Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Familiar Faces and Places

Joe, the painter who forever mummified small lizards and spiders by coating them with a layer of paint in the doorjambs of our house, is not dead. This is in direct denial of the most recent report I'd received about him, in which I was notified that he could not be found after the earthquake and was assumed dead. Apparently everyone had been notified that he'd suddenly shown up healthy and alive. Except me... I was totally unaware of this. So when Joe popped his head into the library on the Nazarene campus where I'd grown up to briefly greet me, I pretty much sat there in shock with my eyes watering after he left and for a lack of better ideas of how to respond when dead people show up to shake your hand. Joe has always been one of the most cheerful people I know. I went back to working on the computers in the library.

I got to see lots of familiar faces on the Nazarene campus, including Mari who now called me "good man" instead of "good boy." The yard outside our house where I'd caught a tarantula hawk for a bug collection in science class was now speckled by a few tents that students were currently living in. Yvette, who used to help us around the house, was still around, and was very excited to see me. Thankfully, Edwidge gave me a ride back to Delmas 75. I had no way of getting myself around, so I'd been hitching rides, walking, and taking toptops all week. He took me out to lunch in our old Montero, which apparently he'd slept in every night for a month after the earthquake.

I got to stay with my good friends (and now coworkers) the Williams. I met new members of the MAF team working there in Haiti, including Todd and Jennifer Edgerton who had us over for a delicious meal one night. Everyone has their earthquake story... many of which include begin with... "man, if it had happened just a few minutes earlier...", or "if I hadn't picked the kids up early from school like I usually do..."

a few years ago

a few weeks ago

One of the major highlights for me was getting to ride along on an MAF flight up to Anse Rouge to visit my classmate Judy. Apparently MAF employees are regularly granted the opportunity to ride along on training flights in Nampa, but no one had notified me of this well-kept secret, so this was my first chance to fly MAF since I'd joined... well, for the first time in over a decade, really. Seeing the land of Haiti drift below me was a surreal experience. Such a beautiful country. I only got a few minutes to catch up with Judy and meet her beautiful little girl, Ani, but I was lucky to make it up there at all. The 11-hour trip was only 43 minutes by plane. Judy has a blog up about little Ani's adventures, and Jason Krul, the pilot who took me up to Anse Rouge, has some interesting stories on his blog as well.

on course for Anse Rouge

Jason doing all the piloting and me getting to wear the headset.


and Judy!

I got to see my old school, QCS, which is looking great. Some teachers and friends I remember were still around. The computer lab was awesome, well-equipped with 25 classroom computers and flat screen monitors, all running Edubuntu, which was of particular interest to me because I'm a nerd and into that sort of thing. I walked home with Kristie Mattenley to see Shane and the fam again (he was my youth pastor from back in the day).

QCS's outside wall covered with Wyclef Jean slogans.
I wonder which teacher is such an avid supporter

One of my main reasons for visiting was to check in on a project MAF has had with the STEP seminary in Bolosse for the past few years. STEP has extension courses in workbook format for a few pastoral students outside the city. We've been working with them to get their extension courses into a digital format so they'd be more easier to distribute, more accessible for those with computers and an internet connection, and cheaper to produce. I explained once in my blog why I feel committed to working in educational solutions in countries like Haiti. You can read the article I wrote here. I was wrestling with this sense of urgency I feel to meet the needs of country's afflicted by natural disasters, poverty, and political unrest. It is tempting to me to be drawn more the "disaster response" approach, but on further reflection I concluded that perhaps for me, education is the right field to be in. Situations like Haiti has are not brought on in one fell swoop, and they are not solved in one frenzied stinger operation either. Not at all am I trying to belittle the tragic reality of the earthquake in January, nor discredit groups that were able to make short-term relief trips. But 6 months after most of these groups have left, I see the schools, seminaries, churches, Haitian businesses, and orphanages that are in it for the long haul, working not just for a temporary balm but training Haitian leaders to direct the future of their country, I am encouraged. Even as you read this entry, be sure to keep Haiti's November elections in your prayers. It encourages me to see seminaries like STEP and STNH investing in people as long-term responses to the corrosive oppressiveness that weighs Haiti down. It is good to be a part of that solution, as well.

