through the Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid during the World Youth Day vigil Aug. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I will never forget camping out on a massive lawn of soil with a sea of fellow pilgrims, and watching as the sky turned from a promising blue, to a menacing red, threatening to end the entire event. Pope Benedict XVI spoke for as long as he could before the wind and the rain made it nearly impossible for him to continue (or for his cap to stay on his head). The wild storm persisted, after temperatures had peaked in the 100s (Fahrenheit) a few hours earlier.

I hardly fell asleep that night. Scared, wet and confused, I laid cocooned in a sleeping bag as the pope’s words about remaining strong, despite the rain, churning in my head. After a long night, we awoke to an unexpectedly clear sky. I dare say it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Firefighters were circling the field, spraying pilgrims with refreshing water to keep us cool. Pope Benedict’s message about remaining firm in the faith was coming to life right before our eyes. The brightest days often come after the stormiest nights, right? Quite the cliché if you ask me. However, I believe that everyone who witnessed that fascinating event four years ago was profoundly impacted.

Now, a third-year student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, I am interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau, about a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. What can I say? I just can’t stay away from pontifical goings-on. I would be lying if I said that WYD 2011 isn’t the reason I’m sitting here in Rome, writing this post. Perhaps it is the beauty of Christ, which Pope Francis often speaks of, that so attracts me. Or maybe it is the delicious food that has brought me to Rome.

In either case, I believe the real answer can be found in the remarks of St. John Paul II — who created World Youth Day 30 years ago — spoken at WYD 2000, “It is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise.”

I urge those attending WYD 2016 to keep an open heart, to embrace the universal message of change that Pope Francis hopes to share, and in case there is a nasty thunderstorm… pack a poncho.

sunrise

The sun rises as pilgrims prepare for the final Mass of World Youth Day at Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid Aug. 21, 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.

Far from pulp fiction

tuscany-prize-23

Tuscany Press, a publisher of Catholic fiction, recently announced an increase in its Tuscany Prize money for Catholic novels, young adult novels and short stories. It’s not just the dough Tuscany’s offering, but a publishing contract as well.

The Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction is offering $5,000 for the first-place prize for a novel, $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third; all three winners will get a contract. The winner of the young adult novel competition will get $3,000 and a contract.

There will be 10 awards for short stories, ranging from $100 to $1,000, and each of the winning entries will be compiled into an anthology volume with an editor’s introduction and discussion questions. In all, Tuscany Press is handing out more than $13,000 in prize money to lucky — and talented — writers.

JOTHAMTuscany Press says is looking for “themes of faith and struggle, of grace and nature, atonement, courage redemption and hope.” As for the genre of fiction, it can be historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, humor or straight-up fiction. And if you’ve already self-published your work, that’s OK, too.

There’s a $10 entry fee, but that’s a relative pittance compared to the prize that can be won.

Tuscany Press held up as one example “The Book of Jotham” by Arthur Powers, which had been collecting dust for 20 years until it was submitted in Tuscany’s 2012 competition. Not only did it win and get published, but “The Book of Jotham” is now also available in Spanish.

A good place to start is to read the contest details. The deadline for submissions is June 30.

Film has limited engagement, but compelling subject matter

DROPbox1cropped

(Photo by David Kim/Copyright Kindred Image)

The movie is called “The Drop Box.” It’s a documentary, and it tells the story of a South Korean Protestant pastor who set up a “drop box” outside his church in the capital of Seoul to rescue babies who otherwise would be abandoned.

Many of the babies had disabilities. But the Los Angeles Times article that compelled Brian Ivie to make “The Drop Box” said that “to Pastor Lee Jong-rak, they are perfect. And they have found a home here at the ad hoc orphanage he runs with his wife and small staff.”

The subject matter is certainly compelling. It convinced Ivie to commit his life to Christ for the first time, according to a promotional announcement for the movie. “I saw all these kids come through this drop box with deformities and disabilities, and eventually — like a ‘heaven flash’ — I realized that I was one of those kids too,” Ivie said. “I have a crooked soul, all this brokenness inside, but God still wanted me.”

The goal of “The Drop Box” is not to correct and make up for every disability. It’s not even to find homes for all the babies abandoned at the church’s doorstep. It’s to create a society where such drop boxes aren’t even needed.

That may take quite some time. However, moviegoers’ ability to see “The Drop Box” is severely limited. It will be on select screens in the United States for only three days: Tuesday-Thursday, March 3-5. To find a Cineplex near you that’s showing the movie, enter your ZIP code at this link.

