A reflection from Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, author of the hymn "In Haiti, There Is Anguish"

On January 12, when we started hearing reports about an earthquake in Haiti, my husband and co-pastor Bruce asked me if I would be writing a new hymn. I have written over 150 hymn texts to familiar hymn tunes, including ones following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and many others offering prayers for people in need. Bruce knew that I had traveled to Haiti years ago, and had been to its capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Beth Henderson and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, right, and Beth Henderson sort and pack CWS Hygiene Kits at the New Windsor Service Center in January.  Gillette's congregation has made three trips to the Service Center to sort kits since the earthquake hit Haiti.
Photo: Bruce Gillette

On January 12, when we started hearing reports about an earthquake in Haiti, my husband and co-pastor Bruce asked me if I would be writing a new hymn.  I have written over 150 hymn texts to familiar hymn tunes, including ones following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and many others offering prayers for people in need.  Bruce knew that I had traveled to Haiti years ago, and had been to its capital city of Port-au-Prince.
 
The day following the earthquake “In Haiti, There Is Anguish” was finished.   I wrote this hymn quickly, hoping that it could be used to encourage churches’ prayers for Haiti and support of the relief efforts there.  Bruce emailed the hymn to friends and we invited people to share it with others.   Relief agencies, including Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, shared the hymn with their networks.  A Google search for the hymn title showed it to be on 10,000 Internet sites less than one month after it was written.  The Internet is a wonderful way to share worship resources and to help churches respond in times of disaster.
 
I am grateful to God that I was able to write this hymn and that it is being shared so widely.  In a way, this hymn began 30 years ago, when I traveled to Haiti on a mission trip.  Haiti is a country that changed my life.  
When I was a sophomore at Lebanon Valley College, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with a group of students and one of our professors, Dr. L. Elbert Wethington.  We flew into Port-au-Prince and then spent a week on the island of La Gonave, Haiti, helping to repair houses.
 
One of the strongest memories I have from the trip is of seeing children who were clearly malnourished.  Once, as we were walking through the community, we saw a father take a machete and cut an ear of corn into five pieces.  He gave one-fifth of the ear of corn to each of his family members--and that was their meal.
 
While we were visiting that community, we worshiped with Christians in their local church.  One day we shared in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  When we went forward for communion, I heard the words, “The body of Christ, broken for you.”  I looked around at children, families, men and women, young and old, and I was reminded that those were my brothers and sisters in Christ.  We had come from such different backgrounds, but we were part of the family of faith, bound together by God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And I wondered:  Aren’t family members called to care for each other?  What was my responsibility to these members of the family of faith in Haiti?   
 
As we were leaving the community to take the boat ride back to the mainland and then travel to Port-au-Prince, a young mother came up to the members of our mission team.  Her three-year-old daughter, a little girl named Micheline, was there with her.   Micheline’s mother said urgently, “You take her with you.”  She told us that if Micheline stayed there, she might not survive.  The young woman said, “If you take her with you, she has a chance to live.”  Of course we could not take Micheline with us, but I will never forget the love of a mother for her child--love that would let a child go in order to save her.
 
Thirty years have passed, and I have not been back to Haiti, but that trip continues to change my understanding of what it means to be the church in the world.  It has made me ask important questions about living faithfully in this world:  How can we live more simply?  In what way is God calling us to ministries of caring for children in need?  How can we make sure that the songs we sing and the words we say in worship reflect Christ’s care for the poor and the outcast?
 
Church leaders--musicians, pastors, and others--have a wonderful call from God to help churches sing their love for God and also their love for neighbor (Jesus' two great commandments).  Many churches love to sing praise songs that emphasize the more “vertical” relationship we have with God.  Can we also find and use songs that help us sing our love and concern for neighbors in need?
 
Many of our hymns in worship are joyful ones, and rightly so.  Yet there are also times when we need songs of lament, following the example of the first songbook (Psalms).  Our songs need to raise the questions that people are asking as they react to the events of the world:  “In all the sorrow, pain and death, where are you, God of love?”  
 
