Life among the ruins

A family I met last week in Haiti has changed my life. It’s hard to know yet how exactly this encounter will affect me because I’m still processing it, but I’d like to share the story as it is right now. This is just the beginning.

The Wesley Foundation work team from CU-Boulder that I traveled with spent the week at a clinic run by Partners in Development, a Boston-based non-profit whose mission is “to serve the poorest of the poor,” which is quite ambitious in a country that was already impoverished before the earthquake two years ago displaced countless people who are now living in tents where one-room homes without electricity or running water once stood. PID runs a clinic that provides free access to basic health care, a mobile clinic that reaches residents of a tent city about once a month, a child sponsorship program, and a small business loan program.

While the rest of the team was assisting with the construction of a new house, I stayed behind at the clinic because my still-recovering ankle wasn’t stable enough for me to be at the muddy worksite (it is, after all, rainy season). The director of PID learned that I had experience working with children and asked me to meet with a single mother whose two oldest sons were habitually stealing and staying out all night. The mother (I’ll call her Marie-Jean) was stressed out, neighbors were complaining, and there was nowhere to send the boys (I’ll call them Daniel and Josiah) in order to get them to start behaving better. My task was to attempt to learn why the boys were acting out. We weren’t sure if I would have any luck, but we figured it would be worth trying.

I had to work with a translator because my Creole is very limited, and the family doesn’t speak English. I started out by directly asking the boys why they were stealing, and the response was not at all what I expected: “I’m hungry and my stomach hurts,” Daniel said. “We don’t have anything to eat at home,” Josiah explained.

The vast majority of Haitians struggle to put food on the table, but I initially wondered if Marie-Jean was depriving the two older sons of meals because, from what I had heard from the director, she had expressed interest in placing them in an orphanage, which simply isn’t feasible, as the orphanages are still completely full in the aftermath of the earthquake. As for why the boys were running away from home, well, they knew that they would get in trouble when their mother found out they were stealing, so they would hide all night in fear.

Marie-Jean’s brows were permanently furrowed, and she looked terrified. She told me that she did not have any money, so she wasn’t always able to provide food for her five children. I thought back to a book I had recently read that asserted lack of money is not the biggest obstacle to overcoming poverty, and I started asking her about what resources she had in her life.

I learned that her husband had abandoned her and moved to another country before taking up with another woman, her parents had died, and her siblings lived so far away that she had no means to travel to see them. In other words, Marie-Jean was completely on her own without a family support network. Her three younger children need constant attention, so she doesn’t venture far from her home very often. At least she can occasionally visit with friends.

In the midst of this conversation, my brain was on overload trying to figure out what to say to the boys. How could I say, “Don’t steal. It’s wrong,” when they were literally stealing to survive? I felt like I was talking to a young Jean Valjean. They claimed to be stealing food and also money to buy something to eat, but I wondered if they were really stealing candy instead of nutritious food. But when I asked them what their favorite food was, one said “corn” and the other said “rice.” This…from a 12-year old and 10-year old! Where in the world was I? Oh right…Haiti.

I asked the boys what would motivate them to stop stealing, and Daniel said that he would be less likely to misbehave if he could go to church. He said that God could change his heart, and he would be able to endure being hungry. This was when I learned about yet another barrier in Haitian culture: church. You see, it’s not culturally acceptable to go to church in “regular” clothes. This is the one place where Haitians go all out and wear fancy attire, and while American churches have tended to become increasingly casual, churchgoers would be shunned if they showed up in clothing that was perceived as disrespectful or ir-reverent.

And, of course, Marie-Jean did not have the money to buy church clothes for her family. Nor did she have transportation to travel half an hour away to the nearest town whose stores and market sell this merchandise. It seemed surreal to me that money was standing between this family and their faith when Jesus was such an advocate for the poor. Plus, I couldn’t possibly tell a 12-year old boy that he should go to church because God would prefer for him to starve than to steal. Seriously. Surreal.

