ROGERS — As the humanitarian crisis wears on in Haiti, those who call the country home find the situation frustrating, but all too familiar.
Father Rodolphe Balthazar personally experienced the crippling challenges of the current circumstances while trying to leave his country in October for his new assignment as associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.
Understanding the past is helpful for understanding the present, Father Balthazar said. Haiti, first founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, has endured both the leadership of numerous self-serving governments and the ravaging effects of nature.
Neither party has been kind to the country and its people. Even as late as 1956, when Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” overthrew the government and later proclaimed himself president-for-life, Haiti has been an island of political discontent.
“The situation is very complicated,” Father Balthazar said. “There is no current dialogue between the opposition party and the president.”
Haiti and its people have waited decades for real change. In 2004, a celebration marking 200 years of independence sparked an uprising against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Months later, the country was victim to a devastating flood, killing 2,000 people. And then in January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed 300,000 people. More than $5 billion was pledged for reconstruction in the country from other nations; however, recovery for the country has been sluggish and all but obstructed in some areas.
The continuing deterioration of living conditions has only exacerbated an already weak infrastructure and fractured government, and in recent months spawned renewed opposition.
So when Father Balthazar, a native of Haiti, began his journey to Arkansas it was one of many starts and stops.
“I had to travel by motorcycle because that was the easiest way to get through the barricades,” he said. “I traveled with only my laptop, stopping at about 10 makeshift barricades set up by various gangs in the country. It was very stressful.”
Father Balthazar, appointed to serve at St. Vincent de Paul Parish by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, arrived in Rogers at the end of October.
“The poor always suffer,” he said of the current state of affairs, “I pray every day for the well-being of the people.”
The parish where Father Balthazar served, St. Francis of Assisi Parish located in Bombardopolis, is the sister parish of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. Their relationship began a decade ago with the help of Father Balthazar. After serving in Bombardopolis as pastor and seeing the poor, he helped facilitate a relationship through Father Rick Nagel, then a seminarian, and other priests and seminarians who visited and saw the need of the people there in the village. After several trips to Haiti, it was determined that donations would best be used to build a school. Now, that school is considered the best high school in the area, boasting a nutrition program, certified teachers and a computer program.
Because of the relationship with the sister parish in Bombardopolis, Father Balthazar had visited St. Vincent de Paul several times over the years. In 2018, he visited Rogers and stayed for six months. Early in 2019, Father Balthazar was given approval to receive an appointment from Bishop Taylor to serve in the Diocese of Little Rock for five years.
Ronnie Hoyt, parish manager of St. Vincent de Paul, has been involved with St. Francis of Assisi for many years, and he said monetary support is given for 2,500 students in kindergarten to sixth grade, but there is only one central high school in the area with 120 students. Donations from Rogers are focused on supporting the high school.
“Only the top students make it to the high school,” Hoyt said. “Five of our graduates are being paid to go to college in Haiti. We are responsible for teacher salaries, school supplies, the hot lunch program and uniforms and have a monthly commitment for these items.”
“Our biggest service is to continue to provide support and maintain their operating costs,” said Hoyt of the school. “We want to ensure that students have food, supplies, teachers and remain open.”
Both Hoyt and Father Balthazar said the majority of the unrest Haiti is experiencing is in the larger cities. Because of the school’s location in the northern mountainous region, it has not been as affected and has remained open and operable.
“The village is protected because of location. There are no roads and there is no highway, so there is very little government representation,” Hoyt said. “We have understood that due to the civil unrest, there has been inflation for the cost of fuel, but there is food and there is water. Our increased support will help offset those costs.”
Hoyt said a team of five or more people normally visit the Haitian parish each year to bring supplies and to serve and the group has plans to return this spring.
“I encourage those I know to work for peace in Haiti,” Father Balthazar said. “We have to work for stability. If we are divided, we kill the hope of the people.”
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