The smiles of Laudato Si’

Work at an HIV orphanage in Haiti helps everyone learn the joy of the Gospel

While much of the world was busy last month talking about Laudato Si’, two students from Providence College—along with friends and family—were living its lessons.

Nick Hunsaker of Guilford, Connecticut, and Connor Bubulo of New York are transitional juniors at Providence College. They were students in a sustainability course I helped teach last semester. It was evident early in the course that these young men were leaders.

And they certainly showed it these past weeks.

Nick and Connor led a ten-day working visit to La Maison l'Arc-en-Ciel orphanage in Haiti. They organized the trip keeping in mind the orphanage’s long-term goals: to make it fully self-sustainable and eventually creating a supplemental revenue so the orphanage can expand its efforts and buildings to house more at-risk children.

That was the business plan. But as time went on these students and their companions benefited as much as they helped—in fact, probably more so.

Nick’s home parish, St. George’s in Guilford, has for some time been assisting La Maison l’Arc-en-Ciel orphanage. In January Nick enlisted his friend Connor to help. The goals were to meet objectives for a class project and, more importantly, to further their life’s work.

La Maison l’Arc-en-Ceil has been in operation since the late 1980s. Today it serves some 34 orphans that have been affected by HIV—from infants to young adults. The orphanage's founder and leader, Danielle Reid Penette, makes sure the children say grace before meals and that they receive a formal education or skills in a trade so that they can support themselves as adults.

Funding has been tight recently since a Red Cross scandal reduced the desire to donate to that organization, which is the orphanage’s largest source of funds.

With this situation partly in mind, Nick and Connor opted to help La Maison l’Arc-en-Ceil by stretching and even growing its finances with improved sustainability practices—such as better agricultural methods, protective structures for livestock, improved irrigation and water storage, and the addition of bee hives and composting.

As the visitors hammed, dug, built, and taught—thanks to the expertise of builders, like Connor’s dad, Mike, as well as master gardeners and bee keepers—there was another kind of sustainability project taking place.

This was the unseen kind at the heart of Pope Francis's eco-encyclical Laudato Si’.

As the hot days came and went, relationships grew even if language barriers persisted. No matter, soon the only languages needed were those of smiles, embraces, and laughter. These broke barriers and built trust and comradery.

As orphans learned about the care of strangers—as well as how to use tools and other skills—they taught their guests about being content—even happy—without incessant consumption and material trappings.

Nick said he now gets frustrated when he hears people here in the States—himself included—complain about First-World problems considering how happy the orphans at La Maison l’Arc-en-Ciel could be.

Nick, Connor, and others made a trip into Port-au-Prince on Saturday night to visit an upscale night club. The ride back along unlit roads (in a car that had poor headlights) was another reminder of the distance between those of wealth and those without—although depending on what you consider wealth, the drive back to La Maison l’Arc-en-Ceil led to the world’s real treasure.

Sunday Mass included First Communion for about a dozen local children. The simple and worn clothes of everyday life were replaced with the starched whites of everyone’s Sunday best—and a liturgy at least twice as long and lively as what most of us experience in the frenzied “let’s get this over with” United States.

There were some frustrations, of course. Not the least of which was a rather troubling bought of air sickness during the flight in to Haiti. Then there was the Starburst candy wrappers. Nick had a heck of a time teaching the children that the wrappers had to be properly disposed of, not thrown on the ground.

There’s also some concern about the composting operation. Nick wonders if it will continue without trash being mixed in to the food waste. (In effect, he worries now the same way as does a guest speaker to our class last semester; she oversees recycling operations in Rhode Island and spends lots of time educating people how to recycle correctly.)

To keep tabs on things, Nick and Connor are planning regular Skype calls. They’re also organizing a return trip during the Christmas break to continue the work of sustainability.

But the better reason to go back is to see old friends—the adults and young people that have overcome so many adversities thanks in large part to Danielle, her staff, and the mission of La Maison l’Arc-en-Ceil.

Nick is spending his summer here in Providence. He’s giving up a summer job to take care of the behind-the-scenes work of helping La Maison l’Arc-en-Ceil. This includes setting up a non-profit organization and reaching out to locals who want to help.

The other day I took Nick to an Asian restaurant for lunch. We spoke more about his work and experiences. Listening to him, you can tell this young man is a person of faith and that he’s involved for all the right reasons. And as if he didn’t know this already, his fortune cookie said in six words what Laudato Si’ teaches—and what Nick, Connor, and everyone else learned time and again last month.

If you just show up and help out, “You never know who you touch.”

Photo compliments of Nick Hunsaker, fourth in from the left in back row (in hat). Connor is second from the left with his dad to his right. Video courtesy of Josh O'Hara.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.