As the truck rolled past the gates of the airport, I knew I was over my head. This was my first time in Haiti, back in 2010, and I was faced with a lot of thoughts swirling around my conscious. Things that had been pushed so far back into my subconscious were making their way into the forefront of my brain as we passed burning piles of trash and open sewage lines. Poverty, at that time so clearly explainable to me; it was harsh and unrelenting. I wondered how people could live in such an environment.
This is not unlike some of the attitudes I meet today. Shaking hands with people, well meaning folks that come to some of our speaking engagements, they ask me how in the world I can work in such a horrible place. Their questions cut me. I hate hearing people color Haiti, a place I have fallen in love with, by such harsh statements. I hate to think of my friends who are more like family there as anything less than what they are: amazing humans. I also hate these statements, though, because they remind me of my own thoughts. They remind me that we are all capable of totally and completely misjudging situations and using our own privilege to say it doesn't matter when we are called out.
When I first met one of my friends in Haiti she spoke with me very openly about racism she'd experienced. I thought it interesting, as Haiti is a black nation, that she'd feel this way. But, what she was referring to, I believe, is this idea of systemic oppression: that the powers that be prefer the west (often times white people like me). I would be lying to you if I did not say that I saw it, too. It has benefitted me in health situations or situations where we have needed to cut lines. It has helped me in times where I might have been scared. I have been obviously and unashamedly prefered in Haiti because of my skin tone. Haitians have suffered for years at the hands of powerful people (labeling themselves anything from "missionaries" to businessmen to NGO workers). I have heard stories first hand of forced prostitution, money mismanagement, and more, that Haitians have suffered at the hands of people with more power than they have.
I share this because it really, in many ways, took me working in another country to see the privilege that carries into our own American suburbs and cities. Growing up in the south, I am not amiss of opinions or stories of prejudice, but I was also weary to "go there" because it seemed so distant and in the past. Being a second generation American, it did not feel as if I had any privilege. My ancestors did not really build America- they came here much later. However, doing the work that has needed to be done in Haiti to build and restore healthy relationships with my friends, I realize that the work really is ours to be done. It does not matter if you "weren't here" for the atrocities in the years past. It doesn't matter if we weren't a part of the march on Saturday. If we are of privilege, we have to use it for restoration.
You might think you are not of privilege. I used to think this, too. This is not a bad thing, or a thing that you have acquired. This just simply is. Like the way I have cut in lines at Haitian hospitals when I have needed to, there are just certain unspoken rights we have based on the color of our skin and appearance we have. It's there. So, the real question is what are we doing with it? I came across this question when I was working in Haiti, as well. I realized that I was using my own background to be a "voice for the voiceless" when what I really needed to do was just use my voice to silence everyone so that those with the real voices could speak. We don't have to know what to say or how to respond, we just have to listen.
I just finished my fieldwork for school, a time where I was to intentionally think through cultural nuances and traditions I was seeing in Haiti. It was a time where I was to interview people to understand their culture more. I thought this would be a breeze for me, as I have worked in Haiti for nearly 7 years. Instead, I uncovered another layer of my own understanding: assumptions. I was shocked to learn some of the information I did, even about close friends of mine there. It wasn't that I did not care before, but it was that I did not ask questions and I did not listen. I was rooted in good intentions, but not in understanding. I am not afraid to admit this, because my work in Haiti has shown me that the only real mistake we make is making these crazy assumptions and driving them home with our action (or inaction). Listening to people is an intentional act; it doesn't just happen.
In the light of the events that happen all around the world, from my tiny corner of Haiti to my tiny corner in southern Alabama and beyond, let us not forget what it means to love one another. In love, we listen. In love, we champion one another. In love, we ask for forgiveness. In love, we really seek to change our own behaviors, thoughts, and misconceptions. In love, we learn more about the struggles and issues of our friends. I am hopeful, because I know we all can ask more questions and seek the reconciliation we all need. After all, "love covers a multitude of things" (1 Peter 4:8)
Last month, I was finally reunited with my friend Jesselyn in Haiti. We'd both been in and out of Haiti for the past year or so, but we kept missing one another. We decided to fly out together from Port-Au-Prince and ended up even spending the night in a shut-down Miami awaiting our postponed flights.
We chatted at the bistro upstairs of the boarding area, overlooking the little American Airlines terminal. We moved our tickets around to sit next to one another, not being able to stand the excitement of being around one another. "So much to catch up on," I said to her as we boarded the plane.
Wouldn't you know, there's just something about the hum of an airplane that lulls me to sleep? I fought it, but when Jesselyn ended up putting in her headphones, I dozed off. We woke up in Miami and laughed at how little time we'd spent talking.
Granted, airplanes are loud. And, they are these uncomfortable sort of "in between" spaces. I mean, in this case, we are literally in between two countries, high up in the air. But, it has got me thinking about all the discomfort I feel when I experience an "in between" space. And it feels as if my life has been kind of full of them lately.
Battling several different health issues, needing a new place for us to be based out of for the US side of the non-profit, needing to work on some areas of brokenness in both myself and my marriage...I found myself in quite an "in between" space this year. Somehow all the years of being packed solid with activity and adventure came to a screeching hault for me and it was terrible. Who was I if not the adventures I lived? I came to realize that my discomfort with those in between spaces and long, breathy pauses made me want to crawl out of my own skin.