Lent goes high tech

Feeling a little fuzzy on the church’s guidelines on fasting and abstinence during Lent? Or feeling like you are the only one around that acknowledges the 40 days before Easter?

Well, smart phones, the Internet and all things social media are here to help.

Modern technology, hardly the bastion of all things spiritual, actually has plenty to offer. There are probably more websites, apps, blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages about Lent than there are pages in the old family Bible. There are plenty of communities too — with people posting pictures of themselves getting ashes using the aptly named hashtag — #ashtag — and posting recipes and new ideas on what to give up for Lent.

(CNS photo)

(CNS photo)

There are websites with prayers, readings and online retreats as well as apps with tips on how to say the rosary, make a better confession and get coaching support for giving things up.

For starters, check out USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, Our Sunday VisitorFOCUS or Food for the Poor’s Operation Starfish program. On Twitter, follow anything with #Lent or #AshWednesday. Pinterest has plenty of ideas on foods to eat, things to give up and Lenten crafts for kids to make.

(CNS photo)

(CNS photo)

Once people have a handle on Lent, they might then consider backing off from the Internet’s handy tools, because some have pointed out that fasting from technology, even one day a week, is a worthwhile sacrifice for Lent as a means to quiet one’s mind from constant distractions.

The scourge of payday lending

Payday lending really pulls in people who need help and feel they have nowhere else to turn.

The Rev. Lloyd Fields, pastor of Greater Gilgal Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, remembers when he turned to that  type of  financing.

Now 73 years old, he can remember a half-century ago when he was a married deacon with a wife and four children to support. He had a mentor in his denomination, another deacon, “If I ever needed anything, I could always go to Deacon Williams,” Rev. Fields recalled. “But after so many times going to him, I was embarrassed to go to Deacon Williams. So I went to the payday loan company.”

Fifty years later Rev. Fields cannot remember how much he needed, but it was for necessities. “I had a low-paying job and a family. I needed money to pay the light bill, the gas bill, to keep food in the house. And I didn’t have adequate credit to go to the upstanding loan companies.”

Rev. Fields can’t recall the interest rate he was charged. Not that it mattered at the time to him. “I didn’t know. I didn’t care,” he said. “It was the max. And I always had to borrow up to the max,” because as another two weeks passed, he didn’t have enough money to pay off the loan, not to mention the mounting interest.

The poor are the most vulnerable to payday lending schemes. (CNS/Reuters)

The poor are the most vulnerable to payday lending schemes. (CNS/Reuters)

For Rev. Fields, salvation came in the form of a better-paying government job. And with the job came the opportunity to join a credit union. When he went to the credit union, he got a bit of bad news: “They told me I had to be employed for six months before I could join,” he recalled. By this time, he had gone to a second payday loan company to pay off the first one.

But “the first day after the sixth month,” Rev. Fields returned to the credit union to join. He got a loan to consolidate his payday-lending debts, and the credit union “put me on a payroll deduction. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Another Kansas City resident, Elliott Clark of Christ the King Parish, told of his five-year struggle to pay off his payday loan in an op-ed article that appeared in the Kansas City Star. It can be read by going to

Rev. Fields, too, have never forgotten his payday-lending experience. He was involved in the unsuccessful 2012 effort to get a referendum on the Missouri ballot to put a 36 percent interest-rate ceiling on payday loans; the average interest rate in the state is 455 percent. “While we were fighting it, one young lady came to me and cried and almost apologized because she had to take out a payday loan while we were fighting the payday loan companies.” he said.

He said he told her not to be sorry. “It’s just not right for them (payday lenders) to charge enormous interest and fees to people who are just trying to make a life for themselves and their families,” Rev. Fields said. “This is ungodly. … I don’t mind you making a profit, but if you make it off the backs of people, it’s dishonest.”

With no lobbying restrictions in Missouri, and no limits on campaign contributions, Rev. Fields fears lawmakers won’t take action. He’s looking to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Board to set nationwide rules on payday lending.

Rev. Fields recalls when preachers “used to talk about taverns on every corner. Now we talk about payday loan companies on every corner.” He added that in Missouri, “there are more payday loan companies than McDonald’s, Wal-Marts and Starbucks combined. In fact, there are almost twice as many.”

Today’s borrowers are no different than he was in the 1960s. They don’t hear the interest rate being charged, and they don’t notice until it’s too late. “They get eaten up to death,” Rev. Fields said.

He plans to take part in a daylong training session Feb. 21 with about 50 others and sponsored by the Center for Responsible Lending to try to protect and inform others about payday loans.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 966 other followers