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.
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.
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.
A covered pot cooks in the corner and the sòs pwa scent rises up. Sitting on a small stool, she sits down and begins poking the ground with a stick. Sweat beads on her brow and her children run around her. She asks one of the children to go fetch some water for her while she laughs at what her friend says as she passes by. She is making dinner for her family, and likely many of her neighbors and friends who might stop by. The rice boils up, and it is not a lot. She is thankful for the some that she has. She shucks the peas as she waves off the flies that have gathered around the cooking food.
She is a Haitian woman.
She gets home after a long day on her feet. She comes home to a messy house, kids shoes thrown on the ground and screaming down the hall. She sits with her tea for a moment, and glances at the crossword puzzle in the paper. She sighs heavily as she gathers herself together to prepare a meal for her children. She checks the fridge to see what ingredients she can scrounge up before asking her teenage son to run out to the store. She laughs at the children down the hall.
She is an American woman.
My life has been a practice in observing strong women so that I might become one. Like the creation of a good meal, I have watched women all over the world work with what they have and make something beautiful out of their lives. I have been inspired by their confidence, their quiet self-assurance, their integrity, and their willingness to get things done.
Today, as it is International Women's Day, I can't help but thank God for the women I have had the privilege to know. To me, these women embody an entirely new perspective on the character of God. While we can call Him our Father, I also believe He is big enough to embody traits of a Mother.
I have seen women create something from nothing. Driven by the love they have for their families or friends or communities, they can't help but bring something together in a tender and caring way. Their imagination is second only to their strength. Through their dreaming, they are able to know their own strength to see their creations through: from meals, to new programs for their communities, to "just" making it work.
I would be lying if I didn't say that it took me a while to notice the women in my life as strong leaders and people to emulate. Growing up with three strong brothers, I often felt out of place and out of touch. I felt like I was supposed to care about things that I simply didn't care about. It was confusing. Until I noticed my mother. Either unaware or just not caring, my mom never put constraints on who she was. She was unapologetically herself, sometimes to my teenage embarrassment. But, she was herself. As I began to know her more as a woman, I began to embrace that part of myself. I grew an affinity for the "funky teachers" who were these unconventional women who dared to be dreamers and schemers. They challenged the status quo and in turn, challenged me.
In my work in Haiti, I was blown away by the charisma of many of the men I met on the island right away. Their loud and boisterous personalities and freedom drew me in from the first time I worked there. I remember telling my friend that I just didn't feel like I understood the women in Haiti, as they were quiet. Incorrectly, I mistook their meekness as weakness.
Though my time growing up in the USA taught me to be unapologetically myself, my time in Haiti has taught me to be myself no matter who thinks otherwise. Haitian women are genuine to the core. They can sense if someone is trying too hard and they are very protective of themselves and their tribe. They give meaning to the word family- and they do in such a way that is humble and sincere.
Through my time watching these two types of women live their lives, I realized that there are more similarities than differences. That fact, really, blows my mind on its own. Because on the surface they look so different, but underneath it's all the same.
We want to be seen. We want to be known. We want to stop being underestimated and start being respected. We want to know that our spouses/significant others respect us and take us seriously. We want to create and dream and be free enough to believe that those dreams aren't just for the boys, but are for us, too. I have seen the dreams that are on the hearts of the beautiful women I know around the world, and I know they are capable.
Strength doesn't always look like gregarious displays. Sometimes it does, though. Today I honor the women that display the heart of God- of caring, of love, of fighting for those they love. I thank them for the ways they press on in spite of difficult and harsh circumstance. And, I continue to want to find ways to connect with them, love them and carry on.
A plane flew overhead and I wanted to be on it.
Did the people I was with even know what a plane was like? Did they know where that plane was headed?
It was 2011 and I was working in a tent city in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. It was hot, dusty, and all around unpleasant. The mission we were working with made us hand out dried peach pesh and serve them to people out of 5 gallon white buckets. It seemed like a small gift to these people who had been going through hell.
The bathrooms were disgusting. Like, maggots growing in the toilets.
The water was scarce. Like, turbid and flowing through a canal.
The hope was gone. Like that airplane that went by.