I kept thinking about how many times I am faced with a pause and what I do with that time. Sometimes resting is good. Sleeping in that plane was great. However, more times than not, I find myself being lulled to sleep by the convenience of the world around me and the lack of energy I have to put forth any effort to love or care for people. I check out. I look at my phone, I stare at the tv, I do anything to avoid the discomfort of just being with that strange and taunting in between space.
It's that whole "I can't adult" culture thing that convinces me that I have a right to check out of my own awkwardness. I have somehow, through all of this, actually convinced myself that it is actually better for me if I don't deal with pain or weird uncomfortable stuff or issues that matter. I have actually convinced myself that the condition of my life and heart could be better off if I spent that awkward time watching the MTV hit "Catfish" and stuffing my face with gluten free chocolate chip cookies. Whoof. That's a lie.
While I have been thinking about all of this since my last plane ride home to the US, it took Haiti to show me this again.
We flew down at this particular time to help out our national partners with their summer camp. We have about 130 kids that come daily to our huge pavilion and it just takes a lot to run. Working with kids, it is obviously very important to have structured time. However, there is just no way to keep 130 kids totally occupied from 8-2:30 every single second of the day. So, we were faced with a lot of awkward pauses. It feels weird for me, the person hosting a team, to see these pauses. It reminds me that we are not in control of the schedule or how the kids will respond to something. It makes me feel somehow ill-equipped and like a sham. Who am I to have thought that I could help host this kind of camp?
But then, I see what actually happens while I am attempting to avoid these awkward pauses.
The people dance.
The people talk.
The people play.
The people argue.
The people embrace their time.
Time is a precious commodity all over the world. But, people in Haiti remind me of this. These pauses, in fact, are not weird or awkward or limiting. They are instead sacred. They are full of the life we make. They are full of the trials we face. They are full of raw emotion and beautiful healing and full stories and facing our fears. They are full of embracing identity- who we are is a gift.
Haiti teaches me new things all the time. But, I am so thankful for this lesson: this gift. The gift of a pause. The gift of remembering how out of control our lives actually are. How we can dance through it all and embrace it. And to think, I had started trading that for cheetos and Modern Family.
My brother's band, The Mulligan Brothers, recently came out with a live album in which they cover the Civil War's song "From this Valley." I might be biased, but I love the cover. I have been listening to it non stop over the last month or so. The chorus says, "Won't you take me from this valley to the mountain high above..." While belting out this chorus, I started thinking about how unfamiliar I am with the physical landscape of mountains and valleys. In southern Alabama, we have a lot of coast and a lot of flat land. It wasn't until I moved to Haiti that I saw true valleys and mountains.
About a year ago, we were invited up to a church in the mountains run by our current landlord. We were so excited to be able to go to see a new part of the mountainside, and we packed into our truck like little sardines. In the middle of the ride, the road became extremely narrow and I pushed up against my side of the car, screaming out in fear (dramatically). When I looked down, I saw a lush patch of grass and trees below us. Trying to take my mind off of the narrow road, I said, "Look at that beautiful greenery." To which my friend and I began to notice that it was a valley below.
In Haiti, there is a large amount of deforestation. It is still the Caribbean, tropical looking and all. However, there are a lot of dusty, barren roads and it surprised us all to see such a lush part of Haiti.
"I guess there's something special about a valley," I thought.
Here's the deal: I have to admit, that while I can sing the song about wanting to be on the mountaintop, I don't really get the imagery. I have been thinking about this landscape of Haiti for over a year now, and I am still thinking about it. Here's what I do know, though:
1.) The valley is lush. Things grow there. I know this sounds crazy, but I never fully put together the way rain must collect in a valley. Seeing the rows of banana trees and mango trees down below reminded me of the importance of rain. Those rain storms, both expected and totally surprise, create the lush and amazing scenery that I see in the valley.
2.) The valley is surrounded and safe. One thing I noticed about the valley is that it was surrounded. Man, mountains are just gorgeous and I realized that the valley was surrounded. Without it being surrounded, it wouldn't be a valley anyway, right? I thought about how safe the people there must feel, to look up and see these amazing mountains surrounding them. They are big, and safe. So, while things are growing in the valleys, while the rain runs downstream there, there is also a feeling of safety.
3.) The mountaintop is nice, too- because it provides perspective. The difference between the mountain and the valley on this trip was the perspective. I don't know that the people in the valley even know how lush their landscape is. Before, I have walked through a field of banana trees and not thought about the growth of these trees. But, on a mountain top, it is hard to not see how lush the scenery is in the valley below. The perspective is important.
This year has been a doozy. We did not anticipate me spending so much time in the US or having health problems that lasted this long. We did not anticipate having to really restructure our lives for the foreseeable future. We also did not really know we were in a valley. We just knew that the trees were thick, so thick we couldn't see. We knew there was a lot standing in our way. We knew that there were a lot of new and challenging situations.
It wasn't until we started coming out of it that we realized how much we were growing. We didn't realize that the valley is hard, but it's where the growth comes from. It's scary, but it is worth it.
