Sunday morning we head to church.
We put on our dress clothes.
Make sure to put on the dress with the sleeves.
Long pants for the men.
I laugh at Ryan's pants and how wrinkled they are.
We load into the car. Before we had a car, we loaded into a tap tap, the public transportation in Haiti. We flag it down and hop inside.
We are greeted by the Pastor and his wife, waiting for us at the front gate. We feel honored that we'd been invited into this little church within a little orphanage. While we have only been here a handful of months, we feel an instant connection to the kids and the mission of this orphanage. We feel as if this is where we should be.
We sit through church and don't understand much. But, we hold the babies and pray for them. We look at the assortment of adults and wonder where they are from. We spend the afternoon talking with the Pastor and his wife in broken English and holding the babies we love so dearly.
How could these parents abandon their children? we wonder.
How many of these children have deceased parents? we discuss.
Unfortunately, we never discuss our preconceived ideas of orphanages, orphans, and what that means in Haiti.
It's sad to admit, but it took a long time for me to see what was really in these church services. When I was too busy in my cocoon of self-righteousness, patting myself on the back for doing such a service as loving orphaned children, many of their parents were in the same church building.
Their parents were there.
I hear a lot about the orphan crisis. We raise awareness during "orphan Sunday" in churches across the US. We discuss the problems of orphans and what we can do to help them in our churches, coffeehouses, and homes. Recently, I found myself discussing the crossover between orphan care/prevention in the USA and Haiti with a foster care advocate in Alabama.
But, the truth of the matter is that no matter how much we, the outsiders, discuss it, the orphan crisis is different in every place, country, and people group. We can only stand to learn from our surroundings and through asking questions. It was through asking questions that I ended up being so passionate about orphan prevention and educating people about what I didn't even know until recently.
eBack to that little church. Behind the little gate. In the little orphanage. With all those children, our hearts were blocked. It just never occurred to me that what I was perceiving was not the truth and that the story I was writing (in which I was the hero) was not a true narrative.
The parents in the back. They are, in many ways, the heroes. With their home hidden away in the mountains, they make the journey to drop their children off at an orphanage. Not because this is a system they are familiar with, but they see this as a system that Americans recommend. This place will provide clothes, food, and schooling for their children, they believe. So, they make the journey down to the orphanage on the coast. They do not just leave their children forever, like I had previously believed.
They come to church to see their kids.
They visit on days where they can find the time and money to get there.
And I really believe they never stop thinking about the child they let live somewhere else.
This story does not really have a tidy conclusion, which is why it is always difficult for me to write about my years of experience working alongside an orphanage in Haiti. The kids in that orphanage are still living there. Their parents are still visiting. Other westerners are still pouring into that place. And I am left wondering how to do less harm.
It's worth mentioning, I think, that this is not a fluke of a situation. Out of Haiti's "orphans" over 80% of them have parents who said they'd take care of them if they felt like they could. That means over this amount have parents (guardian.uk). I am sure there are similar statistics that could carry over into other countries.
Haiti is just one country, but it is a country that I believe represents a lot of the orphan crisis, specifically where children are "economic orphans." If this term is new to you, let me share with you: economic orphans are those children who are abandoned in some form or fashion because their parents/caregivers do not have the ability to care for them. In the United States, this can be hard for us to imagine. How hard is it to find a job? we ask ourselves.
Like many other countries, Haiti has been taken advantage of for centuries by the rich and left for the poor. While it is full of beauty, it has been deprived of natural resources. Handouts have kept industries down, and there is little to no governmental assistance (this includes the covering of school fees). It is a complicated and tangled web.
In my recent conversation with my friend, we got to the topic of why this concept is so difficult for people to grasp. After sitting in silence for a moment, she looked at me and said: "Because its easier."
While it's difficult to hear, it's true. We build and support orphanages because it's a lot more fun and easier for us (short term) to support these adorable little kids and their immediate needs. It's fun for us to hold these kids and post our pictures. But, are we responsible for the aftermath?
I have heard far too many people plan a trip to an orphanage without a partner in mind. Too many people who tell me that they feel they are supposed to "love on" the kids, as if this is an assignment from God. I am not saying kids don't need love, but what would it be like to actually honor that call with more than just a trip to an orphanage? What would it look like to get messy and in the trenches with people and their families? What would it look like to have that kind of love?
One of the difficult things about this situation is that when I look back, I feel for myself. I know that I had the best intentions in this situation. I wanted to help kids. I did not cognitively view myself as a hero; I just wanted to help. The major thing that has changed is my thought from How could I know that these children had parents? to How could I NOT know they had parents? With power and privilege, two things that come with being a visitor in Haiti, come the opportunity to either put blinders on or willingly take them off.
While I cannot tell you a cookie-cutter answer, and while it is not my desire to bash orphanages (or other institutionalized care), it is my goal to share about my own story of ignorance. It is my desire that before we make huge assumptions about cultures different than ours, even in the United States, that we would take the time to ask questions. Why would we assume the worst about a parent before assuming the best? Why wouldn't we seek to understand the challenges people come up against?
Our own goal is to keep kids in families through preventive measures with our group, Konbit Haiti. But, it is also to get to know the challenges people face. Life is hard. And when people with the power and money don't necessarily have the full story, it can create a system that destroys families and creates a narrative of false heroes and villains. My encouragement to all of us is to seek out the people who live in the areas you want to help; learn from them; ask them questions; and don't settle for the easy narrative in which you are the amazing hero and everyone else is a villain. Chances are, there is something not right in that story.