Like the biblical laments, our songs need to affirm our faith that God is still present and loving:  “O God, you love your children; you hear each lifted prayer!”  They need to remind us that God does not abandon us:  “…That anywhere your world cries out, you’re there--and suffering, too.”  
 
Our songs need to nudge us to a greater sense of responsibility for brothers and sisters around the world:  “And may we see, in others’ pain, the cross we’re called to bear.”
 
The earthquake in Haiti is now seen as the worst natural disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere.  Because of this, I believe that loving our neighbors in Haiti means we need to live differently.  It cannot be possible for us to go about our lives as usual, with an occasional nod to the news reports or an occasional gift, given out of our excess, to the relief efforts.  Such a huge tragedy calls for a more ongoing response--one that requires personal discipline, continuing commitment, and sacrifice. What could this look like?
 
On a personal level, what about giving up buying new clothes for a year, and faithfully and prayerfully giving the money saved to help the church in Haiti?   Or what about making a commitment to learn about your denominational (or ecumenical) long-term mission workers serving in Haiti, and to pray for them daily?  What about finding new ways to “live simply, so that others may simply live”?
 
As leaders in churches, how can we help others express their love of neighbor through learning, service, worship and song?  
 
I am thankful for the rich and wonderful gift I received 30 years ago from the church in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  It was the gift of being reminded that every single person in this world is loved and cherished by God, and that God calls us to care for each other as neighbors.   
 
I do not know what happened to Micheline.  I do not know if she survived to adulthood.  But I wrote this hymn remembering her, and so many other children and families that I met in Haiti.  I wrote this hymn as a prayer for a people in desperate need right now.  I hope that our concern for the people of Haiti will not be a temporary one that fades when the news reporters drift away, but that it will be a lasting commitment to people who are our brothers and sisters given to us by God.  
 ____________

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is author of two Chorister Guild anthems, "We Thank You, God, for Teachers" and "Spirit of God," along with two collections of hymns, Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor  (Discipleship Resources - Upper Room Books, 2009) and Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today's Worship  (Geneva Press, 2000).  Many of Carolyn’s hymns are available at www.churchworldservice.org/hymns--including O God, You Send Us Out to Walk, a hymn of dedication for those participating in CROP Hunger Walks, and God, You Wrap Your Love Around Us, a hymn for Blanket Sundays.  A complete list of her 150+ hymns with a lectionary index can be found at www.carolynshymns.com.  Carolyn and her husband, Bruce Gillette, are co-pastors of Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.  This article is adapted with permission from the April/May 2010 issue of The Chorister, a publication of the Choristers Guild.
 
 
                 In Haiti, There Is Anguish  
    ST. CHRISTOPHER  7.6.8.6.8.6.8.6 (“Beneath the Cross of Jesus”)
 
In Haiti, there is anguish that seems too much to bear;
A land so used to sorrow now knows even more despair.
From city streets, the cries of grief rise up to hills above;
In all the sorrow, pain and death, where are you, God of love?
 
A woman sifts through rubble, a man has lost his home,
A hungry, orphaned toddler sobs, for she is now alone.
Where are you, Lord, when thousands die—the rich, the poorest poor?
Were you the very first to cry for all that is no more?
 
O God, you love your children; you hear each lifted prayer!
May all who suffer in that land know you are present there.
In moments of compassion shown, in simple acts of grace,
May those in pain find healing balm, and know your love’s embrace.
 
Where are you in the anguish?   Lord, may we hear anew
That anywhere your world cries out, you’re there-- and suffering, too.
And may we see, in others’ pain, the cross we’re called to bear;
Send out your church in Jesus’ name to pray, to serve, to share.
 
Tune:  Frederick Charles Maker, 1881
Text:  Text: Copyright © 2010 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.  All rights reserved. bcgillette@comcast.net
Permission is given for use by those who support Church World Service.

See also a version with music, posted by the UMC Worship Office.

More stories, video and other resources on the CWS response in Haiti>>
 

 

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