Prelude to Haiti

I have been meaning to write a Prelude to my trip to Haiti before now, but I simply haven’t found the words. In fact, I’ve started more than once without being able to complete anything meaningful. I wanted to write something profound…or informative…or motivational…or, well, meaningful. But here I am the night before I depart, and I’m tired. Today is my birthday–the first since my mother passed away–and I’ve spent most of the day taking care of last-minute details.

I can’t say that today has been difficult because of Mom’s absence. In a number of ways, it’s been easier. Contrary to what many people probably assume, I’m not one who likes a lot of attention. It’s the introvert in me. And for the past few years, I’ve been forced to share my birthday with the people who worked in my home, and if one of them didn’t realize it was my birthday (I never announce its arrival, although Facebook has made things a bit, um, different), then I’d have to deal with the “Why didn’t you tell me?” questions after the fact.

Today the only people I encountered in-person who were aware of my birthday were my sister and my pharmacist, the latter who injected a tetanus shot into my aging arm while jokingly wishing me a happy birthday. Other than that, I saw mostly strangers at the thrift stores and other places I stopped by in my flurry to ensure that I have everything I need for Haiti.

I moved rather slowly throughout the day, trying not to be frantic the way I’ve felt before previous international trips. In fact, that’s how I’ve been all week. I think it’s my body, mind, and spirit’s way of storing up energy for the coming week. I’ve been meditative, pensive, and not as chatty as usual. Withdrawn and detached. And it’s felt right.

So, a few details about the Haiti trip. I’m traveling with a group from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder. My good friend Roger Wolsey is the director of this Methodist campus ministry, and he suggested that I join the students on the Spring Break work trip because of my longstanding passion for Haiti, not to mention my eagerness to start traveling again now that I’m no longer serving as a caregiver for my mother. The trip is being coordinated by Alicia Fall who leads a non-profit called Her Many Voices, and she has had the admirable responsibility of making arrangements for us with her contacts in Haiti.

Up until about a week ago, we had planned to work in a remote village called Trou ChouChou, where most people still don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. But…Haiti is a place in transition and turmoil, and that means plans can (and do) change at the last minute. Alicia had warned us to have minimal expectations about what exactly we’d be doing upon arrival in Haiti, and volatile conditions in the past couple of weeks have forced us to reevaluate where we would stay down there.

[Note: I started to provide details about where we are going to work, but I just deleted it all. I don’t want to scare anyone, but for security reasons, I think that it’s best not to disclose too much information on the internet until we return. I’ll just say this: we are staying in a place that will be safe, secure, and protected. More info in a later post when I get back. I’m hoping to do some fun, innovative stuff with the followup posts.]

Perhaps the biggest challenge in visiting Haiti is that the country is still recovering from the devastating hurricane that destroyed so many buildings and took countless lives two years ago. I’ve seen some pretty impoverished places, including Cambodia, Ghana, Mexico, and Belize, but nothing like this. I’ve made a daily practice of picturing myself surrounded by people–including children–who aren’t sure if they’ll be alive in six months. I see the desperation in their eyes, hear it in their voices, and can smell stenches that would turn your stomach if you encountered them in your own neighborhood. If you’re interested in learning more about current conditions, here is a good resource. Be prepared. It’s not pleasant reading, and the photographs will shock you.

Obviously there are special considerations when traveling with college-aged students. Fortunately, Roger’s ministry–due to his personality and approach–is one that attracts mature students who care deeply about the world. I’ve been blown away by the organizational planning of Chayla, a senior who has assumed a leadership role in fundraising, scheduling meetings, and distributing information to the entire group. If anyone is concerned about the abilities of younger generations, a five-minute conversation with Chayla would make you feel much better about the future of our world.

And really, that’s true about every single college student in the group. When I was up in Colorado meeting with everyone last month, I watched another trip member, Jason, develop a design for a storage building that will house a power generator. Alas, the change of plans means we won’t be constructing that building on this particular trip, but it was so cool to see a twenty-something-er come up with such intricate, detailed plans. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the other students. Each one has unique gifts that will contribute to our adventure.

As for me, well, I feel pretty calm right now. Just tired. I feel a slight amount of physical vulnerability because of where I am in my ankle recovery, but not too apprehensive. I think that I could run if needed. And with that, I’m signing off. More when I return. As they say in Haitian Creole, Orevwa!

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To all my sisters in this world: You are not a whore

I’ve been biting my tongue quite a bit in the midst of recent verbal and political attacks on women because, to be honest, it’s too emotional of a topic for me, but I’ve reached a breaking point where I can no longer be silent. Too much is at stake. Specifically, the dignity and respect for women in a culture that is increasingly divisive, abusive, and downright nasty. Here is my response to this statement by Rush Limbaugh: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

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To my biological sister as you are celebrating your birthday today, you are not a whore. So maybe I’ve called you some not-so-nice names on occasion, but I hope you know how much I love you. I’m proud of who you are, the person you are becoming, and to call you both my sister and my friend.