Haiti has taught me a lot, but this is one of those unexpected lessons. A valley is beautiful. It's full of life (and mangos). It's where the growth happens. And even though I am not familiar with mountains and valleys in the most basic of ways, I am learning what it means to embrace both seasons from gazing up into the mountains in Haiti.
A few years ago, we were staying at our friend's beachside hotel/mission house in Carres, Haiti. We'd been staying there on and off, as we did not have a place in Montrouis we were renting yet and this mission was near and dear to our hearts. At the end of a long day, we'd all be ready to take a shower. I remember the first night we were without water. We actually ran out of it. I was mid-shower and had soap all over my hair. After laughing it off, I walked down to the ocean and rinsed the soap out of my hair. We laughed about it and moved on.
When we moved into our house down the street from this beachside hotel, we learned how difficult it was to get running water. Our daily chores consisted of pumping water up from our well or going to a friend's well and having him help us pump it into our big, blue container. Then, we have to pump it into our holding tank on the roof of our house.
None of these anecdotal stories even comes close to painting the picture of the type of situation people in Haiti deal with when thinking about water. What it does do, however, is show how time consuming securing water can be. I never knew, growing up in the USA, how much convenience running water provided. Because of running water, I could consistently do other things in my life. I could go to school. I could have fun after school with my friends. I could bathe when I was dirty and flush the toilet when I wanted to do that. Without consistent access to water, everything changes.
Children in our community go to school if they can. They then go to our canal outside of our house and collect water to do some of the things I have listed above. They put their murky water in jerry cans or old bleach containers and head up the hill to where they live. They must use this gallon of water for all the things they wish to do that day, or they have to make the trek back down to the canal.
Imagine sending your children to collect water. Imagine them walking to isolated and secluded streams and canals, scooping water up with their little cans. They miss school. They are, in many ways, doomed to repeat this life with their own children. How hopeless do you feel as a parent?
I have known people who have lost children who make the statistic about the 801,000 children who die every year due to diarrhea in developing countries pop off the page
I remember walking with some children to a collection site when we were building a catchment tank years ago. We passed several broken wells in the area and the kids said they had never used them. After some research of our own, we realized that many wells in Haiti break down and are never fixed because the community has never been trained in this type of thing. Additionally, Haiti's salty island water does not always provide clean drinking water from a well. There's just not enough water.
When we first started working with water, I thought it was just about water. Hearing the stories and seeing the collection sites of people has really changed my mind. Here's the truth: Water changes everything. Water can keep kids in school. Clean water can keep people out of the hospital. Water can unite communities. Water projects can bring people together to care for their most precious asset. Water is important if you care about healthcare issues, schooling issues, child trafficking prevention, hopelessness, and more. It's all wrapped up in water.
While I am thankful for the opportunities I have had to get to know the people who are in need of more access to water, I am also burdened by the stories I hear. In Haiti, nearly 50% of the deaths in country are due to some type of clean water issue. That's insane to me. I have known people who have lost children who make the statistic about the 801,000 children who die every year due to diarrhea in developing countries pop off the page (CDC.gov). I have sat with grieiving mommas as they wonder if what their child has is a normal stomach flu or something more intense. The statistics are no longer statistics, they are my friends and community.
When we, especially those of us living in the developed world, are presented with these types of facts, we have a few options. I know people who have literally asked me to stop sharing because they feel so helpless they don't know what to do. They want to live with the blinds shut and ignore the problems of the world. It's just too much for them. There are others who want to rush and "save" those in need. They spend thousands of dollars to paint buildings or drill wells. There is a third way, though. I am learning more about it all the time. It's using our skills and resources to empower nationals. I believe this is the way to lasting change, including with the water crisis. While wells can provide amazing pics, unless people in the community know how to fix it, it might just be a hopeless situation in a few years.
I have been consistently impressed by the innovation of the Haitian people. This includes their ability to problem solve and create when dealing with a lack of access to water. I have seen people create large solutions to difficult problems using far less money than a team of westerners uses to take a trip somewhere and drill a well. It has caused me to look my own philosophy and missiology (originally rooted in "wanting to save these people") and realize that to love these folks well, we have to be willing to set our own egos down and do what they know they need.
So then, when we were approached by a local about helping route the spring water from up the mountain down into the foothills, we were intrigued. It didn't happen overnight, but the idea became clear to us through conversation and understanding. These folks in the foothills had thought about the spring water up the mountain and had already set up pipes to have the water funneled down untouched. All they needed was a way to have a source set up for them to use.
We have been working with clean water in Haiti for nearly 7 years now. While I do not claim to be an expert, I can also share with you the hope that water brings. The projects that we do unite the community, bringing out people who bring what they can to the table. The lives of the people working are forever changed and it is an honor to be able to work with them.
I have been challenged by our "mission trip" culture. If you're willing to spend $1,500 to go to Haiti for a week to build a latrine, but are dismissive of giving $300 to a project done by locals, what does this reveal about us? I am challenged, deeply, to give to the poor and disadvantaged to help them create and cultivate their own answers. I am inspired by those I know who have done this before. And, I would like to extend the invitation for you to be a part of a large project we are doing. Check it out: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/konbit-haiti-clean-water-for-montrouis-haiti
Most of all, do not be discouraged. There is no need to close the blinds because of the overwhelming issues in the world. Let's come together and join in the fight with our friends across the world in whatever way we can. My favorite Haitian saying is this:
Senye, nou kontan se pa nou k'ap kembe ou men se ou k'ap kembe nou.
