I must admit that when I started talking to Mimi Stemkoski about going to Haiti with the Celebrant Singers, I was very apprehensive. I had made myself a promise that I would never return to Haiti in my lifetime. For many reason (that I will not bore you with), I did not want to go to that country. I am glad I was wrong in that decision and God had a better idea for my life (as usual).
The journey begins in the month of November of 2012, when I contacted Celebrant Singers to go back on the road. The last tour I had done with Celebrants was 13 years ago. Rusty is an understatement of how I felt when I arrived to rehearsal camp in California.
A lot of obstacles where there in the natural for me to do this tour. The first one was obvious; will my employer give me three weeks off to go do this? To my surprise the answer was yes. The next obstacle was my health. I had a massive back surgery five months ago and I was not sure my back could handle the road. Once again, even though I was in pain during the tour, God showed up and gave me the strength that I needed. The final obstacle was to raise $2,000.00 for my missionary support. How in the world would I do that? All my former supporters have not heard from me in over a decade! Support was raised by 14 people in two weeks. Check mate. God wins. I am going to Haiti.
My plane to California left Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport the morning of Christmas Eve. It was very hard to say goodbye to my beloved wife Heather. We were going to spend Christmas and New Years apart for the first time in 12 years of marriage. We both made a commitment to God and one another in our wedding day that was “God will always come first.” We stayed true to that commitment as she sent me off to California.
Upon my arrival to Fresno, a familiar face was waiting for me. My best friend Danny and his son Tyler were there. That was refreshing for me because I knew I would be able to spend the Holidays with people I love. We had a great time together spending Christmas. I was made family to them during those days. Christmas Eve I spent at Jon and Mimi’s house. I had dinner with Mary (Jon’s mom), Michele (Jon and Mimi’s daughter) and Jon and Mimi of course. The meal was simply delicious and we had a great time together. Finally at 3:00 a.m., we realized that someone had to take me back to the hotel since it was late! HA! Christmas Day was with Danny, Jen, Tyler, Danny’s parents and Grandparents. It was another delicious meal and time together.
On December 27, I was to report to the Celebrant Singers office to head up to rehearsal camp. Once inside the Celebrants tour bus, is when it hit me. I am back on the road. The feelings were mixed to say the least. I could not believe that after 13 years I was back in that bus heading to camp.
Rehearsal camp was at Saint Anthony’s Retreat Center. This place is simply gorgeous! It is up in the mountains in the city of Three Rivers California. The facilities are beautiful and everywhere you look, there is beauty. You get to see a lot of wild life and mountains. Rehearsal camp is more than just rehearsals. Granted we work our tails off to get all the music down and ensure that we are “concert ready”, but beyond that, it is a time to prepare our hearts and minds on the task ahead of us. The team starts becoming your family for the next three weeks. We pray together. We talk about the country we are about to go into, etc. Camp was exhausting for me and my back began giving me trouble during camp. The only logical explanation for it was that since we were rehearsing so much and I was using my diaphragm to sing, my muscles started to complain. The leadership team recognized that at times I needed to lie down and rest and they were very accommodating.
On December 31 we went down the mountain back to Visalia. I spent the night with Danny, Jen and Tyler again and packed for Haiti as the next day we were going to start our tour. We drove from Visalia to Los Angeles International Airport. As usual, unpacking the bus and checking in a lot of sound equipment is a job. Funny thing happened to me in LAX. I was counting luggage and equipment and I turned to go talk to Nels. When I turned, I ran into Julia Roberts. I apologized to her for that and she didn’t even look down at me (she is tall). I laughed it off and continued to do my job. Once the American Airlines team (we were on two airlines) was checked in, I had to rush to go and check in the Spirit Airlines team. That fortunately went very smooth and before we knew it, we were doing the red-eye to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to catch our connecting flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
We arrived in Haiti two hours late and the American Airlines crew was waiting for us. After clearing immigration and customs, we took all of our equipment, luggage and team to the bus that was going to serve as our tour bus for the next ten days. There were a lot of people willing to help us (for a fee of course) and since we didn’t have money to give them, I gathered all 20+ men there and had prayer with them. Once inside the bus, the biggest reality check of my life was about to start.