By this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t just offer to give them some food. This brings up yet another issue. I simply don’t have the personal resources to provide for everyone in the world (or Haiti…or just that village) who is hungry. It’s not like I could buy them a meal and then be done with it. This is chronic malnourishment and all the health complications that go along with long-term starvation.

And even if I could provide them with some food to solve the problem, well, I would be leaving Haiti in a few days, and PID would be left to cope with the aftermath when word got out that a “blanc” (white person) had been handing out food. One thing I’ve learned about visiting other countries is that it’s incredibly important to be mindful of the culture and not do anything that will create bigger problems.

I kept asking questions and trying to gather as much information as possible. I asked the boys how they felt about worrying their mother. They were ashamed and knew they were disappointing her. I asked Marie-Jean about what might make her situation better. She said that she would like to start a business selling food in front of her house because, even if she could find a job somewhere (there aren’t any), she would not be able to work away from home due to her younger children.

Now we were getting somewhere. The social worker for the clinic (a Haitian who had also benefited from the resources of PID) was present during this part of the conversation, and he might be able to come up with some ideas about how to proceed. In the meantime, I asked them if they could return the next day with all of the children. They agreed to, and then I hesitantly asked if they wanted to pray together. A resounding “yes.”

I say “hesitantly” because I made a vow a long time ago that I would not attempt to convert people to Christianity. Yes, you read that right. Some of you might have gasped and immediately started praying for my doomed soul, but the truth is that I don’t believe in classic evangelism. I’ve seen the dark side of this approach–African villages abandoned by missionaries who disrupt traditional family units (many of which are not nuclear families in the Western sense) and then leave the locals to fend for themselves when the mission appointment is finished. Faith is a lifelong journey, and conversion is not something that I think can happen in an isolated instant without continued followup in community-based relationship. Faith changes over time, and that’s OK…in fact, it’s probably desirable. Plus, I’ve seen God’s love in plenty of folks who aren’t Christian, I believe that salvation is universal, and the United Methodist Church (my denominational affiliation) overtly states that religious minorities should be respected.

So here I was sitting across the table from this family who probably hadn’t prayed with anyone non-blood relatedn quite some time, and I sensed that they craved a shared prayer. I offered it not because I wanted to convert them to Christianity (after all, they seemed pretty devout without my contribution) but because I was meeting them where they were, instead of where I was. Sure, I’d made a commitment not to proselytize or be “that” kind of Christian. But really, I wasn’t either of those things. I was trying to be present in a way that would be comforting to them. I was trying to model God’s love. 

They wanted me to lead the prayer, so I prayed for well-behaved children whose bellies were full of corn and rice, for a mother who wouldn’t have to worry about how to feed her children, and for peaceful souls who could have faith that God provides. I didn’t know if any of those things would ever come to pass, but I believed that it was possible for this one family to experience improved circumstances.

After the meeting, I reported to the director of PID about what I had learned. She responded that this was an “emergency situation” and that we should act fast before the boys had the chance to steal again. Alicia Fall, the director of Her Many Voices (the non-profit that coordinated our trip to Haiti) had brought quite a bit of non-perishable food that had originally been planned for our team members before we learned that our meals would be provided at the clinic site. PID was able to get food to Marie-Jean’s family by the end of the day, and the boys haven’t stolen since that first meeting last week!!!

I’ll tell you more about the subsequent visits with the family in future blog posts. In closing, I just want to say that I witnessed an amazing transformation in Marie-Jean and her children over the course of a few days. And as they transformed, I did as well. Sometimes in spite of my idealism that along with others I can help make the world a better place, my realism brings me down. I still can’t help but wonder about the hundreds of millions of other families who are in a similar situation. After all, almost a billion people in this world don’t have access to clean drinking water. And I can’t solve that problem alone. It’s too big. But our small work team, with the expertise of PID, has been able to help one of those families, and seeing them change so quickly has been quite incredible.

A tent city in Port-au-Prince

Homeless in the shadow of cathedral ruins

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!