I remember several of my experiences working with these displaced people. I remember learning they were displaced in the first place. Many of the people who were living on one side of the city did not have houses near there that crumbled, but were miles away in another part of town. Many of the people who were living in the tent cities had jobs, lives, family members- a typical life- until their house (and world) crumbled.
People claiming to help exploited them. Those who were helping asked them to consider converting to their religion as they tempted clean drinking water in front of them. They turned to one another for survival, but it was rough.
My experience was nearly 7 years ago and I still remember it well. I remember the shock that went through my system when I realized, truly, what these people had gone through. They'd lost real families and real friends and real jobs and real homes. I remember also knowing that I'd never know the pain like this: my entire world changing in an instant and people not understanding my situation. I remember those planes flying overhead.
I have never been to the Middle East. I have great friends who have worked there, I have friends who have worked with refugees in the USA, and I only have a little experience teaching ESL to some immigrants from this area of the world years ago. I cannot even pretend to imagine what it must be like to be fleeing Syria and wondering where I will go. I can't.
But, now, more than ever, I am beginning to understand that plane overhead. For those people in the Haitian refugee camp, that plane was their connection. Connection to the outside world can mean one of two things: hope or despair; life or death. With each influx of people from the US and other countries, Haitian camp dwellers could either be encouraged and inspired or they could have been taken advantage of- made to sell themselves to a UN worker or to have their pictures taken without their consent, made no better than an object.
While my friends and family might not have been thinking about Haiti and those people in the camps back in 2011, they were there. And, while people not be thinking about them now, many of them are still there. In the same light, while we might not all have the Middle East on our hearts and minds, but people in some of these areas are fighting for their lives. Living in camps with really horrible conditions, wondering if that plane passing by is bringing light or darkness.
We are a part of a global community. We don't get to choose this. In a world where we can email anyone in the bush of Tanzania or the mountains of Haiti, the poor and vulnerable are more accessible than ever. People facing horrible situations globally are able to post about it instantly on Facebook. The reason this is important, and the reason it might make us uncomfortable, is because we realize our own position as Americans.
Things like this begin to flit through our minds "The United States and Europe spent nearly ninety times as much on luxury items as the amount of money that would be needed to provide safe drinking water and basic sanitation for those in our global village who do not have these necessities now"- Groody, Globalization, Spirituality and Justice. Through acknowledging the poverty and bondage of others, we reveal our own poverty of heart- and the riches we also have to give. It changes us. And, that's uncomfortable.
Look, I picked an awkward time to relocate to being based out of the USA. The longest stint I have been in the US in 6 years and we have elected a very controversial president and are in the middle of a lot of complex problems in our world. I can get overwhelmed and upset with the rest of them. But, honestly, I keep remembering that plane.
We choose what kind of things we bring to people in crisis and desperation. We choose what kind of message we want to bring. Is it hope and love? Or is it death and meaninglessness? It is my prayer that in these times we remember who God is- the God who is Love, the God who took the part of a refugee and was incredibly impoverished growing up. I pray we remember that He is on His throne, no matter what chaos ensues. I also pray that He would make us brave- to face the injustices of poverty and war- with hope and change.
I walked through the community, weaving in between houses and trying to keep up with my two friends who knew where they were going. Some of the walls we passed were brightly painted pink and caribbean teal, but most of them were that concrete grey. The direct sunlight hit right down on us and there was no shade around. We walked up a small hill, covered in white rocks, and yelled out the Haitian Creole phrase for "You there?"
We'd arrived at Georgette's house. She answered back with the phrase for "Come on in!" and we opened the two sheets blocking her porch.
Georgette has stood out to me since the day I met her. She has a look about her, you can just tell she has been through so much in her life. Her community surrounding her call her "Ti Fanm" affectionately, meaning "Little Girl," due to her short stature. Though she is little, she has so much life behind her eyes. I learned a lot, even that day on her porch.
She was upset. Her daughter, one of the kids in our children's program, was pregnant. The man was older. Her daughter couldn't attend school any longer. She'd just sold her bed to help send her daughter to school. She was without a job, without choices.