Lord, how happy we are that it is not us that hold you, but you that hold us.
He is empowering people across the world and we have the unique opportunity to jump in and be a part of it!
It was etched into my mind, but it was hard to remember even still. Like a faded memory, or stretching to see the time on my clock in the morning without my glasses on, it was so blurry. The honesty of Haiti hits me like a brick every time I come back home (here). Nothing hides here, at least not in the same way that we hide in the USA.
The heat does not come on gently, but seems to linger both before the sun rises and after it sets. The sun shines so brightly and brashly; the trees break out harshly from the ground. The kids do not make their feelings hidden, rather expressing them loudly for their interested neighbors to hear. The trash burns, reminding the community of their waste. Each night, everyone faces the incredibly honest fact that it is 2017 and many of them do not have access to electricity.
Haiti is brutally honest. It does not hide itself for others, nor does it pretend to be anything other than what it is: take it or leave it. While many see this as a bad thing, I have really started to welcome it. Because it is in Haiti that I myself have learned to be honest.
In the United States, we can hide from one another, from our fears and our opinions. We can hide even when it looks like participating. We share Facebook posts or sit over coffee and discuss ideas. But, we are hidden. Our lives are hidden from one another; our fears are unknown to each other; our abilities can be stretched or elaborated. Reality is a confusing thing to us in the United States at times. We are unsure of what is right and wrong, for some of us. Unsure of how to fight injustices, we either make excuses or talk them into the ground.
In Haiti, these things laid on my heart are put to the test almost instantaneously. I can no longer speak of a life I long to live, but put my faith and actions to work as I am in the middle of an incredibly honest culture.
I look back on my life experiences here and laugh. I think about how one of the first times I ever really heard this honesty was one of my first months in Haiti in which a woman turned to me, after several attempts at saying it in Creole, said in her broken English “Your butt! …its beautiful…and so big!” The honest parts of this culture challenge me in all ways, for sure.
While it can be hard, it is also enlightening. For me here, there is no stretch between what reality is and what my concept is. I see the reality of people I work with and know and love every day. This is their reality. My reality is that I have chosen to be a part of this life with them for some moments, and even in that never fully understand it. Though my perspective is different, reality doesn’t change.
Haiti reminds me of the importance of putting your actions behind your words. How it might be easy for me to hide in a coffee shop or wonder aloud at the injustices in the world, but it really doesn’t change much. In order to change, we have to put in the work. It can be long and painstaking, it can cause us to suffer. But, man, this honesty that I am met with in Haiti is something I need so desperately. I cannot hide. I am who I am here; I am only capable of what I can bring. I have realized rather quickly that if you bring something without love, it is nothing.
So often we feel badly for nations who are unlike our developed countries. We wonder what it must be like to go to sleep without food or lose someone to a disease with a common cure. While these are worthy reflections, I find myself caught between two realities. There is one that says my life is only good if I have access to all of these things, if I can spend money and do things I need to do, if I can put myself first. The other reality is here and it is honest. It tells me that while our needs are important, that nothing can truly replace our character, our honesty, and the amount of love we give away.
When the sun is lower in mid-afternoon, that's when many of the children come to the canal. This is the space where a lot of our community collects water to use for various things around their homes. The canal runs all the way down from a clean water source in the mountains, passing through all kinds of communities until it reaches its final, somewhat dusty destination in Seboy. People use that canal like anyone would use their only source of free water. Unlike the United States, people cannot just turn on a tap and get the water they need. So, many times they bring their cars to this source, parking them nearby and scooping up the water from the canal to wash their vehicles. Other times, people use it as a bathing site. Though perhaps undignifying, it also makes things easier (especially if you are a kid). Others come to the cover that our friend Dan built to retreat from the scorching sun and do their laundry as a group. Needless to say, the canal is always busy with some form of life as a rural Haitian knows it.
Our development center/home/headquarters is all right behind the canal. While it once seemed like a "random" location, I see the benefit of it now. I can't imagine having a place anywhere else as we have grown our programs and reach in this area. I am thankful for the ways that I have been able to so seamlessly interact with a community I love but am (obviously) different from and the way the location of our house has helped me to do so. I am also so thankful for the lessons I have learned from the other staff people from within that house. The way they interact with the community has made me inspired, has empowered me to persevere, and has been a learning experience in belonging.
We have all the technological advantages at our fingertips in the country I am from, the United States. We have ways to connect that I am too old (and disinterested) to understand. We have ways to share our feelings and thoughts and "friendships," but there is something missing. And, it's a deep "something." Somewhere along the way, in between making sure our children and our friends and our homes and our country gets "the best," we have forgotten what it means to belong. We have forgotten the importance of taking care of our brothers and sisters. We have become so tunnel visioned that we perhaps even forget there is a world outside of our busy lives.
