Near the end of The Price of Sugar, the 2007 award-winning documentary about Haitian sugarcane cutters in the Dominican Republic, the filmmaker poses a question to Father Christopher Hartley. Hartley has spent nearly nine years evangelizing the Haitian workers, and advocating politically on their behalf. As a result, he is facing strong opposition, including death threats. The filmmaker asks Hartley if he plans to stay in the Dominican Republic.
“I think I would be a fraud if I took even one step back,” Hartley replies. He’s standing in front of a makeshift cemetery near the cane fields, and he gestures to a cross-marked grave, saying that his deepest desire is to be buried with his Haitian brothers and sisters someday. Later in the film, he remains certain; he tells a group of parishioners that despite the danger, he is “not going anywhere.”
Shortly after the film crew left, though, Father Christopher Hartley received a letter from his bishop giving him fifteen days to leave his parish and the Dominican Republic. He obeyed, leaving without warning and without saying goodbye to any of his parishioners. Perhaps explaining Hartley’s departure is one of the reasons for Slaves in Paradise: A Priest Stands Up for Exploited Sugarcane Workers by Jesús García. Though the author contends that the book is “neither a beatification proceeding nor a criminal trial,” it often reads like a defense of a highly controversial priest.
Originally published in Spanish in 2012,
Slaves in Paradise collects sixteen letters that Father Hartley wrote to his supporters between 1997 and 2001. Though he remained in the DR until 2006, he did not write to his supporters during his final five years in country. García weaves these letters together with explanatory context and commentary as well as interviews with some of the people Hartley worked with in the DR. Together, they tell the story of a priest who is, from beginning to end, compared to a natural disaster—a hurricane, a tornado, a volcano, an earthquake—that destroys in order to make room for something new.
Born to a Spanish mother and a British father, Hartley was part of an aristocratic, well-off family. An unhappy and argumentative child, he experienced a sudden conversion as a teenager, and committed himself to the priesthood. He attended seminary at Toledo, worked several summers with Mother Teresa, and spent eight years as a priest in the Bronx. He earned a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, and was named rector of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral parish in New York. Though everything pointed towards his ordination as a bishop, Hartley remembered an early promise to God that he would dedicate his life to the poorest of the poor, as Mother Teresa had done. So he requested a missionary placement in the Dominican Republic.
Over the next nine years, Hartley oversaw a parish of seven hundred square miles, including sixty bateyes (settlements of Haitian immigrant workers) and campos (villages inhabited by native Dominicans), in San José de los Llanos in the province of San Pedro de Macorís. Gradually he came to understand the reality of life for most of his flock. Lured to the DR with promises of a better life, thousands of dispossessed Haitians lived without any documentation under armed guard on plantations, frequently without access to decent housing, electricity, clean water, education, healthcare, or adequate nutrition. Working fourteen-hour days seven days a week, they were paid only a fraction of what they’d been promised—and rather than being paid in cash, they were paid in vouchers that could only be redeemed at one store, the store owned by the plantation owners, and only redeemed for 80% of their face value.
While Father Hartley’s original and primary focus was on evangelism, over his first few years in the DR, he began to see that evangelism and social activism could not be separated. To teach his parishioners that they were beloved children of God, created in God’s image, without advocating for their full personhood politically, their full human rights, was not possible. And so along with celebrating mass every day, baptizing and catechizing, and building a church, the father also sought to provide food, education, and medical care. He worked closely with Noemí Méndez, a lawyer who spent her early life in the bateyes, to attempt to bring legal justice to the stateless Haitians. The powerful plantation owners, particularly the Vicini family, pretended to cooperate, but ultimately ended up blocking the priest at every turn, leading the calls for him to leave the country.