I went to Haiti quite uncertain as to whether I would come back encouraged or with a feeling of despair. Let me just share a few thoughts on that topic. Firstly, the resolute urgency with which Haitian Christians and foreign missionaries serving there plead for God's intercession and guidance is quite moving. People are committed and working for things to improve. It is unclear about how that will happen, however. The second thing I noted was that many foreigners in Haiti trying to help are on the verge of throwing in the towel. I think it is easy for a visitor to leave Haiti with a burden of despair and hopelessness, and I began to get a feel for that from many of the ex patriot workers in Haiti. However, despair is certainly not the sentiment I got from any of the Haitians I talked with. I finally concluded with a sweeping generalization, which I normally try to avoid. In this case, though, I concluded that despair and hopelessness is not a native Haitian trait. If anything it is imported from the outside; it is far more prevalent among foreigners working in Haiti. We ought to be careful not to spread this particular ideology in other countries we work in.

I left with a heavy heart for the tragedies Haiti faces and the challenges for its future. But I also left with the words of hope from many of my conversations and visits with Haitian friends. I realize how pathetic and superficial my faith is when I talk with people in Haiti, and the best I can manage is to listen and learn from what they say, as people who have lived it in a way I will probably never know. I think the video I posted in the previous week's reflection sort of expresses that.

Marc and me

Pernier falls

Haiti has at least two wonderful well-kept secrets that remain mostly hidden from foreigners coming expecting a trauma tour. Marc Williams took me to visit a feeding program he helps at and introduced me to some of the kids he's gotten to know there. Children have always had a way of piercing through all the pretentious walls I can put up and making all my years of training and formal education seem quite trivial. The kids in Haiti, with their carefree playing, stark honesty about both the good and the bad, and determined earnestness, are one of Haiti's best kept secrets. Another secret carefully hidden from most visitors is the land. Flying up to Anse Rouge at a lower altitude and seeing the coast and mountains stretched out before me, speckled with small huts and a few trees, was an awesome experience. And the day before I left, I hiked with Marc and his friends up a chain of waterfalls less than 30 minutes from where I used to live. I lived in Haiti for 9 years before Edwidge showed me these waterfalls that were buried in the mountains so close to our home. Many people in Haiti have never even seen these waterfalls, and have no idea they are so close to where people live. By the time the water from these waterfalls crosses the road, it is a gully-wash spreading out rocks, trash, and soapy muck onto the highway (in beautiful multi-color example of a "delta formation" if you payed attention in geography class). But if you follow the stream up past where people are washing their clothes and bathing, up past where there is a congestion of trash and pollution, you come to parts of the valley that are clean, peaceful, and serene. It is in these places that you can get a glimpse of what Haitians know about their country that few of us ever get to see.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Stories from Haiti - Week 1

I got back from Haiti exactly one month ago. Curious at all as to how the trip went?

It was quite an eventful month, with two weeks in Nampa and two in Haiti. Lots of unexpected small pleasures; lots of huge blessings. Many unexpected tragedies, too; and many big challenges. It's hard not to speak in generalities, because there were so many things that impacted me on this trip. Haiti, and my relation to it, has always been one of the two biggest mysteries in my life - and certainly the most difficult to articulate. Finding words, images, and stories to try and communicate across the void that separates people's illusions about Haiti from the reality of living there has all but completely caused me to nearly give up on the whole matter. For many years I was able to tuck Haiti neatly away in my memory, like a problem I didn't want to deal with that I thought would go away. Much like we all tuck it away for long periods of time before the opportunity for sensationalist news coverage comes up, or the chance to use Haiti as supporting evidence for some absurd point we're trying to make. Haiti, though, keeps resurfacing, and as one friend mentioned to me... for some of us, things do not go back to normal, and Haiti is not forgotten.

(click here for more photos from the trip)


From the very beginning of the trip - gate E7 at Miami International Airport, I had one of the rarest feelings I've ever had: certainty. As I sat at gate E7 after a few short hours of rest on the floor at Gate E6, and heard the familiar flow of Haitian Creole rippling back and forth between passengers, punctuated by "oh oh"'s and "mezanmi!"'s, all the fear and tension that had been building up for months totally melted away. I had the rare conviction that everything was right. I was going home.