It is draining, for me, to live this way. It is difficult to connect with people over the internet. It is hard to truly get to know the heart and motivation of folks who are flying by. It is a fast paced world we live in, and I know many people who wish to slow down (and some who even succeed in this). But, the slowing down doesn't necessarily bring us together. If anything, it continues to seperate us based on the pace of our lives. We still don't remember, in many ways, what it means to belong to one another.
One night, as I was in our kitchen cleaning up with Clelie, I heard a scream from outside. "Madam Dan!" the little one cried, "Madam Dan!" She laughed and answered back to the child through the window. I smiled, knowing it was one of the many kids in our children's program. "He's bathing out here in the open!" the child shouted, tattling like children do. I laughed and looked at Clelie, who rolled her eyes and promptly rebuked the child for not caring if they were exposed to the community. It was at that moment that I realized just how impactful her life was, not just to me, but to the entire community.
I have spent the better part of 3 years watching this woman operate. She's a mother of an active two-year-old, a wife, and a leader in Konbit Haiti. She goes to school for education. She cooks and helps organize life in Haiti. She helps organize our women's program. And, most of all, she teaches us all how to belong to one another. There is never a time where her door is truly closed to a community member. In times where I have felt overwhelmed and wanted to tuck away, she has challenged me by her own life, opening her hand to those in need. We do not do "feeding programs," but she takes it upon herself to make sure that many of the children in the community are fed regularly. She is quick to give advice. She is the mother of an entire community.
No matter where we live, there are always people who care for the community. And, usually people have something to say about it. Maybe she's from there; she "gets" the people better. There are always excuses like that, right? But, the honest truth is that while she is Haitian, she is not from Seboy, our little community by the canal. It is actually quite different than the community she is from and she did not have to adjust in the way she did. She moved there when she got married and struggled to connect with our community, too. Perhaps what spurred her on was her own culture and faith. She remembered an essential lesson that her nation has not yet forgotten: we belong to one another. Her heart hasn't turned cold toward the needs of her community, no matter how new it may be.
I have learned a lot from Clelie, but this is perhaps one of the biggest lessons. Today is Mother's Day in Haiti, and I wish the happiest of all days to the mother in our community. Clelie, you are a gem and we love you so much. Thank you for teaching us.
The whole month of May always has me thinking about mothers. In the USA, we celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of the month. In Haiti, it is usually the last Sunday of the month. Between planning for my mother and mother-in-law in the USA and then helping our family ministries plan for our huge Mother's Day Celebration, I am pretty much fixated on one thing this month: mothers.
I have a wonderful mother, one who has always embodied sacrifice in a way that I have always been able to identify. She sacrificed sleep, she was always the first one up and the last one to bed. She sacrificed her own wants and needs to make sure we had what we needed, which I realized more as I grew up. She sacrificed so much for us, and I will always be thankful for that.
As my time in Haiti marches on, though, I often think of the sacrifice that is not seen. It is often misunderstood by us, as well. It's the sacrifice of a birth mother, bringing her child to an orphanage or children's home.
Haiti is filled with orphanages. It's a serious problem that has grabbed my heart. As I figure out ways to put more language behind my significant feelings, I will write about it. In May, though, I often think of the birth mothers I have known and those I haven't known in Haiti (and beyond). I think of how they are such unsung heros in a world of total misconception.
On my first day in Montrouis, Haiti, I went to work at an orphanage we fondly called the "Number 7 Orphanage." The blue gate, at that time, had a mere #7 spray painted on the front of it and inside lived about 30 children with a Haitian pastor and his wife. I remember all of the misconceptions I had about this place when I first began working there:
I can't believe all of these children had parents who died in the earthquake!
I can't believe none of these kids have been adopted!
I want to adopt all of them! Right now!
Somehow, without asking a single question, I began thinking about the parents who had died in the earthquake in Port-Au-Prince, a good two hours away from this orphanage. I began wondering, aloud, how many of these children I could adopt (maaaaajor faux paux). I did not stop to ask anything about the children or their histories. I just assumed.
When I tell people I work in Haiti, many tell me about their own experiences. Often times, it is of working alongside an orphanage. They go to "love on the kids," and talk about their important work. I often wonder at these things, but I stop in my tracks when I hear about the "horrible mother who abandoned her child." It visibly changes my face and...let's face it, I usually say something (I mean, I can be quite emotional ;)). The fact is, these perceptions are so one-sided and biased. It places the assumptions of the "best" on us and the "worst" on these mothers we have never met. And, it makes me sad.
I don't know when it was that my assumptions about the #7 Orphanage started being challenged. I wish I could say it was when I realized how ethnocentric I was being and that I started asking all the questions I could ask. However, I really think it was when I could start understanding Creole, the native language of Haiti. I remember hearing my dear sweet Jean Cleline, one of the kids in the orphanage. She had told me about her mother dropping off her and her brother and sister at the orphanage.
I remember my mouth agape, looking at my husband and friends. I loaded up in our blue truck and stared out into the busy road, "I had no idea they had parents..."
From that moment on, my life became about understanding the situations that drive parents to feel their children are better off in an orphanage. As a matter of fact, this is the exact thing I will be writing my Master's degree thesis on starting this summer. It is so interesting to me, in part, I believe, because it is so misunderstood. By me, and by others, too.