My first impression of Haiti happened when I was 11 years old. I was on my way to Spain to visit a family friend of ours and we were re-routed to Port-au-Prince from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic due to weather. The airplane that was supposed to take us to Madrid had an engine issue and I spent two days in Haiti under the custody of an Iberia Airlines agent. I slept in the airport for two days and saw a little bit of the city. What I remembered was very vague. Twenty three years later, I was now driving through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Reality hit me like 1,000 buckets of ice cold water. The poverty in Haiti is beyond what I have ever seen in my travels around the world. Several of our team members had been in Haiti with Celebrants right after the earthquake in 2010 and they were impressed on how they were rebuilding the country. I, on the other hand, was with my jaw dropped as I saw not only the poverty but also the amount of destruction that the country still has. One amazing thing that struck me immediately was how the Haitian people adjust to this. These people are incredibly nice and have a smile on their face at all times. To a certain extent, that upset me because I realized how spoiled we are in the United States. We have everything here. I mean everything and yet we complain when our cable goes out or our smart phone’s Internet speed is too slow. Haitian people do not complain and they are thankful if they get a bag of purified water to drink that day. After a few miles, I saw the United Nations compound and the American Embassy. A few more miles later, I saw what I was not prepared to see; the tent cities. After the earthquake in 2010, many organizations poured into Haiti to help. They brought food, water, medical care and tents (not your nice Coleman tent but tarps) for people to relocate temporarily after losing their home. Well, three years later, thousands of people are still “temporarily relocated” in tents.
The tent cities do not have any of the basic human needs. There is no running water, bathrooms, electricity or safety. A tent city is simply a big area where you see tents all over the place. Most of the tents have a logo on them that may say “US Aid” or “Unicef” on them. We didn’t go into one of these cities but the description I was given by one of the people that were with us at all times was that if someone comes in with food or potable water, they will get mugged for it. Theft, rape and lawlessness are daily occurrences apparently. The poor people that live under these conditions live in constant fear.
We finally arrived at the house that was going to be home for the Celebrants for the next 10 days. The house was gorgeous. It was built by an engineer several years back and by my count it has over 6 rooms, bathrooms, living areas, etc. Most of the bedrooms had air conditioning. Most of the women in our team had a bed. The guys were on the floor (amazing how some guys are so creative to make a bed out of flight packing quilts). I had a cot that had a little bit of padding on it. My good friend Desiree, knowing about my back situation, gave me her sleeping pad and put it on my cot so I could sleep without pain. She then took the floor (literally) and slept for ten days on a tile floor. Even though I objected to this, she wanted me to have it and this is the type of love that we have for one another in Celebrant Singers. I am eternally grateful to Desiree for having such a servant’s heart. So I want to introduce you to the amazing Celebrant Singers team I had the privilege and honor to serve with.
Jon and Mimi Stemkoski (Directors and second soprano), Nels Herring II (Assistant Director/Sound Technician/Photographer and Videographer), Barry and Rudolfina Sjostrand (Assistant Director/Drummer, Violinist), Kevin Lee (Assistant Director/baritone/bass), Esteban Blanco (Assistant Director/First Tenor), Desiree West (Hearing Impaired Signer/Tenor Sax), Brandon McDonald (Saxophone), Michele Palermo (Flute), Ruby Tapia (Clarinet), Haunnah McIntosh (Synth), Lora Ray (first soprano), Ronnie Collins (bass guitar), Todd Netland (piano), Brandon Encinas (violin), Felicity Landa (first soprano), Dottie Barsoom (alto), Sean Oliveras (Trumpet), Katie Isaac (Baritone horn), David Costello (second tenor/baritone), Dora Hall (alto) and last but not least Irene Bruno. Irene was born in Haiti and she had not returned to her country for 25 years. She met the Celebrant Singers at her church in Lima Ohio. Celebrants invited her to come with us to the outreach and she did. The blessing that Haiti received of having her there and also the blessing she received being in Haiti was enormous. Our sponsors in Haiti were Patrick and Sonya Angus, Father (Père) Frantzy, the Pastorale Univesitaire and Jean-Marc and Stephanie Dargout.