I remember how much admiration I had for my friend, Clelie, who was with me. She so calmly assured Georgette that her life would be ok, yet also spoke sternly to her, with love like a mother. I listened on, mostly understanding their fast paced Creole conversation and vacillating between wanting to burst into tears and just bottle it up. What a world this woman faced every day.
We left her house with a hug and a smile. We had a plan of how to help her and her daughter work through the 9 months that would follow. But, even more than that, we had a connection with her.
Georgette began coming to our ministry house randomly. She'd stop by for a little food, offer to wash some of our clothes, hang out with us, and share about her life. She'd shared about her old hopes and dreams. She'd bring her other, younger daughter by when she was visiting. The way she spoke was as if she was a 75 year old woman, looking back at her life. But, it wasn't until I started to know her more that I realized she'd lived all that life in a mere 32 years.
Heartache, disappointment, being taken advantage of, being told she was worth nothing without a husband, struggling to find something to eat, taking care of her children...feeling alone and desperate and in need of help all at the same time.
Georgette represents a large majority of women in Haiti, and really many women in the developing world. She has more rights than some, far less rights than others around the world.
As I got to know Georgette more, I liked her more. She became this hilarious light in my life and shared her broken and hard story with me. Even though there were times I was not in Haiti, she'd still write me (and writes me still) updating me with pictures of her new grandson, her life, and her work. Becoming friends with Georgette has unpeeled a layer of definitions that I always held close to my heart, being in this line of work. I had clung to words like "empowerment," "freedom," and "opportunity," but I had such conceptual and American views on what those words meant. Not that American women do not know struggle, but knowing Haitian women opened up an additional world to me.
I have always been passionate about the rights of the marginalized. Women's freedoms are (obviously) very personal to me. However, meeting Georgette and the women in her community showed me that being passionate about women's rights means more than caring about myself. It means so much more- sisterhood transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. It is about knowing that somehow, as Lilla Watson once said, "my liberty is bound up in yours."
I have realized, through my friendships with women in Haiti (and the DR, and around the world), that my life is different through knowing the struggles of the international community. My freedom has truly been bound up with theirs- and the staggering differences between my freedoms and theirs shocks me consistently.
This has been an inspirational cornerstone for me these days. Today, as the Women's March on Washington happened and I proudly (metaphorically) stood with my sisters as they brought attention to some issues that certainly warrant it, I also received a text from Ryan.
It was a picture of Georgette. Working on her bags with our small business, Fanm Konbit.
When I met her just over a year or so ago, she was angry and sad. She was hopeless and wanting out. She had given up.
Through the love of a community, through the efforts of many realizing their liberation being bound up with up hers, through the empowering and fearless and ferocious love of God, she has begun to come up out of her heaviness of hopelessness and into a light of liberation.
Let's not just throw around these catch phrases of empowerment and freedom, without realizing what painstaking work this is. Giving someone else freedom might mean losing your own privilege or what you believe you deserve. But, its worth it.
Because what happens when we aim to empower and help free those we see in shackles, something interesting happens: they free us from the chains we don't realize we wear.
The Love of God is such that He gives us this fellowship- this love and devotion- that we would set folks free and in the same breath become more free ourselves.
I thank God for Georgette and the work she is doing in Haiti. For the life she is living now. For the ways she has taught me to be more real and truer to myself; for the ways she's shown me beauty in weakness and defeat. I am most thankful for this sisterhood of wonderful women, all over the world, but especially in Haiti. What a family to have.
In my last post, I casually mentioned that I was in Haiti for a live birth a few years back. While those of you who are close to me know the gory details, there are a lot of people with whom I have never shared this story. I find that around Christmas time, especially, I have this desire to share the story of how little Shelisa came into the world.
This was our first trip to Haiti, with the largest team I have ever been associated with. While it was so nice to get to know everyone on the team, I don't really reccomend traveling to Haiti with that many people.... annyway...there we were, all 16 of us plus our country hosts in the middle of a tent city in Port-Au-Prince called Soupis. Earlier that morning, we had helped the pastor we were working with set up his make-shift church. We spent most of our time building a "fence," seriously a couple of large sticks sticking into the rocky dirt, which surrounded the tent church. So many folks showed up, praising God while waving their hands. It amazed me then, and still amazes me now, to see clean, pressed dresses and suits emerge from make-shift homes. There was no exception at this church service and it was so neat to witness.
