Christian charity in Haiti is the Jewish thing to do

Dona is a 14-year-old boy in Port-au-Prince. When his mother was pregnant with him, she hid in fear from his father. In time, he found her and insisted she have an abortion. She refused. They fought, and she ran. 

After Dona was born, his father eventually found them both and beat the boy daily, until he finally threw him onto the street. Dona ended up in a forsaken section of Port-au-Prince at the Have Faith Haiti orphanage — a place for lost and abandoned children in one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The plight of Dona, an exceptionally sweet soul who now speaks beautiful English and goes to one of Haiti’s top schools, is hardly unique. Most of the children at Have Faith Haiti are orphans, but, like Dona, some have parents who, out of despair perhaps, or indifference, left them outside the orphanage when they were very young. Spending time with these children is different from working with disadvantaged youth in the United States. For the orphans at Have Faith are, in a very real sense, the lucky ones.

Driving through Haiti is a bumpy, sweltering tour of hell. The tent cities hastily constructed after the earthquake one year ago began as decrepit and have deteriorated.  Stagnant pools where pigs root and dogs defecate are also where children bathe and cholera spreads. Piles of fetid garbage are the second-most-common sight, next to rubble. It was into the midst of this almost unimaginable devastation that I flew last week to witness something extraordinary.

Thirty years ago, this mission (the workers and children prefer “mission” to “orphanage” but use both) was created by Detroit pastor John Hearn. After the earthquake, Pastor Hearn was a guest on Mitch Albom’s radio show.  Hearn was heartbroken. The orphanage buildings, cracked and aging, had somehow survived the quake, but the mission had no money and nowhere to turn in a country where the needs were so overwhelming. Mitch, a nationally known talk-show host, sports reporter and internationally best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and other works, thought he might be able to help.

Shortly after the quake, Mitch traveled together with childhood friend Marc Rosenthal and college roommate Mark Mendelssohn to see the orphanage. These three Jewish friends saw a place that, never in good shape from its first day,  had deteriorated tremendously. They saw the wreckage — and met the children.

And they began to build. Funded by donations in Detroit and Mitch’s own A Hole in the Roof Foundation, plans were laid for a new school building. Old, moldy floors were ripped up and foundations reinforced. With each new step, more possibilities presented themselves. There was an enormous amount to do if these children were to be given a chance.

I was there for three days, and the day I left, slats were being delivered for the children’s new beds. The new beds (as opposed to the rotting old mattresses and rusted bedsprings they had been sleeping on) were to be put inside. Since the quake, the children had been afraid to sleep inside — instead, they huddled together on a small porch. So Mitch proposed a trade: “If we get new beds, you have to sleep inside — deal?” Mitch said in one of his nightly inspirational and instructional talks. “Is that good?” “Yes!” they said in chorus, despite their persistent fear that the roof would fall on top of them.

That same talk introduced something else unprecedented in their lives: lunch. Mitch explained the idea as the children listened, rapt and curious. “You should be eating three times a day, not twice a day,” he said. This was a new concept to almost all the 40 to 50 children. (The numbers vary as children go and come from the orphanage; they will soon reach capacity at 100.) These kids are quick, vital, bright, lively and affectionate; most of their lives, they also have been hungry.

Junior grew up at the orphanage. He approached me and put his arm around my shoulder. “Hello, I’m Junior.” We got to talking. He had just reached 21, and I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I want to be a doctor.”  “Why?” I asked. “So I can be a blessing to my country.”

Mitch and I first met when we entered Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia. We’ve been friends most of our lives, and I knew he had been involved in a variety of charitable projects, including building a clinic in inner-city Detroit.  Not long after Mitch’s first visit to Haiti, he and I got to talking about this project, its ambition, its scale, the many years it will take. I knew it was different from anything he had undertaken before.  And there was something else, too: “You know,” he told me a little warily, “it’s a Christian orphanage.” I told him I’d love to see it. “I mean, really Christian.  Started by a pastor, and they pray each night.” I told him I could not think of a more fitting mitzvah for these Jews or a better place for a rabbi to go.