To my sisters whom I count as friends and relatives, you are not a whore. We have shared laughter and tears, hugs and disagreements, and countless discussions about matters both serious and trivial. I’ve watched you raise children, bury loved ones, marry, divorce, graduate from school, learn to drive a car, run marathons, and cope with cancer or other devastating diseases. I love you all. Every single one of you.

To my sisters with whom I’ve worked and collaborated, you are not a whore. I might have disagreed with how you graded a paper or delivered a lecture or interpreted a piece of music. But I love you for putting yourself out there, and I suspect that at times I’ve done things differently than you would have liked.

To my sisters who have globe-trotted with me, you are not a whore. You have seen me at my most irritable, frantic, adventuresome, enthusiastic, and sleep-deprived. We’ve gotten lost together, discovered hidden gems, and learned more about ourselves than we ever could have staying put in our little insular comfort zone called home.

To my sisters I’ve encountered in passing, perhaps not even knowing your name, you are not a whore. I might have cast a disapproving look, but I’ve learned along the way that I probably didn’t know or understand everything that you were going through. I might have grinned and greeted you with a friendly salutation. I hope so. I hope you caught me on one of my good days, especially if that was the only day you’d ever see me. But I know that some of you have seen me at my worst.

To my sisters whom I’ve never met, you are not a whore. There are a lot of you out there. Billions, in fact. Some of you have done some stuff that isn’t very nice or loving. So have I. That doesn’t mean you deserve to be dehumanized and called cruel, insensitive, judgmental labels as if you’re an animal or an inanimate object. You are human, and you are loved. I’ll try to do a better job of showing it.

To my sisters who have walked into a doctor’s office or a college campus clinic or (gasp!) Planned Parenthood to have access to birth control pills or other forms of contraception, you are not a whore. You don’t need to tell me why you are on the pill. I really don’t need or want to know. It might be because you have endometriosis and are dealing with excruciating pain in your pelvic region. Or perhaps you’re secretly saving up money to escape from your abusive husband and hoping not to get pregnant as he rapes you night after night. Or maybe you have irregular periods with painful cramping, acne that’s so pervasive that you’re shy about leaving the house without wearing thick makeup, or some other hormonal imbalance that is easily regulated by the pill. Or, yeah, I’ll go there…maybe you’re having consensual sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It’s OK. I might not think it’s a good idea for you to be having sex. You might be too young to make an informed decision about whether you’re really ready, you might be doing it because you think it’s the only way to keep your boyfriend around, or maybe you were raped at a young age and don’t have a reference for what a healthy, respectful sexual relationship should look like. Or maybe you just enjoy having sex. That’s OK, too. A lot of people have sex. In fact, I think that I could count on one hand the number of people I know over the age of 18 who haven’t had sex. If I use all 10 fingers, I could probably count the number of people who waited until they were married. You don’t need to explain yourself to me. It’s none of my business why you choose to have sex. Whatever the reason, that doesn’t justify me–or anyone–dehumanizing you by calling you cruel names.

To my sisters who have become pregnant out of wedlock, you are not a whore. Goodness knows you’ve probably beaten yourself up enough as you watched your belly grow or chose not to continue the pregnancy. You might be dealing with the emotional highs and lows of raising a child on your own while the father continually says, “Not my problem; I shouldn’t have to pay for this kid just because you got knocked up.” I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine it’s difficult, in spite of the immense joy of cradling a baby in your arms, watching your child grow, and trying to juggle parenthood and work, perhaps with very little support from judgmental, um, “friends” and family. But we all know that the only difference between you and most of the women you know is that they didn’t get pregnant for doing the exact same thing (sex) that you did. They might have even had a lot more sex–with a lot more partners–than you ever have. That’s the thing about pregnancy–it’s kind of random, and if we’re being honest, many of the people who are judging you could indeed have been in your exact same place. Who knows–maybe they will someday. You shouldn’t feel ashamed. Goodness knows the father doesn’t have to go through the same thing that you do.

To my sisters who stand up for your sisters, you are not a whore. You might be like me and have a friend who has needed the pill for one of the many reasons that I listed above. You might have been in the process of defending your friend who has ovarian cysts that could develop into cancer without the hormonal regulation provided by birth control pills when an insensitive radio show host accused you of prostituting yourself because you believe in speaking out against injustice. I know that you simply want your college-aged friend to have access to a relatively inexpensive pill that will alleviate her debilitating condition. And so do the many other women who have either dealt with cysts or know someone who has.

To my sisters who have tried to conceive but can’t, you are not a whore. Maybe you’ll end up adopting a child from one of your sisters who found herself in an unplanned pregnancy. I doubt that you’d call the mother of your child a whore, and I hope that you’ll have the opportunity to be a mother if that’s what you want to do. Children are amazing. If you want kids, that is. If you don’t, you might not think they are so incredible. You might find them intimidating, grubby little germ-transmitters, or incompatible with your lifestyle. That’s OK too.