The pastor's (recent) wife, Shelly, was pregnant. None of us knew exactly how far along she was. She was a tiny little thing, none of us really knowing she was pregnant from behind. So, it was a little interesting when she let out a scream into the afternoon, letting us know the baby was getting ready to come. Hospitals in Haiti, or at least in Port-Au-Prince during the year of the earthquake, do not take walk ins. They do not have ambulences to come and get you where you are. When they were called, the hospital staff told us that Shelly's appointment was at 8 that night, and they would see her then.
Returning to Shelly, with our dear friend Asha attached to her side, it became pretty obvious that she was not going to last until 8pm. By 5, her contractions were already 2 minutes apart.
This was a time in my life where I didn't fill in those gaps. You know the ones? We have them about other cultures. Many of you reading this might have the same gaps I had as you read this story. There was no doctor, there were no nurses. So, logically, our instict was to use our hour long health care training and set up to have the baby. Looking back, I do wonder if one of the many, experienced Haitian mommas and friends there would have been more helpful in this situation. Nonetheless, we set up and prepared for this baby to enter the world.
Everyone has their own perspective of the events that traspired after that. Setting up a plywood pallet with our backpacks as pillows, Shelly laid down on the pallet as we bleached every utensil we could find. People gathered around as we hooked up electricity and the sun set. The generator hummed in the distance, the smell of gasoline from said generator filled the air and the breeze from the ocean a few miles away hit our sweaty faces. Some people took pictures and video. Others gathered in the corner to pray. Some, like me, were timing contractions, updating people, and sanitizing everything.
Expecting a little boy, we were all shocked when a pale little girl popped out and was placed on Shelly's chest. It honestly was the most beautiful and horrible thing I have ever seen, being in the middle of that tent city on that night in December. Watching as the baby crowned and finding floss to tie off the ambilicul cord, it was all incredibly surreal. Its an experince I will never forget...and I will never ever forget how it felt to catch the placenta in a plastic bowl in the middle of that chaos and beauty.
The reason I think about this, on the month of Shelisa's 6th birthday, is because it does bear so much resembelnce to the Christmas story. I think about Shelly's face when she knew she was having that baby then and there. I think about the women, those amazing Haitian women, who gather together and just know the right things to say, the ways to joke, the prayers to mutter. The way they gathered and supported Shelly so lovingly was such a learning moment for me. I think back to our western team, our good hearts to help and our total dramatazation of the whole thing, too. As if women in Haiti don't see this situation all the time! I think of how much we wanted to help and how in that moment so many of us felt the call to be midwives. I think about ol' Pastor George, a man who had created a scandal within the church itself by getting pregnant before getting married. I think about how much he cared for his wife, staying by her side. What a beautiful, imperfect, perfect story.
What a lucky and wonderful thing for me to see them regularly in Haiti now, to be invited into their home and speak their native language with them. What a treat it is for me to see how Shelisa is growing up to be strong and kind- just like the rest of her family. How amazing it is to see her parent's marriage and the testimony it is to their community. Just like Jesus, Shelisa's crazy birth story was only the beginning.
All I can say about this story is that it was holy. It was dirty, but it was holy. It was in the poorest slum in the western hemisphere, but it was holy. It was an ambilicul cord tied with floss and placenta in a bowl, but it was holy. There were chickens running around and people waving their hands around praising God very loudly, but it was so holy. That moment they held Shelisa was so peaceful. She was here. Their little girl was here.
I can only imagine the way that Christmas night felt so many years ago. Maybe Mary was expecting to have her baby surrounded by her parents and not in a stable in Bethlehem. Perhaps they were expecting some kind of God-baby to be born that looked differently than a helpless infant. Maybe there were animals running around or strangers watching.
But, all I can imagine is that it was holy. Holy doesn't have to look prestine and put together. Holy doesn't have to involve your predetermined expectations. Holy seems to look a lot like something beautiful coming into something messy. I, for one, am certainly glad for the holy birth of Jesus...and Shelisa. :)
overthinker and under-planned; development worker, believer, friend, wife, sister, daughter; learning a lot every day.