This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on December 9th 2016.
At age 19, I pitched my tent on a small banana farm next to the Episcopal Seminary in Montrouis, Haiti, 90 miles north of the teeming city of Port-au-Prince. I was one of five student interns involved in a rural health education and TB inoculation campaign, and I was completely unprepared for life in Haiti. I spoke no Creole and no French, knew nothing of the challenges endured by impoverished people, and far less about Haitian culture than my pre-intern immersion course had led me to believe. Our team bathed in the local river, woke when the roosters crowed at 3:30 in the morning, filtered water twice before drinking, and were often desperately ill. It was a difficult, strange and wonderful summer.
It was also, retrospectively, a dangerous summer. Matters might have gone south quickly apart from the interest taken in our team by Father Roger Desir. “Pere” Desir, as we knew him, was a remarkable Episcopal priest who watched out for his green and untutored American visitors to a far greater degree than we then understood. He scheduled our site visits, stored our medicines at the seminary using the only refrigerator in town, tutored us in Creole, got us to the Episcopalian convent in Port-au-Prince when hurricanes threatened, and steered us clear of political conflicts brewing in the country.
I just received word that Pere Desir died in late November. His death caused me to reflect on the role good mentors play in all of our lives.
Examples of those who betray the trust of young people leave us dumbstruck no matter how many news accounts we read. Last week, U.K. professional soccer player Andy Woodward told the Guardian newspaper that he had been serially abused for years as a young footballer by a well-known coach. Perhaps because of the shared last name, I read the article closely. Woodward’s story impelled 350 people (to date) to share similar accounts. That horrific story, and others like it, underscores the need to take every measure to guard and protect the young people in our care.
As we rightly safeguard our youth, we’ll want to equally affirm the many and extremely fine women and men who serve as mentors in sport, education, scouting, faith-life, volunteer organizations and early careers. Through all my young years in church, in the Boy Scouts, in service clubs and youth sports, I knew only caring guides and wise role models who shaped me for adulthood. I can tell you many of their names to this day. Our honorable mentors are invaluable personal and social assets.
Pere Roger Desir went on to become the Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. When I returned for a second volunteer stint in Haiti the next summer, I was based in Port-au-Prince and Father Desir and his wife again took an interest, assisting me and my companions toward usefulness and cultural competency. They probably did the same for scads of ardent, young, well-intentioned Americans through the years.
That second summer in Haiti I determined to seek Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church. Only later did I understand the degree to which my decision was influenced by the care and witness of Pere Desir. I wrote him once, as a young priest, to tell him this. Then I lost track of Roger Desir. I never went back to Haiti.
I see many folk like Pere Desir in my parish and in our community…men and women who are not trying especially hard to be role models, but who, because of their integrity and personal character, are very much just that. Those who extend themselves on behalf of young people must have second thoughts these days, lest they be lumped together with the bad apples we know to be out there.
Creole is littered with proverbs, and I’ve forgotten most of them, but a couple have stuck with me. “Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou,” translates “Remember the rain that made your corn grow,” or, more simply: “Don’t forget to say thanks.” In memory of Pere Desir, my own thanks to those who persist in the formation of our young people…those mentors in our faith communities; in sports, scouting and summer internships…thanks to all the many decent people who travel the daily road with us, and upon whom we so much depend.