Upon landing and joining the medical team who'd arrived the day before from Costa Rica with 150 kgs of medicines in suitcases, I was promptly immersed in the feeling I am far more familiar with: chaos and sheer confusion. This continued for several hours until I gradually pieced together what was happening and what I was supposed to be doing. I arrived at 8 AM on Sunday morning, and was immediately whisked into a nearby church service in a Haitian congregation. Once I'd given up on figuring things out and submitted myself to going along with the worship, things seemed uncannily peaceful.


Over the course of the week with the medical team, we would see over 432 patients and the pastoral team shared the gospel in small groups of ten to about 150 people. We played soccer with a rough bunch from a nearby tent city as U.N. schnooks and American Airline flights screamed over our heads. They solidly beat us and won the soccer ball we promised them. The medical consultations and children's activities we did during the week went quite smoothly.

My first impression was that not much had changed. It still looked and felt like the Haiti I remembered, littered with a little more rubble and with the addition of the tent cities. The streets were still filled with familiar energy and shouts and smells and sounds, the bustle of marchans and the sing-song chorus of young guys selling papitas and bags of water. Life seemed to have returned to normalcy with surprising speed. The photo I took below is the image that sticks in my mind. As I talked with these three kids they casually hopped up to sit on the roof of a house that had been totally pancaked by the earthquake. The mangled buildings, the rubble, the ubiquitous tent cities... all this is now a part of the landscape. Life goes on. It's the "new normal."

But what about all that had been lost? I asked our translator this question, and with a flip of his hand he dismissed it all. "Vanity," he told me, "like the Bible says." None of this will stick around anyway. I heard a lot of things like that during the week that quite frankly, my faith is far too small to handle.

Thursday night, after I'd talked with the kids sitting on the rooftop now 3 feet off the ground, we returned from Leogane late in the day through Carrefour. On the way back we got into quite a fix. A torrential downpour opened up as we passed through Carrefour in the dark. The rain was coming in torrents; we couldn't see a thing, and the road had turned into a riverbed with a layer of floating trash swirling earily around our bus, lit by periodic blasts of lightning. Now, our bus had already broken down three times, and at this point the water level was nearly up to the floorboards. We were pretty much marooned in the center of a lake of reeking sewage, in one of the most dangerous parts of the city at night. The doctor was concerned about infections from all the pollution and sewage steadily rising, and the pastoral team decided we were under a spiritual attack, and started loudly claiming authority over the situation. I figured this was just a consequence of trying to drive through Carrefour too late at night in a downpour. Some people had the bright idea to sing, which had a much more calming effect on my nerves than the shouting. The driver turned back and found a higher road. Through the foggy windows I could barely make out the skeletal corpse of the national palace looming through the sheets of rain, lit ominously from below with a gaping hole in its center.

We made it back to the house safely, although much later because of the huge detour we'd taken. That was actually the only time all week that it rained. I have no doubt God was watching over us on that trip.


I learned something else on that trip to Leogane. Leogane is where the earthquake epicenter was, and the drive out there was one long stretch of total carnage. Rubble, gangly re-bar, dust, and a proliferation of tarps, for miles on end. During the day we did rural consultations and some leadership training with a church in that area. On our way out there, I quickly grew weary of photo after photo of carnage and destruction. At one point we crossed a large bridge and the pastor in front of me grabbed my arm and pointed at the riverbed below. "Look at all that pollution," he shook his head. "Get a picture of that." He started snapping photos.

I found something much more interesting going on in the seat next to me. The Haitian translator beside me and a pastor on the team who'd made it her goal to pray for each of our translators was praying along with him as he set some things right in his life. Had I been so focused on the polluted river and rubble flashing past the window, I might not have gotten to see this rather significant moment in Junior's life.


There are so many more stories from that first week - what it was like being a "minority" on a team of Costa Ricans, what it was like hearing about Haiti from their perspective, what it was like visiting a well-organized tent city and finding God there, sweltering in the heat of one of the tents. 60 pages worth of stories, in fact, which I later condensed to 20, then 7 for a formal trip report, and finally... to what you're reading now. I'll leave it at that, though, and write me if you want to know more. And on to part two...