Hebrew Rehabilitation Center has a large Haitian American staff that largely provide front line nursing care and food services for our residents and patients. Over the years I have gotten to know many of these staff members and shared good and challenging times together. I have not, however, learned enough about Haitian culture and religions, and so I jumped at the opportunity to be a visitor at a local Haitian Church.
I was invited by my friend and colleague Board Certified Chaplain Marie Philomene Pean to attend the Haitian Mass at the Immaculate Conception Parish Church in Everett, MA. The community was celebrating the Feast of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I was received as an honored guest. I was the only person present who did not speak Creole, and was seated next to Philomene by the alter in the sanctuary. The Psalm for this special day is Psalm 98, a psalm that is also part of Jewish Friday evening liturgy. During the service, after the choir sang a melody for the first words, I chanted the Hebrew and then the choir joined in again framing my words. The service was dramatic with the priest and two deacons seated behind the altar, the acolyte, and Philomene, the pastoral associate leader, on either side, and the altar boys, marking different parts of the service with incense and bells.
Early in the service, young girls in white dresses danced in front of the alter, a slow and sweet dance, asking God for mercy with graceful movement of feet and outreached arms. Mothers, fathers, and older family were glowing from the pews with pride and delight. Young boys came up to the front to read prayers for the people. Later in the service, older girls danced, this time with more dramatic movements, enacting Mary’s experience of the annunciation with rhythm and spirit.
It says in the bible that each person contributes to the sanctuary in his or her own way. A beautiful ritual of the offerings expressed this abundance with worshipers dancing slowly and with grace up the central aisle with the women carrying a basket of fruit and men carrying work tools, all offering and dedicating the work of their hands and their spirits to God. Later that same fruit basket was given to me, with generous spirit, as a gift from the congregation.
I had the opportunity toward the end of the service to greet and shake hands with each child and to say, “Shalom chaverim,” (Peace, my friends) and share my thanks with the congregation along with affirming how as Haitians and Jews, we stand together, equal in the eyes of God.
Our Haitian American staff provides loving care to elders each day at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, many of whom are Jewish, and many who come from diverse backgrounds. It is so important that we create opportunities to learn about each other, and in this way honor and strengthen our shared commitments.