My people will not be forgotten

On Wednesday, I said a Requiem Mass for 14 of my parishioners at St. Jacques le Juste in Petion Ville, Haiti, who died in the earthquake on 12 January. I still don’t know who they are; I know only that 14 people, with whom I celebrated the Eucharist and life every week, are gone. I have been living with this painful unknowing for more than a week now, ever since I learned of their deaths. I have been living with the grief of not knowing the fate of more than 125 other friends. Are they alive? Did they survive? Are they injured, lost, alone? The unknown is frightful place to be, and it is where I, and so very many others, have lived for three long weeks now.

When a dear friend, The Rev. Larry Packard, rector of Good Shepherd in Burke, Va., learned about my parishioners’ deaths, he immediately offered me the pulpit and table. “You need this,” he said. “You need to do a Requiem for your parishioners, even if you don’t know who they are.” I accepted, with a trembling heart. We planned it for Wednesday, at the regular noonday service. I knew about it all week. I knew I needed to put together the service, to choose the hymns and the lessons, to prepare a sermon.

But every time I thought about it, tears welled in my heart and in my eyes. I wanted to say this Mass. I wanted to honor those who have died. I wanted so very much to be faithful. But the pain of this loss seemed too great. So I would approach it in my heart, then back away, approach again, draw back again … Finally, on Tuesday night, I realized: I couldn’t draw back any more. It was time to enter into the grief fully.

My friend and assistant, Matthew Lukens, helped me choose the readings, the prayers, even the music. I wanted something simple, with readings that addressed the grief, hymns that praised the Lord, prayers that wrapped all of those who died in God’s loving arms. I wanted Isaiah’s comfort “for those who mourn;” Paul’s profound statement of faith that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus;” John’s promise of a better dwelling place for my people. I chose hymns we sing in French at St. Jacques le Juste: I come with joy to meet my Lord; Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy; Humbly I adore thee.

Wednesday morning, it snowed in Northern Virginia. For a short time, I thought the service would be canceled, and a part of me drew back and said, “Good,” because I was afraid of this service, afraid of the pain. But then the sun came out and the snow started melting, I knew: We were going to pray for these people, for my people.

Taking my shower, I wept as the water splashed across my face. I begged God for the strength to do this, because even in my fear, I was determined – determined – that my friends, my people, were going to be honored. I may not know for whom I am praying, but God does. And God honors them. Ah, I thought, feeling a small sense of peace …

I changed the first reading to Ecclesiasticus: Let us now sing the praises of famous men … (who) made a name for themselves … Some of them have left behind a name, … but of others there is no memory; … But these also were godly men … their name lives on generation after generation. Even though I don’t know their names, God does, and their names live in God from generation to generation.

Almost as soon as I arrived at Good Shepherd for the service, I began to weep anew. Friends came and stood with me, hugging me quietly, sharing my pain, giving me strength. Standing at the back of the church, vested with a white stole, I sought comfort in the looming Good Shepherd stained-glass mosaic above the altar. This is the parish where I was ordained a priest, where I said my first Eucharist, where I baptized my first child, officiated at my first wedding, buried my first parishioner. At this altar, under this portrait of the loving God, I have found peace in the past, and I sought peace there this morning.

It was not an easy service. The readings pierced my heart, the hymns pierced my soul. I barely was able to read the Gospel; I wept throughout the sermon.

I don’t know, I said, if those we mourn this day are famous … was it Nancy, whose husband founded the symphony orchestra, or Ghislaine, who gave me my first French Bible, so that I could read the Gospel in French on Sundays? Or are those we mourn the little girls who helped me translate We Are Marching In The Light Of God into Creole, and then marched around the church with me, singing at the top of our lungs? I don’t know, I wept, but God does.

Paul got it right, I said. Every single Haitian I know is telling me: Nothing, not even this huge earthquake, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The faith is strong in Haiti, I said. I’ve never seen such a committed, joyful, open faith. The people know God has not abandoned them.

Most of my parishioners at St. Jacques are not poor, I said. But most of my friends on the street are. And those who died now have, for the first time in their lives, their own dwelling places, and they are magnificent places indeed. And I know that my friends, I said, are having one hell of a party in heaven right this second, secure in their new homes.

I had to stop numerous times. This wasn’t eloquence; it was, instead, heart-wrenching.  It was a cry from the depths of my soul for all the pain that has descended upon my adopted home of Haiti, for my adopted family there, for my friends, so many of whom are still missing to me, because I cannot locate them, have not heard from them. This was my way of honoring all that pain, of offering it up to God, because this pain is far too great a burden for me to carry alone.

I thanked all those who came to the service and told them: When I return to Haiti, I will celebrate another Requiem for my people there, and I will carry all of you with me in my heart, and at the table in the place where we became family, we will pray for our people, for our family, together. Thank you for being part of this pain.

After the prayers, we did the laying on of hands, Larry and I moving from parishioner to parishioner, saying the prayers over these hurting souls who needed healing for themselves. Afterward, I knelt in the same spot where I was ordained a priest in God’s one holy catholic apostolic church and wept again as all gathered around me to lay hands on and pray over me. At the peace, we all hugged, holding each other close, letting yet more tears fall.

The Eucharist was, I believe, the most intimate I ever have celebrated. I was surrounded by love and could feel the presence of those who, having reached the Omega of this life, have gone on to the Alpha of the rest of their lives. God’s marvelous peace, which indeed passes all understanding, embraced us.

For the past 12 years, ever since I was ordained, I have written the names of those whom I have buried in my Book of Common Prayer. Wednesday, I wrote, in big, bold black letters across the first page of the Burial Service: Requiem Mass for St. Jacques le Juste, 3 February 2010.

Then I took that tattered, well-traveled, falling apart, incredibly well-used prayerbook, which I have had for 18 years and which has traveled with me all over the world, and I retired it. I placed it in a box with the service bulletin for the Mass, and stored it away. It will be kept in a safe place, remembered and honored as my friends are remembered and honored. The entry for my parishioners, for my friends, for my people, is the last one I will make in it. It is one small way I can honor my people.

Out of the depths I have cried, and am crying, and will continue to cry …

My people will not be forgotten. Their names live on generation after generation, in my heart and in God’s.

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About Lauren Stanley

All my life, it seems, I’ve been on mission. And it’s all my mother’s fault. You see, when I was a child, my mother was adamant: We were to help those in need, those who had less than we did. We were to speak for those who could not speak, feed those who had no food, give water to those who were thirsty.

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