That night we had our first concert. We really didn’t know how we were going to make it since most of us had not slept for 24 hours and we were tired. When we got to the concert location, it seemed like we got a “heavenly boost” of energy. The concert was awesome. We figured that over 500 people were there and we also realized something very special. One of our songs from our French album is very popular in Haiti. When we started singing this song, the place almost fell apart and the crowd sang along. We smiled of course and we sang together. After the concert, the church had snacks for us. They were delicious!
Our second day we did not have a concert scheduled so Jon Stemkoski (Founder and President of Celebrant Singers) took us to the main museum in Port-au-Prince. This museum was right next door to what used to be the presidential palace. There we got to learn about the history of Haiti. We saw the tools that they used to bring the slaves from Africa to Haiti. The shackles alone weighed 50 pounds of pure steel. It was horrific when the historian explained to us how they treated these men and women and seeing depictions of it on the walls of this museum. Something that I personally thought was awesome was that I saw (and touched but don’t tell anyone) the anchor of Christopher Columbus’ Santa María. That was simply amazing. Right before my eyes was a piece of history that is simply incredible. Once we were done with the museum, we went to look at our next concert location. We were singing at the main Cathedral in Port-au-Prince the next day. The place is in ruins. All it stands there is the shell of the Cathedral. Our concert was going to be in the make shift church that they made with the same tarps used for the tent cities. When we got out of the bus, a group of children and women were waiting outside. They live in the ruins of the Cathedral. My first thought was “these poor people are going to ask us for money.” I was wrong. The children approached us and would point to their tummy and say “mange tanpri” which means “food please” in Haitian Creole. I felt like someone reached into my chest, grabbed my heart and stumped all over it. I was just devastated to see a four year old begin for food. The women that were there were told we were missionaries and they told the children to stop asking us. We then proceeded to spend time with all of them and had a picture taken with everyone. It was a very special moment for me. An old woman with a broken arm approached me and asked me to pray for her. In my very broken French, I told her that I would pray and that God loves her. I prayed with her and she gave me a big hug and kiss. That was a magical moment for me. After leaving the concert location, I began thinking about how incredibly blessed my wife and I are. I thought of our home, our jobs, running potable water, electricity that works all the time, etc. It started bothering me that these people had to deal with so much and yet they were so thankful for the very little that they have. I made a commitment to myself that I would try my best to stop complaining about what I like to call “first world problems” and focus my energy in helping in any way I can and also praying for all humans living in these conditions.
The next day we played our concert. In the midst of the ruins, I saw a Rosary on the ground. That was significant because here I was standing in the middle of the ruins of the earthquake and on the ground was a crucifix. I picked it up and cleaned it. Later on I took it to Père Frantzy (the priest that spent all 10 days with us) and asked him to bless the Rosary (it is a common practice in the Catholic Church to do this). After the concert I saw one of the women who was with us the day prior. They all came to the concert! I prayed for her and gave her the Rosary for her to keep. With a huge smile on her face and tears she thanked me for it. I think it meant a lot to her that someone would think of her and would give her something.
Our schedule began to pick up speed. We knew for the rest of the time in Haiti we were going to have two concerts per day (sometimes three) and that we were going to lack sleep. The beautiful thing was that the entire team was ready to take that task on and did not complain about the little sleep we were getting. I on the other hand was having issues with back pain and my throat started to hurt a lot. I had to miss one concert due to this situation. Thankfully one of our sponsors is a doctor and he gave me an injection to get the inflammation down in both my back and throat.
I want to highlight different events that happened during our visit. It would be hard for me to tell you everything that happened because it was so much that I frankly do not remember every one of them but I want to share the ones that marked me one way or another.