I remember moving into our house and people asking when they could drop their children off at the center. We laughed, but after a little while, we started asking "Why would you want to drop your child off here?" The answer was almost always the same: I want my child to have a good life.
What I have realized about the universality of motherhood is this: everyone wants what is best for their child. And, in Haiti, people have far less options for support and help. As a matter of fact, in a recent study, developing world mothers were asked how likely they were to feel equipped to keep their children if they had access to schooling programs and other supplemental programs for their children, and a whopping 90% said they would certainly keep their children in this case(faithtoaction.org). Guys, this is a large number.
If this is true, which the research shows that it is, then we need to start seeing the orphan system as a great sacrifice for parents. We need to make sure we understand just what we are doing when we go to an orphanage on a trip. We need to get the point when people bring up orphanages, especially in the developing world, that we understand just how difficult it must have been for a parent to say their goodbyes to their children and head back up that mountain. We must understand what it means for someone to feel so hopeless and so helpless that the best option for their child is to drop them off at a place like an orphanage.
I would like for us to stop demonizing mothers like this, who have their children in orphanages, and instead look at them for who they really are. They are mothers making an immense sacrifice for their children. Additionally, they are making a sacrifice that is perpetuated through our Western desire to volunteer at an orphanage instead of give toward family empowerment programs. We play a part in supporting this system when we go on trips to support these systems, de-humanize the mothers and their own stories of sacrifice, and continue to see ourselves as the heroes of the story.
I am not attempting to dumb down the complex situation of the orphan crisis, nor am I saying that every birth mother is a saint. But, I am saying there is another, more holistic and honest, option out there to be aware of and know. The sacrifice is real. The ways we can help are real. So, let's start there!
Happy Mother's Day to Mothers- all of you who sacrifice in various ways to make sure your children are taken care of and loved.
She wraps her finger around mine and whispers, "Kisa ou ap fe?" She smells of charcoal and clothes that have sat in the sun the day before, drying out in that Haiti heat. Her little raspy voice is adorable and I wonder if it comes from her mother's side or her daddy's...and I am struck by that thought because I don't think she'd know either. "Kisa ou ap fe?" she asks again, begging me to answer the question: What are you going to do?
I am sure she means today. Later this afternoon. After I leave her home. She wants to know the way my life moves outside of this little orphanage with tin roofs and a palm frond school. She wants to know what we do in our house down the street. She jokingly asks me if I am going to make rice and bean sauce, because she knows it's my favorite. I laugh because I cannot even come close to making that amazing meal, but appreciate that she thinks I could.
For me, her words hold a little more weight than the immediate future. What I do when I leave the orphanage, her home for the last 6 years of her 9 years of life. When a little girl with the whole world in her heart, full of dreams and stars and goodness, looks at you with her chipped little front tooth and her adorable braids and asks you, "What are you going to do?" You notice your own location reeeaaall fast.
I am an American born girl, with family and friends who simultaneously worry about the work I do in Haiti and tell us how proud they are. I can afford to go back there if I am in need. I can eat the food I choose and not worry about if I can afford it tomorrow. And, lest I think this is some kind of cosmos-God-is-taking-care-of-me-because-He-loves-me-the-most type situation, I am reminded of the fierce (and real) love of the Father when looking at this sweet Haitian girl's face. When I see her deep concentration and her desire to learn, when I see her get along with her friends here, when they offer to pray for us before we leave...oh yes. I am reminded of a time a few years ago when my friend Sara looked at me during one of these prayers and said, "These are God's favorites." Yes, do I agree.
I have been on the bus to Struggletown since arriving back in the US some 7 months ago. And, honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with this question ringing in my head and these memories that linger. What are you going to do? I am struck with the reality of life in the USA as compared to a life more overseas and I am confused at how to walk in my day to day life. Daily, I work for things happening in Haiti, but I am surrounded by extreme luxury and people who do not seem to know how surrounded they are by this same luxury. It's a paradox that I am not used to and it both frightens and excites me to lean into this pressure of both worlds crashing around me.
If I had a dollar for every time people have asked me about how life has been "back in the real world" I would no longer need to do fundraisers for Konbit (maybe). It has been shocking because I want to twist around, my hair flowing around my head in a sassy way, and say "WHO'S real world?" My reality is not the reality of millions around the globe. They are the people that are on the news and make us feel uncomfortable. They are the people you perhaps read about on facebook or instagram. But, for me some of them have shared their tables with us. They have eaten with us, shared with us, loved with us, mourned with us, and prayed with us. These are not just people far away, these are people I have the extreme pleasure of calling "friends."
This real world that I am a part of for this season in my life is a sweet and difficult mix of two totally different worlds: grit under my fingernails and lunch dates; orphans in Haiti and driving a car; skyping with my friends in Haiti and joining my family for drinks. Nothing is bad, it's just a weird way to view my world lately. The fact is, though, that this is my reality.
But, my reality doesn't change anyone else's. For some, the real world is material wealth and roads and running water where you can drink straight from the tap. For others, it is sharing a home with your entire family, working so you can send your oldest daughter to school, and trying to find a job in your tiny little village. Just because its different does not make it less real. Our privilege is not most people's reality, friends.