To my sisters who are lesbians, you are not a whore. Isn’t it ironic that you are judged for being gay and yet you’re also the least likely female population to get pregnant? (which would otherwise seem to be a virtue in the eyes of those who reduce women to “whores” when we want access to affordable birth control.)

To my sisters with chromosomal abnormalities that make it difficult for you to decide how to establish a sexual identity or those who feel a disconnect between your biological sex organs and the way you experience your gender, you are not a whore. So you were born “intersex,” a term that has rather recently replaced the older reference to Greek mythology, “hermaphrodite.” Or maybe you’ve been called a “tranny” or other derogatory terms by those who don’t understand what you’re going through. It’s already difficult enough to figure out which box to check when you are given only two options (male/female) and you know full well that biology isn’t that simple. You might have recently learned that your parents and doctor chose to assign a particular gender to you as a young child without asking how you felt about the matter. Or maybe you’re frustrated and depressed because you don’t feel like you belong in your own skin and you don’t know what to do. You might look like a woman, or maybe you want to look like a woman. When you hear other women being labeled as “whores,” you might tense up because as bad as that word sounds, at least they “fit into a box” on forms.

To my sisters whom I’ve somehow left out of this list, you are not a whore. I tried to be as inclusive as I could be, but I am also aware that the diversity of the human experience is far greater than I can ever articulate here. I’m thinking of you, the 11-year old girl (although now you’re older) raped by your stepfather and who became pregnant with twins, only to be informed by the Catholic Church that your tiny little pelvis on your 80-pound frame should have attempted to carry the two fetuses to term even if it meant you most likely would have died because, according to an archbishop, “The law of God is higher than any human laws.” I don’t know how to explain that to you when you’re a child who is coping with the fact that you’ve been raped and violated in horrible ways that I can’t even imagine, only to be told that it’s God’s will for you to die in childbirth. That’s not the same God that I’ve come to know.

As I reflect back over this dedication to all my sisters in the world, I can’t help but notice that I still have a tendency to try to defend the morality of some of you more than others. It’s the judgmental side of me–my default mode–that I work so hard to overcome. I feel the need to defend the 11-year old who has been raped, but somehow that affects me in a different emotional way than those who are of consensual age and actively, repeatedly choosing to have sex.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I become aware that there really isn’t any difference. For we are all connected, with every breath of shared air that we inhale and exhale, and it’s when we start to divide people into categories of morally “right” or “wrong” that we get into trouble. I’m not saying that we should excuse those who intentionally harm others or themselves. Accountability is important. It’s a question of how we go about holding one another accountable. We can do it by calling each other names like “whore,” but I don’t believe that such an approach is very loving or effective. Maybe we can shame people into “morally correct” behavior (although looking around, I’m not convinced that shaming has a very good success rate). Or maybe we could be a little more loving and grace-full in our approach.

Last week I had a conversation with a very wise pastor who also happens to be the director of the children’s home where I volunteer. He told me that his approach to ministry and life is based on a book by a theologian named Miroslav Volf who argues that exclusion = sin, and inclusion = embrace/grace. For God’s love encompasses us all–every single human being on this planet–even when we might not deserve it. And a lot of us have done some not-so great things. I think of Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Every time I turn my back on one of my sisters (or brothers), I am turning my back on God. Yeah, so Jesus was nailed to a cross. It’s been almost 2,000 years since that happened. We need to stop nailing each other to crosses with our words, actions, and inactions.

Oh, and for you men out there who are reading this and wondering, “What’s with all this sister talk?,” here is my dedication to you:

To my brothers in this world, you are not a whore. Sometimes I get frustrated with you when you say mean things about us women, but I know that most of you are on our side. And really, we’re all on the same side. I’ve got your back, and I hope you’ll treat me with respect as well. We’re all in this world together, and I love you deeply, fully, unconditionally, and as patiently as I can manage. Even when my temper gets short (and goodness knows that some of you have seen that side of me…thanks for putting up with my imperfections…I’m eternally grateful…)

[Update on 3/4/12: Thank you to everyone who has commented here and shared this little musing of mine. I wrote it very quickly and had no way of anticipating that it would go viral. I am truly humbled by the kind words of support, and I feel much more optimistic about this dialogue than I did a few days ago. Peace and gratitude.]

[Update on 12/3/14: Originally I planned to let this post stand as it was first published, but every once in a while when I think back on it, there are things that I want to revise. Rather than do a massive rewrite, I’ll just add a brief thought on something that came up in one of the comments below. It’s been a while since I wrote this entry, so I’m not sure if I can recall every detail of what was going through my mind. One thing is for certain as I’m typing at this very moment: the stigma that’s associated with sex work is something we need to push back on. I used the term “whore” in part to reclaim it (and also because I believe it was being used by chauvinistic pundits at the time). But in instances where an adult sex worker chooses freely to engage in this line of work (in all its varieties), I want to be clear: I support you and will do my best to speak out if I hear attacks on you and your choices.]