One morning we went to play at a hospital. We parked on top of a concrete slab that was rather large. Père Frantzy explained to Jon and later Jon told us that were we were standing was the location of the radiology department for this hospital. It was destroyed during the earthquake and everyone inside died. While the team was setting up for concert in this big chapel, about six of us went to visit the patients in the hospital. I asked Mimi (who speaks French fluently) if we should ask hospital staff to provide masks for us so we didn’t get our germs on the patients, especially the babies and children. She asked a doctor that was passing by and the doctor smiled and said no and something else I didn’t understand. Mimi turned to me and said “Esteban, they don’t have masks.” I thought to myself that was not good for the sake of the patients and wondered what kind of healthcare they were receiving. My answer came sooner than later. In the children’s wing (also destroyed by the earthquake and now a wooden structure with 30 year old beds and fans) was a doctor performing a procedure on a child that involved blood. Once he was done, he went to a bucket of water and washed his GLOVES! I almost passed out when I saw this! This hospital did not have enough gloves to go around and they had to wash and disinfect the gloves to use on another patient. We really take things for granted sometimes. After we covered the entire hospital, we rejoined the team for prayer prior to the concert. Jon approached me five minutes prior to concert and said “you are leading this concert. Are you up for it?” In my shock (since I had nothing prepared), I said yes and we went on stage. 650+ people were in attendance. I was able to conduct and lead the concert just fine fortunately. What shocked me was when I asked the people present “how many of you lost a loved one in the earthquake?” Ninety percent of the people there raised their hands. Some began to cry. This really touched me because I could not put myself in their shoes. I just felt pain for them. I told them that no matter what, God loves each and every one of them. I asked people if they wanted to receive and make a commitment to make Jesus their Lord and Savior for life. All hands in that room went up. They repeated the prayer of Salvation and at the end of the prayer I said “welcome to God’s family. We love you Haiti.” The place almost fell apart! God had just used me to touch 650+ lives in one room!
I had the honor and privilege to lead four concerts while in Haiti. In every concert, we had people make commitments to God and hundreds if not thousands re-dedicated their lives to Jesus. The message of hope, love and Salvation was delivered properly. We were simple vessels that were open to be used by God. He was true to His promises and used each of us to touch lives in Haiti.
Two other concerts that come to mind are school concerts. One school was were Sonya (one of our sponsors) graduated from and the other one was were Irene went to school. In these concerts, thousands of young women received the message as well. I am sure that in one we had over two thousand in attendance and in the other one I want to say there was over one thousand in attendance. For Sonya and Irene, these concerts were very special because they said that the reason they are who they are today is because of the education they received and it was wonderful for them to be able to give back to the school via a concert of the Celebrant Singers. Irene got to see her principal! It was wonderful.
Another concert we had was at Haiti’s State run television station. After the earthquake, a tent city was established there. We sang the concert live so the people outside could hear it but at the same time it was being taped. This concert is going to be played over and over on TV and we believe that thousands more will be touched by the message of hope and God’s love.
Our last concert was in the heart of Port-au-Prince in the only Cathedral left standing. Bishop Pierre-André Dumas came to the concert and shared with us. This was more than just a concert. This was a memorial for the three year anniversary of the earthquake. We shared the stage with some amazing Haitian musicians! During the middle of the event, about 10 young men and women walked down the isle of the Cathedral with a candle in their hands. This represented the 300,000+ people that perished after that horrible earthquake in January 12, 2010. This moment had me with a knot in my throat. The thought of so many people dying (mind you that Port-au-Prince’s population was just a little over 800,000 before the earthquake). It was a wonderful finish to our tour. We said goodbye to the Haitian people and Haiti being very grateful for everything we were allowed to experience and the blessings they gave to all of us Celebrant Singers during our stay.
To my sponsors; your investment is very much appreciated and I am here to tell you that the return of your investment is enormous. Thousands of lives were touched by you sending me out to Haiti. Hundreds will be in Heaven thanks to you. This summer, if God permits, Heather and I both will be joining the Celebrants once more this year to go to Portugal for two weeks to minister there. I ask all of you to prayerfully consider sponsoring us one more time this year to take the Gospel to Portugal. Europe as a whole is a continent that needs to hear the message desperately. A lot of things are happening there politically and spiritually that we can help stir the in the right direction for the Kingdom of God. The missionary support that Heather and I would need to raise to go to Portugal will be $4,500. If you want more details on how you can sponsor us to go to Portugal, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All donations for our missionary support are tax-deductible.
One more time I say to my sponsors a very heartfelt THANK YOU for sending me out to Haiti. I pray many blessings over all of you!
In Christ’s love,