While there seems to be more awareness than ever about how others are living across the world, it certainly does not seem to come with solidarity. As a matter of fact, a film clip on a facebook feed or a comment made by someone-who-knows-someone-who-has-been-there seems to drive the lines between "us" and "them" even further apart. It's been confusing. But, also, really enlightening.
I keep thinking about how informed we are, knowing everything. All the time. Being scared of everything. All the time. And, then I remember these kids in a small little village off the coast of a town in Haiti I never thought I would know. I think of these kids in mismatched clothes, wearing onesies as t-shirts and shoes with holes in them and praying fervently for their food and their people, and I remember that this is the kind of kingdom I belong to. This is what I want to pursue. In a place where I have been confused where culture ends and real conviction begins, I have found solace in these memories of people I know in Haiti.
"What are you going to do?" she asks. What are you going to do with this heavy reality of people living in different ways all across the globe? How does this change what you pursue in the United States? How does this change you?
For me, it has been the steady reminder that this is my "reality check," (pun intended). The USA is not the "real world" though everyone would like for me to believe that I am back in reality forever. It has been a call to remember that the things worth pursuing in life are a better world for everyone, not just myself. It has been a check in my Spirit to make sure my convictions represent my beliefs and not just what my culture tells me to do "for Jesus." It's remembering that there are so many important conversations worth having, but we've got to fight for them and fight through the discomfort they give us. It has been a fight, most of all, to think about what I am doing- to be intentional and aware of each thing I put my heart into.
I have become kind of comfortable with the fact that I do not have complete answers. And, that's kind of ok. For me, it seems like part of the answering is more questioning, anyway. I do not have the answers, merely a small scratch in my heart that there is more to the "real world" than what people perceive. Even though I know a few other realities, I do not know them all either. I think that's the whole point. Our kingdom is this kind: of orphans and run-aways, of people struggling and questioning, of people who long for heaven come to earth. We are kind of kingdom that does not turn our backs on people because it disturbs us.
Let us not forget we belong to a kingdom bigger than ourselves and the measure of one's faith in that place is not built on money and health- but on the endurance to run. Let's not forget to take our questions and dig deep and search. Let's not forget to learn from others realities.
A year ago, we experienced some deep tragedies both in the lives of our ministry staff and in our own personal family life. I wrote this reflection after spending some time thinking about it and realizing we could not afford to rush back home to be with our mourning family. What ended up happening brought us closer with our international staff and reminded me of our human family.
This spring could best be compared to one of Haiti’s lingering thunderstorms. It came with little fanfare, but stayed and hung over us for a while. We anticipated it greatly, but it was not what we had expected in almost any arena.
Spring is usually the celebration of something new. And, while we cling to hope that new things are being done, this spring time doled a harsh slap in the face for us and our staff and our families that the seasons outside do not necessarily represent the seasons in our personal spaces. For us, for many of our Haitian and Dominican friends and for many of our family members, this season of spring outside resulted in a winter inside.
It has been a few months since I have even sat down to write, mostly because words wouldn’t come. This season has been incredibly challenging, and while I felt exempt from it at first, I realized that this was just a season to mourn. The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a season to everything and a purpose for that season- and this truly was a season to be mindful of those mourning around us, to be in solidarity with them and yes, for ourselves to mourn well, too.
In late March, we were sad to hear that a volunteer for Justice Water DR was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was a hard worker, a great man and the brother to one of our leaders in this nation. In Haiti, one of our closest friends watched as her aging father passed. And, should we think we were free from these burdens, we had a shocking death in our family and another family member struggling with his hospital stay. All of this was within a 2 month period. It seemed that when things were supposed to be being made new, we were left with broken hearts and cool air. We were dealing with a sudden, unexpected storm in the middle of what was a season of joy and excitement. We were grieving.
Loss is interesting. As a child, I can recall when some of my grandparents passed, and how I simply wanted to help my parents deal with their grief. It is a place to be stuck: dealing with your own sadness while also wanting to be strong enough to help others deal with theirs. This…struggle, this proof of our own instability and imperfection and inability to be totally there for everyone all the time…it represents a bigger thing that loss shows us. Loss shows us that we are small and not often in control. Loss reminds us of our own mortality. Loss shows us just how shaky (or for some, also, how strong) our faith is to us and how truly we believe our convictions. Loss takes and shakes and makes us mourn.
But mourning does something different. It binds. It binds us closer to one another, closer to the things we believe in, and closer to mortality itself. I remember in the wake of the news of our own familial tragedy, some of the first people to comfort us were our friends Jose and his wife, Alexandria, those who had just lost a family member 2 weeks prior. It was truly humbling to have people we so desperately wanted to help and be present with turn around and comfort us. They hugged us, they met us with tears in their eyes and they mourned with us as we had with them. In Haiti, the same thing happened. We were met with teary eyed staff members who had been through so much, waiting with open arms to be there for us and with us. Though these men and women are our friends and co-workers in development, our season of mourning allowed us to reach a new level of knowing one another as brothers and sisters. It allowed us to reach out to one another in a way that was only in love and humility. We mourned. We didn’t offer simple answers or big explanations. We cried, and eventually we laughed. Our mourning and sorrow was met by a joy in knowing that we were not alone, even though Ryan and I were in different countries than our family during a difficult time. We were not alone, and that seems to be the power of mourning. It doesn’t soften the blow, but it eases the pain.
