Anglican chaplains bring "spiritual breath" to Haiti

When Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) arrived in Jacmel, Haiti, two days after the earthquake, the staff included medics, engineers, and a chaplain, Anglican Padre Shaun Turner.

Padre Shaun Turner welcomes patients to a mobile medical clinic in Tom Gato, north of Jacmel, Haiti.
Padre Shaun Turner welcomes patients to a mobile medical clinic in Tom Gato, north of Jacmel, Haiti.

Today, eight chaplains—two of them Anglicans—provide spiritual and ethical support to the Canadian Forces in their humanitarian mission to Haiti, devastated by a Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced another million.

“I walk with the soldiers in their day-to-day business,” explained Padre Turner, who is based at CFB Petawawa. “I pray for them, and help them deal with any issues that come up.”

On any given day Padre Turner could be lugging supplies with a mobile medical team in the mountains, or bumping along in a truck on a water run to the airport.

Sundays are what he calls “the travelling road show.” Armed with his field communion kit and the Book of Alternative Services, Padre Turner starts off with a 1 p.m. Eucharist at the port medical clinic. At 2 p.m. he leads another service by the river, where water is being purified. His last service is at 6 p.m., back at the main camp.

About 10 to 30 soldiers gather for these services of a cappella hymns and ad hoc furniture. “At one point I literally went to a camp and they cleared the poker chips off the table and I did the communion right there,” he said.

Already these Eucharists are a highlight for Padre Turner, on this, his first posting overseas.

“To be a still point in the middle of all of what we’re doing down here, I think it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing to see that moment where people take a spiritual breath.”

“Haiti, my country”

Across the mountains from Padre Turner is the other Canadian Anglican chaplain, Padre Yves-Eugene Joseph. Based in Montreal and working from Port-au-Prince since Feb. 1, Padre Joseph does similar work but from a different background: He was born and raised in Haiti.

“I feel joy to serve Haiti, my country, in the name of Canada, my country,” said Padre Joseph, “Also there is sadness to see the loss.”

Padre Joseph was ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, which lost many of its church buildings in the earthquake.

“My cathedral where I spent part of my youth, the cathedral where I was brought in to be a priest—it’s right to the ground,” he said. “To see the convent, to see the school, the music school and the professional school all down…It is painful.”

But Padre Joseph says that he rejoices in the hope and faith of Haitians. He recently arranged for 100 or so Canadian soldiers to visit a Haitian evangelical church service, where they sang, clapped and enjoyed Haitian hospitality.

Spiritual connections

The overt Christianity of Haiti—where taxis are emblazoned with “Praise Jesus” and the population parades to church on Sunday—has been encouraging for the chaplains.

“I started introducing myself as ‘Pastor Shaun’ and there’s an instant connection with people,” said Padre Turner. “The Haitians are passionately spiritual people. I would agree that it’s a part of what adds to their resilience.”

For chaplains like Padre Turner and Padre Joseph, nurturing the spiritual health of military members is key to supporting the work in Haiti. They give advice on ethical matters and communicate with families in Canada. They also talk with soldiers facing troubles at home, or grappling with life’s big questions.

“When I’m walking through the camp, in the middle of the night, under the stars, there are people who stop me to have conversations about God,” said Padre Turner.

“In military chaplaincy we’re able to minister to these military people who do amazing things for our country,” he said. “They’re the people in parish ministry, to be quite honest, I’d never be able to reach. It’s an honour to be able to do that.”

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