Most of this story has already been told—both by journalists in El Mundo and in the documentary film—but the book uniquely offers a more intimate portrayal of Christopher Hartley. In its depiction of the emotional ups and downs of a missionary facing poverty and systemic injustice without being well-equipped to deal with such challenges, readers find a rare, honest picture of the spiritual difficulty of cross-cultural work. The priest’s letters along with the helpful explanatory context from García paint a vivid picture. Over the four years, Hartley’s letters become shorter and more rare. They move from enthusiasm and hope to loneliness and despair. Initially, he is happy for any and all short-term missionaries who join him; toward the end of the correspondence, he admits that the short-term missionaries are not what the mission needs. They need people who will stay. At the beginning, he is quite cautious about whom he will partner with, or accept money from, but as his awareness of poverty and need grows, he becomes more willing to partner with anyone who will help. The tone of the letters moves from optimistic to pessimistic, from certainty about the great things he can accomplish to certainty only that Christ is with the poor and suffering.
The book is valuable, but imperfect. How much more valuable it could have been if it hadn’t had to be a defense of Hartley—if the Church hadn’t felt a need to “control the story” or spin it in a particular way. Over and over again, García—an employee of the Roman Catholic Church—emphasizes that though Hartley was imperfect, he was God’s choice. Though he made enemies, was difficult to get along with, and caused turmoil, people smile when they remember him. Though he was engaged in activism, he was always an evangelist and prayer warrior first and foremost. The Church’s need to emphasize his evangelism displays its own implicit gnosticism, as if the spirit were separate from and more important than the body—the very doctrine Hartley was fighting against.
What is most troubling about this construction of the narrative is all that leaves out, the questions it refuses to raise. Why, for example, does Father Hartley wait months before writing to his supporters about his decision to speak out publicly against the Vicini family—and, when he does finally mention it, why does he speak in such vague terms? Why doesn’t García probe more deeply into the reasons Hartley left? He makes no reference at all to the fact that Bishop Ozoria Acosta ordered Hartley to leave, and apparently accused him of “deplorable” things, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter. (According to the Vicinis’ lawyers, those deplorable things consisted of a bit of gossip about a bishop candidate.) There was clearly conflict within the Church regarding how to handle Hartley’s social justice work, but Garcia is too invested in protecting both the Church and Hartley to reveal those kinds of details.
Published in English a full five years after it was first published in Spanish, Slaves in Paradise has a new, rather perfunctory foreword as well as an author’s epilogue added for this edition. According to the epilogue, in 2006 Father Hartley decided to move to Gode, Ethiopia, a place without an established Catholic church. He is still driven by the desire to bring the gospel to those who do not have it. In a 2013 interview, he describes the area where he is ministering as “100% Muslim.” He adds,
There is also a presence of the Orthodox Church, but I am the only Catholic priest there. The Catholic priest closest to me is over 700 kilometers away. Moreover, as the Church in Ethiopia is in great need, I try to collaborate with the Missionaries of Charity who have 18 houses in Ethiopia. There are over 120 sisters. I give them retreats, Spiritual Exercises, formation classes, and they also ask me to go to other countries. Not too long ago, I was in Kenya giving Spiritual Exercises to the juniors (professed religious who are still in formation). This year, I also went to Poland to direct Spiritual Exercises where they had called me. And just before Christmas in 2012, I was asked to give Exercises to all the Italian clergy and religious women working in Ethiopia.
From this interview and others he has given in recent years, it is clear that he still cares deeply for the exploited workers he served and advocates for their cause whenever he is given a platform to do so. It seems odd that this new edition says so little about the years since he left the DR.
But the most pressing questions readers are left with are not about Hartley, but about his former parishioners. Have the lives of the people in the bateyes improved since Father Hartley left in 2006? Has the truly inspiring lawyer Noemí Méndez been able to continue her advocacy on behalf of the oppressed? Is there a new priest celebrating mass in the parish of San José de los Lanos? For Jesus García to travel to the DR to conduct research for this book, research intended to clear the name of Christopher Hartley, seems like a missed opportunity. Readers don’t need just a defense of the priest; readers need to know that the Church still cares about the people he has left behind.