Going through the motions of security checkpoints and checking in for flights came like second nature to me. Even though I had not flown to Haiti since before the summer, my body remembered how to get there via plane, for sure. Upon arrival in Haiti, I was not overwhelmed like I thought I would be. It felt like coming home. The banjos playing in the airport, the chattering Creole, the teams with the matching shirts...it was all there in that airport. When the immigration officer commented on my "good" Creole, I laughed and thanked God I could remember enough to have a conversation with her.
Walking outside, the heat hit me first. But, following soon after were the emotions. So many emotions seeing so many people and knowing how many of them had stories that had changed in some way or another over the last 7 months.
I did not expect memories of the last time I was there, sick as a dog, to come flooding back to me so quickly on the route home. I did not expect to feel so overcome with thanks for the way God protected me in that time, processing that experience as if I were seeing it more clearly. I did not expect to feel so many emotions, reeling in my mind, as I was reunited with the teen mother who we've been praying for and supporting; the cooks for Konbit, who waited in the waiting room of the clinic that night with me; the people I have come to know as family- all who welcomed me with open arms.
I also did not expect to feel so sad. Sad for the woman who had lost her child due to a strange illness or lack of drinking water; sad for the way I made people worry about me there; sad I couldn't do more to help everyone; sad that I am not superwoman and can't do everything I want to do, that I expect myself to do.
Haiti has made me feel a lot of things in my time working and learning there. This short time visiting helped me to see ever so dimly through the veil that stands between the heavenly work God is doing and my miniscule understanding of it all. That in between place, where I have to squint my eyes and think real hard, is usually where I live. Wondering and waiting to "get it," to get the point of whatever it is I am suffering through or learning. This time was no different, but I do feel like I saw through the veil for a moment. Here's what I saw:
1.) Hope abounds. The first thing I felt when I walked into our little community was hope. It was overwhelming, almost tangible. Though people might not know where their meals are coming from or what is happening in their midst, they are hopeful. Flowers were growing, new baby animals were everywhere. It's new. And, it was a reminder that in the middle of everything up in the air, we can still hold onto hope (and hopefully baby animals).
2.) Our lives do not only affect ourselves, no matter how private we tend to be. I kind of sunk into a hole, being away from Haiti so much. I thought to myself that if I didn't share the intricacies of my own pain and life with anyone, that I could only affect myself. However, I realized when we landed in Haiti that that simply wasn't true. Those who love us and whom we love want to know the struggles and issues we are facing. They face them with us and we with them, even if we are far apart.
3.) We will never understand the fullness of the intricate plans God has for us. If there's one thing I learned this trip to Haiti, it was just how veiled our experiences are. The way I experience things in Haiti is different than even how Ryan does, nevermind our Haitian friends. Everyone sees things through their own lenses, their own personal experiences, and depending on what God is actually doing in the lives of the people experiencing things. I noticed that while I hated being gone, there was a lot of good that came out of it, as well.
4.) We can still mourn with those who mourn even when we don't understand. I am just one of those people. I like to tie things up neatly almost before I process them. It is difficult for me to just hear information and not know what to do to tie it up. When we got word that a little girl dear to our hearts (and certainly to the hearts of our friends in Haiti) had passed away suddenly, there was a gnawing at my heart to bury it. I didn't understand it, so I didn't want to deal with it. But, that is not the right way to do things, even in the inbetween time. This is still a painful injustice experienced by far too many parents in the developing world, but we can have a reaction to it: mourning with those who mourn. In that mourning, no matter where you are or what the situation entails, there is something holy that happens in that brokenness. If that's all we experience in this lifetime, then that is enough, too.
5.) There can be (and is) joy in what we don't understand. In the midst of feeling so much and also not knowing what to do with those feelings, I felt it might be best to lock myself away until I could get ahold of myself. However, I quickly realized that wasn't the only thing going on. While we convince ourselves that pain and sorrow are incompatible with joy, this just isn't so. Joy is best when paired with sorrow, I think! I saw and experienced so much deep joy in Haiti because I realized that it is not our circumstances which define us, but the hope withstanding it all. The hope that allows us to mourn collectively, the pain that comes when we the people we love are in pain, the friendship that endures miles and miles. This is what defines us, and this is what gives us joy.
This entire trip reminded me of this verse "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a (wo)man, I set aside childish ways. Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.…" (1 Cor. 13:11-13). I don't understand a lot of the heartache in Haiti (or the world) and how it is presented ever so harshly there, like a slap in the face. But, I do know that I don't see the whole picture. Clinging onto the fact that there is joy in the middle of not knowing and to the Map Maker Himself makes me remember that there is hope springing up in every corner. We see dim reflections in our life now, echoes of hope and joy in this life. We see enough for now, though. Enough to know that faith, hope, and love are intrinsically important to the lives we lead. Enough to know that what we see isn't the full picture, but a glimpse.
I am thankful for each glimpse I get- of heartache and pain, of friendship and long-suffering, and of the overwhelming feelings I have when I think of this crazy life we share as a human race, bound together by our experiences.
overthinker and under-planned; development worker, believer, friend, wife, sister, daughter; learning a lot every day.