When Catholic musician and retreat speaker Sean Forrest used to play his music in New York City and the Hamptons — and Billy Joel was attending his shows along with thousands of young fans — Forrest little expected to find joy in building a dirt road. Or in holding a 4-year-old with an infectious disease.
What he did know back in the mid-1990s was that the life of a secular musician — “hanging out in pubs, being on stage, getting ready to party” — was not fulfilling to his heart.
“I just knew that wasn’t what God was calling me to do,” Forrest said.
What God was calling him to do, Forrest believes, was to convert to Roman Catholicism and found Movin’ With the Spirit, a Catholic nonprofit organization that ministers to teens and families through retreats and music.
Now his ministry, through its Mission Haiti outreach, allows him to help the poorest of the poor in Haiti’s Dandann and Duverger villages.
Mission Haiti has built a state-of-the-art orphanage for the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country’s many children without families. Construction began for “Kay Mari Manman Tout Timoun” (The House of Mary, Mother of All Children) in February 2009, and the first child was welcomed last December.
The efforts of Mission Haiti are especially needed following the devastating earthquake that struck there on Jan. 12. The mission’s two full-time missionaries and two Haitian staff suffered no injuries, even though the roads were impassable and many people in nearby towns died.
In the wake of the disaster, Forrest said, “Our orphanage has also turned out to be a refugee camp. We are housing and feeding about 90 refugees, mostly women and children. We are also bringing more orphans to the village.
“Our teams in Port-au-Prince are out finding people who are homeless. There were already problems there every day — it was already terrible — and now there are [so many more] orphans.”
To meet these new needs, Forrest and team staged a benefit concert in Connecticut on Feb. 20 that brought in about $20,000 for the orphanage. And a group of businessmen in Mexico donated new prefabricated shelters and a school building that can stand up to an earthquake or hurricane.
Forrest has also recorded CDs to raise funds for the orphanage. The proceeds from the sale of “Haiti: I Want to Know What You Know” go to support the building project, which is split into five separate stages.
So, how did this guitar player-turned-humanitarian get started down his new road?
“Eight years ago, when I traveled to Haiti for the first time,” Forrest said, “I went to visit an orphanage, to get a glimpse of how they lived there. It was just terrible — how many kids there were and how few people there were to care for the kids. As hard as they tried, there just were not enough resources.”
So the seed of an idea was planted. But Forrest didn’t realize it until one of the little boys, about 4 years old, walked up to him and reached out. The boy’s arms were covered with medication for a skin disease. The director of the orphanage told Forrest not to pick up the boy, to avoid catching the disease himself.
‘Christ Right in Front of Me’
“At first I did what he said,” Forrest said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘This child is Christ right in front of me. Christ died for my sins, and I’m worried about a little bit of itching?’ So I opened my arms, and the little boy jumped right in. And all the other kids were like, ‘Oh man, he holds us.’ And they all ran over to me, and I just started holding and hugging them, trying to hug them all at once, and they were happy.”
That was when Forrest began to pray: “God, if you would allow me, I would love to build an orphanage with many volunteers to be able to hold the children. Not just to get them fed, but to allow them to be able to play.”
After the trip, Forrest told Johnna Sullivan, a young woman he had helped with a confirmation retreat, that he had always wanted to build an orphanage. Forrest remembered her reaction: “She said, ‘Are you kidding? I have always wanted to run an orphanage.’”
Just like that, Forrest had a director — but no land. Providentially, Sullivan’s resident adviser at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Louis Merosne, was from Haiti. Merosne’s family welcomed the MWTS missionaries on their initial visits. Merosne was also able to help Mission Haiti procure the land where the first stage of the orphanage was built.
Merosne has witnessed the positive changes for children because of the orphanage. “We want to bring them relief and a sense of stability,” he said. Especially after the earthquake, he added.
Greater goals are also in mind, Merosne said. The local people work with MWTS volunteers, and “being a presence there gives a sense of hope and solidarity,” he said.
When the orphanage complex is complete, Forrest and his team will have built a medical-care facility and a school. The finished complex will also include a wing for children with special needs, who often lack needed resources in Haiti.
Faith is the backbone of the ministry. “When we go, we feed the people,” Forrest said. “But we also feed them Christ. We catechize and teach them with the truth of our Catholic faith.”
Volunteers for Mission Haiti trips often include the students who attend Movin’ With the Spirit’s confirmation retreats.
“People go there, and they come back even more energized and spiritually fulfilled by the faith of the Haitian people,” Forrest said.
Kristin Todzia, the wife of a missionary couple who recently spent a year in Haiti with MWTS, agrees with Forrest’s assessment. “Being a Catholic organization makes a difference in our focus,” she said. “Our priorities are God, orphans and community — in that order. The children see that we keep God as our priority, and they learn to do the same.”
Todzia recalls her days at the orphanage as a time of joy and, despite the overwhelming difficulties, lightheartedness: “The children are surrounded in faith, hope and love, and you can see it reflected in how they play and in how they interact in the community.”
Because the team brings both physical and spiritual nourishment, Bishop Alix Verrier, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Les Cayes, is an enthusiastic supporter of Mission Haiti.
As Forrest put it, “We understand that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Katy Carl is based in
Silver Spring, Maryland.