April 5, 2006: Perspective
By Katherine Shafer Coleman ’96
Katherine Shafer Coleman ’96 has traveled to Haiti more than a dozen times with Hands Together, a nonprofit organization that works with Haiti’s poor. She serves on Hands Together’s board and works for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
I am sitting in a truck in Haiti, facing a well-known gang leader known as Dread, a tall, sinewy young man with a wide smile and a mass of dreadlocks topped by a pale blue visor. I was hoping to avoid this meeting, praying that our drive from the north of the country to Port-au-Prince would get us back too late. But here we are at dusk, with our backs to the windows of a Toyota LandCruiser, in the middle of a marketplace in the vast Cité Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince.
It takes me a while to notice that the Walkman-wearing young men casually circling us on bikes are armed, and I see several men sitting on the counters of the empty market stalls with large guns resting on their laps. They are all monitoring what is taking place in the truck.
The men outside can’t see that inside the truck, the blanc priest known to them as Pè Tom — Father Thomas Hagan — is teasing Dread about his hair. Father Tom takes one of the thick, woolly dreadlocks in his hand and suggests in Creole that a haircut might improve his image. Dread laughs softly, revealing four gold teeth in a wide grin.
Father Tom has arranged this meeting with Dread and another gang leader to share his dreams for a mobile clinic and school that our organization, Hands Together, wants to build in areas under their control. He asks for their help, and he gets it: Before we depart that evening, the two men identify a parcel of land where the school can be built and agree to oversee food distribution and mobile-clinic visits undertaken by Hands Together. I had begun the meeting wondering why we were dealing with these supposed thugs, but it occurs to me — again — that Father Tom knows exactly what he is doing. After 13 years of friendship, he continues to surprise me.
I first saw Father Tom saying Mass on campus during the fall of my freshman year at Princeton. I was struck by the contrast between his dry sense of humor and South Philly accent, and the imposing Chapel. He allowed his dog, Shorty, to stand by him at the altar when he celebrated Mass, and seemed eager to connect with students. After my mother told me she’d heard about a priest at Princeton who led trips to Haiti, I approached him one day and learned that there was a trip planned for intersession.
The trip was sponsored by Hands Together, which was founded by Father Tom in 1989 to respond to the incredible poverty he saw on his first visit to Haiti. Our trip would involve “experiential learning”: living simply and in solidarity with Haitians, visiting the organization’s education and health projects, and learning about Haiti and its culture.
I arrived at Newark Airport to travel to Haiti on a cold January morning in 1993. At 5 a.m., four other Princeton students and I stood in the airline’s check-in line, weighed down with drab green duffel bags filled with donated medicines and supplies. My first surprise from Father Tom: He said goodbye. I grew anxious. Wasn’t he the ringleader here, the only one among us who had set foot in Haiti? Tom casually mentioned that a woman named Lora would be joining us in Miami for the rest of the journey. We looked at one another helplessly and proceeded through security.
We found Lora and experienced an intense week of visiting the slums in Haiti, spending a night on the floor of a rural hut, eating rice and beans for every meal, traveling throughout the country on the crowded public buses, and talking about what we had seen in spiritual sessions every evening. With his casual approach, Father Tom gave me an experience that changed my life.
I have been involved with Haiti and Hands Together ever since that trip. I joined Hands Together’s board in 1996, the year I graduated and the year Father Tom left Princeton as an honorary member of the Class of 1996. He has lived in Port-au-Prince since then, and I have returned every year to see him and Hands Together’s growing list of projects. Our schools are oases amid the violence and destitution of Cité Soleil’s expanse of tin and cardboard huts, home to roughly 200,000 people — the poorest residents of the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Sometimes, when I am walking through Cité Soleil or fund raising in an American church, I think about Father Tom — who threw off his priest’s collar on the dance floor at my wedding, whom I tease about his hypochondria, who loves to recount Seinfeld episodes — and about the tremendous impact he has had on my life. He is a spiritual mentor, partner in our work in Haiti, and good friend.
Like Father Tom, Haiti is full of surprises: the gaunt old women dancing at our elderly-outreach program; Dread wearing a backpack in the form of a stuffed bunny; an old man in a faded “David Duke for President” T-shirt. Each night in Haiti, we sit on the roof of the Hands Together house to decompress after the day. Father Tom loves to reminisce; he’ll talk about the more memorable weddings he has performed, his spiritual formation in the seminary, his early activist work. He once recalled a conversation with his dying mother, who asked for a priest. “Mom,” he told her, “I’m right here.” She replied, “No — a real priest!”
I can understand why his mother said that; Father Tom often does not act like a conventional priest. Though he, and Haiti, consistently defy my attempts to define them, both have become important parts of my life. I know that Father Tom and Haiti have many more adventures in store for me, and I can only wait to be surprised yet again.