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

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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.]